Tofugu » » In Japan A Japanese Language & Culture Blog Thu, 23 Oct 2014 21:35:16 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Dealing with Disaster: Three Years After Fukushima Wed, 22 Oct 2014 16:00:59 +0000 Living in Tokyo, I don’t hear much about Fukushima’s disaster recovery. Three years after the disaster, Tohoku’s recovery only directly affects me through little donation boxes supermarkets and drug stores.

The actual situation in Tohoku however is rocky. To find out more, I took a little trip last month to the area to get a firsthand view of the so-called “recovery”.

Bear in mind that the 2011 disaster is actually a collection of two disasters affecting different parts of Tohoku. The first is the earthquake and tsunami which has caused damage particularly to the coastal areas of Miyagi, Iwate, and Fukushima. The second is the nuclear meltdown in Fukushima, which had the greatest effect within Fukushima prefecture, resulting in forced evacuation areas due to nuclear radiation.

The first will be addressed in a different post. This article will deal with the second.

During my trip, I stopped over at a city in southeast Fukushima prefecture, Iwaki city, and through it I hope to raise the question: How much has Japan really recovered from the nuclear crisis in Fukushima?

Iwaki, Fukushima


View of the city from the station.

I myself arrived in Iwaki on a bright Saturday. I was expecting a lively mid-sized city. After all, Iwaki is the largest city in Fukushima prefecture in terms of population. It turns out it’s the largest in size as well and thus the population is spread thin.

Iwaki itself suffered from the earthquake. After Sendai, it had the second largest number of destroyed homes (40,000) and about 400 dead from landslides and the tsunami. While it originally had a direct link to Sendai through the Joban line of JR East, the nuclear radiation exclusion zone cut it in half. Train commuters now must take a long detour through the west using infrequent trains (about once every two hours) through central Fukushima prefecture to head northward.


Signboard at Mito-station, south of Iwaki. The blanked out part probably says “Sendai”.

You wouldn’t know any of this if you just stumbled into the city by mistake. The area around Iwaki station is tranquil and pristine with many 5 story buildings. Walk 10 minutes away from the station and you’ll arrive at rows of houses with 2 stories with only small signs of urban decay.

Social Friction


Photo by Daisuke TSUDA

Example of temporary housing for disaster victims.

Iwaki is one of the cities with the highest number of disaster evacuees in the nation. There is temporary housing within 20 minutes’ walk from the station. As of last year, the city was sheltering around 24,000 refugees from the disaster areas. These refugees mainly come from the evacuated area north of Iwaki, which is within the vicinity of Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Reactor.

Three years after the disaster, some Iwaki residents feel the refugees have overstayed their welcome. Below I have translated a number of comments from Iwaki netizens on Twitter:

“The people living in the temporary housing are living in luxury. They’re getting money. They’re getting money if they don’t work so some go on overseas holidays or even buy expensive cars. They get rebates at convenience stores so they shop there. The convenience stores are crowded and with the population increasing, traffic congestion is getting worse. Iwaki citizens have no such privileges.”

“Like, the refugee-samas ride and crash expensive cars which they have never tried before and that is why there’s always traffic jams. I just wish they’d stop it! “

“This I can say this without any hesitation. There are some people suffering in the temporary housing but a majority are getting money without working; their children who see the adults not working become dysfunctional hikikomoris living through the internet and become useless people spending their time on Niconico douga”.

This has been reported on by NHK, Huffington Post Japan and Japan Times in English. The major complaints are that the influx of refugees has caused a shortage of doctors, an increase in rent prices, and traffic. Actually it seems that, at least on the internet, all sorts of stuff is being blamed on the disaster survivors.


“Disaster Victims get Lost!”

 Things have gotten so bad, that there has even been anti-refugee graffiti, as seen above. This photo was taken in 2012 so you can be sure that the problem has been around for at least two years already. With a large portion of the evacuated municipalities still under quarantine and the slow recovery for those which evacuation orders have been rescinded, tensions are likely to continue mounting.

Fates of the Survivors


Photo by Steve Herman

Namie Town, deserted immediately after the disaster. Even now, staying overnight is forbidden in all areas of the town.

A large number of refugees still can’t go home. A further number can only go back home on day trips. In these areas, staying overnight has been forbidden due to elevated levels of radiation. For some lucky ones, the evacuation orders have been rescinded. But the choice to return home isn’t as obvious or easy as you may think.

Let’s take the example of Kawauchi village, to the immediate north of Iwaki. The eastern part of the village is within 20 km of the Fukushima nuclear reactors. But as of the 25th last month, the majority of the evacuation orders have been rescinded and only a small part of the village is still under quarantine.

Nonetheless, the population has not returned. NHK reported that out of 2758 people registered with the village, only 1476 have returned. The returnees have been mostly elderly – the young have not been returning as willingly.


Photo by Roger Jolly

Photo of decontamination works in Kawashima, 2012

NHK explains that there are three main reasons for the lack of young returnees. Firstly, fears about the radiation certainly remain. Secondly, education is a concern. Kawauchi’s high school students tended to commute to high schools in the towns to the east. Those are now ghost towns due to the radioactivity exclusion zone. The alternative has children take one hour bus rides to schools in the west – not very practical for anyone involved.

The third reason is financial. Many people in the area formerly worked in other towns to the East. NHK reports that 500 villagers lost their jobs due to the quarantine. The village is trying to attract new companies to provide jobs. However, it has so far only been able to attract 100 new job, many among these being low-paying, barely above minimum-wage positions. The NHK gives the example of a position in an agricultural factory which only pays 700 yen.

If you found yourself in their position, and had been living somewhere else for perhaps a year, would you choose to return?

Problems with Nuclear Energy


Photo by Energy.Gov

Mihama Nuclear Reactor

The debate about Fukushima in the English media revolves around the pro vs. anti nuclear power debate. In Japan, however, where domestic power sources are scarce, another question is being asked: can the
country survive without nuclear power?

You can imagine how this looks. On one hand, energy prices have been sky high since the reactors were shut down and the business world is unhappy. On the other hand, Fukushima stands as a constant reminder of the dangers of nuclear energy. But there is another dimension here: Who exactly is for and against restarting the reactors?

You would think that the residents of towns and villages which host nuclear reactors who oppose the restarting the most. After all, it is them who have the most to lose. However, they also have the most to gain. The construction of nuclear power plants has often been linked with generous aid from electrical companies, and the nuclear power plants themselves do provide something highly in demand to rural Japan – jobs.


Fukushima 1 Nuclear Power Plant in 1999, 12 years before the accident.

This is why, instead of opposing the restart of the nuclear reactors, cities hosting them actually support it. The opposition comes from neighboring cities and towns who don’t gain as much from the economics of nuclear power but still have much to lose. NHK reports that the percentage supporting the restarting of power plants is above 50% for municipalities with nuclear plants and is clearly weaker in surrounding towns.

At the moment it is only the reactor’s hosting municipality which has to give permission for restart once they are certified “safe” by the authorities. With the government wanting to restart ASAP, Japan’s success in balancing the economic livelihood of people, responsibility, and safety remains to be seen.

Moving Forward


Photo by Steve Herman

Namie Town village returning to their shop in the day, April 2011.

Clearly, Fukushima prefecture has a long way to go. Decontamination is still in progress at a speed which many criticize as unsatisfactory. There is even a question as to whether the areas closest to the reactors will become the Japanese Chernobyl.

Next, we will be looking at the situation in the tsunami disaster areas – which offers a different set of problems. Things are going to be more personal in the next article. Unlike Fukushima, I’ve been able to visit some of the directly affected areas. And it is a very different situation on the ground.

Please do take a look!

Further Reading:

  • Link to synopsis of NHK Mito report.
  • Explanation about the compensation given to municipalities which host nuclear plants.
  • Transcript of NHK online report on the differences in support and opposition towards the restarting of the reactors

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Shunga: Japan’s Ancient Erotica Tue, 21 Oct 2014 16:00:34 +0000 Vending machines selling school girl’s panties?  Grown men reading pornographic comics in public?  Gender segregated train-cars to protect women from gropers? Ear-cleaning parlors with very happy-endings?  With situations like these making headlines, it comes as no surprise that Japan has earned a reputation for perverted culture.

My first foray into the world of anime left me with a similar impression.  At that time, action, comedy, and even children’s anime vhs tapes shared shelf-space with hentai titles.  I’d feel embarrassed looking past cartoon breasts and butts big enough to make Sir MixALot blush to find what I wanted.  Finally I’d spot Goku throwing a fireball next to a sailor-suited girl being molested by aliens, an R-18 sticker (un)cleverly affixed over her private bits.

Although Japan might get a raw deal when it comes to perversion, it’s not a recent development.  In fact, Japan has a long, rich history of erotic images.  The roots of pornographic manga and anime can be traced all the way back to the Edo era, during the shunga (or erotic woodblock printing) boom.

Recent lifts on shunga bans have opened the floodgates, allowing greater understand of the true meaning, uses, themes, and lasting impact of shunga.  But recent exhibits have refueled an age-old debate – what separates art from obscenity?

What Are Shunga?


The term shunga (春画) literally translates into “spring picture” but has little to do with the season, describing erotic prints that gained popularity during the Edo era.  Examples of shunga range from subtle adult situations to grossly – in both senses of the word – explicit imagery, and cover an array of subjects and themes.

Although shunga originated during the Heian period (794 to 1192 A.D.), a lack of technology made copying images painstaking and expensive.  As a result only the upper-classes had the luxury of owning pieces of art, shunga or otherwise.

The Edo era (1603 and 1868) saw the advent of woodblock printing which allowed for the mass production of quality images.  Through this technique artists carved images into wooden blocks which were coated with ink and pressed onto paper, leaving a print.   As technology improved, the mass production of images lead to greater availability, lower prices and therefore wider distribution of prints.


Photo by: David Monniaux

Chances are you have already seen what many consider the world’s most famous woodblock print in The Great Wave by Hokusai.  It may come as a surprise that such a renowned artist also gained notoriety for pornography. Many famous woodblock artists dabbled in shunga and Hokusai is no exception.

However artists weren’t in search of notoriety. Tim Clark, curator of a shunga exhibition at The British Museum explains, “We can be pretty sure that everybody in Japanese society, from the ruling class down to the ordinary townsperson used and enjoyed shunga.”  High demand for erotic prints meant shunga outsold other genres and artists simply migrated to the most profitable market.

Edo, the capitol city at the time, became the shunga boom’s epicenter.  In Masterclass: Understanding Shunga: A Guide to Japanese Erotic Art Majella Munro writes, “No indulgence or pleasure was unavailable within (Edo’s) precincts… from brothels to… huge quantities of porn, guidebooks, and other marketing paraphernalia”(p13).

Of course the images drove shunga’s popularity.  In his book Sex and the Floating World, Timon Screech explains, “Shunga… are rarely stories, and in most instances a page can reasonably stand alone.”  The scarcity of narrative driven shunga suggests plot took low priority on shunga customers’ lists.

Shunga’s Uses


Photo by: Bruno Cordioli

Why did Edo-era people buy shunga?  In Sex and the Floating World, Timon Screech gives the topic thorough investigation and the reasons range from the logical to the absurd.

Let’s start with the absurd – some shunga owners believed the erotic prints brought good luck.  Warriors carried the prints, convinced they warded off death.  In a sword carrying culture forged in the deadly violence of war, a society that continues to buy protection amulets today (probably of the non-erotic variety, though I’ve never opened one to find out), people tried anything to escape death’s cold grip.

As if that weren’t enough, shunga were also rumored to prevent fires.  Ota Nanpo, one shunga owner wrote, “If you collect these types of book, you will save yourself from destruction by fire” (Screech).  Combustable building materials and the use of fire as a source of heat and light made fires a constant problem in ancient Japan.  In a time predating fire insurance, responsible homeowners bought the next best thing – shunga.


One logical claim is that some owners used shunga as sexual guidebooks.  Luke Malone of explains, “More detailed shunga were often used as sex guides and given as gifts to children from wealthy families.”  The erotic prints made perfect educational gifts for young people unpracticed in the arts of pleasure or old dogs looking to learn new tricks.

However, Screech believes the most common reason behind shunga’s widespread ownership and popularity is also the most obvious – the prints served as a source of self-pleasure.  He writes, “Erotica were intended for those who, as a result of constraints of time or finance, or their ethical stance, were unable to go (to the pleasure districts) often.”

It’s no coincidence that Edo, a “City of Bachelors” became the center of printing during the shunga boom.  Tokugawa law, which separated husbands from their wives and lovers, helped justify and popularize the ownership and use of shunga among both sexes.  Travel was difficult, couples could go months without reuniting.

Shunga helped separated couples pass the time (wink, wink) and provided a cheap and reusable alternative to the expensive red-light districts and pleasure quarters.  Screech writes, “Shunga ownership might be excused as only for interim use until the next authentic bout (of sex).”

Shunga’s Themes

Good Old-Fashioned Love


Despite what those anime vhs covers of my youth led me to expect, most shunga depict affectionate love-making.  Ruth Styles of writes, “Most of the images, although explicit, are loving – even tender – and show the pleasure being shared out between men and women in equal measure.”

With Japan’s reputation for perversion, the affection these prints depict may come as a surprise.  Most shunga depict physical love between husbands and wives – or at least consenting adults.  But these tame depictions take a backseat to the striking, memorable impressions left by the less frequent, but more extreme shunga.

Fashion’s Finest


Today’s viewers might assume the throes of passion left little time to undress, as many of shunga’s subjects remain fully clothed.   But at the time, flashy attire flaunted wealth and gained popularity with prostitutes and actors, giving fashion a “sexual power” that made it a shunga staple (Screech). writes, “It was the fine silks and sumptuous clothes of the geisha that made them the stuff of men’s dreams.”  Partially clothed bodies proved to be more provocative than the fully nude, so most shunga feature partially or even fully clothed subjects.

Homoerotic Over and Undertones


Heterosexual couples represented the norm in shunga, but they weren’t the rule.  Screech points out that during the Edo period, “‘heterosexual’ and ‘homosexual’ were not fixed, distinct human types, rather they were understood as activities.”

Furthermore, nanshoku, or “traditional male love,” remained an enduring facet of Japanese society and Japan accepted homoerotic themes that would have otherwise been been dismissed as immoral by most Western culture at the time.

Gender Ambiguities


Shunga’s art style makes differentiating the sexes no easy task.  “In shunga, male and female bodies appear virtually identical other than the genitals” (Screech).  The differentiation of Shunga’s male and female faces and bodies is made even more difficult by the subjects’ ambiguous, tumbleweed-like bodily entanglements.

The prominence of fashion added to the confusion.  Worn by both sexes, kimonos tended to hide bodily features and add to shunga’s rampant gender ambiguities.

To further complicate matters, cross-dressing actors and prostitutes also made their way into shunga.  Screech points out, “Indeed, Westerners routinely mistook the attractive boys (wakashu) for girls, as do many modern viewers.”

Onstage, adolescent boys played girl’s roles with great feminine effect. As evidence of nanshoku’s popularity, “boy prostitutes of the Edo period commonly dressed as girls” (Screech).  Shunga’s style and the era’s attitudes rendered gender identification in shunga difficult and ultimately unimportant.

The Depiction of Genitalia

Yet shunga provide an easy way (or should it be two easy ways?) to discern gender ambiguities through their depiction of male and female genitalia.  Many shunga feature shocking, at times grotesquely enlarged genitals.

In most cases, neither sex outshined the other – male and female subjects received equal embellishments and exaggerations.


In what may have been an effort to the lighten guilt of viewers, voyeurism played a major role in shunga.  Most of the scenes took place indoors or surrounded by natural barriers, providing ample cover for naughty onlookers.  Viewers can ogle the images alongside third-parties depicted as men, women, children and even animals.

Screech explains, “By investing in the gaze in some other, non-human or humanoid form, artists could provide a point of entry into the picture for any viewer.”  When enjoying a print, a commoner might identify with the lower class peeping-tom looking in on a upperclass couple.  Conversely, the upperclass couple would identify with the subjects of the action.

Plot and Parody


Although plot-driven shunga collections may have been rare, they did exist.  At times artists depicted or parodied scenes from the era’s popular stories, including The 47 RoninHakkenden: The Dog Warriors and even The Tale of Genji.  Screech cites a poem reacting to the eroticization of Genji:

Even Genji
can be poison
to young minds

Jippensha Ikku’s travel tale, Tōkaidōchū Hizakurige, inspired a whole series of travel prints by The Great Wave‘s creator Hokusai in The Fifty-three Stations of the Toukaidou (Screech).  Screech writes, “The entire preface to the book is a series of sexual puns, in this case nanshoku ones.”

Some shunga featured limerick-like poems.  The British Museum’s Tim Clark gives one example from Kitagawa Utamaro’s print Poem of the Pillow:

Its beak caught firmly in the clamshell,
the snipe cannot fly away,
on an autumn evening.

Other shunga featured animal puns, helping to excuse animal voyeurs – some more exotic than others.  Screech describes one exotic case, “Camels were called rakuda, which sounded like the casual expletive ‘raku da!’ (feels comfy).”

Even Enma, the lord of hell becomes a victim of parody.  In Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan, Gary P. Leupp describes one instance where Enma is so moved by a nanshoku painting that, “he immediately falls in love with the image and, in his excitement, tumbles down from his thrown…  The king of hell at once declares his determination to leave the netherworld for Japan, where he will seek out the actor and ‘share his pillow” (87).

Encounters of the Unique Kind

But shunga’s unique encounters didn’t end with camels or King Enma.  Japan’s colorful array of beasts, monsters and youkai also got in on the act.  Screech explains, “Folklore had it that some beasts (including tengu, kappa, even transforming males foxes) kidnapped human males for sexual pleasure.”

Once again Hokusai inked the most famous example in The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife, a picture depicting a woman making love with two octopuses in what many consider the birth of “tentacle porn.”

Although most early shunga depict consensual encounters, some later examples take a darker tone.  “Actual rape becomes a shunga fetish,” Screech writes, “either by friends and relatives or by burglars and cut-throats.”

Even the human body can morphs and become the aggressor.  “In Kunisada’s use of the homunculus in his New Tale of the Welling Waters of 1827, Beanman must draw his sword to fight off a monster vagina that threatens to engulf him until, quelled, it surrenders to his bidding” (Screech).

Some of shunga’s unique encounters avoided the dark and extraordinary for more inquisitive tones.  The limited number of foreigners in Japan sparked curiosity and inspired some artists to depict non-Japanese subjects.  Ruth Styles explains, “And while most shunga do focus on ordinary Japanese people, the odd Dutch or Portuguese adventurer sometimes creeps in.”

Lasting Influence


Photo by: Ignis

Have shunga left a lasting legacy?

I think I experienced one aspect of it as an innocent youth at the video shop.  Ancient shunga prove Japan’s interest in pornographic art – be it comics, cartoons or ancient shunga – is nothing new.

Industry giants feel the same way.  Luke Malone writes, “Toshio Maeda (widely considered to be the grandfather of erotic manga)… sees (erotic manga) as the modern iteration of an important cultural tradition (i.e. shunga).”

Calling hentai manga a “remnant” of shunga seems like an appropriate description.  Perhaps today’s tentacle, monster, demon, alien and robot pornography can be traced back to the days of anything-goes erotic prints.  Even Japan’s lolita and wakashu fetishes might find a root in shunga’s younger boy and girl subjects.

But shunga’s legacy need not be limited to extremes.  Most prints celebrated more subdued themes, like loving sex between consenting adults.  And these themes also enjoy continued popularity in Japan’s modern erotica.  They just don’t make headlines.

Perhaps Japan’s modern erotic media – including manga, anime, movies, video games – would not be socially acceptable or even legal today if it weren’t for the path blazed by Edo era shunga.

Obscenity?  Art?  Or Both?


Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and time has been kind to peoples’ perceptions of shunga. Many of today’s viewers admire the prints as works of art.  Distinguished museums in the west, like The British Museum, have held popular exhibitions celebrating the medium.

Yet shunga continue to be considered obscene in Japan, their country of origin.

The recent arrest of the “vagina artist” Megumi Igarashi has helped stoked the debate – what separates art from obscenity?  Police arrested Ms. Igarashi, also known as Rokudenashi-ko (“A No-Good Girl”), for distributing 3d data for the replication of her vagina for artistic purposes.  The No-Good Girl’s art included a “no-good” kayak modeled after her vagina.

She presented her case at a press conference (video presented by The Japan Times):

I was charged with the crime of distributing obscene data…  The way that this word, ‘obscenity’ has been attached to the vagina makes it seem like some remote, unfamiliar object…  In Japan there is a tradition of festivals that celebrate sexual organs, and yet we also have this notion of obscenity.  I think my arrest was a symptom of this distorted notion of sexuality that exists in this country.

But it wasn’t always that way.  In fact, Western taboos shaped Japan’s attitudes and laws dealing with sex and nudity.  In her essay Shunga in the Meji Era: The End of a Tradtion? Rosina Buckland explains, “From 1872 onwards, the government undertook to regulate and control prostitution more strictly, as part of its project to “civilize” Japan in the view of Western nations.”  Laws banning shunga soon followed.

Despite its reputation for perversion, Japan takes a conservative stance when it comes to sexuality.  And although headline making situations exist, they do not represent the norm.  Tim Clark remarks, “Somehow ironically, (shunga) are more explicit than today’s Japanese pornography laws would allow.”  Strict laws outlaw displaying genitalia in media – a common element of Edo-era shunga.

In all likelihood, few Edo-era people purchased shunga for their artistic value.  During an era devoid of magazines, video, and the internet, shunga represented the equivalent of modern day pornography.  So it’s understandable that Japanese law considered shunga obscene.

Yet if few people question non-erotic woodblock prints’ validity as art, isn’t it hypocritical to treat their erotic counterparts differently?  After all both use the same method of production and depict imagery popular of the time period.

Is Ms. Igarashi’s kayak obscenity or art?  Should she have the right to make it and display it?  Should fans have the right to see it?  Where do we draw the line?  And who has the right to answer these questions, particularly when it comes to policies that affect others?

Perhaps American Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart put it best in the Jacobellis v. Ohio obscenity case when he said, “I know it (obscenity) when I see it.”  Individuals define obscenity by their own opinions and values – there is no clearcut definition.  And as we have seen in the case of shunga, one person’s art may be another person’s obscenity.

But one fact cannot be denied – art or not, shunga hold value as unique cultural artifacts.  And we can learn a lot from these primary sources that offer a peek into Edo era attitudes, interests, people and bedrooms.

One thing’s for sure, I’ll never look at hentai reading commuters on the train the same way again.  I might even sit a little bit closer to them.  They are not perverts, but misunderstood, safety-conscious citizens; heroes willing to tarnish their own images to protect themselves and everyone in the vicinity from fire.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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The Life Of A Junior High Night School Teacher Mon, 20 Oct 2014 16:00:00 +0000 Last week, we learned what a junior high night school was and, as I mentioned, today we are going to hear from a teacher of one of those schools. The person I interviewed just started as a junior high night school teacher last April, so she is in the middle of figuring out what this job is like. In other words, we can get her fresh impressions of this type of school.

(Please note that at the request of the interviewee, we are keeping this person’s identity a secret.)


1. What is a public junior high night school?

It’s a public school for those who were not able to complete their compulsory education. Although there are different requirements depending on the location, it’s open to both Japanese and non-Japanese people.

2. How many night schools are in Japan?

36 Schools.

3. Are there any regional features among junior high night schools?

In recent years, the majority of students have been non-Japanese people. Depending on which region of Japan you look at, the ethnic majority in any given school varies greatly. For example, the school I work for is located in Tokyo, near Shibuya. Until 5 years ago, the majority of students were Japanese orphans from China who had returned to Japan, but in the past 2-3 years the number of Nepalese students has been increasing. We currently have 61 students in total and over 20 of them are Nepalese.

The majorities even change from school to school in Tokyo alone. I’ve heard that one of the eight schools in Tokyo has a lot of Brazilian students. Knowledge of these schools often spreads by word of mouth among certain communities, and that seems to explain the increases of certain ethnicities in certain schools. Since the location of our school is very close to Shibuya, teenage students or ones in their early twenties tend to come to our school. It is also known that there are a lot of Korean students in Osaka and a lot of Burakumin students in Nara.

4. What does a night school teacher do?

It’s basically the same as what a daytime schoolteacher does. The only thing that differs from daytime teachers is how to approach the students. Since many of the students can’t understand Japanese very well, we have to be creative with lessons. For example, we often draw illustrations or do charts more than writing. Some teachers also use tablets to search for words in a student’s native languages when they don’t understand during the class.

5. What is the difference between day and night schools?

The duties are the same. The difference is the time of the lessons and students, and their level of Japanese language skill determines which class they’re in. Other than that, it’s basically the same. We have school trips, school lunches, and classroom cleaning time just like ordinary schools do. We have sport festivals including volleyball and basketball tournaments.

The eight junior high night schools in Tokyo compete against each other in those tournaments. One unique eventwe have, since there are so many non-Japanese people, is an “International Foods Exchange Party” where everyone brings their own country’s cuisines. As for school hours, the first class starts at 5:30pm and the last one ends at 9pm. Before the classes begin, we open a self-learning room at around 3pm, so the students who want to study can feel free to come earlier and study. We also have activity clubs set up before and after classes. Depending on the club, it lasts for 30 minutes to an hour a day and they are held 2 to 3 times a week.

6. Do night schoolteachers communicate with daytime schoolteachers?

Although we use the same building, there is an atmosphere as though we teach in different schools. We don’t avoid communicating with each other, but since the school time and curriculum is completely different, we don’t communicate very often. It’s difficult to work at both daytime and night schools, so we just do our own jobs. Perhaps we would talk more if some event was held that encouraged communication, but nobody has really found it necessary.

I work as the volleyball coach for the daytime school students, but I prepare for classes on weekdays so I can only attend their games on weekends. There is a fulltime coach from the daytime school, as well. I just help out. Since it would often take up your weekends, not many night school teachers get involved in such things either.


7. What subjects do you teach?

Math and Japanese. In our junior high night school, the proficiency level of each student determines which classroom they are placed in. The lowest level classroom presents grade one content, such as doing addition on a piece of paper, learning words, kanji, and reading comprehension of grade 1 level material. The highest-level class presents content typical of the third year of junior high school.

I teach grade 2 Japanese and third year junior high math. What I just described was for regular curriculum classrooms. In my school, there are Japanese classes for non-Japanese people outside of just the classes following a regular curriculum. Since such classes are for those who barely understand any Japanese at all, the curriculum focuses on Japanese as a second language and it includes practical activities, such as physical education, home economics, and art. Only students in a regular curriculum classrooms learn math, science, or social studies.

8. What are your typical hours?

Even though classes are held from 5:30pm to 9:30pm, I work from 1pm to 9:30pm.

9. What’s the best thing about being a night school teacher?

Each classroom only has 3 to 10 students. Since they are small classrooms, the time and focus that a teacher can direct towards any one student is much larger. The ages of the students are also close to mine, so we are all friendly. Students often speak to teachers in a positive and polite way. There are also older students, as well as multinational students, so teachers are often able to learn a lot from them and about their respective countries. We can learn what it is really like to live in other countries and not just from what is reported in the news. I got more interested in the world outside of Japan after working here.

10. What’s the worst thing about being a night school teacher?

It is very difficult to convey to students the nuance of things that are uniquely Japanese. Particles and onomatopoeia are particularly tough. For example, there was a sentence “ツルツルして滑りやすい。(tsurutsurushite suberiyasui)” and my student asked me what “tsurutsuru” meant. I explained that it is onomatopoeia for “slippery” or “smooth”, but that suberiyasui also means slippery. For those who don’t understand both Japanese and English, it was very difficult for me to explain. Also, there are so many cultural differences that it’s not only difficult to teach the Japanese language, but also our mindset, our conduct and our manners. Those things are very difficult for me. The worst thing is, however, that there are many students who cannot attend due to their jobs or their family problems, and most of them withdraw from school. There are also some students who cannot really be involved with events or activities outside of usual classes and I think that is a shame.

11. What’s the funniest story you have from being a night school teacher?

On June 8, there was a volleyball tournament among the eight junior high night schools in Tokyo, and our school won. It was really fun for all of them and I was so happy for my students. We practiced three times a week after night school on top of the 3 days of special practice before the tournament. Both students and teachers had been practicing so hard so they could win, so we were very happy to get the result we did. Students who didn’t play in the game did a really good job of cheering for our team too. They were such exciting games. When the other school took the first set, the teams’ mood went way down, but all the teachers and students only cheered louder and they were able to get their minds right again. When we won, students were doing the victory dance and I thought it was a very international show of a good emotion because Japanese students don’t usually dance. Anyways, getting that win was a really good moment that shows what can happen when we all come together and work towards the same goal.

12. I imagine being a night school teacher gives you some free time during the day. What do you do during the day?

Just ordinary private errands. I don’t do anything specific. My workday is 8 hours long, so I basically have the same free time as the other people working in offices.

13. What do you think are the best aspects of the Japanese education system?

I think Japanese education is very tolerant. It’s certainly fantastic that we are this devoted to and enthusiastic about the education of non-Japanese people.

14. What are the worst things about the Japanese education system?

I haven’t found any, yet.

15. Why are kids going to school at night instead of during the day?

It’s not their choice. Our students are people who can’t meet the requirements of daytime school, so they just come to night school instead.

They are Japanese people who couldn’t complete their junior high school education for some reason. The reasons are various. Some couldn’t go due to illness, or their parents didn’t let them go to school. We have a student whose parents didn’t let them go to school, and he tried to work after their death, but couldn’t find a job because he had no education. Then he came to night school. Others stop going to school because they’re being bullied, or because of their parents’ death. There is also a student who was raised in a religious group and had never been enrolled in Japanese compulsory education, but then he came to night school after he became an adult.

Non-Japanese students have various reasons too. Some of them had to move to several new countries due to their parent’s job and couldn’t finish the junior high school education in their own country. Others just grew up in a country that didn’t have a proper educational system. Some students actually came to Japan when they were under the age of 15 and went to daytime school for a while, but they couldn’t get along with people or make any friends, or they gave up studying there because they didn’t understand Japanese very well. Later on, they decided to come to night school to complete their compulsory education.


16. Who are your students?

In my current class I teach one person from Bangladesh, one from Thailand, one from the Philippines, and one from Nepal. Four of them are teenagers and one is in his 40’s.

17. Why are international students increasing?

The rapprochement reached between Japan and China in 1972 increased the number of Japanese orphans in China returning to Japan, and they and their families became the majority of students. Since the late 1970’s, Indo-Chinese refugees increased. Since the 1990’s, non-Japanese people increased in Japan as a result of people’s jobs, or due to the increase in international marriage, and their kids and family members started coming to night school. After that, there was a time when Afghan refugees increased as well.

When times change, as reflected by international situations and the internationalization of Japan, the students have gradually changed along with them.

18. Can you tell us about a student you’ve helped a lot?

I’ve just started this job, so I haven’t had any specific student yet.

19. Are there any specific problems that international students have?

They are uncertain of their likelihood of staying in Japan. (If they are not sure how long they can stay in Japan, it can discourage them from studying.)

20. Is there anything else you want to say about your job?

While teaching non-Japanese students, I’ve learned that foreign workers have helped Japan a lot. We don’t just pay them for the work they do. They are supporting Japanese society. With the rapid decline of the birthrate, we have to treat such workers really well. I think Japan will come to rely on foreign workers more and more in the future. Therefore, offering education to non-Japanese people who play an important role as citizens in Japan, teaching them not only general knowledge but also Japanese manners and conduct, is very important too, I think.

Night school was originally aimed at Japanese people who could not study because of the war, but now most of the students are non-Japanese people. In our school, only 4 students are Japanese. Our students are as varied as their historical backgrounds. I think it is essential to offer a great education to non-Japanese people right now because if they learn a lot at our night school and enjoy themselves while doing it, they might come to think really fondly of Japan and then one day repay Japan for its kindness. They might work hard for Japan, or they might become a great bridge between Japan and their own countries. Right now, my students all like Japan. Being kind to each other – It is in this way, I believe we can foster great international relationships.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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The Minabe-Cho Government And The Rise Of Umeboshi Fascism Fri, 17 Oct 2014 16:00:00 +0000 Fascism: A political system in which the state has absolute power and control over censorship of the media and the lives of the people who live under it.

Umeboshi: pickled ume fruits common in Japan.

As we all know, Adolf Hitler, the notorious leader of the Nazi Party, turned Germany into a fascist state and took many evil and unforgivable actions following the change. Fascism is a disdainful suppression of human rights. However, history often repeats itself – first as tragedy, second as farce, and third as a Japanese pickled plum. Yes, fascism is on the rise in Minabe-cho in Wakayama prefecture, Japan, and people are calling it… Umeboshi Fascism.

What Is Umeboshi?


Photo by Tamaki Sono

But first, though, we should talk about what umeboshi is. Some may know, others may not. Feel free to skip this section if you do.

Umeboshi, aka Japanese salt plums, are pickled ume fruit (Japanese plums). They are extremely common in Japan not only because they have a dramatic, tasty flavor, but also because they are very healthy and medicinal (though eating too many may result in too much salt intake!). One interesting health point about it though is that it has a paradoxical alkalinizing effect on the body. This means that the acidity in the umeboshi actually helps to neutralize the acids inside your body. An eye for an eye, I guess. In addition to this, umeboshi also helps to neutralize fatigue, stimulate digestion, provides many good minerals, improves blood circulation, and promotes the elimination of toxins. Not bad for a little pickled plum!

The actual origin of umeboshi itself is obscure, but the oldest record dates back to around a thousand years ago. This record confirms that it was used as a medicine to cure specific diseases, such as dysentery, typhoid, and food poisoning. Not only that, it was also used to prevent fatigue, purify water, and rid the body of toxins. Umeboshi has proven itself quite useful, especially during Japan’s furious samurai period, as it was the soldier’s most important field ration, mending battle fatigue and purifying their water. Although in those days, like today, umeboshi were typically used to flavor rice or vegetables, the most common usage, perhaps, was to flavor onigiri, aka rice balls.


Photo by Yuya Tamai

I’m pretty sure that remains unchanged even today.

Umeboshi Facism In The Minabe-Cho Government


Now that you know what umeboshi is, let’s cut to the chase: why the fascism? On September 26, 2014, the “Must-Use-Umeboshi-For-Onigiri” ordinance was passed in Minabe-Cho, Wakayama Prefecture, Japan. Minabe-Cho also happens to be the largest producer of ume fruit in Japan. As the name of the ordinance suggests, the only ingredient that may be used in onigiri is… you guessed it! Umeboshi.

It certainly places a severe restriction on the freedom to choose whatever ingredient someone may like to flavor their onigiri with. To be honest, though, umeboshi is very good with onigiri and one of my favorites, but sometimes I’m in the mood for some tuna-mayo, salmon, bonito, konbu, bacon, or another tasty onigiri ingredient.

When I imagine myself as one of the Minabe residents, where all of those wonderful flavors are prohibited, I simply shudder all over. It is obviously a flagrant, but fairly delicious, violation on human rights!


Upon reading up to this point, you might be wondering why they made such a bizarre ordinance in the first place. The reason is actually very simple: Although Minabe-cho produces one-third of the nation’s total volume of ume, consumption has been decreasing year after year. In fact, last year’s annual umeboshi consumption per family was just 754g, compared to 1053g in 2002. That means that consumption has dropped more than 25% over a decade.

In retaliation to this trend, they are forcing their residents to only use umeboshi for their onigiri. They also thought it would help to appeal to other parts of the country in that such a bold act would show how truly serious they were about their one, special product. “How selfish was that? Wasn’t anyone against it?” I asked myself. After some research, I found out that they passed this ordinance by unanimous consent. In other words, 14 of 14 members voted “Aye” for this to happen. More surprisingly, now their city hall even has an “Ume Department”.


How could this happen? Do these Minabe people love umeboshi so much that they don’t need to eat other kinds of onigiri? I got even more curious.

Umeboshi Onigiri Is Actually Not That Popular

Netallica conducted interviews with a couple of convenience stores in Minabe-cho about the popularity of umeboshi as an onigiri ingredient. The answers were as follows:

“Umeboshi is unpopular. The most popular ingredient is konbu seaweed.”

“Umeboshi onigiri don’t sell well. Many more customers buy tuna-mayo onigiri.”

It’s a bit sad that umeboshi is actually unpopular in the area where the majority of umeboshi in Japan are produced, isn’t it? Now, you may be feeling pity for them and may also be beginning to understand why they made such a regulation, but can we really abide this infringement? If anyone is going to be tired of all-umeboshi-all-the-time it’s going to be the people who live in the place that makes one-third of the ume in Japan. Shouldn’t they be allowed to eat what they want? It would be like taking someone who works at McDonalds, and telling them that from now on, they could only eat McDonalds hamburgers, even when they weren’t at work. They should be allowed to eat what they want.

Luckily, after the ordinance passed, some people in Minabe-Cho quickly found solutions without having to break the law. The answer: “Just eat them with umeboshi!”

Plum-kobo is one of those stores and they put a recipe for “tuna-umeboshi” onigiri on their website. Just to introduce one of their tips, they suggest that you cook the rice with umeboshi already in it because it makes the rice nice and shiny as well as giving it a delightful flavor.

No Opposition Was Found In Minabe And Why

I also found some dissenting opinions from other areas in Japan. For example, ときしらず(Tokishirazu) from Hokkaido says on her twitter, “梅干し嫌いな私としては狂気の沙汰” (To me, an umeboshi hater, this ordinance is craziness). However, I couldn’t find any bad opinions from the people of Minabe about this.

For example, I did a quick interview with a woman who is from Minabe and her comment was as follows.

I think it’s such a funny ordinance *laughs*

Anyway, Minabe’s umeboshi is really tasty, so I think it’s an awesome choice for an onigiri ingredient!

What!? A Minabe resident doesn’t really mind? The answer made me feel like I was tricked. The above-mentioned Netallica also interviewed a town council member, Mr. Shimomura. Here is the Q&A.

Q. 条例というからには、違反をしたらやっぱりなんらかの罰則を受けることになる?
Since it’s called ordinance, if someone goes against it, would they have pay a penalty of some sort?

A. いえいえ、この条例に罰則規定はありません。町民はおにぎりにどんな具を入れても構いません。ただ、梅干しも忘れずに入れてね、と。それだけなんです(笑)
No no. There is no penalty related to this ordinance. Residents can put whatever ingredients they like in their onigiri. It is just a reminder to not forget to put some umeboshi in it as well. And that’s it. *chuckles*

Well, it looks like this fascist rope I’ve been pulling on wasn’t actually tied to anything real. It was just a publicity stunt to gain some attention for umeboshi throughout the country and they succeeded pretty well. But wait a minute. When history repeats itself, will we notice? We’d better keep our eyes peeled so that they don’t start secretly punishing residents for eating non-umeboshi onigiri. If we do a plum job of it, we might never see this umeboshi fascism become a real thing.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Japanese Legal Loopholes: How Japan Looks Innocent While Breaking the Law Thu, 16 Oct 2014 16:00:37 +0000 One of the big questions I asked myself while in Japan was “why?” Just “why.” Not the usual, little “why’s” that accompany a trip to a foreign nation like, “why are squatty potties so hard to use?” Rather, I couldn’t help being bombarded by bigger, more legalistic “why’s.” Why in a country where prostitution was illegal did I see signs and brochures for places like the “Love Action Club,” with catalogs of girls to choose from and a probably-quite-sketchy number you could call? Why, in a country where underage drinking is outlawed, are you almost never asked to verify your age?

It seemed to me that several laws in Japan are only very loosely enforced. I started to think that maybe Japan was posturingshowing the world that these laws existed and meeting the standards expected of them on the world stagebut to the native (and sometimes foreigners) there are pretty obvious areas where these laws are simply not enforced. Many governments, and Japan in particular, have a system in place for following their rules to the letter of the law, but will abuse specific wording or create exceptions to allow certain behaviors to slip through the cracks unchallenged. These loopholes seem to inform quite a few areas of Japanese life, so I wanted to dive into a few of the different types of loopholes and attempt to analyze the “why” of it all.

Types of Loopholes


It’s probably too ambitious to attempt to look at all the myriad ways any one government may attempt to skirt laws, so I’m just going to point out some of the major ones in some of the most widely noticeable categories. If any of you fine, upstanding, Tofugu-loving folks would post other observed loopholes or personal anecdotes in the comments, that would be a great way to increase our understanding. That said, this is what I found:

Alcohol Loopholes


To understand that a double-standard exists with Japan’s enforcement of alcohol, one must compare it to their handling of another controlled substance, firearms. Gun control is so heavily monitored and enforced in Japan that it is almost baffling to a Westerner, especially when compared to the culturally more lax attitude to alcohol and tobacco. We can see that these cultural differences really do inform regulation: So in the United States, whose Constitution contains a “Right to Bear Arms,” firearm control is deemphasized. In Japanese culture, which stresses the importance of drinking between coworkers to seal business deals and foster bonds, it follows naturally that drinking laws would be similarly deemphasized. In Japan, where herds of salarymen stumble home each night, a law that penalizes people for being drunk in public would simply not work as it may in other societies. These are not yet loopholes, however. These are cultural differences in the creation of laws. The loopholes arise when dealing with a consequence of these cultural differences: underage drinking.

To quote a very relevant 2013 article by Koichi (go read it!), “the Japanese underage drinking law came into affect in 1922. It has been ignored ever since.” In 1922, when faced with the evidence that underage drinking was hazardous and being newly opened up to a global stage that had already made that behavior illegal (and, shoot, the U.S. was even in the middle of an outright alcohol prohibition), Japan caved to the pressure and implemented a similar law of their own. However, it wasn’t long before the Japanese underage drinking law became so unenforced that it really only existed on paper and not in practice. The Japanese law as written did not put any restrictions or penalties in place for vendors, machine or otherwise, that sold to underage persons. Nothing really changed.

Whaling Loopholes


Japan’s loophole with whaling is the only loophole on this list that circumvents international law and as such has been heavily criticized by the global community. To understand why, we need to discuss the history of the law that Japan is evading: the International Whaling Commission’s 1982 moratorium on commercial whaling. Around the late 1970s, the anti-whaling movement was beginning to pick up steam around the world. Eventually these pressures bubbled into an international treaty that set out to ban all whaling, only allowing two exemptions: scientific whaling done for research, and aboriginal-subsistence whaling (for Inuits or other native groups that wouldn’t be able to adequately meet their food needs without the traditional food source). With whaling being an important part of native food and culture in Japan, there was a desire domestically to fight this legislation. Japan, along with Norway, Peru, and Russia (other countries with a significant degree of commercial whaling) launched formal objections to the moratorium. It wasn’t until the US threatened to reduce the Japanese fishing quota within American waters that Japan accepted the moratorium. In 1988, when the US reduced the Japanese fishing quota anyway (sort of a dick move), the Japanese were left to decide what to do in response. It was around this time they opted to employ something they had begun to get very good at usingloopholes.

The Japanese government started issuing ‘Scientific Whaling Permits’ left and right to allow their whaling to be carried out under the guise of lethal scientific research so that they could still meet the provisions of the moratorium. However, the way the whaling was handled did not significantly differentiate it from earlier commercial whaling practices; the meat is still sold to certain fishmongers and finds itself in classy Japanese restaurants after the “research” is conducted. Even in the cases where actual research is carried out, it is not often published in reputable scientific journals and would usually be a more feasible experiment if tagging and catch-and-release strategies were conducted instead of lethal harvesting. Not only that, but the research results typically revolve around how to increase the efficiency of whaling or to convince the global community to remove the moratorium. Seems legit.

Gambling Loopholes


Betting on casino games, slot machines, mobile games, sports, and any other form of gambling with direct cash winnings is outlawed by chapter 23 of Japan’s criminal code. However, the law specifically builds in a handful of exceptions in order for some money to be made in the ridiculously lucrative gambling industry. For example, betting on horse races and certain motor sports is specifically exempted by the law. Additionally, prefectures and big cities can still sell lottery tickets and hold a variety of lottery events with direct cash payments without violating the law. However, for the most part this law is upheld to the letter. Yeah, that’s right, gambling is actually illegal in Japan. I guess that explains the absence of traditional casinos (for now). But still you wouldn’t think of gambling as illegal when looking at the prevalence of pachinko parlors. Surely, pachinko counts as a form of gambling, right? Not according to Japanese law, and trust me it has taken a fair amount of time and finagling for pachinko to reach the loophole-filled status that it currently enjoys.

Owning and operating a pachinko parlor isn’t illegal. Like the aforementioned horse racing, it has been specifically exempted by the law for significant cultural and historical purposes. The only thing that would make it illegal would be if there were direct cash payouts on site, and that’s exactly how pachinko proprietors skirt this law. At the parlors themselves, people will pay to sit down and play pachinko and their winnings are given to them in the form of gold tokens, metal balls, or something else innocuous. At the parlors, there are prize counters that contain all kinds of kitschy prizes like rice cookers, jewelry, handbags, chocolates, cigarettes, TVs, DVD players, etc. At first glance, the whole system just looks like a glorified version Chuck E. Cheese. The appeal is that you can simply exchange your winnings for a receipt at the prize counter instead of an awkward prize. You can then take that receipt to a winnings desk outside of the premises and turn it in for cash. These exchange stations are usually right next door and owned and operated by the same people as the pachinko parlor. Yet, because they didn’t give you a direct cash payout on site, and you actually had to walk a couple feet, there is zero infraction in the eyes of the law. Everyone involved in pachinko, including law enforcement, parlor employees, and most players are aware of exactly how this system works and how it skirts the laws. But they acknowledge that it’s basically just a legal way to gamble while following Japanese penal code.

Prostitution Loopholes


Considering the tradition of mizuage among geisha, sexuality has played a major role in Japanese society. Prostitution in Japan was even a state-sponsored activity, with the government licensing and monitoring brothels until 1946 when this practice was banned. After the ban, prostitutes were no longer given guaranteed national contracts, but prostitution was still legal and widely practiced. Many brothels would use cafes or other legitimate businesses as fronts. Pressures from the domestic lobbying group, “The National Federation of the Brothel Trade,” which offered money and free brothel trips to politicians, made it very difficult for reform to reach the Japanese sex trade. It wasn’t until twelve years later in 1958 that the Anti-Prostitution Law was passed and actively enforced. With prostitution outlawed, it took many creative loopholes to keep brothels in operation.

The specific language of the Anti-Prostitution Law only forbids “vaginal sex in exchange for money”, which renders other sex acts permissible. Two of the most common modern variations on Japan’s brothels are fashion health (ファッションヘルス) facilities and soaplands (ソープランド). Fashion Health centers are typically advertised as massage parlors, but they offer much more than just massages. As a matter of fact, the only thing they can’t offer is vaginal sexual intercourse. In this case, the letter of the law is upheld.

Soaplands are merely advertised as locations where patrons will be bathed by partners of their choice. However, they offer much of the same services as brothels. In fact, they can often go a bit further and circumvent the prostitution law for their clients. This is where the most elaborate exploitation of a loophole can be seen. The specific wording of the law forbids only, “intercourse with an unspecified person in exchange for payment.” The key word here being: “unspecified.” Many soaplands, and a handful of other sexual services, have been able to operate legally in Japan by making the claim that the sexual act is being exchanged between people who have become acquainted and are no longer “unspecified”.

“Is it nonsense to deem that the couple fell in love while massaging at a soapland? Yes. But that is how things have operated inside the Japanese legal framework for over five decades,” says Kansai University professor Yoshikazu Nagai, who has extensively studied the modern Japanese sex industry.

These industries are well-regulated in Japan, they must report to police to register as one of the following designations: soaplands, fashion health massage parlors, call-girl businesses, strip clubs, love hotels, and adult shops, and are legally bound to only operate in the capacity of the category they choose. However, that doesn’t stop many of these industries from abusing the wording of the legislation which makes it impossible to criminalize these forms of prostitution. The semantic arguments have become so institutionalized that prostitution in many cases is essentially legal.

Child Pornography Loopholes


Okay, here it is: we’re going to get a little heavy here. There’s no doubt that Japan really values the aesthetic of cuteness and that this naturally translates to the aesthetic of youth (It’s also a bit of a chicken/egg situation). In Japan, youth is beauty. This is why foreign models chosen to represent Japanese companies often need to fit a certain standard of youthful beauty that requires them to be between the ages of 13 to 16. It’s the reason yaeba teeth are popular, and it is the reason that the lolicon genre and fandom exist. For the unaware, lolicon is typically defined as “discourse or media in Japan focusing on the attraction to young or prepubescent girls.” We’ll add that this type of media is typically in the form of drawn or animated depictions of sexualized prepubescent girls as real-life depictions may violate Article 7 of the Japanese constitution that criminalizes the production of child pornography that was ratified in 1999 (They dragged their feet on that one). In Japan, possession and production of explicitly sexual cartoon lolicon is legal, although still contentious. It’s legal in Japan. No loopholes there. However, it gets a little blurrier when discussing non-simulated child pornography.

After 1999 child pornography was outlawed, but only on the following grounds, “production, transport, import and export, as well as possession of child pornography for the aforementioned purposes.” It became illegal to make and sell child pornography internationally. However, there were absolutely no consequences to those that owned it. None. They had simply to prove that they owned it for personal reasons and had no intention to produce, transport, import, or export it, and the law couldn’t touch them. It wasn’t until Wednesday, June 18th, of the year 2014 (I’m not even kidding) that Japanese lawmakers bowed to international pressures and passed a law making the mere possession of child pornography a crime that could result in a year in jail or an up to $10,000 fine. This, of course, left lolicon depictions untouched as they are considered important both economically and for freedom of expression. Has Japan finally moved closer to the international standard for regulating child pornography? The law provides Japanese citizens a year to dispose of any child pornography they possess before risking any prosecution. In this age of technological mass communication and information duplication, that is a pretty lenient loophole. It’s as if Japan doesn’t really want to prosecute child pornographers, instead providing a gentle slap on the wrist and saying, “Hey, you might want to get rid of that.”

Another blatant loophole that continues to blur enforcement of this law is media featuring Japanese junior idols, child models that usually start between the ages of 13 and 15. While the above types of child pornography are largely distributed in hushed tones and on the dark corners of the internet, junior idol magazines, photo books, and videos, can be purchased in legitimate storefronts across Japan. When I was in Osaka, I saw a shelf full of junior idol DVDs, mostly suggestive swimsuit modeling, that was literally across the aisle from shelves of hardcore hentai and sex toys. It’s extremely hard to imagine that those DVDs were being sold for an artistic purpose and not a pornographic one. There have been prosecutions of production companies whose junior models have crossed the vaguely defined line between child modeling and child pornography, resulting in several videos being removed from’s online store. This is a start, but it hasn’t even slowed down the multimillion dollar junior idol industry.

About That “Why” Question


Now that I’ve brought up this diverse list of loopholes in the Japanese government, you, dear reader, should have a few “why’s” in your mind as well. Many of the questions raised by this pattern of loophole flouting in Japanese politics do not have easy answers. Some have argued that the loopholes are exploited by the Japanese public and it is the ineffectiveness of the Japanese government’s enforcement of laws that allows loopholes to thrive. However, Japanese law enforcement seems to institutionalize and actively allow many of these loopholes, so I think differently. I speculate that one of the main reasons for this abundance of loopholes isn’t ineffective enforcement or even political corruption (though parts of it can certainly seem symptomatic). It seems to me that what Japan is really after is preservation of the status quo.

From whaling, to prostitution , to a lax drinking culture, to pachinko parlors, to retaining the legality of lolicon, the exceptions are typically made simply to maintain things as they have always been. In fact, it is my belief that many of the laws that these loopholes circumvent would not have been ratified if it weren’t for the intense pressure from the global community. Japan wants to appear as if it is matching expectations of behavior and etiquette with the Western world, while still enjoying certain behaviors that, while deemed inappropriate elsewhere, are considered core to the Japanese way of life.

These loopholes in laws serve a very similar role domestically. Instead of appeasing the moral sensibilities of those overseas, these laws can also appease Japanese citizens by assuring them that legislation has been passed that will protect them from problems like prostitution and underage drinking, when in reality nothing is truly being enforced. For instance, take this short anecdote from fellow Tofugu writer, Verity Lane:

“the prefecture knew that teachers were working too many hours, and they were being criticized. So they shortened the day by 10 minutes. The previous start time was 8:00. Now it’s 8:10. However, the schools didn’t change the time of the morning meeting (at 8:10) so teachers have to be in school by 8:00 anyway. Nothing changed, but there’s some proof that the prefecture ‘did something’ if anyone criticizes them about working hours again.”

This is a simple example, but it is very telling because it supports this observable pattern of many Japanese regulations making changes on paper, but not truly enforcing them, or else building in exemptions that render the law meaningless. It isn’t my purpose to deem whether these actions are ethical or unethical, but merely to bring this interesting idea to the forefront. I really look foreword to hearing the discussions and comments that this article will elicit. Have you observed these patterns in Japanese society? Where do you see other loopholes? And, let us not forget, why?

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Japan’s Three Climates: A Virtual Journey Through the Wilds of Japan Wed, 15 Oct 2014 16:00:48 +0000 This is a story about you.

Three years ago, you began to feel restless. Not “ time to take up a new hobby” restless, but more like “time to travel the world and have exciting, new experiences” restless.

So you came up with a plan. An incredible, ridiculous plan. You decided to move to Japan… and live in the wilderness.*


Photo by *_*

After some research, you discovered that Japan can be divided into three broad climatic zones: mild-summer continental (Hokkaido), hot-summer continental (northeast Honshu), and subtropical (central/southern Japan).

You wanted to fully experience each of these regions, so you planned out a three-year survival trip, with one year devoted to each climate. That way, you’d get to observe all four seasons in each region, and have lots of time to explore the land.

You packed up your survival gear and headed to Japan. Somehow, you obtained legal clearance for your survival adventure (maybe they thought you were joking?). You plunged into the forest, leaving the towering skyscrapers and bright lights of civilization behind.

As the months passed, you took regular notes in order to pass your experiences on to an enraptured future audience. What audience? Why, the fine readers of Tofugu, of course!

Now that future has come. It’s time to relate your adventure.

*Note: Do not actually try living in the Japanese wilderness. Seriously. But just in case you need convincing, here are some very good reasons why it’s a terrible idea.

Overall Impressions


Photo by Captain Blood

Many of the experiences you had during your adventure were distinct to each of the three climate regions, while others were common across Japan. Let’s start by going over what seemed to be constant throughout the three.

If you had to pick the definitive aspect of Japan that shaped your wilderness experience, it would be this: Japan is hilly. Really, really hilly. It didn’t take long for your aching legs to conclude that wide, flat areas are hard to come by in this country. Getting around was a constant up-and-down affair.

On the other hand, the dominance of mountainous terrain (which you eventually discovered covers about three quarters of the country) made for visually complex, exhilarating hiking, with many hidden surprises. In particular, you enjoyed the effect of rough terrain on Japan’s rivers, which often fell in cascading waterfalls and rapids.


Photo by Yvon Liu

Of course, the undulating landscape only makes sense. Japan does lie along a fault line (from whence it came), and therefore sits in a tectonically active region. That means earthquakes and volcanoes, with mountains rising from colliding plates and spurting lava.

Another feature you encountered throughout Japan is the “monsoonal” climate; that is, the annual cycle of wet and dry seasons. Specifically, Japan generally features wet summers and dry winters. The prominence of the monsoonal cycle varies by region, as you became intimately aware from your ever soaked hiking boots.

The general abundance of precipitation ensures that forests are the predominant natural biome throughout Japan. Thus, if someone were randomly plopped down somewhere in the Japanese islands, they would most likely find themselves in the midst of forest-covered hills.


Photo by miya-aki

You encountered many forms of wildlife that inhabited all three climate regions. Mammalian examples include foxes, boar, deer, and tanuki. Widespread birds included cranes, pheasants, woodpeckers, and owls, the latter of which hooted you to sleep at night. Reptiles were represented by snakes and lizards (which didn’t help you sleep at all).

So now that you’ve touched upon the widespread natural features of Japan, it’s time to move on to the specifics.

Hokkaido – Mild-summer Continental

japan-climate-mild summer3

A continental climate features a wide temperature range throughout the year, with warm summers and cold winters. In contrast, temperate climates feature less extreme temperatures (namely milder winters), while tropical climates are warm year-round. Though continental climates generally occur inland (hence the name), Japan is an exception.

Continental climates are divided into “mild-summer” and “hot-summer” subtypes. Japan’s northernmost climate, which roughly covers Hokkaido, is of the mild-summer variety. This climate also prevails in the northern United States/southern Canada, as well as Eastern Europe.

Hokkaido is the northernmost of Japan’s four main islands. You decided to start here, reasoning that it would be nice for each year of your journey to be warmer than the last. The island also lured you in with its romantic reputation as the far off, untamed wilds of Japan.

So what was it like? Summer days were usually comfortably warm, while winter days were generally below freezing. Day/night temperature shifts were often dramatic. Many times you wondered why on earth you were sleeping in a makeshift hut in the frigid Hokkaido wilderness.

Summer and autumn were fairly rainy, often with dense sea fog, while precipitation was low the remainder of the year. Interestingly, the west coast bucked this trend; a winter hike along this coast had you trudging through heavy snowfall. You criss-crossed the island several times, noting that temperature and rainfall dropped markedly among the inland mountains.


Photo by s.sawada

The northern and high-elevation parts of Hokkaido were filled with conifers (trees with narrow evergreen leaves, aka “needles”), primarily spruces and firs. You discovered that the very coldest parts of the island couldn’t support the growth of full-size trees, instead housing sub-arctic vegetation, including dwarf pines. At lower elevations and latitudes, the coniferous forest gave way to deciduous trees, which feature broad leaves that drop in the autumn. These forests were made up largely of oaks, beeches, and maples.


Photo by Hajime NAKANO

Regarding animals, one encounter stood out above all others. When you came over the top of a hill one day, you found yourself almost face-to-face with an enormous bear: the Ussuri brown bear (though you really didn’t care much about the name at the time)! Fortunately, it wasn’t interested in you… maybe you were too skinny at this point for it to bother.

Northeastern Honshu – Hot-summer Continental

japan-climate-hot summer

After your first year, you happily crossed the Tsugaru Strait to Honshu, the largest of Japan’s four main islands. The second major Japanese climate region, “hot-summer continental,” lies mainly in the northeast part of this island. This is actually a fairly rare climate, also found in a few slivers of Eastern Europe, as well as the southern states of the American Midwest.

Winter was milder here, it tended to remain above freezing, while summer was hotter. The rainy period (summer/fall) was heavier, and lasted longer. Once again, precipitation was scarce in winter, except along the west coast. You thought moving south might leave the snow behind, but there was still plenty to be found in the northern and interior portions of Honshu.


Photo by Chi King

Though you discovered stands of coniferous forest in the mountains, deciduous trees were more prevalent, as in southern Hokkaido. In terms of animals, you were hoping to leave those enormous brown bears behind, and you did… only to find that the remainder of mainland Japan is home to the Asian black bear! Luckily, you avoided any further close encounters.

You also spotted several green pheasants, a distinctive creature you later discovered to be the national bird of Japan.


Photo by coniferconifer

Central/Southwestern Japan – Subtropical


With the second year completed, it was time to move on to the final region: central/southwestern Japan, spanning the remainder of Honshu, as well as the other two main islands, Kyushu and Shikoku, and some additional smaller islands. Here, the climate finally made the leap from continental to temperate. In fact, it leapt all the way to subtropical!

This climate encompasses most of the population of Japan, including the nation’s four largest cities: Tokyo, Yokohama, Osaka, and Nagoya. Compared to the more northerly parts of the country, the subtropical region features a longer spring and autumn, and thus a more even balance between the four seasons. Other parts of the world with a similar subtropical climate include eastern China, as well as much of the American South.


Photo by Les Taylor

As you expected, temperatures rose again as you journeyed south, with hotter summers and milder winters. Monsoonal rainfall became even more pronounced, with higher duration and intensity of the wet season. Once again, the west coast maintained atypically high precipitation throughout the winter.

While you continued to find deciduous trees in higher elevations (and conifers even higher), lower elevations were often filled with laurel forest. This forest type consists of evergreen broadleaf trees, including camphors, pasania, evergreen oaks, figs, and palms.


Throughout this region, your most striking animal encounter was the Japanese giant salamander, the largest you’d ever seen! You also met sea snakes one day while out swimming, which made you wonder if bears were really so bad after all.

Back to Civilization


Photo by albgra

Your restlessness satisfied, you returned home filled with memories of Japan’s diverse environment. There’s nothing like being in touch with nature.

After three years, however, you may have had enough nature to last you a lifetime. The next trip you make to Japan will focus on the most densely populated areas you can find. And it will take place largely indoors.


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Disposable Architecture: New Home Promotion and Old Home Destruction in Japan Tue, 14 Oct 2014 16:00:34 +0000 If you’ve ever bought a house in the US, you know the normal considerations: How many bathrooms? How’s the location? Can you afford the price? And despite recent history, you probably still think it’s a better investment than paying rent to a landlord.

Jump across the Pacific, however, and you may be surprised at how differently the housing market works in Japan. Some of the differences are cool, like wacky promotions to attract buyers and crazy creative designs. But there’s also a dark side, if you care about the preservation of neighborhoods and the economic well-being of the average family.

Weird Home Promotions


Photo by Yamanaka Tamaki

When you buy a new house in the US, you don’t expect it to come with an extra prize like you get in a box of cereal. But one home-building company has offered buyers some odd perks. In one of their housing developments, the Izuyama company offered ten years of free burgers at their restaurant called Patty Cafe. If that sounds like it would get monotonous, the menu notes that they offer a variety of different sauces, such as demiglace, tomato cheese, salt, ponzu, wasabi mayo, and garlic, and from the photos, it looks much fancier than a fast-food joint.

There’s a catch, though: the deal only applies when the whole family shows up to dinner together – if even one person is missing, you have to pay. To the cynic, that might sound like a way to minimize the number of free burgers they have to give out, but the company says this rule is for the betterment of family life, because the number of Japanese families eating dinner together is decreasing. A survey showed that families eat together 46% of the time in Paris and 35% in Stockholm, but just 16% in Tokyo.

Another deal promoted another kind of togetherness:  a free soba housewarming party for the neighbors, based on a custom from the Edo period of giving soba noodles to your new neighbors when you move in. “Soba” (側 – written with different kanji from the noodles) means “beside” or “nearby,” and noodles are long, so this tradition symbolizes the hope for a long and good relationship with the neighbors. The deal wasn’t just any soba, either: it was soba topped with gold leaf, which, aside from making the host look like a big spender, is supposed to bring good luck.

A different sort of deal was offered in a house with a fancy built-in sound system: the company would pay for ten years of a Sony online music streaming service that includes 20,000 songs. This house had recessed ceiling speakers even in the bath. Doors, windows, and even furniture was designed with sound quality in mind, as if they were building a concert hall.  If you’re like me – the sort of person who puts your earbuds in when walking down the street in the hope that no one will talk to you – this one sounds like a way to keep people from interacting with others rather than encouraging it. But the company thinks otherwise: they say it promotes family spirit to listen to music together. And I guess they were thinking of harmony with the neighbors as well, since they used insulation and even window glass designed to dampen sound.

Solve a Puzzle, Win a Cheaper House


Photo by mwms1916

Okay, those bonuses are fun and all, but I think most of us would prefer a discount on price rather than a free housewarming party. One home-building company offered a deal like that, but only if you worked for it: you had to solve a sequence of online puzzles. There were three increasingly harder puzzles. Whoever solved the first one got a 1% discount, and for the second, a 3% discount was given.  For the third one, 178 people solved the puzzle and one was chosen in a random drawing to get a 50% discount on the price of their house.

For an idea of what these puzzles were like, here’s the first and presumably the easiest.  Not only would you never see a deal like this in the US, but if you did, the puzzle would have to be very different. Japan is still a country where everyone learns to read music in school. So it’s no stretch to ask people to look at the below and turn it into words:


The trick you have to know to start is that the Japanese version of “do-re-mi” for the notes in a scale is a-­ka­-sa-­ta­-na­-ha­-ma­-ya­-ra­-wa. And at the bottom of that image is another trick:  the Japanese vowels are matched to notes of different lengths. They also tell you to interpret the dot next to a note (which in actual music notation changes the length) as those two little dots you put next to a kana that turns a voiceless consonant to a voiced one, like ku to gu.

So, put all that together and translate the notes into Japanese syllables, and you read this as: sa-­ka­-n­-be­-re­-ha-­n­-shi­-ri­-n­-ra­-gu:


Then, the lyrics above say “kabe to hashira wo toriharae,” which means “remove walls and polls.” That means, remove the syllables ka-be and ha-shi-ra, and you get the answer to the puzzle, sa­n­re­n­ri­n­gu, “trinity ring.”

Bravo to the winners, because I hate puzzles and I’m exhausted just typing out the explanation. But I guess for even just 1% off of the price of a brand new house it might be worth trying to figure it out.

Architect’s Heaven



Photo by BAKOKO

If you’re looking for a house, maybe you’re jealous that you no one offers all-you-can-eat deals with it. But if you think you’re envious, the people who should really be jealous are American architects.

Japan is famous for unusual, new home architecture, unlike other countries where residential construction is not where architects usually get to be creative. The one I really want to live in this permanently Halloween apartment building.


The same architect who designed the Halloween apartments, also designed a shopping town that looks like a fairy-tale village - sadly no one gets to live there, but I’d take a job in one of those shops in a minute.


There’s also the house where all the walls are transparent


The one with windows but no walls


Or if you don’t care for that, you can have walls but no windows.


There’s also this tiny one-room seaside vacation home that’s basically one big window


And this one that looks on the inside like it was designed by M.C Escher.


And if you’re looking for an awesome job market, you might want to become an architect in Japan: it’s the country with the most architects per capita in the world, with four times as many as the US. It’s also got twice as many construction jobs per capita as the US, despite the shrinking population low birth rate.

Disposable Homes


Photo by Laurent LaSalle

There’s an underlying thread that connects all these gimmicky contests and strange designs. Sadly, this thread is alarming and not nearly as much fun.

How can there be such a huge new home market when the Japanese population is getting smaller? Why is there so much competition that a company offers free food if you buy a home they’ve built? And what’s the deal with those crazy house designs? It’s all connected to the strangest thing about the Japanese housing market from an American perspective: there’s almost no market for existing homes.

Americans see a home as an investment. Despite some recent evidence to the contrary, the expectation is that a home will retain and maybe even increase in value. We see paying rent to a landlord as like flushing money down the toilet. But paying a mortgage payment to the bank is an investment in the future: the day will come when you can sell your house at a profit or hand it down as a valuable asset to your children.

But in Japan, a home is more like a car: It starts to decrease in value with age from the minute you buy it. Almost no one buys a “used” home to live in it. They just buy the property and tear down the existing house to build a new one. Half of Japanese homes are demolished within less than forty years, and no wonder, when one calculation says that they lose all their value by the time they’re thirty years old! The vast majority of people who buy a home are building a new house from scratch: 87% of Japan’s home sales are newly built houses, compared with only 11-34% in Western countries.

So that’s why there are so many construction jobs, and why companies compete for attention with clever promotions. And it’s also why architects can get away with those wacky designs. If you’ve ever owned a home in the US, you know that conventional wisdom cautions against doing unusual remodels, as they could hurt the resale value of your home. Potential buyers might run screaming from your purple bathroom tile. But in Japan, homes basically have no resale value. So you can build whatever crazy thing you want, secure in the depressing knowledge that it’s not going to make any difference to the zero value of the actual house when you go to sell the property.

The US real estate market joke is that the three most important things to consider when buying a house are “Location, location, location.” (Real estate agents are not the best comedians.) But apparently in Japan, those are ALL the things to consider, because that’s really all you’re buying.

The Dark Side



“So what?” you might say. “Lots of jobs in the building trade, lots of shiny new houses with purple bathroom tile, and sometimes a whole bunch of free burgers too!”

I’m not going to get into how and why the Japanese housing market came to be this way (read the references at the end for some analyses, if you like) but despite the fun stuff we started with, the dark side of this situation can’t be ignored.

It’s been argued that this system is terrible for the economic status of the Japanese middle class, compared to a place like the US where a home – the biggest purchase most people will ever make – retains or even gains some value. This seems pretty obvious, but you can read some academic analysis here. And the problem with trying to change the situation is that it’s self-perpetuating. Because a home isn’t a valuable asset, people don’t put a lot of money and effort into maintenance or renovations. No one in Japan spends their weekends at Home Depot buying stuff to fancy up their house. The result is that “used” homes are run down and out of fashion, so who would want to buy one? And that perpetuates the cycle.

There’s also a huge problem of abandoned houses. When homes can’t be sold, they may be left vacant and unmaintained. It costs a lot of money to tear a house down. On top of that, the tax system is a perverse counter-incentive: the property tax is six times higher if there’s no house on the lot. Basically, if you can’t sell your house (or rather, the land underneath it), you’d have to be crazy to tear it house down. The most recent statistics (from 2008, and the rates have been rising so it’s probably worse now) say that of 7.57 million vacant houses in Japan, one-third are abandoned. Having these abandoned houses around is terrible for a neighborhood – a fire risk, bad for property values, you name it.

As someone who loves old houses and old neighborhoods, I have to close by saying that another huge downside is the loss of character and history. Every time I visit my favorite Tokyo neighborhood, Yanaka, I see another old house being torn down and some ugly concrete box built in its place. I wonder how long the neighborhood can hold on to what makes it special. One long-time resident of the neighborhood told me that, when his neighbors tear down an old house in hopes of getting all the conveniences of modern living, it’s usually not as great as they expected.

The current state of housing in Japan is hurting the economy, the middle class, and the charm of and history of neighborhoods. With the exception of architects, everyone loses.



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The Standard of Japanese Female Beauty: Ono no Komachi and the Akita Bijin Fri, 10 Oct 2014 16:00:52 +0000 Ono no Komachi 小野小町 was a poet of unparalleled beauty and renown. Not only was she one of the most famous and well respected poets of the early Heian Period 平安時代, the golden age of Japanese poetry, but the rumor and awe surrounding her beauty has left its mark on Japan to the present day.

A Legend is Born in Tohoku


It is widely accepted that Ono no Komachi was born in Akita Prefecture 秋田県, when it was still known as Dewa 出羽国, in what is now Yuzawa City 湯沢市 around 834 AD. Her father Yoshisada was (most likely) the lord of Dewa at the time and sent his daughter to Heian-kyō 平安京 (modern day Kyoto). She was around twelve or thirteen when she went to serve in the Imperial Court. It is rumored that she had an older sister who was also sent to Kyoto, but she never reached the level of fame that her little sister attained.

During the Heian Period the Imperial Court was all about aesthetics. The two most significant were Miyabi 雅 (Refinement/Elegance/Courtliness) and Mono no aware 物の哀れ (Sensitivity). The former meant the removal of all things vulgar or absurd, and the latter was the ability to be moved by nature, a melancholy over the impermanence of things in this world.

For someone to be considered attractive in the Heian period they needed to be both refined, elegant, and sensitive. They expressed these qualities mainly through poetry. Poems were the primary form of communication between those at court, men wrote poems to men, women to other women, and of course, lovers and married couples wrote poems to one another.

Poetry competitions were held regularly, and the most sensitive poem that referenced proper seasonal and older poetic tropes would bring renown to its writer. Genji’s (of the Tale of Genji) charm came from his ability to feel, and his expression of those feelings through poetry. Heian aesthetic was also expressed through the way people dressed. Women had to wear long robes called jūnihitoe 十二単, or twelve layer robes. They were extremely complicated, colorful kimono that had numerous layers and could weigh almost forty-five pounds. The more layers, the more impressive. You certainly couldn’t put them on by yourself.

All of these qualities defined what beauty was to the Japanese nobility.

Poetry and Heartache


Ono no Komachi had all of these qualities and she excelled in the world of the Heian court. While she was known for her skills at the koto, calligraphy, singing, and dancing, it was her poetry that brought her the most attention. She wrote mainly about love, and the poems she wrote to her many lovers actually help us to know when she was at court. Her most famous relationship was with Fukakusa no Shosho 深草少将. Her poetry is full of longing, heartache, and emotional intensity and the waka 和歌 style that people were using at the time fit her own perfectly.

As a side note: having many lovers was in no way considered to be a bad thing at this time. Men and women often had more than one lover, but that didn’t make the emotional strain when someone you had feelings for moved on to someone else hurt any less. Please do not mistake Ono no Komachi for some kind of concubine or anything out of the ordinary.

Here are five of my personal favorites:

Ima wa tote
Ware ni shigure no
Koto no ha sae zo

Nureba yo hito no
Yume to shiriseba
Samezaramashi o

Utatane ni
Koishiki hito o
Miteshi yori
Yume cho mono wa

Ito semete
Koishiki toki wa
Mubatama no
Yoru no koromo o
Kaeshite zo kiru

Hito ni awan
Tsuki no naki ni wa
Mune hashiribi ni
Kokoro yakeori

Now is the time
You think to leave me,
I am growing older
Your promises too
Are leaves of turning colors.

Was it that I fell asleep
Longing for him
That he appeared?
Had I known it was a dream
I should not have awakened.

In a doze I saw
The one I am longing for;
Since then
I have come to rely
On my dreams

When I long for him
Oppressed by the thoughts I have,
I wear my robe,
Jet black as the night,
Turned inside out.

On a moonless night
When I will not meet him,
I lie awake longing for him, my mind aflame
My heart burns amidst
The leaping fire in my breast

Even in translation, her passion seems to pulse through the page. Her poetry is so highly regarded that she is listed among the Rokkasen 六歌仙 (Japanese Poetry Immortals), as well as in the introduction to the Kokin Wakashū 古今和歌集 (also known as the Kokinshū), which contains the only surviving works by Ono no Komachi. She is also one of the Sanjūrokkasen 三十六歌仙 (the Thirty-six Immortals of Poetry) and the Nyōbōsanjūrokkasen 女房三十六歌仙 (Thirty-six Immortal Lady Poets).

Her poetry and her ability to fit within the aesthetic world of the Heian court were amazing. But what exactly is it that makes her so important? She’s had an even bigger impact on Japan than many people realize, especially in how people look at her supposed birthplace, present day Akita Prefecture.

Beauty Standards of the Akita Bijin


From left to right: Ono no Komachi, Sotoori-hime, The Third Princess (Onna San No Miya/Nyōsan).

You may have heard the term Akita Bijin 秋田美人 before in Japan. It’s a term used for really beautiful women from Akita prefecture, and some other parts of Tohoku. There is a certain something that young women from that area seem to have, and when people talk about their ideal woman, or who the most beautiful women are in Japan, Akita Bijin may come up.

Here are the qualities an Akita Bijin is said to have:

  • white/pale skin
  • round face
  • straight brow
  • double eyelids
  • small nose
  • small mouth with full lips

This concept of beauty and the traits involved are all rumored to be qualities that Ono no Komachi had. She was the ideal, a perfect woman who came from far away to the capital to serve in court and her beauty was what everyone longed for.

Today you can hear people saying how good the rice in Akita is. “It’s so good for your skin,” they say. And the water is so fresh up there, drinking and soaking in it makes your skin so smooth and white. These were all things I heard firsthand when I told people I was going to Akita to study. So was it these natural resources that gave Ono no Komachi and other women their beauty? Water and rice?

There are other theories. This pale complexion is more likely from the fact that it snows in the Tohoku region. A lot. The summers are fairly short and the winters are excruciatingly long. This means that people aren’t getting a lot of sunlight, so of course they’re going to be pale compared to someone from Kyoto. In the 1960s, studies were done by a physician in Yuzawa City, measuring the whiteness of women’s skin. He found that a mix of the climate and geological environment were what made their skin so white. According to this study, 29.6% is the “whiteness” of Akita Bijins, while the Japanese average is 22.0%. Apparently this is a noticeable difference.

While the rice and the water may help, seeing as they’re actually pretty tasty, as well as the lack of sunlight, it’s more likely that Ono no Komachi’s legacy is the cause. Her looks were enhanced by her sensitivities and her poetry. Her pale skin and soft round face may have become popular more so because of her ability to fit within the aesthetic of the Heian court, than her looks themselves being attractive. In other words, the idea that her features were beautiful were a result, not a cause.

Theater Keeps the Legacy Alive


Photo by lensonjapa

Writers have been using Ono no Komachi as their personification of beauty and poetic skill for over one thousand years. She has been used as the subject of seven Noh plays: Sotoba Komachi 卒塔婆小町Sekidera Komachi 関寺小町Ōmu Komachi 鸚鵡小町Sōshi Arai Komachi 草紙洗小町, Kayoi Komachi 小町, Amagoi Komachi 雨乞小町, and Kiyomizu Komachi 清水小町. Sometimes she appears as an old woman, destitute and lamenting over her former glory as a poet in court. Other times she comes back as the ghost of the beautiful woman she was, appearing to people and reciting her poetry. In every case she is remembered for her great beauty and masterful poetry. She also appears in four Kabuki plays: Tsumoru Koi Yuki no Aeki no To 積恋雪関扉, Saruhodoni koi non omoni 去程恋重荷, Rokkasen Sugata no Irodori 六歌仙容彩, and Waka no Toku Amagoi Komachi 和歌徳雨乞小町.

She also appeared in a manga that started in 2010 called Chōyaku Hyakunin isshu: Uta Koi 超訳百人一首 うた恋い, which is still being published. It’s all about, you guessed it, poetry exchanged between Heian nobility and love. The anime aired in 2012.

Komachi Branding

If you add Komachi to a product, it instantly becomes more marketable and hints at elegance.

Akita Komachi Rice


This rice not only takes Ono no Komachi’s namesake, but companies use her image for marketing as well. It’s easy to see how people think that the rice is what makes the girls of Akita so pretty when they use this kind of imagery. This rice isn’t what gave the original Ono no Komachi her beauty though, as this strain of rice didn’t exist before the 1980s.

Komachi Shinkansen


Photo by Norio Nakayama

Created in 1997, the Komachi Shinkansen runs from Tokyo to Akita. The name was voted on by the public, second and third place were Obako おばこ and Tazawa たざわ respectively. The train was upgraded in 2013 and is one of the best ways to travel to Akita without flying directly to their airport.

Komachi Hot Spring and Hotel


What better way to pamper yourself than in a hotel that has a bunch of hot springs. That Akita water is sure you make your skin soft and bouncy, just like Ono no Komachi. They don’t just have one big communal hot spring, mind you. They have huge public baths, seven open air baths, a mist sauna, and a sauna theater! They also have a theater called the Komachi Theater where different theater troupes put on performances. Check our their website for more.

A Parade of Beautiful Women


She wouldn’t be a proper Japanese legend if she didn’t have her own festival! The Komachi Festival is held every year in her hometown of present day Yuzawa City’s Ono District on the second Sunday of June.

The festival involves seven girls picked from Yuzawa City who dress in traditional clothing and dedicate seven of Ono no Komachi’s poems at a shrine bearing her own name, Komachi-do. Below is an example of the seven poems that are dedicated:


1. 花の色はうつりにけりないたづらに

2. いとせめて恋しきときはうばたまの

3. 思いつゝ寝ればや人の見えつらん

4. ちはやぶる神もみばさば立ちさわぎ

5. わびぬれば身をうき草の根をたえて

6. 色も春もなつかしきかな蛙なく

7. 面影のかわらで年のつもれかし

Quiet Retirement


Ono no Komachi left court and returned to Yuzawa when she was in her mid-thirties and no one really knows what happened from there. While some plays suggest that she met old age in a state of poverty and slight madness over her lost loves, most scholars believe this to be false. There are grave sites dedicated to her dotted throughout Japan so no one really knows her true burial site either. They can be found in Miyagi, Fukushima, Shiga, Okayama, and Ibaraki prefectures, to name a few. There are even two in Kyoto. Regardless of where she went, she probably spent her remaining years in peace, unaware of her impact on the world of poetry and Japanese perceptions of beauty.

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Getting Down and Dirty with Japan’s Garbage Thu, 09 Oct 2014 16:00:01 +0000 If you take a walk in a city in Japan, you might notice something. Where are all the rubbish bins!? Seriously, you’ve been carrying this empty onigiri wrapper around for an hour now and you just want, no need, to find a bin! If you do find one of these rare public trashcans, you’ll notice that it isn’t just one, but many different bins grouped together. You may have been able to find them, but now you have to work out if this onigiri wrapper paper or plastic.

Let’s Talk Trash.


Photo by Elmimmo

If you have ever lived in Japan, you’ve probably discovered that once you are responsible for your household’s garbage, things get a lot more complicated. Have you been faced with the challenge of sorting and cleaning your garbage meticulously, making sure to put it out on the right day in the right colored bag, or suffered the shame of having it returned to you?

After these experiences it might seem like Japan is an incredibly clean and eco-friendly country that is super keen on recycling. However, things are even more complex if we look a little deeper.

Sort It Out!


If you have moved to Japan, one of the first things you’ll need to do is get hold of your town’s gomi guide. Gomi ごみ (sometimes written ゴミ) is the Japanese word for garbage. Here’s an example guide from Niihama City. It is twenty-one pages long! That kind of length isn’t unusual either. As the Tokyo International Communication Committee says in its garbage guide, “Trash-related issues could easily become a cause of trouble with your neighbors. To establish a comfortable life for both you and others in the community, it is important to follow local rules for trash collection.”

There’s no simple way to describe Japan’s rubbish sorting system. Waste disposal is carried out at the municipal level. That means that each city, town, and district has a completely different system. Even Tokyo’s twenty-three wards have different systems.

So even if you’ve mastered one system, that doesn’t help you all that much if you move somewhere else. For example, my town’s garbage was sorted into burnable (red bags), non-burnable (blue bags), paper, plastic, PET bottles, cans, styrofoam, newspapers, cartons, unbroken glass, and batteries (white bags, with different collection days). That was a fairly relaxed system, comparatively. I knew people who had to sort out their namagomi 生ごみ (food waste) from their burnables and their envelopes from their paper.

Some types were collected every week, some every fortnight. Other types were collected anywhere from once a month to once a year (I kicked myself the year I missed the one day for battery collection). Over sized garbage was collected twice a year and you had to buy a special sticker to pay for disposal. You also had to buy specific garbage bags that were only usable in your town. You couldn’t just put your burnable garbage in any red bag, it had to be a special, approved red bag. If you messed up, you risked having your rubbish returned to you with a sticker of shame, so that all your neighbors could see how you failed.

Now I was fairly lucky, my town was by no means as strict as some. There were still some tricky moments, especially when trying to sort packaging that was half paper and half plastic, or working out what to do with something that wasn’t on my garbage sorting chart (empty toothpaste tubes, huh?!). The strangest thing about my garbage system was that I had to put my trash in a cage designed to keep bears out. It was a bit battered and one side had been replaced with fiberboard after a particularly persistent bear took interest. In other areas, trash is put out under nets to keep crows away.

Unfortunately, not everyone is as lucky as I was and there are some true trash horror stories out there. The town of Kakimatsu in Shikoku has 44 different garbage categories. A New York Times article details how the incredibly strict garbage sorting system enforced by some locals affected residents, from a woman who was shamed for using a thin pen to write her identification number on her bag, to a non-compliant couple who were evicted from their apartment under pressure from a local garbage sorting enforcer. This might be at the extreme end of the spectrum, but rubbish sorting can be a real problem, especially for foreigners just arriving in Japan.

Getting all of this done may be inconvenient, but it’s certainly not impossible. For people living in small apartments it can be hard to find enough space to fit in all the rubbish bins they need to separate their trash, but it will be even more of an inconvenience if you don’t bother to sort it out at all.

Why Is Sorting So Strict?


Photo by Steve Nagata

You might think that you are being made to do all this trash sorting as some kind of punishment, but there are some pretty important reasons behind it. Japan has a set of specific challenges when it comes to dealing with its waste. The biggest of these is lack of land suitable for landfill. In the 1960s it became clear that, with it’s rising population, Japan would have to find a solution for its garbage or sink under the weight of its trash.

According to Waste Atlas each person in Japan produces an average of 356.2kg of waste per year and as a whole, Japan generates 45,360,000 tons of municipal waste per year, ranking 8th in the world. Unlike larger countries like the United States and China, there simply isn’t the space to bury it all. Japan had to find another solution.

Where Does It All Go?


Photo by Clint

After all that waste has been sorted and collected, where does is all go? You might think that you are sorting your waste so that it can be more easily recycled. This is a fairly common misconception and one that I shared when I first arrived in Japan.

However, a happy, new recycled life is by no means the final destination for most of those papers you’ve torn into the correct sizes and plastic wrappers you’ve sorted. When it comes to its recycling rate, Japan (20.8%) lags behind other industrialized nations that also face problems with lack of space, such as the Netherlands (51%) and the UK (39%). No, your rubbish is probably going to be burned.

If you hear the words “fluidized bed” in relation to Japan, you might think you’re reading an article about Love Hotels. Sorry to disappoint, but at least fluidized bed combustion is pretty exciting. It is a very efficient way of burning materials that don’t normally burn easily. Your carefully sorted rubbish will be suspended in a hot, bubbling bed of ash and other particulates as jets of air are blown through it. Apparently the “fast and intimate mixing of gas and solids promotes rapid heat transfer and chemical reactions within the bed.” Who ever said garbage disposal wasn’t sexy?

All joking aside, this thermal treatment of municipal solid waste does have some advantages over other forms of incineration. It is cheaper, takes up less space, and produces fewer nitrogen oxides and less sulphur dioxide. One of them was even built near Shibuya station in 2001. It can also be used as part of a Waste to Energy system, using the resultant heat to create power. Given Japan’s problems with producing electricity this is certainly a big advantage. Although this method might not have as clean an image as recycling, it does suit Japan. So perhaps it is not a surprise that Japan is the biggest user of this type of technology in the world. In the hierarchy of waste management (yes, that’s a real thing) this kind of Waste to Energy disposal method ranks below recycling and composting, but above all kinds of landfill. In contrast, the United States uses landfill to deal with almost exactly the same percentage (69%) of its waste as Japan uses incineration. Japan also exports these technologies to countries like China, Thailand, and Singapore. While it may not be as glamorous or as green as complete recycling, Waste to Energy disposal could be the solution to some of the problems we are facing all around the world.

Returning To Recycling


Photo by Osamu Iwasaki

What happens to that 20.8% that is recycled? One success story can be found with PET bottles. PET stands for polyethylene terephthalate and these are used to make the drink bottles you’ll find in vending machines and convenience stores all over Japan. After you’ve downed your delicious oolong cha or lychee and salt beverage, be sure to pop that bottle into a PET bottle bin. Japanese companies have increased the percentage of used PET bottle plastic that can be used to make new PET bottles. PET bottles can be dissolved and filtered at high temperatures, producing a pure resin that can be turned back into new PET bottles. This has reduced Japan’s need for petroleum-derived resources for making PET bottles by 90%.

PET bottles that do not undergo this filtration process can also be turned into other things. A fiber can be spun from recycled PET bottles, which can then be made into clothes, bags, carpets, and doggy raincoats.

Since PET bottle recycling is one of Japan’s recycling success stories, perhaps it isn’t surprising that PET bottle bins are usually the most common bins you’ll see. They will often be outside convenience stores or next to vending machines. They typically have a round hole and some have a second smaller hole for bottle caps. Make sure you don’t throw any other kind of garbage in there though. Think of the poor person who will have to sort it out later.

Not Enough Land For Landfill? Use Landfill To Make More Land!


Japan has one more solution for dealing with its trash. If there isn’t enough land to bury the trash, why not just make more land with the trash? You might be familiar with land reclamation (also called land fill, but not landfill, just to be confusing) from seeing pictures of the The Palm Islands, built off Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. Well Japan has also used this technology of filling in an area of water with heavy rock, cement, dirt, and garbage to make new land, though not in quite such fancy shapes. The Chūbu Centrair International Airport near Nagoya and Kansai International Airport are both built on artificial islands. In Tokyo, where land prices are astronomical, 249 square kilometres (96 square miles) of land has been reclaimed in Tokyo Bay through land fill.

Your old onigiri wrapper will probably be burned in a fluidized bed, but there’s a chance it will become a part of Japan’s newest island. So when you are struggling to sort your moeru gomi from your moenai gomi or your sodai gomi from your shigen gomi, remember that these simple actions are helping Japan.



Photo by Nomadic Lass

There is one more component to waste management in Japan that we haven’t looked at yet. Why is all this waste here in the first place? If you have ever bought something in Japan you’ve probably noticed how much packaging there is. Layers upon layers of plastic and cardboard. Bags within bags. Plenty has been written on the cultural aspects of Japan’s obsession with wrapping. Taking your own “eco-bag” might help a little, but the goods themselves are still over packaged. It will be interesting to see if cries of もったいない! (mottainai) over all this waste will ever change the situation on a larger scale. Mottainai is a very old Japanese word that can loosely be translated as “What a waste!” or “waste not, want not.”

While Japan might be good at dealing with wastefulness in some ways, in others it still produces huge amounts of waste that have to be dealt with. There have been some projects encouraging people to reduce their waste production, such as using, “My Hashi” personal chopsticks, rather than disposable ones, or rediscovering old furoshiki wrapping traditions to cut down on packaging. Will Japan listen to its own word “mottainai,” or will it develop newer and more efficient incineration technologies to dispose of its over packaging? We’ll have to wait and see what the future bins of Japan have in store for us.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Yakan Chuugaku: The Japanese Night Time Junior High Where The Uneducated Learn To Read Good Wed, 08 Oct 2014 16:00:51 +0000 In recent years, many people from different countries have been coming to Japan. Their reasons for studying Japanese are as various as their backgrounds. Due to this diversity, local governments have begun shifting their attention of language education to a wider age-range of non-native speakers, since these people aren’t all school-aged students, after all. However, there are still some learners that manage to slip from the clutches of even these education systems. Japanese Junior High Night Schools, or 夜間中学 (yakan-chuugaku), have been picking up the slack. They have actually been accepting these non-native students since after WWII, and the number of non-Japanese students in these classes has been rapidly increasing in recent years. In fact, now approximately 70% of the students are non-Japanese! Today, we’ll be learning about these nocturnal classrooms.

How To Get Into A Yakan-Chuugaku


Photo by gwaar

Yakan-chuugaku are public junior high night schools designed for those who were not able to complete their compulsory education. In Japan, compulsory education laws require six years of elementary and three years of junior high school. Although the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology has just started discussions over a new system (which would unify elementary and junior high), one thing would remain the same: compulsory education will be 9 years with every child being required to complete this if they are between the ages of six (five in the new system) and fifteen.

Reality, however, is often quite different. Approximately one million people were unable to graduate due to many reasons, including poverty, mental illness, and even issues related to one’s own nationality. Those people are the individuals who get targeted by the junior high night schools.

While everyone who attends school in Japan should be sure to check their local requirements, as a general example I’ve cited the enrollment requirements for this type of school in Tokyo:

People who meet the following conditions are eligible to join a yakan-chuugaku:
1. Have not graduated from either elementary school or junior high school.
2. Living or working in Tokyo.
3. Must be 15 years of age or older.

The number of these schools is not adequate yet either. There are only 36 of these schools nationwide. 8 in Tokyo, 1 in Chiba, 6 in Kanagwa, 1 in Aichi, 11 in Osaka, 1 in Kyoto, 3 in Nara, 3 in Hyogo, and 2 in Hiroshima. Since they don’t exist in many prefectures, some people have to give up on getting fundamental education. Therefore, there is a movement towards trying to establish junior high night schools in every prefecture throughout Japan.

A Night School Junior High History Class

After WWII, poor children who could not attend classes during regular hours due to family responsibilities / work claimed their right to learn. In accordance with such a demand, schoolteachers temporarily organized an evening class for these students in Osaka in 1947, and that was the start of the junior high night school.

After that, the number of schools increased as well as the number of students. However, after the number of students peaked to over 5,000 in 1955, it decreased markedly because Japanese living standards improved and the educational infrastructure was better developed. Following this situation, the Japanese Administrative Management Agency even recommended that the Ministry of Education (now the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology) should end junior high night school classes as soon as possible, though it never actually happened.

Around this time, the age range of the students in these schools began expanding. It was originally opened for students that were of junior high school age, thus the name “junior high night school”. Yet, it was concluded that they should extend the right to attend these schools to those who missed school because of the war, or financial problems. This extension was also provided to the Korean people who had come to Japan and were so busy making a living that they were not able to go to school during working hours.

But, the number of Korean students began to fall in 1974. Instead, the number of Japanese orphans in China who had returned to Japan started increasing, especially starting in 1978 following the Japan-China Treaty of Peace And Friendship. Chinese students at the night schools reached 2,772 in 1980, and they continued as the majority group for a while.

In 1990, a law called “immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act” was established. This law made it easier for people that descended from Japanese expatriates, or 日系人 (Nikkeijin), to enter Japan. This caused the descendants of Japanese families from countries in South America, such as Brazil, Peru, and Argentina to increase in population. This resulted in more of these people registering for junior high night school, with student attendance reaching 3,424 in 1999.

The Curriculum Of Junior High Night School


Photo by gwaar

Students can enter the school anytime as long as they meet the requirements, although it’s difficult for non-Japanese students to obtain proof that they have not graduated from an elementary school or junior high school already, and therefore the qualification exam is not that rigorous.

Once they enter a school, it’s designed so that every student will study the entire junior high school curriculum. So, some schools have Japanese language classes for those who are not fluent in Japanese yet. Students are usually classified by their Japanese ability, age, and their purpose of studying. The classes cover everything from basic reading, writing, and arithmetic to all the other junior high school subjects. There are 4 classes in a typical day and each class is usually 40 minutes. The subjects covered in a regular class are usually Japanese, math, social science, science, English, music, art, health and physical education, industrial arts and home economics. The subjects of a Japanese language class are Japanese, music, physical education, art, industrial arts and home economics, and homeroom activities. Depending on the classroom you belong to, the allotment of the subjects above can differ as well. For example, a class with younger aged people tends to have a similar curriculum to that of a daytime school, whereas the classes with elderly people tend to focus more on studying Japanese.

Problems Awaiting Solution


Photo by takomabibelot

Unlike education for children, the syllabus or learning objective of the education in junior high night schools is different depending on each learner, especially so for different generations. Even among the younger generations, those who are aiming at the next stage of education are more studious than others who are just there for the credits. There are also many more children who are here simply because of their parents’ jobs, so they are only interested in learning Japanese for daily conversation and show no interest in other subjects.

The situations of each student also varies greatly. Some students have opes of getting a job (or getting a better job) after graduating, whereas others are already working, or are living on welfare. Some students show up late every day, or have a lot of absences, due to their jobs or health conditions. It makes continuing their education very difficult. In addition, there are many different native languages to think about, lifestyles, and core values due to all the different home countries that these students come from. A teacher has to come up with ways for many different people to understand one subject. Sometimes personal curriculums have to be made, so it’s a tough job to have.

Since Japan is globalizing, we can expect the variety of students to increase in these junior high night schools as well. Perhaps this will cause more issues in these schools, and make it harder for these students to learn (not to mention harder for these teachers to teach), but all in all maybe it’s a good thing. It shows that Japan is becoming more diverse, even if it’s slowly, and as this increases it will force the government to come up with new solutions for these people.

Because it’s difficult to understand what these teachers, and students, go through, I found someone who teaches at one of these schools and interviewed her. We’ll be publishing that next week, so stay tuned.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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  • 松崎運之助(1979)『夜間中学』白石書店
  • 原田明子(2003a)「夜間中学に在籍する日本語学習者の言語習得管理―学習環境とインターアクション行動の分析から―」 早稲田大学大学院 修士論文
  • Tokyo Metropolitan Board of Education
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Hell’s Bells: Gamers Steer Animal Crossing up a Silent Hill Fri, 03 Oct 2014 16:00:55 +0000 There’s no wrong way to play Animal Crossing: New Leaf, which, depending on the kind of person you are, can be extremely frustrating or tremendously liberating. In this Nintendo 3DS game, you are the new mayor and it’s your job to develop your town, but what that means exactly is largely up to you. You can spend your time paying off your debt to loan shark Tom Nook, collecting bugs, funding public works projects, filling your house entirely with toilets, and on and on.

But, if ambition levels are really high, your sunny town with its cutesy animal villagers can be transformed into a desolate nightmare where murder and mayhem run rampant. Really. At least, that’s what a growing number of Japanese players are doing. But their creations aren’t just towns with creepy atmospheres and gory garnish. These players are using Animal Crossing as a medium for telling unique narratives that borrow extensively from the Japanese horror genre.

We’ll take a tour through three of these creeptastic towns, dissecting their cultural elements and unearthing their Japanese horror roots. And don’t worry—you can hold my hand if you get scared.

Enter Diablo


What’s cool about Animal Crossing: New Leaf is that it allows players to visit each other’s towns in “dreams” i.e. players explore what are essentially snapshots of other Animal Crossing towns using the 3DS’ Wi-Fi capabilities. They can interact with characters and objects, but they can’t permanently alter anything. (So sorry, you don’t get to maniacally level someone else’s trees.)

When your avatar “dreams” of the Japanese nightmare town でぃあぶる (Diablo), you arrive in your pajamas and are free to explore Diablo’s every nook and cranny, but the horror story to be uncovered here primarily takes place inside two large buildings. The first is modestly decorated with a number of small bedrooms. Canvases are set up everywhere you turn: This is some kind of artists’ retreat. But as you walk from room to room, you notice everyone’s been painting the same dark forest over and over. Look a little closer and you see a small, red-hooded figure in these paintings. She gets closer and closer in each painting, until finally she escapes her canvas confines entirely.

The red-hooded figure appears in the form of a smiling, red-hooded doll who sits behind the unsuspecting painters, ax lying on the floor nearby. One artist is missing, having left only a bloodied bed behind in his room and a painting of a red-hooded girl walking back through the forest. Look over the shoulder of one of the only still-surviving artists and you’ll see his half-finished painting of the same forest.

The other house in Diablo is where you’ll find the artist who summoned this evil red-hooded girl, either to curse her fellow artists or, if the high-quality art crammed inside her house is a clue, gain amazing artistic abilities for her own. (When you talk to her, she also laughs suspiciously. Never trust a suspicious katakana laugh.)

The creator of Diablo does lighten the mood with a weird joke, though. Walk around town long enough and you’ll run into Sanji. He’s the well-dressed cook and womanizer from One Piece, Japan’s best-selling manga and anime series about pirates. So there’s that.

Psyching You Out


Diablo’s narrative structure is simpler and its gore lighter than most of the other Animal Crossing nightmare towns I’ve ventured through, but I think that’s what makes it such a great example of suspense and psychological horror—two of contemporary Japanese horror’s biggest calling cards.

After the hyper-gore and violence of ’80s horror movies like the Guinea Pig film series, one of which was mistaken for a genuine snuff film by Charlie Sheen who then reported the filmmakers to the FBI (really!), the ’90s saw a stylistic shift in J-horror. Jay McRoy, author of Nightmare Japan: Contemporary Japanese Cinema, specifically points to Tsuruta Norio’s Scary True Stories as influencing many of the big names in the J-horror genre. (Instead of blood and guts, Norio went the other way and focused on disturbing creepiness, like ghostly figures with long black hair.)

Although there’s no typical black-haired vengeful ghost in Diablo, I think this nightmare town fits alongside movies like Ring and One Missed Call. Much like the characters in these movies, who must survive cursed videotapes and phones, the painters of Diablo are faced with canvases that a malevolent force uses to find and kill them. And the evil spirits in all these stories aren’t being too picky, acting as more of an apocalyptic force of evil. These horror stories aren’t about the individual being psychologically tortured per se; they’re more about the threat society itself is under from this unstoppable, wide-reaching attack – and they don’t need a lot of gore to get their point across. If you know what you’re doing a TV full of static or a half-finished painting of a forest is all you need to put your audience on edge.

The Animal Cannibals


At first blush, ひとくい (Hitokui) seems like a throwback to American horror film classics, like Silence of the Lambs and Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Hitokui means “cannibalism,” after all, and when you wander into the basement of the town restaurant filled with cleavers in puddles of blood and empty baby cribs, it’s clear the chef (named Ed Gein) has been cooking with some unusual ingredients. (Every building in Hitokui is designed this way, with the ground floor appearing normal, almost eerily so, and basements and second floors acting as plot twists or scary reveals.)

But the on-the-nose town name proves to be semi-false advertising the deeper you go, and Hitokui’s narrative quickly reveals its classic Japanese horror roots. For example, when you wander into one of the buildings south of the town square, you find yourself at a Japanese funeral, complete with registry book, incense and floor cushions. There’s even a large bonfire downstairs where a cremation might be taking place later. Shide (Shinto paper amulets) cover the walls in many of the rooms, some of which are dripping with blood…

But maybe the most mysterious room in this building is upstairs, where the figure of a woman is using an old-fashioned spinning wheel. There are also four incense burners, four floor cushions, and four wardrobes in the room with her. (Four is associated with death in Japan, since both “four” and “death” can be pronounced the same way. Since there’s so much death in this room with her, she’s probably intended to be a ghost.) All of that, combined with the samurai suit in another room, makes me think the creator of Hitokui is referencing the “Black Hair” short from the 1965 horror anthology film Kwaidan (based on Lafcadio Hearn’s collection of Japanese horror stories.)

“Black Hair” is the story of a samurai, who leaves his wife for another, and when he realizes his first wife is his true love some time later, he comes back to find her toiling away at her loom. They happily reunite and spend the evening together, but when morning arrives, he wakes up to discover he’s lying next to her lifeless, rotting body. She’s been dead for months. Yikes.

The mastermind behind Hitokui is thematically prepping us for the final house in town, where things take a sharper turn toward the macabre. Outside, there’s a guy walking around with his head wrapped in bandages, who says, “にがさない…” which means, “There’s no escape…” Step inside the house itself and you see it’s set up like a doctor’s waiting room, but hidden behind the bookcase is a lab full of grotesque experiments.

Upstairs is a completely red room, which could be a nod to the Japanese urban legend about an Internet pop-up ad that references a red room before its viewer dies. (Those pop-up ads are the worst!) Most notable in this particular red room, besides all the kid toys, is the bloody outline of a body on the bed. Kodokushi or “lonely death” is the Japanese word for when a person dies alone, but isn’t discovered for a long time, leaving an outline behind once their body is removed.

And finally, in the basement is the figure of a bride imprisoned behind large stone pillars. Her prison is furnished nicely enough, and even includes a baby crib. Outside her cage is a stool for a visitor and on your way back out, it’s easy to spot the security camera fixed on her.

Vengeful Ghosts


Despite its name, to me, Hitokui isn’t about cannibalism at all. Rather, it’s telling that most traditional of Japanese stories: a ghost story.

Ghosts are everywhere in Japanese literature and art, and they’ve been popular subjects pretty much no matter how far back in Japanese history you go. But ghosts are part of everyday life in Japan, too, from the yearly Obon Festival to small Jizo statues. There are different kinds of Japanese ghosts, but the ones most recognizable to Japanese and foreigner alike are yurei: pale women dressed in white with long black hair. Their modus operandi has changed over the course of history, but typically, they’re out for revenge, having been wronged in their lives or in the manner of their deaths.

And a typical yurei is depicted in Hitokui – remember the portrait of the deceased at the funeral? She has long black hair and ghostly pale skin. (She’s also crying bloody tears…) And besides the more obvious fact that there are a few skeletons buried in town and one of the characters you can interact with asks “What’s that behind you?” as though seeing a ghost, you are also given two outfits to choose between when you first arrive in town: a police officer’s uniform or a bridal gown. Not only does this add a cool “Choose-Your-Own-Adventure” feel to Hitokui, but it is also as though you yourself are passing through Hitokui as a ghost. (Perhaps Hitokui’s law enforcement was killed while investigating the town’s mysteries and perhaps the bridal gown once belonged to the yurei herself – you’re playing as a shadow of what she once was.) Also there’s the nature of Animal Crossing’s Dream Suite itself – you can travel to and exist in these towns, but you can’t affect change.

Although not an exact retelling by any means, in my view, Hitokui is putting the Animal Crossing spin on the most famous of Japanese ghost stories: the story of Oiwa. The tale goes that Oiwa was married to a man named Iemon and together they had a child. One day, Iemon falls in love with another woman, but to be with her, he knows he needs to get rid of his current wife and kid. He tries poisoning Oiwa at first, but when that only manages to disfigure her, he kills Oiwa and their child outright. Naturally, Oiwa comes back to haunt him.

In this retelling, Oiwa is the deceased bride, whose funeral we see, whose child’s red bedroom we know once contained a body (presumably the kid’s), and who is now imprisoned in the basement of her old house. As a spin on the Oiwa story, there are hints that she might have been summoned to Hitokui, rather than appeared on her own (there’s a Satanic-esque sacrifice scene in the town church), but I do wonder if it’s not that Oiwa appeared as a yurei to punish her homicidal husband. Perhaps, a greater evil was summoned to combat her, but then once she was contained, this new evil didn’t leave and instead reigns over the town, perhaps cooking up the villagers in the local restaurant basement?

The Infamous Aika


Aika was the very first Animal Crossing nightmare town I heard about and its name inevitably gets invoked in pretty much any conversation about nightmare towns. Anecdotally, I would say it’s generally considered the gold standard and “The One” to check out.

So what’s going down in Aika town? Well, it’s really vague. (And in an interview with Nintendo Dream, the creator of Aika says she isn’t telling.)

Unlike other nightmare towns, Aika is very much designed to guide you through the town in a specific way. On the side of the river where you first appear, everything is Animal Crossing perfection. Roses bloom and golden fruit grows on all the trees. There’s only one house on this side of the river, and when you go in, you see what looks like a pretty happy family celebrating a little girl’s birthday. You figure out quickly that this little girl is Aika herself and when you talk to her she says: “おかあさん だいすき” or “I love you, Mommy.”

But then you cross the bridge to the other side of town and it’s a whole new setting. Rotting garbage litters the ground and all the grass is dead. When you see Aika again, she mixes up hiragana and katakana in her “I love you, Mommy” spiel. (And when you see her two more times after that, her speech continues to disturbingly worsen.) Inside the buildings themselves are pretty odd and abstract rooms, like one in which rows of dolls sit at a banquet and another that depicts the Genesis story (i.e. Adam and Eve) from the Bible.

The final house is identical to the first house we saw (the one with Aika’s birthday part), but now everyone is gone and garbage covers the floor. The TV is on, but it’s static. The grandfather clock’s hands point to 4 o’clock. Aika’s childish portraits of her family have everyone scrawled out in black except her. And if you walk down to the beach outside, you’ll find a pair of yellow shoes at the water’s edge. (In Japan, it’s common for people who are committing suicide, to take their shoes off and place them neatly together, the idea being that they’re crossing a threshold: from life to death.)

Getting Down with the Kaidan


I’ll admit, I’m not entirely sure what story is being told through Aika. I do think that the town is meant to represent Aika’s psyche rather than a physical town, that Aika had a troubled relationship with her mother, and that due to some horrible event, Aika’s entire family including herself was killed. The town of Aika goes deeper than Diablo (where you’re just a hapless witness) and Hitokui (where you’re an observing ghost), because in Aika, you’re becoming a part of the yurei herself.

I mentioned before that Aika seems to get the most buzz out of all the other nightmare towns, and I imagine it’s probably because the story being told is both detailed and vague, personal and distant. People want to see Aika for themselves and read about everyone else’s widely varying Aika theories, not to mention share their own. Little do they know that in some ways, they’re playing Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai, or A Gathering of 100 Weird Tales, a Japanese story-telling game that can be traced back to as early as the 1600s.

The rules of Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai are pretty simple. A group gathers and places one hundred lit candles in a circle. Each person takes turns telling a scary story, then extinguishes a candle at the story’s end. As more stories are told, the light fades and darkness gathers. Supposedly, once the last candle is extinguished, whatever terrible thing is lurking in the shadows will spring forth.

Enter Sandman


Aika, Hitokui, Diablo and all the other Animal Crossing nightmare towns shared online remind me of this old Japanese game. The point isn’t to figure out the “truth” behind Aika, say, but to come back with a spooky story to tell your friends. People swap these nightmare town stories back and forth across various websites, seeing who can tell the scariest one, and how many candle flames can go out before the game ends.

But, as Levar Burton would say, “you don’t have to take my word for it!” If you’d like to explore these towns for yourself and come up with your own theories and observations, their town dream codes are:

Diablo: 3200-0330-2755
Hitokui: 2600-1856-4772
Aika: 2600-0218-7298

If you don’t have a way to play Animal Crossing: New Leaf, there are plenty of YouTube videos featuring these three nightmare towns (and many, many more).

But if you’ve ventured into New Leaf nightmare towns before, tell me how you’ve interpreted these places. That way, we can continue the Japanese tradition of gathering darkness.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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10 Not-Japanese Foods Lost in Translation Thu, 02 Oct 2014 16:00:30 +0000 Food is a great way to share culture, but sometimes it can be difficult. Like any other art, certain cultures value certain traits more than others. What’s delicious to one may be disgusting to another. Add difficulty obtaining ingredients due to price, season, or general scarcity, combined with differences in cooking techniques, and even food itself can become lost in translation.

Thus, this list. While Japan is often accused of having “weird” food, it’s simply a reinterpretation based on local culture. Often we can still find the spirit of the original dish, and hopefully, by discussing some of the origins, we can see how even our own local favorite “ethnic” food might have been adapted for our own culture’s taste buds.

1. Pizza


Photo by Takeshi Kiriya

The first time I visited Japan, my family friends thought it would be good to give me something “American” for dinner, to help my stomach adjust to the long flight, lack of sleep, and different weather. What I got was a mayonnaise, corn, “sausage” pizza (wait for my section on sausage). I’d never had any of those ingredients on a pizza since, well, we don’t really do that in the states. I was going to say it was “wrong”, but despite not liking sushi at the time, I immediately thought of California rolls and a Japanese friend I knew who had complained about fake Japanese food. Rather than shutting my mouth, I accepted the difference and tried to embrace it. I didn’t really enjoy it that time, but future adventures went much better.

I feel like pizza is a good place for us to start, because it is one food I feel like is both universal and also…not. For those unaware, there are actually guidelines for what a real Neapolitan pizza is. That’s pretty hardcore, not just because a government would outline what allows a food to be called by a certain name, but also because it dictates the region the ingredients must come from. It certainly makes it hard for even Americans to say they’ve had the “real” thing, but maybe that’s okay.

A wise geek has mentioned that pizza is the people’s food and, in the old days, was pretty much just dough, cheese, and whatever you had around. In fact, the tomato part of pizza came from America, so while it was created in Italy, its current form is rather modern. In that sense, we shouldn’t be too surprised when Japanese people use toppings like shrimp, canned tuna, avocado, seaweed, or even squid ink on their pizza.

I know there are some well known differences between the two regions’ pizza styles on the web, but from people I know, the big differences for modern Italian pizza when compared to American pizza (which can be applied to most Japanese pizzas too) are the consistently thinner, wood-fire baked crust, less but fresher tomato sauce or just chopped tomato, lighter amount of cheese, and fewer toppings, especially in terms of the kinds of meat you can use. Pepperoni isn’t a kind of meat in Italy because it’s the name of a bell pepper in Italy; the meat is an American creation with a confusing name for real Italians.

In that sense, both Japanese pizza and American pizza are odd but normal. Odd in that an Italian weaned on Neapolitan pizza may be surprised that corn is the most popular pizza topping in some Japanese pizza places. But that’s okay since, much like the creation of pizza, the spirit of using American vegetables is still being upheld. Oh, and using whatever’s around and delicious as a topping. Or something like that. It’s normal to use local ingredients, and that’s where we’ll rest this debate.

 2. Cheese


Photo by Ran Zwigenberg

The above photo exemplifies most of the cheese you will find in Japan without visiting an import store: heavily processed, plastic wrapped cheese with no specific name. Honestly, whenever presented with these non-Kraft singles, I ask people what kind of cheese it is. Most people look at the package, and then I list a few names, like gouda and cheddar, which can be found at import stores or some really nice super markets. Then they laugh and usually answer “mild.” Which is a pretty friendly way of saying, “This doesn’t have a taste and may just be tofu mixed with plastic.”

As a processed cheese, it’s probably at least a type of what we’d call “American cheese.” Oh, there’s cheese in there, but there’s so many other ingredients that, even by American standards, you can’t really call it cheese. This is important because, although cheese is popular in America, we don’t eat “raw” cheese, cheese that’s been made from unpasteurized milk. The pasteurization process is supposed to make the cheese safe from certain bacteria, but it also changes the flavor, which is why you’ll often hear French people dissing American cheese.

Of course, this assumes you like the taste of cheese. There’s a reason that Japan uses a lot of processed cheese: it’s pretty much a fatty, spoiled milk byproduct. How many readers can actually say they like stinky cheeses like limburger? Keeping in mind that Japan’s Buddhist influences upheld a ban on eating (most) four-legged animals until 1867, and that cattle were work animals before this, Japan’s history with cheese may seem short. However, despite the fact that it wasn’t really popular until the Meiji era, cheese actually was present in Japan around 700 AD from China. Obviously it didn’t do so well, since most cheese in Japan is very  processed and/or very mild these days.

3. Mexican Food


Photo by Hajime NAKANO

This one’s probably a bit tame and decently well known: takoraisu (or Taco Rice). It’s “Mexican” food made in Okinawa that’s popular with foreigners. I personally can barely stand the stuff. The “salsa” usually tastes like a sweet, slightly spicy ketchup. It doesn’t always include cheese, and sometimes uses cabbage instead of lettuce. However, most tacos Americans know (including myself!) are actually Tex-mex, so you can blame this one on America. Why? Two big hints if you look at a recipe for takoraisu: cumin and beef.

Mexican chefs from Mexico have noted that real Mexican food usually doesn’t have beef or cumin. For meat, most Mexican people eat a lot of chicken and pork, unless they live very far north or are ranchers. Cumin, on the other hand, is another “northern” ingredient. Cumin is relatively new to Mexican cooking, being imported from India via the US or England.

In this sense, I can understand why some Japanese “Mexican” food is just so different from some of the better Mexican food I’ve had (made by Mexicans who moved to the states or Mexican-Americans who try to uphold their parents’ culture). As some Mexicans might tell you, American Mexican food can be rather mild to suit American tastes that may not be able to handle as much heat. Transferred again to Japan, where, despite having spice-loving neighbors like China and Korea, spicy food isn’t very popular. So some of the changes make sense. On the plus side though, Japanese people will use more white cheese like traditional Mexican cooking does. However when you have food that actually includes a tortilla, like burritos, corn tortillas are replaced with wheat.

4. Corn Dogs


Photo by Bing

In Japan, it’s called an “American dog,” but sadly, it’s yet another food Americans can’t exactly claim; corn dogs were created by German immigrants to Texas who wanted to sell more sausages. While the stick may have come later, the original recipe did, in fact, use corn meal, which is a bit odd considering that older Germans have told me they grew up thinking of corn as animal feed unfit for human consumption. Heck, my old German teacher freaked out her German roommates when she was studying abroad and they found her eating a big can of something they only expected pigs to eat. Oddly enough, though Germans aren’t traditionally corn eaters, they do eat some now, and as per one of my friends from college, Germans now eat corn on pizza.

So what’s the big deal? Even though they love corn, Japanese use wheat flour for American dogs. Don’t ask why, since I’ve yet to find out, but corn meal just isn’t made out here. No one can tell me why.

5. Sausage


Photo by kagawa_ymg

I know I’ve mentioned her before, but I met a German sausage enthusiast in Japan. I hadn’t had a decent sausage in awhile, and she was hurt concerning the reactions to her food. Most people were saying her bratwurst were too spicy, and she kept trying to assure me that it was a traditional, mild recipe, so I picked one up. I’ve had sausage at least made by Germans who love their food heritage in the states, but aside from the small size (most food gets smaller in Japan), the taste was the same: juicy coarse cut meat and just enough pepper to let you know it’s there.

As I said earlier, Japanese people aren’t good with spicy. They’re more into mild tastes, so it shouldn’t come as a huge surprise to say that the first Japanese “sausage” I tried tasted more like a hot dog. Nothing wrong with hot dogs, but don’t exactly blame this on America. While popular in the states, its origins lie in Austria.

Hot dogs are a mildly spiced (if at all) type of sausage that are made of finely chopped meat (if meat is used), whereas other sausages tend to be more spiced with coarse cuts of meat. In addition, hot dogs are pre-cooked, while sausages can be sold raw. The “sausage” I’ve had on several pizzas in Japan were certainly pre-cooked, lightly spiced, and used finely chopped meat, much like that fish sausage/hot dog above.

To be frank, I can’t say I’ve seen a lot of sausage in Japan outside of Tokyo, including at Oktoberfests. Again, using the above description, a lot of what is labelled as “sausage” here is very mild, pre-cooked, and finely chopped. It’s not bad at all, but it’s not what I’m used to getting when I think of sausage.

6. Bacon


Koichi spoke about this, so I’ll try to expand on what he’s brought to the fight so far. Bacon can actually be a little flexible from country to country, but at it’s core, it’s meat cured either in a brine or through dry packing, usually with salt and can be smoked or boiled. Usually it’s pork, but the location of where on the pig it originates from varies. Americans love their pork belly bacon, while Canadian bacon is taken from the back of the animal. Oddly enough, the Canadians have bacon from other parts of the animal, as do Europeans. I guess that’s why we’re a bit picky about bacon.

Those who have eaten Japanese bacon are sometimes confused and upset by the taste though. When cut into cubes and grilled over a fire, it’s not bad, but it often reminds people of ham. While, like America, Japan uses pork belly for bacon, Japanese bacon is pre-cooked, meaning you can eat it right from the bag. Americans reading this might have made the connection by now, but if not, it’s similar to ham in the states, which undergoes a decent amount of curing, cooking, or general processing so that few hams Americans encounter are truly “raw.”

As a bonus, “ham” in Japanese is totally different from English. While our hams are usually pork thighs (or sometimes turkey), in Japan, it’s pretty much just processed meat, not just from pigs. It includes prosciutto, but sliced chicken breast has been called “ham” by some of my Japanese co-workers.

7. Curry


Photo by ekkun

This one’s a bit tough, since, like pizza, it’s become very international. At the same time, it’s been an Indian staple for thousands of years, and at the very least, it’s traditionally made with ginger, turmeric, and garlic with some rice on the side. The Japanese have the bare basics down, but their version is pretty different from what I expect from Indian curry. This time, though, we can blame the Brits, who introduced curry after the opening of Japan. Although Buddhism was passed down to Japan from India, curry was somehow left behind. It was the British who gave curry a ride to the land of the rising sun. Oddly enough though, Japanese curry’s claim to fame is a roux, a traditionally French technique.

Now, I could just say, “It’s milder and uses a roux,” but that seems a bit too simplistic. Instead, let’s first compare ingredients from the above link. Indian curry uses many more spices than Japanese curry. Japanese curry, conversely, uses several fruits and meats, as well as udon noodles as ingredients. It’s not that Indian curry doesn’t use other ingredients, but it’s usually more about the spice and uses fewer ingredients. Speaking  as someone who’s tried the lifestyle and has a sibling who still upholds it, Indian curry is also more vegetarian friendly than Japanese curry. Still, if you think this is a bit too broad, let’s go with a recipe comparison.

This was a bit tough, since even the most home-made Japanese curry recipes at least use pre-mixed spices like garam masala, but I just found a comparable recipe that also used it and other similar ingredients. Both recipes are for a kind of butter chicken curry. Starting with the garam masala, the Indian recipe uses 1/4 less than the Japanese version, but also uses more of a variety of spices: cinnamon, cloves, chili powder, fenugreek leaf powder, and ginger, but no cayenne like the Japanese version. Both use tomato, but the Japanese version uses ketchup or tomato paste, while the Indian one uses a puree. The Indian version has more tomato, but the Japanese one also uses tonkatsu sauce, so we already can see the Japanese one will be sweeter. The Indian recipe uses honey, but the Japanese version uses a whole apple. Finally, both use dairy to help keep things cool, but the Indian recipe uses butter and cream while the Japanese just uses butter. I think you can see how things differ.

8. Char siu


Now this is something I really miss from less Americanized Chinese places (and Hawaiian restaurants): char siu, a Cantonese method of cooking (traditionally) pork. Think barbecue, both in cooking method and in taste: it’s a bit salty, a bit sweet, smokey, and delicious. For some reason, the Japanese changed it. You may now know it as “chashu,” and while the change happened centuries ago, the name similarity is enough that even a foreigner to both Chinese and Japanese culture (like me) is able to hear the similarities between the two and make the connection.

In Japan, instead of using a nice fire, the pork (just loin) is rolled, braised, and lacks five spice and sugar. Oh, and the modern day food coloring addition. It’s certainly less colorful, but still rather good, despite the name taunting those of us who know its origins. Chashu’s pretty good on it’s own, which is why it’s ramen’s best friend, but not everyone agrees with the changes.

9. Cheesecake


Photo by loving.baking

Just looking at this picture makes me a little sad. It’s not that Japanese people can’t make cheesecakes, nor that souffle cheesecakes are bad (hint:they’re not!). But the cheesecake made in Japan really is nothing like what I’m used to. I think of cheesecake as a rather decadent dessert. In Japan, it’s…. not. If you go by a basic definition, what Japan makes is certainly cheesecakes. However, what I like in the states is called “baked cheesecake.” For me, it’d be like buying “baked bread.” I see it as the food’s default state. No, in Japan, cheesecake here often seems to be something different.

Finally, we have a food that at least I feel comfortable enough to call “American,” and not because it naturally grows there! Cream cheese is actually an American food, being made by failing to recreate Neufchâtel cheese to make something richer and creamer. While other cheeses are used in other countries, Japan’s cheesecake is described as seeming a bit plasticky, probably due to the way it emulsifies its ingredients. Cornstarch and flour aren’t ingredients I think of being in cheesecake (unless it’s made by a cheap restaurant or used in the crust), but the very first recipe on a popular Japanese recipe site uses it for a “baked cheesecake.” This makes the cheesecake less dense and less sweet, but that’s not the first thing Japan does differently.

“Rare” cheesecake is what we’d call “no bake” cheesecake in the states. This recipe’s no-bake cheesecake method is pretty much what I’m used to. Yeah, it’s a bit less “cheesecake” and uses cream, but it’s still pretty rich. In Japan, they sometimes use gelatin, yogurt, or milk. Once again, these make the cheesecake less dense and less sweet, which is fine, but certainly not what my American stomach craves when it thinks cheesecake.

The most different style cheesecake, though, is the souffle. A simple google search will result in recipes that constantly call it “Japanese Souffle Cheesecake” because, well, it really is a Japanese creation. Again looking to popular Japanese recipes, we see not only substitutions to cut back on the cream cheese (such as using whipping or sour cream), but the addition of yogurt and use of cake flour. While this is a light, fluffy, subtle cake sure to please someone with a delicate palate. However, those with a carnal desire for unadulterated American cheesecake will certainly be in for an unpleasant surprise. Just see if there is any “baked cheesecake” and live with the fact that it’ll be milder than what you’re used to.

10. Western Breakfast


Photo by Robyn Lee and David Woo

Just searching Google in Japanese for waffles and pancakes will visually show you the difference, but for those too lazy to click the link, here’s the hint: they’re desserts. While I know many Americans joke about this, I think if you want to a restaurant and saw pancakes or waffles on the dessert menu, you’d be pretty confused. I know I was the first time I played Tomodachi Life in English and found both foods in the dessert section, and one looking much smaller than I’d anticipated.

Pancakes are sometimes a little sweet. Fruit and whipped cream aren’t that uncommon, but if you look at the Japanese Google results, you see far more of that than maple syrup, butter, and bacon being served along side a stack of pancakes. It isn’t entirely sweet in Japan though. No, I’m not talking about savory crepes. While I haven’t tried them, I was assured they were becoming popular. One site shows things like curry pancakes, tomato pancakes, Christmas cake pancakes, and cheese fondue pancakes. It’s also got the more traditional variety we’re used to, but the Japanese pancakes certainly make use of local tastes to experiment with the form.

Waffles, on the other hand, seem much more limited to sweets. I’ve been told you can find American style waffles in some places, but overall, Japanese waffles are more like soft cookies, which is exactly how they appear in Tomodachi Life. While you may imagine Belgian waffles as the definition of waffles, those are actually American waffles based on Belgian styles (notice the s!). Despite sometimes calling them “Belgian Waffles,” Japanese waffles are more similar to Liège waffles, a (real) Belgian style waffle that’s richer and denser than what Americans eat (and oddly, the opposite translation of the Japanese cheesecake!).

Now, while these are both a bit in between for Americans, any style is pretty acceptable, since historically, both pancakes and waffles played both sides, with early pancakes using cheese sometimes and early waffles using orange blossom water.

Bon Appétit


Photo by toshisyung

So, there you have it! Ten foods pulled from around the globe, translated differently in Japanese culture than what you might have expected which, perhaps, in turn, you didn’t realize was different from it’s original. Hopefully with this in mind, the next time you try another country’s version of a pizza or pancake, you remember just how far the recipe’s come from its humble origins!

Bonus Wallpapers!

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