Tofugu » In Japan A Japanese Language & Culture Blog Fri, 24 Apr 2015 16:47:34 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Japanese Civic Duty: A Look at the Responsibility of 日本 Wed, 22 Apr 2015 13:00:00 +0000 So after exploring how conservative and hardworking the Japanese are, let’s look at another related topic. The (very condensed) logic goes like this: Fact 1: Japan’s streets are really clean. And the Japanese don’t really seem to litter. Fact 2: Japan is (generally) safe and there’s usually no problem with walking around at 2 am. Fact 3: […]

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

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

Conclusion: The Japanese are responsible.

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

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

This is where the Japanese come a bit short.

Good at Following Rules

To the left, to the left.

Photo by Dom Pates

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

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

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

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

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

A Cultural Grounding?

Photo by Jun Seita

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

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

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

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

The Other Side of the Coin

Photo by Moyan Brenn

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

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

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

Responsible – but to Whom?

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

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

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

What About Rotten Rules?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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Kanamara Matsuri: The Irony Behind the Infamous Japanese Penis Festival Mon, 20 Apr 2015 13:00:00 +0000 Last spring, I had the opportunity to study abroad in Tokyo, Japan. My study abroad program started in April, just in time for beautiful weather and cherry blossoms to greet us American college kids. Oh, and the infamous “Penis” Festival. If you’re in tune with all things unique in Japan, you may have heard about this […]

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Last spring, I had the opportunity to study abroad in Tokyo, Japan. My study abroad program started in April, just in time for beautiful weather and cherry blossoms to greet us American college kids.

Oh, and the infamous “Penis” Festival.

If you’re in tune with all things unique in Japan, you may have heard about this phallic matsuri. It has gained international recognition in the past few years thanks to wide coverage from news media, bloggers, and YouTubers.

I’d heard of the festival before, and seen the NSFW photos featuring participants carrying large, penis-shaped mikoshi (a palanquin carried around during festivals).

Being the college student I was, I thought it’d be a funny experience going to the festival with my friends. It seems very straightforward: it’s a festival, there’s a lot of penis effigies everywhere, and people are going to have a good time.


This matsuri ended up being one of the most mind-boggling and ironic things I attended during my time studying in Japan.

Most online sources present the festival as another “bizarre” thing to see in Japan. But when you look at the festival more closely, it’s a lot more complicated than you might think, and simply viewing it as a “Dick Festival” isn’t doing it much justice.

On one hand, the Penis Festival (known by its real name, the Kanamara Festival) has become over-commercialized comic relief for both locals and foreign visitors alike. It’s an attractive money-making venture, and seems to have lost its original, historical purpose.

But on the other hand, it’s hard to simply reject the festival completely when it promotes certain positive factors. While it is often marketed as a “weird” event to see and experience, this matsuri deserves a little more analysis, rather than pigeonholing it as just another “weird Japanese thing.”

The History of Kanamara, the Penis Festival


Emperor Nintoku

The Penis Festival, also known as the Kanamara Festival, takes place annually on the first Sunday of April at Kanayama Shrine.

Kanayama Shrine is a smaller place of worship located within the grounds of yet another shrine Wakamiya-Hachimangu, and is located in Kawasaki, Kanagawa Prefecture. It enshrines the legendary Emperor Nintoku (otherwise known as Oosagi-no-Mikoto).

The City of Kawasaki had some, but limited, information on the history behind the shrine and festival. Legend has it that when Shinto goddess Izanami no Mikoto gave birth to a fire god, she suffered great injuries on the lower half of her body. It’s said that Kanayamahiko-no-Kami and Kanayamahime-no-Kami, two gods enshrined at the Kanayama Shrine, healed Izanami’s injuries.

According to some sources, Kanayamahiko and Kanayamahime were both originally gods of mining and blacksmiths. But because of this myth involving Izanami, those seeking help with venereal diseases, fertility, safe childbirth, and matrimonial happiness began to pray to the two gods as well

Another tale involves a woman who had a demon living in her vagina who twice bit off the penises of her newlywed husbands. Finally, she went to a blacksmith who made her a steel penis upon which the demon broke its teeth, enabling her to live a normal life.


From 53 Stations of the Tokaido (Hoeido edition): 2nd Station, Kawasaki

Beyond the myths, there’s also a historical reason behind the prayers for protection and happiness at Kanayama. The city of Kawasaki (where the shrine is located) was a stop for those who traveled along the Tokaido Road between Edo and cities in western parts of Japan. As a “pit stop” for travelers on the Tokaido, Kawasaki had “tea houses” that not only served as a rest stop for food and drink, but also as brothels where travelers could buy time with prostitutes. These prostitutes often visited the Kanayama Shrine as a way to pray for protection against venereal diseases, and it is said that they established the celebration of health and fertility at the Kanamara Festival.

Though there are differences in interpretation of the festival’s origins, one thing is clear: the shrine and the festival served a significant purpose for many who wished to promote good health, fertility, posterity, and happiness.

The Festival Today: Becoming a Tourists’ “Must See” 


Photo by mrmayat

As I mentioned, I had the chance to see this bizarre festival in person. My friends and I made a trip out in gloomy weather to the city of Kawasaki. The trains to the festival were packed with locals and foreign tourists alike.

Upon getting off at the station, I followed the throng of people outside, not sure where to head exactly. I walked around and followed the crowd for some time before finding a street that had been blocked off for a procession.


All of sudden, a black phallic mikoshi made its appearance, parading down the street in all its glory.


Then came the massive pink penis effigy named “Elizabeth”.


This “Elizabeth” effigy here is actually really interesting. It was donated by a drag queen club in Tokyo called “Elizabeth Kaikan” (エリザベス会館). Those who carry the effigy are “New Half”, or transgender females.

Participants were hard at work carrying Elizabeth and other penis mikoshi through the procession.



Outside the procession, vendors and stores were selling phallic-shaped candies and goods. The prices were ridiculous, but that didn’t stop people from buying and licking overpriced, penis-shaped lollipops.


The festival takes place near Kawasaki-Daishi, formally known as Heikenji, a Buddhist temple that’s quite famous as a popular hatsumode spot (first visit to a temple or shrine of the new year) during New Years. Things seemed a bit calmer here in Kawasaki-Daishi, where they also had a small festival with vendors that sold food, candy, and toys.


At this point, I mistakenly thought that Kawasaki-Daishi was the temple in charge of running the phallic fiesta. I was wrong. Continuing our walk through the area, we found a smaller shrine packed with people, including many drunk people.


Wakamiya-Hachimangu, the shrine that encapsulates the shrine that holds the heart of penis paraders everywhere. Getting inside was a struggle with so many people packed inside.


Kanayama Shrine, the real reason why this penis fest is taking place. We finally made it. Being 5’2″, I had difficulty maneuvering through the throng of people. After pushing and shoving my way to the center of the shrine, I found the black penis palanquin on display.


At this point I was getting sick of everything, the festival, the weather, the drunkenness…


As far as I could tell, everyone, both locals and foreign tourists, were really enjoying this crazy festival.

Oh, the Irony


At first, I found the whole experience amusing. I felt as if I had seen something unique and interesting that I could talk about with my friends back home.

But as fatigue from maneuvering through the crowds of drunken tourists set in and I took time to reflect, I became distraught by the nature of the festival. I asked myself, “has the festival become a mere, commercialized tourist attraction? Does anyone care about its original purpose?” 

The more I mulled over what I had seen at the festival, the more I became conflicted with how the festival was carried out and viewed today.

In the past, the Kanamara Festival served something of a divine purpose for the locals, prostitutes, and visitors that paid their respects to the gods. In doing so, they prayed for conception, safe childbirth, protection from diseases, and the general happiness and welfare of the family. It seems disrespectful to take all these admirable hopes and prayers and boil them down to “dicks”.

In addition, the lost focus on fertility is doubly ironic given Japan’s declining birthrate. Fertility has been a critical social issue for Japan which has not seen improvement despite efforts and calls for better child-rearing environments and policies enabling women to work while raising a family.

Overpriced phallic goods permeated the streets as visitors, many who were drunk, acted obnoxiously in public. The festival, at least on the surface, appeared to preserve very little of its former meaning.

However as I did a little more research into this festival, I found some interesting high notes. Because the pink effigy, Elizabeth, was donated by a drag queen club, the Kanamara Festival is quite popular with the LGBTQ community. Transgender people carry Elizabeth in the parade, which represents a rare opportunity for those in the LBGTQ community to participate proudly and openly in conservative Japan.

In addition, the shrine donates the proceeds collected during the festival to HIV/AIDS research. So amidst all the materialism lies some good, which made it harder for me to assess this festival at first glance.



Perhaps I’m overanalyzing things. After all, it’s a festival and festivals include people merrily celebrating with booze. The Kanamara Festival is no different than many other street parties held the world over. Also, the matsuri brings tourists into Kawasaki, which is great for any local economy in Japan, a country bogged down in recession.

But while media sources highlight this phallic fiesta as a quirky tourist attraction, this mindset easily overshadows a critical issue in Japanese society today. Rather than accepting it as another “bizarre thing that Japan does”, it’s worthwhile to reflect on the very human reasons Japanese people forged giant penises and hoisted them around in the first place.

For anyone planning to attend the festival, take some time to learn about the matsuri’s history, take notice of its acceptance of diverse groups of people, and donate to the charities collecting there. Perhaps then, carousing in a penis costume will feel a little more fruitful.

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All photos taken by author unless otherwise specified

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Getting Started with Hokkaido Dialect Fri, 17 Apr 2015 13:00:00 +0000 If you’ve been learning Japanese for a while, especially if you’ve visited Japan and heard things you’ve never heard in class or seen in a textbook, you’ve probably come to realise there isn’t just one kind of Japanese. Hokkaidō-ben 北海道弁, or more formally Hokkaidō-hōgen 北海道方言, is the dialect spoken in Japan’s northern island. Thanks to Hokkaido’s […]

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If you’ve been learning Japanese for a while, especially if you’ve visited Japan and heard things you’ve never heard in class or seen in a textbook, you’ve probably come to realise there isn’t just one kind of Japanese.

Hokkaidō-ben 北海道弁, or more formally Hokkaidō-hōgen 北海道方言, is the dialect spoken in Japan’s northern island. Thanks to Hokkaido’s history of settlement much of it comes from other parts of Japan, particularly Tohoku. Many of the words I’ll be sharing here are also found in other parts of Japan, because Hokkaido is unique in that it is a melting pot of many different dialects. There are also regional differences within Hokkaido. The Tohoku influence is strongest on the coast and is called Hama-kotoba 浜言葉 or seashore dialect, while in urban Sapporo people speak more standard Japanese. Even though Hokkaido is considered part of Eastern Japan, there are also influences from Northwestern Honshu, the Hokuriku region. Another ingredient in the stew of Hokkaido-ben is the native Ainu language. This is most easily seen in the place names, but we’ll get to that later.

Hokkaido-ben Highlights

めんこい menkoi


Photo by Dai Wat

かわいい (cute) is a ubiquitous word in Japan and probably one you all know. In Hokkaido there is another way to say it. めんこい literally means small face. If someone tells you that you have a small face, they are paying you a compliment. The めん part of めんこい is the same “めん” you hear in kendo when someone strikes at the head. But this isn’t an aggressive word at all. Of all the Hokkaido-ben words here, this is the one I’ve heard the most, usually being squealed by High School girls. A picture of a cartoon bunny is めんこい. A cute haircut is めんこい. Basically anywhere you can use kawaii, you can use menkoi in the same way. It is an い-adjective and functions in the same way as kawaii.

例えば: トフグちゃんはめんこいぃぃぃぃぃぃ〜!
Example: Tofugu-chan is cuuuuuuuuute!

道産子 Dosanko


Photo by tomosuke214

どさんこ means 北海道生まれ, people born in Hokkaido. I remember clearly a boy coming up to me and saying very proudly “I am dosanko!” This nickname for Hokkaido people comes from the Dosanko horse. Dosanko horses are one of Japan’s native breeds of horse. Like dosanko people, Dosanko horses are born and bred in Hokkaido. They are fairly small, but remarkably powerful ponies, adapted for heavy farm work and harsh winters.

例えば: どさんこだから、冬やクマを恐れていないよ。
Example: I’m not afraid of winter or bears because I was born in Hokkaido.

しばれる shibareru


Photo by Chris Lewis

It wouldn’t be a list of Hokkaido words without some for being cold. しばれる is a particularly frosty kind of cold, a cold that gets into your bones and makes you shiver. It’s easy to remember because しばれる sounds like shiver put into katakana. It doesn’t just mean cold, it means deep, freezing cold. 寒い (さむい), the standard word for cold, just doesn’t capture the extreme cold of Hokkaido the way しばれる does.

例えば: 家の中でしばれるです。
Example: The inside of my house is freezing cold.

ごみを投げる gomi wo nageru


Photo by Odyssey

When you throw out your garbage in Hokkaido, you really throw it. Or at least you say that you do. The standard phrase is ごみを捨てる (ごみをすてる). But in Hokkaido the word 捨てる, which means dispose, is swapped for 投げる (なげる), which means throw, as in to throw a ball. If you say ゴミを投げる outside Hokkaido, people will think you are throwing and littering your trash all over the place. This is one to be wary of using outside Hokkaido unless you want to be garbage shamed.

例えば: 兄は決してゴミを投げない。
Example: My brother never throws out the garbage.

内地 naichi


Photo by @yb_woodstock

The formal and standard meaning of 内地 is all the areas covered by Japanese sovereignty, including Hokkaido. It could also be translated as homeland and it crops up a lot in treaties and the Japanese constitution. However, when you are in Hokkaido and you want to talk about the rest of Japan you can also say 内地 naichi to mean the mainland. It can mean just Honshu, or Honshu, Kyushu and Shikoku combined, depending on the context. This is a casual usage that Hokkaido shares with Okinawa. If you are at either end of Japan and you want to talk casually about the middle then you can say 内地.

例えば: 彼は内地に旅行にある。
Example: He is on a trip to the mainland.

はっちゃきこく hacchakikoku


はっちゃきこく is the Hokkaido way of saying 一生懸命 isshoukennmei, ‘to the best of one’s a ability’. That sounds a little dry, so maybe a better translation is ‘hustle’, ‘work your arse off’ or ‘work like crazy’.

例えば: はっちゃきこいで勉強しないと、鰐蟹に食われる。
Example: If I don’t study like crazy, I will be eaten by an alligator-crab.

ばんきり bankiri


Photo by Nick Mustoe

ばんきり is the Hokkaido way of saying いつも, always. People don’t always use ばんきり, but when they do… they’re probably speaking Hokkaido-ben. Grammatically, it works the same way as the standard いつも.

例えば: おじいちゃんはばんきり北海道方言で話す。
Example: Grandpa always speaks in Hokkaido dialect.

How to Sound like an Old Hokkaido Man


Some Hokkaido-ben has fallen out of fashion with young people. Though you’ll hear some phrases ringing in the halls of high schools, others you will only hear from people over 50. They are still pretty fun though. Some people took great joy in teaching me these phrases. They thought it was funny to hear them coming from a young foreign girl.

なまら namara


Photo by Verity Lane

There are very many ways to say very in Japanese. You can use なまら in the same way as とても and it has the same meaning, ‘very’. This word emerged in the 1970s, but is not popular with young people these days, who prefer the slang めっちゃ. なまらうまい ‘it’s very delcious’ is a catchphrase of Hokkaido born entertainer Yo Oizumi. If you are eating Hokkaido’s delicious food, it’s hard not to say なまらうまい!

例えば: 私の猫はなまらめんこいですよ!
Example: My cat is very cute!

こわい kowai


Photo by katsuu 44

You might think you know this one. こわい (怖い) means scary. Except in Hokkaido, where it means tired. It’s tempting to think that old Hokkaido folk are just messing with you, taking a perfectly good word and changing the meaning completely. To make things more confusing, the standard use of こわい is also common in Hokkaido. It’s all about context. I often heard older teachers saying “体がこわい” (からだがこわい) as they complained about the seven hours of basketball practice they’d done at the weekend. If you are feeling exhausted or woozy, you can say it too.

例えば: ジョギングの後に私の足はこわい。
Example: After jogging, my legs are exhausted.

いずい izui


Photo by Ashley Grant

いずい is a word for something that you’ve probably experienced, but never had the perfect word for in English or in standard Japanese. It’s a kind of itchy pain, like getting grit in your eye. Alternatively it can mean a pinching tightness, like wearing underwear that’s too small. You’ll also hear people complaining about いずい in Miyagi Prefecture and some parts of Tohoku.

例えば: 私の目がいずいとパンツがいずい。人生はひどいだ。
Example: My eye is itchy and my underpants are tight. Life is awful.

Dialects Within a Dialect


Photo by Verity Lane

I spent three years living in Nemuro, the easternmost town in Hokkaido. In addition to being one of the most remote places in Japan, it is also one of the foggiest. Even in the summer when there was brilliant sunshine shining across the whole island, Nemuro would be covered in a thick sea-fog. So it’s not surprising that the locals had some special words for fog. I’ll share them with you, but you should be aware that if Hokkaido-ben is often misunderstood outside Hokkaido, Nemuro-ben can’t be understood even in the next town over. So it’s basically useless unless you’re planning a trip to Nemuro (which I would recommend.) However, it does show how many variations there are in dialect, even within one island.

じり jiri

じり is a variation of the standard word for fog 霧 きり. The people of Nemuro are fog connoisseurs and there is a difference between じり and きり. きり is a standard fog, but じり is a heavy fog with visible droplets in the air. It gets under your umbrella and inside your clothes. There is nothing you can do to stop じり from soaking you through.

ガス gasu

The second word for fog is ガス. This comes from the English word ガス. Gasu is a less wetting fog than じり. It rolls off the sea and into the town, usually in the afternoons.

Now you know two Japanese words for fog that you will probably never have a chance to use. But if you do find yourself in Nemuro, then you will really impress some people by saying, “なまらじりね!”.

Speaking of living in strange town, let’s take a look at Hokkaido’s strange town names.

I Lived in a Root Room


Hokkaido’s place names don’t seem to make much sense. Down on the mainland, most names of towns and cities have a certain logic to them, even if they sound poetic. Tokyo 東京 means eastern capital. Kanazawa 金沢 means golden marsh. Aomori 青森 means blue forest. Most place names are drawn from the natural world or administrative terms.

But when you get to Hokkaido logic doesn’t seem to apply anymore. Sapporo 札幌 means bill hood. Betsukai 別海 means different sea. Wakkanai 稚内 means juvenile inside. Nemuro 根室, where I lived, translates as root room. The names don’t seem to match up to the real landscape as they do in the rest of Japan.

That is, until you learn that the town names in Hokkaido are often transliterations of the original Ainu names into kanji. The artefacts of the Ainu language can still be seen in Hokkaido’s place names. Muroran 室蘭 might seem strange translated as ‘room orchid’, but its original name was ‘Mo Ruerani’, meaning ‘bottom of a little slope,’ which makes a lot more sense. Wakkanai in Ainu is ヤㇺワッカナイ Yam Wakannay and means ‘cold-water river’. Many towns have the sounds “betsu” and “nai” which both mean river in Ainu. Instead of matching the meanings when the towns were given their kanji names, officials matched the sounds, often using kanji such as 別 or 津 for the Ainu ‘betsu’ and 内 for the Ainu ‘nai’. Place names in Hokkaido don’t teach you much about local geography, unless you look beneath the surface.

More Resources


If you have become なまら interested in Hokkaido-ben and want to find out more, here are some resources to help you.

The Online Hokkaido Dialect Dictionary (3rd Edition) is a little dry, but can be useful.

A めんこい girl teaches you Hokkaido-ben in this series of videos made by Hokkaido Fan Magazine. Here’s an example:

Here is a Hokkaido-ben grammar primer.

If you want to get playful there is a Hokkaido-ben karuta set.

If you are looking for a place to study Japanese, I would certainly recommend Hokkaido. Since most of what you learn is very close to standard Japanese, you won’t have any problems being understood wherever you go, even if people do think you are throwing your garbage around. Plus, there is still a thriving local dialect to give your studies some pop! I might sound like a 70 year old fisherman sometimes, but that’s okay with me.

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Staying Safe in Japan Wed, 15 Apr 2015 13:00:00 +0000 During my eight years in Japan, I’ve been to my share of conferences and they’ve covered all sorts of topics. Some are repeated every year – like “Successful Team Teaching” and “Fostering Student Communication.” A few topics provided life-saving information like how to perform CPR, use an AED, and prepare for an earthquake. Others pointed out the obvious, like not destroying hotels rooms or driving under the […]

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During my eight years in Japan, I’ve been to my share of conferences and they’ve covered all sorts of topics. Some are repeated every year – like “Successful Team Teaching” and “Fostering Student Communication.” A few topics provided life-saving information like how to perform CPR, use an AED, and prepare for an earthquake. Others pointed out the obvious, like not destroying hotels rooms or driving under the influence.

One crucial topic remained curiously ignored, however: staying safe in Japan.

But Japan ranks as one of the world’s safest countries! Home to an incredibly low crime rate! The chances of anything bad happening are slim to none, right? Why worry?

Ironically, Japan’s reputation for safety gives the issue even more importance. Don’t get me wrong, Japan is safe; safer than the countries most foreigners in Japan hail from. But that feeling of safety makes it easy to grow too comfortable, too complacent. And that’s where danger lies.

Japan’s crime rate may be low, but crime still exists. The special circumstances foreigners in Japan face as unique individuals in a homogenous society make the topic all the more important for visitors and ex-pats alike.

But fear not! An ounce of prevention can be all it takes to avoid becoming part of the small percentage of victims.

Japan’s Safe Reputation


Photo by Arria Belli

A 2014 Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development study ranked Japan as “the safest country in the world.” The country touts “the second-lowest homicide rate after Iceland and the second-lowest assault rate after Canada.”

So it’s no surprise that people in Japan feel safe., a site dedicated to statistical information of countries around the world, lists Japan as number one in people feeling safe walking alone at night. In overall worries about being attacked, Japanese citizens ranked third least worried. Living in Japan offers the undeniable luxury of safe feeling.

Rocketnews24 seconds that notion. In a poll ranking “the top ten instances people feel thankful to be Japanese,” public order and safety ranked second behind Japanese food. One participant commented, “I can sleep on the train in peace, and even if I walk alone at night, it’s not as dangerous as it is overseas.” Interestingly, that comment was made by a 23-year-old female, a member of one of the most at-risk demographics.

The media, both in Japan and abroad, promote this safe, worry-free atmosphere. To people overseas, Japan’s low crime rates seem like an amazing oddity. Children walk home and explore shopping malls with no adult supervision. Lone women stroll back allies and dark streets in both populated and unpopulated areas. People leave bags unattended while going to the bathroom.

I’m not alone in these observations. Lucy Rodgers of BBC News explained, “I had been informed that Japanese people did not lock their doors, left their cars running with the keys in the ignition and would never rip you off.”

Japan’s lack of crime and worry in everyday life shocks visitors used to caution as an everyday practice. Unaccompanied children riding the subway astounded Michael Weening in his article entitled “Is Tokyo Really Safe?” His blog continued the tale of how a man came to Mr. Weening’s aid when he had lost his way in the mountains. His reply to the title question: “The answer is yes, (Tokyo) is that safe.”

Anecdotes like that are common. An internet search brings up stories of lost wallets being found and returned with money intact, bicycles and even homes being unlocked with no negative consequence.

Japan’s lack of crime makes headlines, impresses tourists, and provides a point of pride for the country and its citizenry. Japanese citizens worry about crime less than any other people in the world. The message is clear – Japan is safe.

But examples of safety are just that, examples. Remember, a low crime rate doesn’t mean crime doesn’t exist. That fact is key to avoiding victimization.

Foreigners’ Special Circumstances


In a homogenous country like Japan, physical differences stand out. Size, hair-color, eye-color, skin color, and language all highlight the fact someone is not “Japanese.” Foreigners stick out as exotic exceptions to the average Japanese build and appearance.

Considering the permeation and popularity of western culture and the English language, this can attract both wanted and unwanted attention. Lucy Rodgers explains,”There is a certain fascination – which may have something to do with how foreigners are portrayed on the TV – and you are probably the closest thing some people have to meeting such people, particularly in more rural areas.” Any foreigner asked to take photos with random bystanders can attest to feeling like a pseudo-celebrity.

The less foreign people in a particular area, the more one stands out. This is particularly true for foreigners in small towns and secluded areas, where your name, address, and job become common knowledge. Random people might (think they) know your favorite foods, the onsen you frequent, your hobbies, or your love life.

Those with an interest in English may seek you out, hoping to practice. Some even go as far to make you feel it’s your duty to provide such services – you know, being a foreigner in Japan and all.

Usually it’s just fun, innocent gossip. Local foreigners provide an exotic flavor to everyday life and a chance to learn about life and culture beyond Japan. But occasionally those with an interest in foreigners, particularly of the opposite sex, aren’t so innocent.

Holly Lanasolyluna of The Japan Times writes, “In a way, white women become plastic here: imports without feelings — strange, exotic dolls. And if we are dolls, perhaps the groping, leering, stalking and attacking is somehow justified in the perpetrator’s mind as a game rather than a crime.”

Despite the feeling of safety, people can feel reluctant to get involved, even when a crime is taking place. Holly Lanasolyluna reveals the details of an attack that occurred in Osaka. It was 10am when a stranger overpowered her and dragged her towards a love hotel.

Our struggle went on for at least 10 minutes, and none of the many onlookers helped or even appeared concerned. Finally, I saw a police officer down the street and screamed at my attacker, “Look! Look! It’s the police!” That seemed to frighten him, and at that point he walked over to a nearby vending machine, bought me a water, said “gomen nasai” (sorry) and walked away.

Perhaps the language barrier is partially to blame. Even police officers fear dealing with communication difficulties. Attackers can feign ignorance if faced with charges. Add a culture of looking the other way to the mix and you have ingredients for disaster when the rare attack strikes.

“I now know I can’t rely on the goodwill of strangers, as I have in the past when I was verbally harassed in countries such as Mexico,” Lanasolyluna admits.

But just how rare are these kinds of attacks?

Women’s Special Circumstances


Photo by Shadowgate

Holly Lanasolyluna‘s police officer blamed her for the attack, “You’re a young girl, and maybe you shouldn’t be out by yourself alone at night.”

“No details about the incident were recorded,” she reveals, “Not only had every bystander ignored my pleas for help, but the police had also given me a terribly disappointing response – basically, ‘Shō ga nai, ne?’ (What can you do, eh?).”

Confused and ashamed, Lanasolyluna took the situation to the internet. The results were disturbing.

I posted a description of what had happened on Facebook and asked if people had had similar experiences. The response was overwhelming: stories of being attacked while jogging, being stalked by male and female students, being groped on the street in broad daylight, men masturbating on trains, attempted kidnappings. All of these stories came from strong women who put up a vicious fight but still walked away with psychological (and sometimes physical) injuries. In all of these stories, the victims had been in a “safe” public place but no one tried to help them or call the police. If this is so common, why does Japan maintain a reputation for being so safe? And is this image of safety actually facilitating these incidents?

She’s not alone, Vivian Morelli of Japan Today writes:

Over my three years living all over Japan, I can recall numerous incidents involving a stalker, or a “chikan” (groper) on crowded trains or empty streets. Those Japanese men are usually curious or obsessed with foreign women, they’re mentally unstable, and the experience is terrifying and unsettling.”

The harsh reality is, women experience a greater rate of attacks no matter the location. In The Gift of Fear, Gavin de Becker explains, “Women… live with a constant wariness. Their lives are literally on the line in ways men just don’t experience… At core, men are afraid women will laugh at them, while at core women are afraid men will kill them”(77).

Although these personal accounts don’t represent the norm, it’s important to take them into consideration. When it comes to one’s safety, it’s better to err on the side of caution.

Is Japan safe? Yes.

Is it one hundred percent safe? No.

Is it as safe as Japan would like us to believe? Apparently not.

The Horrible Truth


These accounts add suspicion to the growing evidence of police misappropriation of data in Japan. As a result, crime rates are higher than “official” reports would lead us to believe. By ignoring or failing to report crimes, particularly “unsolvable” crimes, Japan’s law enforcement agencies keep crime rates low and success rates high.

In 2014 Asahi Shinbun broke news on police data manipulation in Osaka.

Osaka police have admitted they did not report more than 81,000 offenses over a period of several years in a desperate bid to clean up the region’s woeful reputation for street crime. The revelation came earlier this week when embarrassed authorities said they had kept the data out of national crime statistics between 2008 and 2012… The vast majority of covered-up crimes were for theft… but hundreds of more serious offenses such as muggings and even murder may have been omitted from official crime data.

Havard Bergo of Nation Master Blog writes, “Former detectives claim that police (are) unwilling to investigate homicides unless there is a clear suspects and frequently labels unnatural deaths as suicides without performing autopsies.”

Bruce Wallace of the Los Angeles Times blames a taboo in regards to handling the dead, but criticizes instances of falsified autopsies.

Forensic scientists say there are many reasons for the low rate, including inadequate budgets and a desperate shortage of pathologists outside the biggest urban areas. There is also a cultural resistance in Japan to handling the dead, with families often reluctant to insist upon a procedure that invades the body of a loved one… (But) police discourage autopsies that might reveal a higher homicide rate in their jurisdiction, and pressure doctors to attribute unnatural deaths to health reasons, usually heart failure, the group alleges.

Instances of falsified data force us to view crime rates with a shrewd eye and remind us not to grow too complacent. Perhaps Japan’s crime rate statistics are too good to be true.

Too Comfortable


Photo by akira535

After the attacks, Holly Lanasolyluna reveals,

Interest from strangers that I could have dismissed as innocent curiosity a few years ago now gives me the chills… When I first moved to Japan, I tolerated the staring, following and persistent nampa (pickup artists), but after being assaulted twice in public, they have taken on darker undertones.

Lucy Rodgers admits growing too comfortable after her arrival in Kochi, a rural prefecture in Shikoku. But a highly publicized attack changed Rodgers attitude. The lesson learned is one that anyone visiting or living in Japan should take to heart. Rodgers explains, “The incident was an early warning to all of us that Japan may not be as safe as it first appeared.”

When we constantly feel and are told we are safe, we start to believe it and drop our guards. We might leave a bicycle unlocked one day. Then a second. Then it becomes a habit until one day the bicycle disappears.

Lucy Rodgers puts it best, “There are always exceptions to the rule, and you need to remember that.”

Strategies to Stay Safe


Despite Japan’s ranking as the world’s safest nation, crime happens. Women have the most to fear, but everyone can benefit from learning safety measures and taking extra precaution. The following strategies can get pretty heavy and might leave you feeling paranoid. My intent is not to instill a sense of fear but a sense of preparation, understanding, and even confidence. We are not helpless and being proactive can reduce the chances of falling victim in Japan, or anywhere.

Understand Who the Criminals Are


Since crime and violence involve perpetrators, it’s important to realize who the potential criminals are. Few criminal lineups feature men in trench-coats with eye-patches, facial scars, and hook hands. How many times has the news reported, “He seemed like a normal, polite guy that liked to keep to himself”? As mild acquaintances often attest after the fact, criminals appear to be normal, even kind and friendly people.

Anyone can be a criminal.

In his book, The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals that Protect us From Violence, violence prediction and management expert Gavin De Becker explains, “When we accept that violence is committed by people who look and act like people, we silence the voice of denial, the voice that whispers, ‘this guy doesn’t look like a killer.'”

Acknowledge Intuition


By gaining a greater understanding of criminals, criminal tactics, and human nature we can gain an edge against potential crime.

De Becker explains that nature has armed us with a very powerful safety tool – intuition. De Becker describes intuition as a useful, smart, intuitive impulse. He writes, “Intuition heeded is far more valuable than simple knowledge… Trust that what causes alarm probably should, because when it comes to danger, intuition… is always a response to something and always has your best interest at heart.”

Intuition usually comes as a “gut feeling” based on subconscious environmental cues. But intuition differs from ordinary worry. De Becker explains, “Worry (is an) habituated, often projective and pointless activity that just makes us needlessly paranoid in situations where we don’t have to be.” Intuition, on the other hand, occurs out of the blue, often times without discernible reason.

If a situation doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t, even if you can’t figure out why at the time.

Pre-Incident Indicators and Criminal Strategies


Photo by umjanedoan

But how should we react when facing confrontation? De Becker presents Pre-Incident Indicators – or PIN’s – to help avoid falling victim to violence. The first step is accepting that anyone has the potential to commit crimes. The second is being aware of criminal strategies.

  • Forced Teaming – When someone attempts to establish a connection, making us feel like we’re facing a similar problem. Usually it’s a simple statement to make us feel like “we’re in the same boat.” De Becker gives an example of a conversation between two strangers seated together on a plane that set off his alarm. The man commented to the woman, “I hate not having a ride.” The woman responded, “Wait you don’t have one either, shall we get a cab together?”
  • Charm - Motivated niceness. “To charm is to compel, to control by allure or attraction” (De Becker). Charm is difficult to overcome because we want to trust kind, charming people. Remember that acting nice can be a strategy to make us feel safe and open up. No matter how charming or engaging someone appears, “you must never lose sight of the context: he is a stranger who approached you.”
  • Too Many Details – “When people tell the truth, they don’t feel doubted, so they don’t feel the need for additional support in the form of details.” Liars and criminals say too much in an attempt to prove they’re trustworthy. Be wary of strangers that offer too much information.
  • Typecasting – A man labels a woman in a critical way (maybe even an insult), hoping she’ll feel compelled to prove him wrong. Statements like, “You’re probably too cool for a guy like me,” are actually accusations used to create a sense of guilt. It’s safer to live with the guilt than to prove yourself to a potentially dangerous stranger.
  • Loan Sharking – A criminal wants to help you “because that would place you in his debt, and the fact you owe him something makes it hard to ask him to leave you alone.” Beware of helpful strangers, particularly when they wear out their welcome.
  • Unsolicited Promise – Criminals often try to strike deals to get closer to victims. “If you just talk to me for five minutes, I’ll leave you alone, I promise.” De Becker points out, “There’s no compensation if the speaker fails to deliver.” Be wary of coercive deals and promises.
  • Discounting “No” – “No” is a word that must never be negotiated. “The person who chooses not to hear it is trying to control you…. With strangers… never, ever relent of the issue of ‘no.’ ” Once you say “no,” do not bend. It sets a dangerous precedent (that persistence will overcome) that you can be coerced.

By assigning labels to “approach strategies,” De Becker makes them understandable, easy to discuss, and (best of all) memorable.

Ignore Empathy


Don’t worry about angering or disappointing a stranger who approaches you. Anyone with good intentions will understand that receiving the cold shoulder from a stranger is a natural reaction. If the person does become upset or angry, all the more reason to avoid them.

Appear Strong


Never appear weak to a stranger or potential attacker. Stand straight, look them in the face, appear strong and able. De Becker explains, “It is better to turn completely, take in everything, and look squarely at someone who concerns you. This not only gives you information, but it communicates to him that you are not a tentative, frightened victim-in-waiting.”

Treat Japan as Everywhere Else


Although Japan might feel safe, always maintain the same habits and caution you would in your home country. Vivian Morelli of Japan Today suggests, “It’s fundamental to not put yourself in situations that could potentially be dangerous: walking alone at night in sketchy areas, taking dark roads/streets, not locking the door, or going inside the house of someone you barely know. NEVER, EVER do that.”

Falling victim to crimes often follows committing actions, habits or feelings that defy logic. “He wouldn’t do something like that,” “She seemed so nice,” or “It wouldn’t happen here,” are excuses on the road to ruin. Morelli continued, “People forget and think they feel safe, but they may not be and it can end tragically.”

English teachers best heed extra caution. Take prudence when dealing with customers, students, and coworkers. Morelli explains, “If you give private English lessons, NEVER go to their house, only meet in a crowded cafe.”

Tell Someone


If something worries you don’t keep it secret. Tell your friends, trusted coworkers or the police. Keep important contacts at hand at all times. Don’t worry about overreacting. It’s better to feel silly afterwards than to become a victim.

Morelli writes:

Avoid any situation or place where he might try to approach you. Take the women-only car in the train at rush hour, even though lurkers sometimes find their way in. Most importantly, live in a safe neighborhood and building, know your neighbors, and always be aware of your surroundings.

Now That We’re All Feeling Grim…

Of course not everyone is out to get you, although these strategies (and reading The Gift of Fear) might leave you with that impression. Since I started writing this piece, even I’ve been feeling a bit on edge.

The challenge lies in balance; being careful but not allowing worry rule your life. When dealing with new people, use extra caution. Until you’ve gotten to know someone well, limit activities to crowded places at reasonable times of day. Try not to allow feelings to overwhelm logical decision making. In the end, hopefully you’ll separate the keepers from the riff-raff.

Remember, these tips and techniques apply anywhere, not just in Japan. We are not helpless. By taking extra precaution, acknowledging intuition while overcoming illogical feelings of obligation, empathy, and fears of overreacting we stand a better chance at avoiding victimhood.

Please Stay Safe and Enjoy Japan!


Photo by Guwashi

My arrival in Tokyo in the summer of 2007 coincided with one of Japan’s most intense manhunts. Lindsay Hawker, an English teacher, had been murdered by one of her male students. The haunting wanted posters served as a reminder that even in a country as safe as Japan, we should always be cautious.

Yet, amidst all the media coverage and activity, the issue of safety was never brought up in work related meetings, lectures, or events. Hopefully it’ll never be necessary, but The Gift of Fear inspired me to write this piece, thinking it might help someone, someday.

Japan is an amazing place with amazing people. Despite a higher crime rate than official data implies, it’s still an astonishingly safe country. The Japan Times points out, “Even though the economy has been in the doldrums for two decades, the crime rate has not risen the way it often does in countries facing tough times.” But even if Japan was as safe as statistics imply, it’s still best to use caution.

Like CPR, AED, and earthquake lectures, I present this article hoping to offer useful, empowering information without any intent to fear-monger or victim-blame. And please remember, there is no fool-proof way to avoid crime, but learning a few strategies can help prevent the worst.

“I would have gone anywhere and done anything,” Lucy Rodgers admits. “Especially where I was in rural Japan, but also in the big cities, everyone is so generous and friendly, you forget about safety issues. You don’t have the radar for it (danger) anymore.”

Please take caution, keep your danger radar turned on and protect yourself. Enjoy everything Japan has to offer, but never lose sight of possible dangers.

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Interview with Araki Joh, the Best Selling Writer of Japan’s Most Intoxicating Manga Mon, 13 Apr 2015 13:00:00 +0000 Manga and alcohol are a wonderful mix. Sadly, few artists explored this pairing before Araki Joh wrote the manga, “Sommelier,” in 1996. It is the story of a Japanese wine connoisseur living in France and was eventually retold as a television drama starring Goro Inagaki of SMAP. Joh’s other smash-hit, “Bartender,” was made into a drama starring […]

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Manga and alcohol are a wonderful mix. Sadly, few artists explored this pairing before Araki Joh wrote the manga, “Sommelier,” in 1996. It is the story of a Japanese wine connoisseur living in France and was eventually retold as a television drama starring Goro Inagaki of SMAP. Joh’s other smash-hit, “Bartender,” was made into a drama starring Arashi’s Masaki Aiba, and an anime. His writing is not restricted to one genre or medium, though, and in each genre he works in, he uses different pen names: Arajin (“Aladdin” in Japanese), Joh Mizuki, and Akira Ito.

Tofugu was fortunate enough to get a one-on-one interview with one of Japan’s most successful manga writers. Let’s uncork this bottle of knowledge and savor the insight.

Araki Joh. Occupation: Manga Writer


Pen Name: Araki Joh
Age: Secret
Bibliography: Sommelier (4 million books sold), Bartender (3.5 million books sold), Sommelière (1 million books sold), Bartender à Paris , Bartender à Tokyo, Hono no Ryorinin: Shu Tomitoku (meaning “Cook of Fire: Shu Tomitoku”)

Q. How did you become a manga writer?

I began my writing career as a copywriter for magazines while attending Rikkyo University. One day, my friend, who was a manga editor at the time, asked me to try writing a manga script, and I just tried it out. I didn’t have any training or practice in writing scripts for manga, so I had to carve out my own way of doing it. The first thing I did was write out the script of an existing manga for practice. I chose Osamu Tezuka’s “Black Jack.” I always recommend this method to anyone who wants to become a manga writer, because it taught me how to cut panels in manga and what kinds of lines are striking and memorable. That’s how I changed careers and became a manga writer.

Q. What do you mean by “cutting panels in manga”?

One manga story can span a period of months or years, or even entire lifetimes. If you write every single incident, the manga will be a ridiculous number of pages long. So you have to decide what to omit, in other words, decide which panels to cut.

Scriptwriting requires not only skills of omission but also of emphasis. For example, when “a hand” is drawn by itself, it’s emphasized, right? It’s a simple thing, but there is usually a meaning behind it. I learned things like this while practicing by myself.

It’s often said, “one punch line for one theme.” I used to be a copywriter, so each line of dialogue in my script is advertising copy, and I craft entire stories around the one line of copy I want to write most. Sometimes the storyline is decided first, but other times I come up with the punch line first. The latter is my pattern for success. Once the punch line and the  featured drink are nailed down, to me it means that one story is completed. It takes quite a while to find a good one though, and I struggle with it a lot, like I am right now. (Mami’s note: At the time of the interview, he was trying to decide a theme for his next story about bar tending.)


Q. You said you didn’t have training, but do manga writers usually have some training beforehand?

It depends because there are so many styles for manga scripts. The most important thing in writing manga is to convey clear images to a manga artist, and as long as the script does this, the style doesn’t matter. For example, one famous manga writer, Kazuo Koike, who wrote the script for “Lone Wolf and Cub”, handwrites his scripts in pencil. When he wants to emphasize a word or a phrase, he writes it bigger and presses down to make strong, bold letters. It may not sound professional, but it’s fine as long as it conveys his image to the manga artist. Thus, some people have training, but others just find their own way.

Q. What was your first story about?

Initially, I wrote stories about dogs. I recommend this to new scriptwriters too, but it’s important to write something you are really interested in at the time. When I was 40, I got a dog for the first time in my life and it was a big part of my life at that time. There are lots of emotional moments involved in owning dogs, right? Thus, I decided to write about dogs.

If you are interested in something, you can add details and reality to the story, so I recommend people write about something they know and are interested in. On top of this, it’s even better to make it unique. If your story is about something that somebody has already written, it has to be really good to conquer the existing stories of the same topic. If yours is the first story written of that type, there’s an added advantage that its flaws won’t stand out as much.

The Life of a Manga Writer


Q. What does a manga writer do?

The job of a manga scriptwriter is to write scripts that can convey images clearly to the manga artist.

As for the process, personally I write the script and have meetings with the editor. After that, the manga artist draws a rough storyboard (it’s called “ネーム” in Japanese). If the editor approves it, the artist begins work on the final version. Although some scriptwriters check the storyboard each time, I usually don’t check it except at the very beginning of a new series. When a new series starts, the manga artist hasn’t had a chance to get used to my writing and I want to make sure that he or she captures the right images. Some do, but I don’t allow manga artists to change my words at all. If allowed, most of them end up making too many changes without permission, so I just say, “don’t change a single word or phrase” from the beginning.


Q. What is it like being a manga writer?

I’ve never worked as a salaryman, so I can’t really compare it to other jobs. I’ve been writing since I was 18. I was a magazine copywriter for 10 years, and then became a manga writer, though there was a period where my copywriting career and my manga writing career overlapped. It’s a difficult question. A manga writer is a scenario writer, after all. It’s basically the same as being a film or TV screenwriter.

There is a big difference between manga and films, though. For films, there is a director, right? For manga, sometimes I take a part as a director, other times the editor does, and other times the manga artist does. The power relationships among the three of us change continuously.

Q. What is the best part of your job?

When the manga I write becomes a big hit! It’s like winning lottery. You can buy a Ferrari with cash! LOL (←He told me to make sure to write lol.)

Making movies cost a lot, but manga can be published quickly and the reaction comes back quickly too. If I answer seriously, I think the best part of my job is that manga doesn’t sell because of the “name”. To put it simply, people buy pictures or novels or watch movies because of the name of the author or director, right? However, manga doesn’t work that way. Even for the author of “One Piece”, if he wrote lame stories for three months, readers would leave him. In this sense, readers don’t buy manga just for the author’s name.

The manga world is so strict and severe that the content has to maintain high quality and the reactions of readers are very quick. I think that’s the best part of my job.


Q. What do you think is the worst part?

There is no non-hard part. I always tell the manga artist I’m working with to work so hard that their blood drips from every panel of the manga. Like I said, if we relax our guard even a little bit, readers leave us, so we have to make sure that our work is really enjoyable. We struggle a lot to create each story, yet there’s a lot of joy in this struggle. When I finally find the story’s theme after a long time, I feel as if it broadens my world and shows me my way. My view turns from cloudy to clear as if God lighted the path. I really like that moment. Honestly, we have big struggles almost every time, but we haven’t shit our pants yet. We somehow get over the struggle every time and it works out.

The absolute hardest part is making the seventh story. One volume of manga usually contains 7 stories. We put most of our effort into the first and last volumes because they really determine whether or not readers continue to read the next book or not. I had a really hard time coming up with the stories for the seventh story of both Sommelier and Bartender, but they both turned out to be the best stories in each series.



Q. What’s the storyline of Bartender in your own words?

It’s not a story about drinks (cocktails or alcohol). It’s a story about people whose lives revolve around drinks. Simply put, it’s a story about a bartender, and people with problems who find respite through interacting with him. I can’t say anything more.

Q. How did you get started working on Bartender?

Just because I like alcohol. As I said before, you should write something you would be good at writing. I always focus my writing on people, so the topic can be anything as long as it’s a good setting to depict human drama.

Q. In Japan, it seems like there’s a lot of manga about food or drink helping people. Why do you think this is?

I think we should think separately of the category (food or drink) and story line (helping people).

As for helping people, first consider the difference between chess and shogi (Japanese chess), which represents the difference between Western manga and Japanese manga. You can’t re-use enemy’s chessman you take in chess, whereas you can re-use an enemy’s piece in shogi. What this means is that a good guy usually just fights against a bad guy and wins in Western manga, whereas in Japanese manga a good guy wins against a bad guy and the bad guy often becomes a companion of the good guy. This applies not only to mainstream adventure/fighting manga but also to stories for adults, like mine. If you have read my manga, you probably already know, but there are not simply “bad” people in my stories because all people have good and bad aspects. When you see a person from different standpoints, he/she can look like either a good person or a bad person. I believe Japanese people like to save those “bad” people or people with problems, and that is why there are a lot of manga about helping people.

As for food and drinks, you might say they are popular because Japanese people are very studious. For example, there are only about 300 sommeliers in France, but after my manga “Sommelier” became a hit, the number of sommeliers in Japan rose to about 30,000. People like learning new things and manga is a very useful gateway for beginners to start studying something. Therefore, there are many manga with a lot of information packed in them. In fact, many people actually don’t read manga without such elements. It’s often said that readers want a reason to buy books. What this means is that adult readers only buy manga that they’ll want to keep in their homes and read over and over again. Thus, manga has to be enjoyable and informational.

This is especially important for manga that has a scriptwriter. If it’s a manga that the manga artist can write and draw by himself/herself, we aren’t needed. Manga artists don’t have time to go and collect materials and sources for stories, so we, manga writers, do it for them to add some educational spice to the stories. The reason why food-themed manga are written so much is simply because it’s easier for readers to try out what they learn. They can read manga and then make the foods or go to eat the foods in a restaurant. They can use the information right away. It’s the same with drink manga.

I recently wrote a script about a lawyer who specializes in writing wills, but it didn’t become popular. I think the reason why it wasn’t popular was because I chose the wrong category. Given the ages of the target audience, a story of a divorce lawyer might have been much more interesting, though it’s too late for that now. When a manga contains information that readers want, and also if the story is enjoyable, it will be a hit. Everybody likes eating tasty foods and stories about foods are written a lot.

Q. Japanese people also seem to like the “genius” character, like the bartender in Bartender. Why do you think this is?

That’s an interesting question. It don’t think Japanese people necessarily like or dislike the “genius’ character. It’s just that any kind of drama needs a hero to be mainstream. That is why main characters are usually “genius” or have a “special power”. Yet, those special elements don’t make a good character. Adding generosity or even weakness makes the character much more interesting. I think American characters tend to be “genius” or “have special powers”, like Superman, more than Japanese characters though.

The Ins and Outs of a Manga Career


Q. Why do you have so many pen names?

I use Joh Araki for stylish manga, but I write other manga too. So when I write a yakuza manga, for example, that pen name doesn’t really match the image of the story, so I use a different one. After I write a clean, stylish story, I sometimes want to write something crazy as stress relief. This is pretty much a tradition for Japanese manga creators. For example, Machiko Hasegawa, the author of “Sazae-san”, wrote “Ijiwaru-baasan” (Mean Grandma) alongside the warm and funny Sazae family story. I think people get tired of writing only “nice” stories.

Q. What is your favorite Manga of all time / why?

Osamu Tezuka’s manga. I practiced writing using his works and learned a lot, including how great he was. If I wrote his manga, they would be double the length, because he is a master of cutting panels.

Q. What is your process for coming up with a story?

There are two processes. One is where I come up with the punch line first, and then shape the story around that line. Other times I get a vague idea and just pursue it. The latter takes quite a while to shape though.


Q. Is there any language that you have to be careful about using when writing a Japanese manga script?

The reality of the language. The dialogue of teenagers and the dialogue of middle-aged guys is very different. I try to make them sound real. I try to make them easier to understand too. I also remain aware of the look of the dialogue. Since it’s manga, the dialogue itself is a characters on each page. If the kanji ratio is too high, it can make readers tired. Thus, I try to maintain a good balance of hiragana and kanji. But there are times when I intentionally use difficult kanji to capture the reader’s attention.

Q. What is the most important element for creating a great story?

I create each story by bleeding from soul. I actually told this to the manga artist of bartender, Kenji Nagatomo, to make him more serious about creating our story. Then he told me, “I’ve actually got an ulcer and I’m bleeding from my stomach right now.”

Q. Any funny stories about your job?

I heard some guys talking to girls at a bar about the drinks they were drinking, and what they said were exact quotes from my books. Of course, they didn’t realize that I was there, but I felt happy when I heard it.


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

I can’t tell them, but they are all woven into my stories.

Q. If someone wants to become a manga scriptwriter, what should they do?

You don’t need to like manga or know about manga. All you need is a message you want to convey to people, or some feeling that you want to shape into words or pictures. Although it’s still hard to be a manga artist or writer for famous magazines, there’s a better chance of you getting your manga story published than you do getting a script turned into a movie, because of the cost of film production. In that sense, it’s an easier challenge. So, the most important thing is to have strong interests and to try living your life in line with those interests. Find something you really like, and then you will find material to write about. There are foreign manga artists working for Japanese manga magazines too, so there are possibilities.

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

When I go to a bar, I sometimes encounter bartenders or sommelier who say they chose their career after reading my manga. If their drinks are good, it’s wonderful. But if they serve me a bad drink, I feel bad that my manga led them the wrong way, though I can’t tell them. I shout in my mind, “It’s not too late! Change your career! Noooo!” LOL! Of course, I appreciate the fact that they liked my manga enough to choose a career based on it.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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The post Interview with Araki Joh, the Best Selling Writer of Japan’s Most Intoxicating Manga appeared first on Tofugu.

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Samurai Nicknames, Monikers, Aliases, and Pseudonyms Fri, 10 Apr 2015 13:00:00 +0000 When I studied abroad in Japan I was not the only Adam in my program, so in an effort to differentiate my friends dubbed me “Megane,” due to my spectacular specs.  Nicknames are quite common in English speaking countries, and Japan is no different – well, maybe a little different.  Nicknames may be big in […]

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When I studied abroad in Japan I was not the only Adam in my program, so in an effort to differentiate my friends dubbed me “Megane,” due to my spectacular specs.  Nicknames are quite common in English speaking countries, and Japan is no different – well, maybe a little different.  Nicknames may be big in Japan, but verbal irony is not, so you’re not likely to have a portly pal named Slim, a big buddy named Tiny, or an unfortunate uncle named Lucky.  Still, Japan has a long history of nicknames, and some of the coolest were given to various samurai over the centuries.  This article will look at a few of the most interesting samurai nicknames, and examine their origins and significance.

God of War, Dragon of Echigo

uesugi kenshin

Let’s begin with a warlord of the Sengoku period (1467-1603), a century of samurai civil war.  Uesugi Kenshin (1530-1578), was lord of Echigo in northwestern Honshu (Japan’s largest island).  He was born into a vassal family of the Uesugi as Nagao Kagetora, but several battles and name changes later he had become Uesugi Kenshin, head of the clan.


Photo by Wally Gobetz

In fact, taking the name Kenshin was a religious move: sometime around 1559, he took Buddhist vows and the new name as well.  This hardly meant a retirement from the battlefield, despite Buddhism’s prohibitions against violence – there were many samurai like Kenshin, who became lay priests and carried on fighting as usual.  Befitting a warrior such as himself, Kenshin was a devotee of the war god, Bishamonten.  He even put the first character of the god’s name on his war standard.  Not only is Bishamonten a god of war, but he’s also one of the Seven Gods of Good Fortune.  Why would war be associated with good luck?  Well, you’re lucky if you win the battle, and perhaps lucky if Bishamonten meted out justice in your favor, for he also punished evildoers.  Uesugi Kenshin’s devotion and martial prowess was such that some thought him an avatar of Bishamon and gave him the nickname gunjin 軍神 “God of War.”

ceiling dragon

Speaking of those battlefield skills, they also garnered Kenshin another nickname: Echigo no ryū 越後の龍 “the Dragon of Echigo.”  Dragons were also seen as guardians of wisdom, so perhaps Kenshin’s spiritual side had something to do with it.  There is another point of significance to the dragon.  More on that to follow.

The Tiger of Kai

takeda shingen

Takeda Shingen (1521-1573) was lord of Kai (roughly corresponding to modern Yamanashi Prefecture).  Shingen’s ferocity on the battlefield earned him the epithet Kai no tora 甲斐の虎 “the Tiger of Kai,” but there’s more to the story than that.  After Shingen conquered Shinano Province, which separated his home of Kai and Echigo, the former lords of Shinano went to the aforementioned Uesugi Kenshin for help.  What followed was a series of battles, most famously the five Battles of Kawanakajima, in 1553, 1554, 1557, 1561, and 1564.  One of the most iconic stories of the Sengoku period took place during the fourth battle, when Kenshin managed to burst into Shingen’s headquarters, but the Tiger manged to fend off the Dragon’s attack with his iron war fan long enough for a vassal to injure Kenshin’s horse and drive him away.

These frequent clashes were significant for the nicknames of the two warlords, and not only because they showcased their martial prowess, which are symbolically reflected in the dragon and tiger individually.  In a tradition tracing back to China, the dragon and tiger paired together were a symbol of eternal rivalry.  What better nicknames for two samurai who were always fighting without a decisive victor?  And the Chinese connection was all the more apt because both Kenshin and Shingen were avid readers of Chinese texts on strategy.

The Monkey, The Bald Rat


When I stated in the introduction that Japan is not big on ironic nicknames, I didn’t mean that they are all positive.  Most of these warrior nicknames are in some way expressions of badassitude – but not so for the names Kinoshita Tokichiro got stuck with.

Who is Kinoshita Tokichiro?  You might know him better as Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-1598), the man who basically ran Japan from 1585 to 1598. Hideyoshi was born into a common family with no surname, but as a young man took the name Kinoshita Tokichiro.  Due to the chaos of war and lack of central authority, the Sengoku period was a time when even men of humble origin could rise in the ranks if they had the abilities and drive necessary.  Kinoshita Tokichiro was such a man, and he literally worked his way up from the bottom – the feet, to be precise.  Around 1557, he became a sandal-bearer for Oda Nobunaga (1534-1582), the young lord of Owari who would soon become one of the most powerful warlords and begin uniting Japan through conquest.  Kinoshita Tokichiro later change his name to Toyoyomi Hideyoshi, but his lord liked to call him kozaru “little monkey,” because of his facial features and skinny frame.

There’s also an extant letter from Nobunaga to Hideyoshi’s wife in which he reprimands Hideyoshi, calling him hage nezumi 禿げ鼠“bald rat,” which has always puzzled me a bit.  In most portraits of Hideyoshi, the top of his head was shaved, in a style popular among samurai of the time.  Given that many samurai had their domes shaved, it’s hard to say how Hideyoshi could have stood out as “bald.”  Maybe he was losing hair around the lower-back portion of his head?  It seems unlikely.

The One-Eyed Dragon

date masamune

Date Masamune (1567-1636) was lord of Sendai, in the northeast of Honshu.  He lost the sight in his right eye to smallpox as a child and later lost the eye itself, and though the exact circumstances are unknown, a few different stories were told.  Some say he pulled it out himself when it was pointed out as a potential weak spot in a fight; other versions say a retainer gouged it out for him. In any case, as a result he became known as the “One-Eyed Dragon” (dokuganryū 独眼竜).  All of this added up to a reputation of toughness, and I wouldn’t argue with that.  Still, it seems that Date Masamune was at least somewhat sensitive on the subject of his missing eye, for he requested at least one portrait be done with both eyes intact.

The Dog Shogun

tokugawa tsunayoshi

This case is a bit strange, for the fifth shogun of the Tokugawa dynasty, Tokugawa Tsunayoshi (1646-1709), earned the title of “the Dog Shogun” not by showing exemplary loyalty or fierceness, but by being an animal rights advocate.  That said, the name was not meant to be a compliment.  Tsunayoshi took spiritual matters seriously (if not logically), and decided that because he was born in the year of the Dog, he should do something to protect his canine citizens.

He issued several edicts known as the Edicts on Compassion for Living Things (生類憐みの令 Shōruiawareminorei) that instructed the people of Edo to protect the many stray and diseased dogs roaming the capital city.  Due in part to these edicts, in 1695 there were so many strays that people noted the smell.  One man was executed for hurting a dog.  As a result people were not pleased with these edicts, and dubbed Tsunayoshi with the title Inu-kubō  犬公方 “the Dog Shogun.”  Ultimately, these problems were alleviated by deporting over 50,000 dogs to kennels in the suburbs – although even then, the fish and rice they were fed was paid for by tax money.

The Demon Lieutenant

demon battle

Photo by Stuart Rankin

More than one Japanese general was called a demon for terrifying their enemies, but I’ve chosen to focus on a leader who earned the name by instilling just as much fear in his own men.  Hijikata Toshizo (1835-1869) lived through the waning days of the Tokugawa shogunate and of the samurai class.  He became the lieutenant or vice-commander (fukuchō) of the Shinsengumi, a police-like corps of samurai assigned to keep order in Kyoto on behalf of the shogun from 1864 to 1869, when some who wanted to restore the emperor to power were carrying out assassinations in the streets and plotting revolution.

Hijikata was responsible for penning the Shinsengumi’s stringent code of conduct.  Under these rules, members were not allowed to leave the group, raise money for “selfish purposes,” or fight for personal reasons, among other things.  Hijikata rigidly enforced these rules and the punishment for breaking them was committing ritual suicide (seppuku).  For example, while visiting his mistress one member was wounded from behind by another of the woman’s lovers.  He was found by a fellow Shinsengumi member who helped him back to headquarters, where he was ordered to commit seppuku.  It’s no surprise that Hijikata Toshizo came to be called the “Demon Lieutenant” (oni no fukuchō 鬼の副長).

A Samurai By Any Other Name


Nicknames may be seen as trivial, and perhaps they are, but they can tell us things about the person who bears them. What’s more, they can tell us things about the people and cultures from which the names spring: what they value, what they disparage, what they find funny, and what symbols are important to them.  I’ve only touched on a few samurai nicknames here.  There are plenty more out there.  What’s your favorite samurai nickname?  Do you have a Japanese nickname yourself?  Let us know in the comments.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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


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Learning Japanese From Songs (And What This Method Has Taught Me About the Language) Wed, 08 Apr 2015 13:00:00 +0000 You can’t learn a language just by studying vocabulary and grammar. There has to be something you give a damn about understanding in the long run. If you’re studying Japanese, maybe that’s watching anime or reading manga or novels or even actually talking to other human beings. Whatever it is, one reason many of us […]

The post Learning Japanese From Songs (And What This Method Has Taught Me About the Language) appeared first on Tofugu.

You can’t learn a language just by studying vocabulary and grammar. There has to be something you give a damn about understanding in the long run. If you’re studying Japanese, maybe that’s watching anime or reading manga or novels or even actually talking to other human beings. Whatever it is, one reason many of us never become fluent in the languages we study in school is that we lack this motivation. Maybe you chose the language for some lame reason like it was the only class that fit in your schedule. Don’t worry, we’ve all done it.

But even when we start with a stronger motivator, I think another reason we give up is often that we put off the good stuff for too long, waiting for some magic moment when we’ll have gone through enough textbook chapters to deal with the language in its natural state. Problem is, even if there were such a magic moment, the material in most textbooks is so dull that chances are you’ll never persist that long.

The sooner you grapple with the stuff you love in the original language, the better. Sure, it may feel like beating your head against a wall sometimes. But so does a textbook – and with a textbook, the reward if you manage to punch through the wall is rarely very exciting. No textbook can ever provide the kind of thrill I felt the other day when I actually understood a pun in the manga I was reading.

So when I realized that somewhere along the way I’d developed an interest in Japanese pop music and was frustrated that I couldn’t understand the lyrics, I decided that this was an opportunity. Even more so because I love to sing and wanted to be able to sing along.

My level of Japanese right now, after years of stop-and-start in both classes and self-study, is beginner to intermediate with a lot of weird gaps. While it’s way too soon for me to be able to translate songs myself, there are plenty of resources on the internet to help out, and I am definitely learning and inspiring myself to keep going. If you want to try it, I’ve figured out some tricks to help, and also some warnings about what you don’t want to learn from songs that I think will be useful whatever your current level.

Picking a Song

For me there are three main points to consider when picking a song to study. The first is of course that I have to love it enough to hear it over and over. This is studying, after all, and some of it is repetitive and painstaking. I don’t want to be tired of the song by the time I can sing and understand it.

The second is that there have to be translations and romaji transliterations available online. Fan translations may not all be of fantastic quality, but there’s often more than one to chose from, which can teach interesting lessons in itself, as I’ll discuss later.

Most fan translation sites are not strictly legal, so I’m going to refrain from linking to a bunch here, but I trust that you all know how to use Google. You will also find some fansubbed videos – I have found that some of these can be quite terrible, but some are OK.

In the best case scenario, you’re a fan of one of a few current artists with hopes of international success that provide English subs on their videos. As my example I’m going to be using one of these, the song RPG by Sekai no Owari. Click on the little CC in the lower right corner of the video above and that will bring up the subs. I need to type them out these as I listen because if there’s a cleverer way to get at them I don’t know what it is. If you’re using lyrics sites instead, you’ll generally be able to cut and paste.

Third, once I’ve determined that I can find the materials I need, I will make a first pass of singing along using just the romaji transliteration. This can head off doing a lot of work and then finding out that the song is recorded at a pitch that’s not comfortable for me to sing. You also probably don’t want to pick a song that’s really fast or has crazy rhythms, so by doing this first you’ll find out if you’re being overambitious on that score. (This one for example turned out to be a bad idea).

Simple folk songs or other older songs can be a good start that avoids this problem. (This is my favorite, which may seem more appealing if you watch this modern take on it as well, although I’ll warn you that this one – recorded in support of victims of 3/11 – always makes me a little weepy.) But you’ll probably stick with it best if you use songs you already know and love.

How I Lay It All Out


Photo by Warren B

If you follow my instructions, you’re going to end up copying everything you find online and pasting into a file, but just a note to start that you should save anything you find interesting for use later. I find that unofficial translations are prone to disappearing, and since they’re not strictly legal they’re vulnerable to being taken down.

My first step is to save the entire translation, and then, separately, start laying out the romaji lyrics along with the Japanese. Here’s the first line of the song above:

空は青く澄み渡り 海を目指して歩く
Sora wa aoku sumi watari umi wo meza shite aruku

Now before we go any further, I know that a lot of people feel strongly that you should never use romaji when studying Japanese. And frankly, if I could get these lyrics with furigana for the kanji in a form I could cut and paste into a file, I would use that. But so far I haven’t been able to do that, and for me, this is not a reading exercise, so I’m OK with it. My kana reading is already fluent and this isn’t hurting it. And let’s remember that it’s actually perfect natural to learn a word before you know how to write it – that’s how it works for native speakers, who already know how to speak their language as children before they learn how to write.

So, if you want to offer to furigana-ize all my lyrics for me, great, let’s talk. Otherwise let’s put that argument aside and proceed.

Then I line up the kanji roughly with the words:

   空は      青く     澄み 渡り   海を         目指して歩く
Sora wa   aoku    sumiwatari    umi wo     mezashite aruku

Then I look up the words and grammar I don’t know, making sure as far as possible that I know why the translations say what they say. I don’t try to line up entire lines of translation with the text above – there’s no way for that to make sense given the difference in Japanese and English word order. And also, I want to be trying to think in Japanese as far as possible. So I insert only the words I don’t already know, above the kanji.

For this song, there are three translations available online, which I’ll discuss and compare later. For now we’ll go with the translation “Under the clear blue sky, we are walking to the sea.” Looking up the unfamiliar words gets me:

                      be perfectly clear                       aim at
空は      青く     澄み 渡り   海を         目指して歩く
Sora wa   aoku    sumiwatari    umi o     mezashite aruku

Seems like a kind of fancy way to say that thing in the second clause. I note that to myself and move on. As our esteemed Koichi-sensei has wisely said elsewhere, “Most people spend way too much time obsessing over the things they can’t figure out.” I’ve got the general idea what’s going on in this line, so I’m good to go.

Once I’ve done this for the whole song, I will annotate some lines as needed so I can sing along. One thing I’ve already done that in the line above. As I’ll talk about later, in singing, the w is sometimes pronounced in the particle を. This singer doesn’t do that and I don’t want to either, so I took the w out.

There are other singing pronunciations that are unusual, and some of them affect how the words line up with the notes, so I have ways of marking them. For example, syllable-final ん is sometimes sung as a separate syllable to fit a rhythm. For instance, in this song there’s a line:

自分      だけ    が     決めた  「答」      を   思い出して
Jibun    dake     ga      kimeta   “kotae”     o     omoidashite

The first word is sung on three different notes, so I mark the n as bold. You will also sometimes hear long vowels and vowel sequences, such as ou as in もう or ai as in ない sung as distinct separate vowels. I use a period to mark a syllable break: seka.i, for instance, if that word is sung on three separate notes.

I also have some annotations I use to help me when the rhythm is unexpected. I’ll boldface a vowel or syllable when the syllable on the downbeat isn’t what I expect:

   大切な            何か      が       壊れた       あの夜に
Taisetsuna       nani ka   ga      kowareta    ano yoru ni

And I’ll italicize when a syllable is not pronounced or so unstressed that I need to know for the rhythm.

 「目的」       という      大事なもの      を    思い出して
“Moku teki”      to iu        daijina mono     o      omoidashite

In cases that are really hard, if you know musical notation, you can add in notes for the rhythm. Just be aware that if you have to do that right away, you’re probably starting on a song that’s too difficult.

If you do this for every line and you don’t hate the song yet, fire up that music video and sing along!

What I’m Learning: The Basics


Photo by Mike Mozart

I recently read a very interesting book about people who can speak many languages. Toward the end the author asks these people for study hints, and one of them says, “Spend time tinkering with the language every day.” I would call that a good description of what I’m doing here, and if a woman who learned seventeen languages recommends it, I am willing to take her word.

And while this isn’t the most systematic sort of study, there’s definitely specific stuff I’m getting out of it. Vocabulary is one thing for sure. If I learn a line of a song, those words stick in my head, and songs – especially by the same artist – tend to use the same words frequently. Maybe they’re not always the most useful words. After all, there are only so many times you’re going to need to talk about the stars in the sky or a sleepless night in real life, unlike Sekai no Owari, who seem to work those into nearly every song.

But the same is true of many of the words textbooks start out by teaching. And words learned in a meaningful context that’s important to you are just going to stick better. In fact, I’m finding as I go along that the same is true of grammar as well. After all, which of these is more memorable – this line from another Sekai no Owari song:

幻に夢で逢えたら それは幻じゃない

Maboroshi ni yume de aetara sore wa maboroshi janai

If you meet a phantom in a dream, then it’s not a phantom

Or this line from a grammar site that will remain nameless:

If I am free, I will go play.

I don’t know about you, but I’m going to remember that conditional form a lot better from the first one.

And despite the fact that I am not explicitly using this method to study how to read, knowing words has had some benefits in learning reading elsewhere. As I mentioned above, native speakers already know how to speak their language before learning to read it. When I’ve learned a word from a song and then I encounter the kanji in my studies there’s no question I remember it more easily than an unfamiliar word. When 星 for “star” came up on WaniKani, instead of feeling “oh god, another kanji,” instead my heart leapt with recognition, because I already knew that ほし hoshi is the word for star. It was like seeing an old pal in a new place in new clothes instead of trying to make friends with a stranger from scratch.

As far as reading, while I can actually already sing some lines of this song from memory, the plan for the next step is to try to strip away the romaji. I experimented with the karaoke version, which has furigana for the kanji, and I could keep up reasonably well, but the horribleness of the musical arrangement killed it for me, so I won’t try that again. I want to sing along with the bands I like, not some horrible computer-generated elevator-music version.

The other benefit I think this is having is pronunciation fluency. Studying on my own, I don’t have a lot of real opportunities to speak. In singing, I have no choice but to keep up with the music so I have to learn how not to stumble over my syllables.

What I’m Learning: The Deep Stuff


Photo by Aaron Moraes

I’ve found that another important and interesting lesson you can learn from this process is getting really down and dirty with how many different ways there are to translate the same simple line. Songs are great for this because the differences are partly because the grammar of Japanese is so different from English, and partly because essentially we’re talking about poetry, not simple “My name is Linda, pleased to meet you” textbook phrases.

For this song, along with the official one from the video, I found two other translations, this one, which I can’t really vouch for one way or the other, and the other from a site that seems to be consistently of good quality. And I found that even a relatively simple statement like the first line of this song is different in all three translations:

空は 青く 澄み 渡り 海を 目指して歩く
Sora wa aoku sumi watari umi wo meza shite aruku
Under the clear blue sky, we are walking to the sea
The sky was a clear blue as we each walked toward the beach
And the sky is full of a beautiful blue, to the sea we walk confidently

If simply walking to the beach under the blue sky can be phrased in three different ways, you can imagine that more metaphorical statements differ even more:

“Houhou” to iu akuma ni tori tsukare naide
Don’t be possessed by the demon called “The method”
Don’t get possessed by the evils of wondering “how”
Don’t get carried away trying to find “the way”

The fact that these more poetic lines aren’t as straightforward means that in one case the non-official translations seem to have missed the point. Here’s the two fan translations:

“Kirameki” no youna jinsei no naka de
In the midst of my “bright and shining” life,
In my “glittering” life

The official translation:

In a life that’s like a flash that ends so fast

Apparently the band intended quite a different mood for that line, one that’s kind of no surprise if you know their style – lots of cheerful-sounding, upbeat songs that on closer inspection turn out to have depressing lines about mortality, etc. (In fact, their first hit was literally a song about a dead baby).

Basically, this is art, and a non-native speaker attempting a translation may just not get a reference or understand a metaphor. But just to confuse matters further, official translations may be deliberately non-literal. As we’ve talked about elsewhere, decisions on how to promote media for a different country can involve more than simple translation. (We can see a lot of this in movie and book titles, in both directions.) I found one line in another one of their songs where the official translation deliberately did it completely non- literally. The line which is also the song’s title, 炎と森のカーニバル, literally means “carnival of flame and forest,” to the extent of actually using the English word “carnival” in kana. But in the official translation subtitles on the video, it’s translated “Tokyo Fantasy.” I’m guessing this is because they also have a movie of the same name and think this will help promote it if it’s ever released abroad. So while unofficial translations may lack language expertise, official translations may make choices that are confusing because they’ve got bigger fish to fry than our attempts to study Japanese.



Photo by Elliott Brown

Studying Japanese from songs does have some downsides that you need to be aware of. The most obvious one is earworms from hearing the same song over and over. You have to really like the song to do this whole routine, and then it might make you tired of it or even hate the song, which is sad.

But more importantly, just like you have to be careful learning from anime so you don’t end up speaking like Donald Duck or something, you need to be careful about learning things from songs that aren’t appropriate in speech. There are a lot of ways songs are not like regular spoken language in any language, and they come in all areas of grammar, pronunciation, and word use.

As far as vocabulary and words and phrases, like I’ve already mentioned above, surely no one talks as much in real life about the stars in the sky as Sekai no Owari does. Likewise, I’m pretty sure the use of “I love you” in songs in all languages far exceeds its use in actual speech. (If you search on ありがちな 歌詞 you can find lots of blogs, etc, that list cliches in J-pop.) One example of a specific word to be cautious of is the pronoun boku. I’ve been told that what the textbooks say, that women do not generally use this word, holds true in real life a lot more than you’d expect from listening to the lyrics of female singers.

When it comes to pronouns though the real point to be aware of is a grammatical one: songs seem to use a lot more personal pronouns than real speech, especially first and second person pronouns. This is a real danger because this is one of the most important differences between Japanese and English grammar. One that is very hard for English speakers to grasp. For example, the logical subject of a sentence doesn’t have to be expressed in Japanese, if it’s clear from context. The normal way to say “I went” is Ikimashita. If you succumb to the English-speaker’s impulse to say Watashi wa ikimashita, you’re saying something with a particular emphasis, more like “Me? I went.” You’d never know this from all the watashis and bokus and kimis that are thrown around in pop song lyrics.

There are also some pronunciation differences in singing. I’ve already mentioned some above, such as the pronunciation of syllable-final ん as a separate syllable. (There are reasons that this makes sense in Japanese that I don’t have room to explain here, but hope to get into in another post soon.) There’s also the particle をsometimes pronounced as “wo.” Certain romaji systems transcribe it this way as well. If you’ve never heard it before, you can hear it in this song in the last line of the first verse, which is Karappo no kaban wo kyutto kakaete.

Another really interesting phenomenon is that there seems to be some imitation of American pronunciation. You hear this in British rock singers all the time. There seems to be a sense that, since rock was invented in America, American English is the language it ought to be sung it. Since Japanese singers are not singing the same language, it’s not as all-pervasive, but there are some you might be able to hear if you listen closely. The one that I can hear is that Japanese singers sometimes use an American-sounding R. I actually started noticing this because the lead singer of Sekai no Owari noticeably does NOT do this. His R is clearly the Japanese type. I realized that it sounded odd to me, because it was unlike most other songs I’d heard.

There are a few more that a linguist friend researched for me, that I am going to be listening for. I’ll just throw these in so that if you can understand the linguistic terms you can listen for them too:

  • The consonant we write as sh, as in し, etc: the normal Japanese pronunciation of /sh/ is heavily palatal, while the American English pronunciation is post-alveolar. Many singers imitate the American sound.
  • Some singers pronounce vowel sequences (/ai/ for example) almost like diphthongs.
  • The /u/ sound, especially in /ou/, is pronounced more strongly, and with more lip rounding.
  • Heavier aspiration on /t/.

My final warning is that I find that when I get comfortable enough, I can sing along even when I’ve forgotten what the lyrics mean. This may be a result of years of experience as a choral singer, where you have to sing in many languages you don’t understand. I always make sure when this happens to stop singing along uncomprehendingly in the car until I can go back and review the translation. The goal here is understanding, even if it’s not the most real-world-useful language material in the world, so no singing gibberish syllables! If nothing else, someday when you and I meet, we should be able to have a conversation about love and the stars in the sky and understand what we’re talking about. And it will be beautiful.

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The post Learning Japanese From Songs (And What This Method Has Taught Me About the Language) appeared first on Tofugu.

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Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes: Japanese Anatomy Vocabulary 101 Tue, 07 Apr 2015 13:00:00 +0000 You know what’s more embarrassing than falling on your butt in front of everyone in Japan? Not knowing how to say butt in the first place. You know what’s more anxiety-inducing than giving a speech in Japanese? Telling the person next to you that you have butterflies in your stomach and then realizing that their […]

The post Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes: Japanese Anatomy Vocabulary 101 appeared first on Tofugu.

You know what’s more embarrassing than falling on your butt in front of everyone in Japan? Not knowing how to say butt in the first place.

You know what’s more anxiety-inducing than giving a speech in Japanese? Telling the person next to you that you have butterflies in your stomach and then realizing that their horrified reaction means that they took you literally.

One of the first things you learn as a kid is what to call all the parts of your own body—yet for some reason this often gets neglected when you’re learning another language.

Now’s the time to fix that! Especially since Japanese sometimes conceives of the human body a bit differently than English. As a bonus feature, not only can knowledge of anatomy help you complain about the various parts of your body, it can also unlock the door to all sorts of cool idioms to spice up your Japanese – as well as help you avoid awkwardly translating English idioms into Japanese nonsense.

Starting from the head and finishing at the toes, here’s your guide to Japanese anatomy and some of the key idioms associated with its various parts.


rushmore heads

Photo by Bud

The big container for your brain, otherwise known as your head. あたま can also refer to a more metaphorical head –  the top of something, like a department head or the top of a peak – and it can double as a synonym for the mind, brain, and intellect. You probably already know how to call someone (or yourself) smart by saying 頭がいい(あたまがいい)literally, “head is good.” But there’s more where that came from.
Other adjectives you can attach to 頭 include:

  • 頭が高い(あたまがたかい): to be haughty (lit. to have a tall head)
  • 頭が固い(あたまがかたい): to be stubborn; obstinate (lit. to have a hard head)
  • 頭が弱い(あたまがよわい)/頭が悪い(あたまがわるい)/頭が鈍い (あたまがにぶい):three variations on “dumb” (lit. to have a “weak head,” “bad head,” and “dull head”)
  • 頭の回転が遅い (あたまのかいてんがよわい): to be slow on the uptake (lit. to have a head that rotates slowly)
  • 頭の回転が速い(あたまのかいてんがおそい): to be quick on the uptake (lit. to have a head that rotates quickly)

And here are things that can be done to heads with verbs:

  • 頭を使う(あたまをつかう): to use one’s head (lit. to use one’s head)
  • 頭を捻る(あたまをひねる): to be puzzled over or think deeply about (lit. to twist one’s head)
  • 頭を刈る(あたまをかる): to cut one’s hair (lit. to mow one’s head)

And let’s not forget:

  • 頭ごなし(あたまごなし)without giving someone a chance to explain (lit. without one’s head)
  • 頭にくる(あたまにくる)to get angry/pissed (lit. to come to one’s head)
    頭に置く(あたまにおく)to take into consideration (lit. to put/place in one’s head)


doll hair

Photo from Aimee Ray 

It’s hair—those variously colored strands that burst out of your scalp. Be careful though, because 髪 only refers to the hair on your head, and has two super common homonyms –“gods” 神 and “paper” 紙.

Unlike English where you can idiomatically let your hair down when you’re ready to pahhtayyyy, this word is really straightforward and only means what it means. When you cut your hair, you literally cut your hair (髪を切る) and when you fix your hair you literally fix it (髪を直す;かみをなおす). When your hair is long you say it’s long (髪が長い;かみがながい) and when it’s short you say it’s short (髪が短い;かみがみじかい).



Photo from Sarahnaut

You probably don’t often chat with people about your forehead. So why is this worth knowing? Because the Japanese do, when they want to remark on how teensy tiny something or somewhere is—it’s “as narrow as a cat’s forehead” or “narrow like a cat’s forehead.” (猫の額のように狭い or  猫の額ほどの狭い)


japanese demon masks

Photo from Leo U 

The side of the head with all the holes in it, otherwise known as the face. Sure enough, it’s the go-to noun when you want to discuss your physical face, but it’s also strongly associated with conceptual “face” or reputation and that’s where the fun begins. For example:

  • 顔が立つ(かおがたつ)to maintain one’s status or keep face (lit. to have one’s face stand)
  • 顔がつぶれる(かおがつぶれる)to lose status or lose face (lit. to have one’s face destroyed)
  • 顔に泥を塗る(かおにどろをぬる)to put to shame (lit. to plaster mud on someone’s face)
  • 顔が利く(かおがきく)to be influential (lit. to have an effectual face)
  • 顔が広い(かおがひろい)to be widely known; to know many people (lit. to have a wide face)
  • 顔を出す(かおをだす)to put in an appearance (lit. to show one’s face)
  • 顔から火が出る(かおからひがでる)to be extremely embarrassed (lit. a fire appears from one’s face)


chimp cleaning ears

Photo from Valerle

Here we have the ears, tunnels to your eardrums. Not surprisingly, みみ is frequently conflated with hearing, just as you can “lend an ear” in English when you’re listening to someone. Coincidentally, Japanese also has the same phrase—耳を貸す(みみをかす; lit. to lend an ear. And when you want to exclaim “That’s news to me!” you can say hatsu mimi (初耳; lit. first time ear). A few other handy phrases include:

  • 耳を傾ける(みみをかたむける): to listen closely (lit. to tilt one’s ear)
  • 耳が痛い(みみがいたい): to hear something bad about oneself (lit. one’s ears hurt)
  • 耳に逆らう(みみにさからう): to be hard to take (lit. to go against one’s ear)
  • 耳にする(みみにする): to catch wind of; to hear by chance (lit. to come to one’s ear)
  • 耳に胼胝ができる(みみにたこができる): to talk someone’s ear off (lit. to create calluses on one’s ears)



Photo from Richard Paterson

Next we have the eyes. Similarly to the ears, め often acts as a physical shorthand for sight and vision. But because so much of our life experience is mediated through what we see, 目 has also come to refer to experiences more generally, to particular viewpoints, and to the looks or glances we trade with other humans. Eye level can indicate hierarchical status, too—that’s why 目上の人(めうえのひと;lit. “a person above the eye”) refers to someone’s superior or senior, and 目下の人(めしたのひと; lit. “a person below the eye”)refers to someone’s inferior or subordinate. Other eyeball-filled idioms include:

  • 目が回るほど忙しい(めがまわるほどいそがしい)to be as busy as a bee (lit. so busy that one’s eyes spin)
  • 目がない(めがない)to have a weakness for something (lit. to have no eyes)
  • 目が止まる(めがとまる)to have one’s eye caught on something (lit. to stop one’s eyes)
  • 目が高い(めがたかい)to have an expert eye, a discerning eye (lit. to have tall eyes)
  • 目に残る(めにのこる)to be engraved in one’s memory (lit. to remain in one’s eyes)
  • 目に浮かぶ(めにうかぶ)to come to one’s mind (lit. to rise to one’s eyes)
  • 目の正月(めのしょうがつ)a feast for the eyes (lit. a New Year’s for the eyes)
  • 目の毒(めのどく)an eye sore OR a temptation (lit. eye poison)
  • 目を奪う(めをうばう)to be dazzled (lit. to seize one’s eyes)
  • 目を通す(めをとおす)to look over something (lit. to pass one’s eyes over something)
  • 目を引く(めをひく)to catch one’s eye (lit. to pull one’s eyes)


tengu nose

Photo by RRGreen123456

The nose knows. As you’ve probably guessed by now, 鼻 (like the other sensory organs) doubles as a synonym for the sense itself—in this case, smell. So when someone takes of their shoes and the scent punches you in face, you can say that the scent 鼻に付く(はなにつく;lit. “sticks to your nose”). It’s also used more whimsically as a marker of pride, in phrases like:

  • 鼻が高い(はながたかい)to be proud (lit. to have a tall/high nose)
  • 鼻毛を読む(はなげをよむ)to make a fool of someone (lit. to read someone’s nose hairs)
  • 鼻であしらう(はなであしらう)to snub someone; to turn up one’s nose (lit. to handle with the nose)
  • 鼻で笑う(はなでわらう)to laugh scornfully (lit. to laugh with the nose)

But let’s not forget that the time we’re most likely to be concerned about our nose is when it’s not behaving well. That is, when you’ve got a runny nose — 鼻水が出る(はなみずがでる; lit. “nose water comes out”)– so you grab a tissue — 鼻紙(はながみ; lit. “nose paper”)– and end up giving yourself a nose bleed–鼻血(はなぢ; lit. “nose blood”).

頬(ほほ or ほう)

cheek pouches

Photo by Robert Scott

Your cheeks are there for you, man. They’re there when you smile wide (頬笑み;ほおえみ;lit. “cheek smile”) and when you blush (頬を染める;ほほをそめる;lit. “to dye the cheeks”). They even come to your rescue when you’re dying of boredom in class and resort to 頬杖をつく(ほおづえをつ) resting your face in your hands (lit. “to use one’s cheeks as a cane”).


lion mouth

Photo from Tamboko the Jaguar

The hole in your face that food goes into and words come out of, otherwise known as the mouth. As such, くち is strongly associated with speaking, but also appears in conjunction with eating, and can be used as a metaphor for holes and openings of all kinds. When it comes to talking we have:

  • 口が重い (くちがおもい)to be taciturn (lit. to have a heavy mouth)
  • 口が軽い(くちがかるい)to be talkative; to talk without thinking (lit. to have a light mouth)
  • 口裏を合わせる(くちうらをあわせる)to make sure your stories agree (lit. to match the backs of your mouths)
  • 口から先に生まれた(くちからさきにうまれた)to be a natural born talker (lit. to be born from a mouth)
  • 口車に乗せる(くちぐるまにのせる)to cajole someone (lit. to take someone for a ride on a mouth vehicle)
  • 口が悪い(くちがわるい)to have a sharp tongue (lit. to have a bad mouth)

In terms of dining, we’ve got:

  • 口に合う(くちにあう)to suit one’s taste (lit. to match one’s mouth)

And as an example of “openings” in general:

  • 口を探す(くちをさがす)to look for an opening, in terms of work (lit. to look for a mouth)



Photo from Derek Gates

It’s the most powerful muscle in your body—your tongue. Like the mouth, the tongue takes on some aspects of speaking and eating. Someone who trips over their words or gets tongue-tied easily is said to be 舌足らず(したらず;lit. “lacking a tongue”). Conversely, someone who speaks fluidly and without hesitation is someone who 舌が回る(したがまわる; lit. “one’s tongue turns”). When it comes to food, the tongue can tell you that something has a nice texture with 舌触りがいい (したざわりがいい; “good tongue feeling”). And it makes an appearance when someone’s smacking their lips or drooling over something—舌鼓を打つ(したづつみをうつ;lit. “striking the tongue-drum”). A few other miscellaneous expressions include:

  • 舌打ち(したうち)to cluck one’s tongue (lit. tongue-strike)
  • 舌を出す(したをだす)to stick out your tongue (lit. to take out one’s tongue)
  • 舌を巻く(したをまく)to be astonished (lit. to wind one’s tongue)


happy teeth

Photo from Denise Cortez

And then there’s the teeth–those two rows of food-smashers embedded in your gums. Outside of being brushed and pulled out by dentists, 歯 get to play a rather interesting role in the Japanese language as metaphors for ability and (often unpleasant) social situations. Here’s a taste of what’s out there:

  • 歯が立たない for a task to be impossibly difficult (lit. the teeth don’t withstand)
  • 歯が浮く to set one’s teeth on edge (lit. the teeth loosen)


silly chin

Photo from David Lewis

Basically, it’s the bony ledge that defines the bottom of your face, including the chin and jawline. That’s right, it’s two English words for the price of one. 顎 also appears in a few handy phrases like顎で人を使う(あごでつかう, to order somebody around (lit. “to use somebody with your chin.”).


giraffe necks

While “neck” is a fine way to conceive of 首 in general, you should be aware that it sometimes more closely corresponds (in English, at least) to everything up from the neck. For example, what we might say is cocking your head to the side would be expressed with 首を傾げる(くびをかしげる; “to tilt the neck”). 首 also stands in as a synonym for being unemployed. On that last point, this largely comes into play with the two complimentary phrases for “to fire someone” or 首にする(くびにする; lit. “to turn into a neck”) and “to be fired” or 首になる(くびになる; “to become a neck”. Other idioms include:

  • 首を長くして(くびをながくして)expectantly; eagerly (lit. to lengthen one’s neck)
  • 首を捻る(くびをひねる)to rack one’s brain (lit. to twist one’s neck)
  • 首を縦に振る(くびをたてにふる)to nod one’s head (lit. to wave one’s neck vertically)
  • 首を横に振る(くびをよこにふる)to shake one’s head (lit. to wave tone’s neck horizontally)
  • 首を突っ込む(くびをつっこむ)to meddle in (lit. to thrust one’s neck)


shoulder armor

Photo from Antony ***

Here we have the shoulders, or the sloping line from your neck to your upper arms. Given the tendency 肩 have of getting stiff from stress, it’s probably not surprising that they appear as metaphors for responsibility (much like “shouldering a burden” in English). Their role in defining physical posture also plays into how they’re used in Japanese to express position and stance. In that vein, similar to the English “standing shoulder to shoulder,” Japanese uses 肩を並べる(かたをならべる). Among these types of idioms are:

  • 肩に担ぐ(かたにかつぐ)to bear a burden (lit. to carry on one’s shoulders)
  • 肩が軽くなる(かたがかるくなる)to be relieved of one’s burden (lit. one’s shoulders are lightened)
  • 肩を持つ to support someone; to stand by someone (lit. to hold someone’s shoulders)
  • 肩代わり taking over a responsibility (lit. changing shoulders)
  • 肩で風を切る to swagger about (lit. to cut the wind with one’s shoulders)
  • 肩身が狭い to feel ashamed (lit. to have narrow shoulders)
  • 肩身が広い to feel proud (lit. to have wide shoulders)


arm wrestle

Photo from KAZ Vorpal

At the ends of the shoulders we find the arms. 腕 can do a lot of crap. Take a simple tree, for example. With arms, you can climb that tree, chop down that tree, turn that tree into fire, and then plant another one. All of these tasks that arms can accomplish manifest in Japanese with the usage of 腕 as a synonym for skill and ability. See for yourself:

  • 腕を試す(うでをためす)to put one’s abilities to the test (lit. to try one’s arm)
  • 腕を磨く(うでをみがく)to hone one’s skills (lit. to polish one’s arm)
  • 腕が鈍る(うでがにぶる)to become less capable (lit. for one’s arm to become dull)
  • 腕を振るう(うでをふるう)to display one’s ability (lit. to brandish one’s arm)

And then when the day’s work is done, you can:

  • 腕を枕にして(うでをまくらにして)to use one’s arms as a pillow (lit. to turn one’s arm into a pillow!)


fingers and god

Photo from Daniela Hartmann

The hands, that remarkably dexterous collection of hundreds of bones at the end of your arms. Even more so than arms, hands are directly involved with the majority of things we humans do, and as such they can idiomatically represent the many things that hands do—work, help, care for, hold, write. In a similar vein, 手 can stand in for a means or a way more generally, hands being a means to accomplish lots of things. Here’s a sample to get your hands dirty:

  • 手が空いている(てがあいている)to have free time (lit. one’s hands are empty)
  • 手が足らない(てがたらない)to be short of hands (lit. to not have enough hands)
  • 手に入る(てにはいる)to come into one’s possession (lit. to enter one’s hands)
  • 手を引く(てをひく)to back out of something (lit. to pull out one’s hands)
  • 手を組む(てをくむ)to join forces (lit. to link hands)


cute fingers

Photo from Massimo Lupo

The hand would be pretty useless without fingers. It’s also worth learning the names for your individual fingers, if you haven’t yet:

  • 親指(おやゆび)thumb (lit. parent finger)
  • 人差し指(ひとさしゆび)index finger (person-pointing finger)
  • 中指(なかゆび)middle finger (lit. middle finger)
  • 薬指(くすりゆび)ring finger (lit. medicine finger; medicine paste used to be applied with this finger)
  • 小指(こゆび)pinky finger (lit. smaller finger)

Other than that, there’s only a few idiomatic phrases worth learning. When you’re giving something a try, in English we might say you’re dipping a toe in, but in Japanese it’s dipping a finger in—指を染める(ゆびをそめる; lit. “to dye a finger”). Then there’s a pretty visual phrase for “looking on enviously without doing anything”—(口に)指をくわえる(くちにゆびをくわえる;”to put a finger in one’s mouth”).


super chest

Photo from Gareth Simpson

The chest, the pecs, the breast. むね is also the go-to word for a bunch of emotions and sensations that seem to emanate from that area. So you’ll use it when you’re keeled over from heartburn (胸焼け;むねやけ: “chest burn”) and when you’re tense with anxiety (胸ぐるしい;むねぐるしい;lit. “troubled chest”). It also often seems to correspond with “heart” in phrases like “to be open-hearted” or 胸が広い(むねがひろい;lit. “to have a broad chest”). Others include:

  • 胸がいっぱい(むねがいいぱい)to be overwhelmed with emotion (lit. for one’s chest to be full)
  • 胸が躍る(むねがおどる)to be excited and/or elated (lit. for one’s chest to dance)
  • 胸騒ぎがする(むねさわぎがする)to feel uneasy (lit. for there to be noise in one’s chest)
  • 胸を焦がす(むねをこがす)to yearn for something or someone (lit. to burn one’s chest)
  • 胸を痛める(むねをいためる)to worry oneself (lit. to make one’s chest hurt)
  • 胸を打つ(むねをうつ)to be touching (lit. to strike one’s chest)
  • 胸に畳む(むねにたたむ)to keep something to oneself (lit. to fold in one’s chest)



Photo from kani-jessy

Moving on further south, we land at the stomach—not the organ itself, though! That’s for another day. This is the exterior stomach area, linguistically linked in Japanese with instinctual feelings and with people’s REAL intentions or thoughts. Some examples are:

  • 腹が黒い(はらがくろい)to be black-hearted (lit. one’s stomach is black)
  • 腹が立つ(はらがたつ)to be angry (lit. one’s stomach stands)
  • 腹ができている(はらができている)to be resolute (lit. one’s stomach is prepared)
  • 腹の中で笑う(はらのなかでわらう)to laugh/smile to oneself (lit. to laugh/smile in one’s stomach)
  • 腹積もり(はらづもり)one’s real intentions (lit. stomach intentions)
  • 腹時計(はらどけい)one’s internal clock (lit. stomach clock)

背(せ)or 背中(せなか)


Photo from pleshops 

Flipping over to the other side of the body we have the back. This probably appeared in two of the first descriptors you ever learned in Japanese, when you had to describe your ideal romantic partner in stilted sentences at 8AM (or maybe that was just me). So-and-so is tall or 背が高い(せがたかい; lit. “to have a high back”)and so-and-so is short 背が低い(せがひくい; lit. “to have a low back”). In addition to height, 背 appears in a few other worthwhile idioms:

  • 背中合わせ(せなかあわせ)to be at odds (lit. to be back to back)
  • 背を向ける(せをむける)to pretend not to see (lit. to turn one’s back)
  • 背中で教える(せなかでおしえる)to teach by example (lit. to teach with one’s back)


belly dance

Connecting the back and the stomach we have the waist/hips/lower back region all wrapped up into one handy word. As a core of bodily support and the point at which the body bends, 腰 gets quite a workout in the following idioms:

  • 腰が重い(こしがおもい)to be slow to act or start working (lit. one’s waist is heavy)
  • 腰が軽い(こしがかるい)to cheerfully work (lit. one’s waist is light)
  • 腰が強い(こしがつよい)to be persevering (lit. one’s waist is strong)
  • 腰が弱い(こしがよわい)to lack firmness (lit. one’s waist is weak)
  • 腰を入れる(腰を入れる)to take a solid stance (lit. to put one’s waist into it)
  • 腰を落ち着ける(こしをおちつける)to settle down (lit. to relax one’s waist)

尻(しり)or お尻(おしり)

bear butt

Photo from Doug Brown

You’re probably sitting on one right now—your butt. Just as English has quite a few colorful phrases related to the hindquarters—to get a kick in the butt and to kiss someone’s ass, to name a few—and Japanese doesn’t disappoint, either. Some are remarkably close to English equivalents and others are delightfully vivid and original. Let’s dive in:

  • 尻に敷く(しりにしく)to dominate or boss someone around (lit. to cover the butt)
  • 尻が軽い(しりがかるい)to be *ahem* unchaste (lit. to have a light butt)
  • 尻が重い(しりがおもい)to be lazy (lit. to have a heavy butt)
  • 尻馬に乗る(しりうまにのる)to follow others blindly (lit. to ride a butt horse; aka the last horse in a line)
  • 尻切れ(しりきれ)an abrupt ending (lit. the butt cut off)
  • 尻が長い(しりがながい)to overstay one’s welcome (lit. to have a long butt)
  • 尻押し(しりおし)support; supporter (lit. butt push)
  • 尻もちを搗く(しりもちをつく)to fall on one’s bus (lit. to pound butt mochi; to pound one’s butt into mochi)
  • 尻の穴が小さい(しりのあながちいさい)to be small-minded (lit. to have a small butt hole)
  • 尻に火が付く(しりにひがつく)to be pressed by business (lit. one’s butt catches fire)
  • 尻の毛まで抜かれる(しれのけまでぬかれる)to be completely ripped off (lit. to have everything up to the hair on one’s butt pulled out)



It’d be hard to stand without them—your legs. Well, and your feet. They’re a package deal in Japanese. The closest they get to separate entities is when 足元(あしもと)is trotted out for a few phrases including the omnipresent (in Japan, at least) loudspeakers saying 足元にご注意ください(足元にご注意ください;”watch your step!”). Although that really feels like cheating because all 足元 means is “origin of the leg.” Even footsteps translates to 足音(あしおと;lit. “leg sound”). That’s just the way it is, folks. 足 can also double as a synonym for the way in which or the pace at which someone walks as in the pair 足が遅い(あしがおそい)and 足が速い(あしがはやい), meaning to be a slow walker and a fast walker, respectively. Other idioms of interest are:

  • 足を洗う(あしをあらう)to turn over a new leaf (lit. to wash one’s feet)
  • 足が出る(あしがでる)to go over budget (lit. one’s legs stick out)
  • 足任せ(あしまかせ)wandering without a particular destination (lit. leaving it up to one’s legs)
  • 足元を見る(あしもとをみる)to size someone up (usually to take advantage of them) (lit. to see someone’s feet)
  • 足が地に着かない(あしがちにつかない)to be on top of the world (lit. one’s feet don’t touch the ground)
  • 足を取られる(あしをとられる)to be tripped up (lit. to have one’s legs taken)



Photo from Ryuta Ishimoto

Then we have the knees, those knobbly little joints in the middle of your legs. A few idioms that hinge on knees are:

  • 膝をつく(ひざをつく)to get down on one’s knees (lit. to attach one’s knees)
  • 膝を突き合わせる(ひざをつきあわせる)to discuss unreservedly or intimately (lit. to touch knees with one another)
  • 膝を進める(ひざをすすめる)to draw closer (lit. one’s knees proceed)

足の指(あしのゆび)or 爪先(つまさき)

toe faces

Photo from Janine

Last and possibly least, we have the toes. Because instead of giving them a dedicated word, Japanese just smashes together two other anatomy words when they bother to refer to them at all (足の指;lit. “fingers of the leg”). Alternately, there’s 爪先(つまさき; lit. “tip of the (finger or toe) nails”)which is actually usually translated as tiptoes, not toes. BUT! If you want to scream about how you just stubbed your toe, it’s つま先をぶつける(つまさきをぶつける;lit. “to bump into with tiptoes”). Go figure.

There we have it — Japanese anatomy from head to toe. Of course, some body parts didn’t make the cut (my apologies to elbow and eyelash) but the goal here was to lay a solid foundation by focusing on basic words that either differ from English usage and/or pack a cultural punch. Hopefully the idioms not only give you some insight into Japanese conceptions of the body but also help you remember the names of the body parts themselves. So now if you do indeed fall on your butt in front of everyone in Japan, you can impress the stunned onlookers by exclaiming, 「尻もちを搗いた!」(しりもちをついた; “I fell on my ass!”; lit. “I made butt mochi!”). In fact, I might just start saying that in English.

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Katsuobushi, The Dried Fish You Didn’t Know You Loved Fri, 03 Apr 2015 13:00:00 +0000 This probably doesn’t look tasty to you. After all, it looks like a chunk of dirty wood: Photo by Andy King50 With the above pic in mind, try not to freak out when I have to tell you, if you love Japanese food, you’ve eaten that thing many, many times. It’s a dried fermented fish product called […]

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This probably doesn’t look tasty to you. After all, it looks like a chunk of dirty wood:


Photo by Andy King50

With the above pic in mind, try not to freak out when I have to tell you, if you love Japanese food, you’ve eaten that thing many, many times. It’s a dried fermented fish product called katsuobushi, and its flavor is the backbone of traditional Japanese cooking.

Katsuobushi is probably familiar to you in a different form: those papery-looking fish flakes sprinkled on top of cold tofu or okonomiyaki. But it has a less visible, very important role as a main ingredient in dashi, the broth used in traditional Japanese food. Unlike the soup stock used in most other countries, dashi takes only minutes to make – but that’s only after the weeks or months it takes to produce katsuobushi.

Like many traditional foods and crafts, old-fashioned ways of using katsuobushi have been replaced by modern shortcuts in many homes, but the real thing is still hanging on and even spreading across the world.

Start with A Fish


Katsuobushi is made from a fish called skipjack tuna or bonito in English. It’s katsuo in Japanese, reflected in its Latin name, Katsuwonus pelamis. As with any food with a long history, there are different types and many regional variations in how it’s produced, but for the most traditional and elaborate kind, here’s basically how it goes:

The fish is cut into four fillets and simmered for a couple hours, then deboned. Each fillet is then smeared with fish paste to fill in all the cracks and lines left where the bones were, giving it a smooth surface. Then it’s smoked for about a month.

After that, the hardened hunk of fish is shaved to make sure the shape is perfect, and then sprayed with mold. No, really, it’s okay – after all, many Japanese foods involve our little one-celled friends. In fact the mold used is related to kōji, the microorganism used to make sake, miso, and soy sauce – we wouldn’t have Japanese food without it. The moldy fillets then spend about six months cycling between resting in a humid fermentation room and being dried in the sunlight. The result is what you see above.

Nowadays only a very small percentage of katsuobushi goes through that entire process. The simpler kind, called arabushi, is simply smoked for thirty days. As we see with many other foods and drinks like cheese and wine, the longer aging and fermentation processes are reserved for the most expensive, high-quality product, which goes under various names including hongarebushi, karebushi and shiagebushi.

Now What?


You can’t just bite into a hunk of katsuobushi. Although I can’t confirm this, I heard on an NHK TV show that katsuobushi holds the Guinness record for world’s hardest food. If that’s not true, it ought to be. This is why the form we’re most familiar with is those flakes, because you’ve got to shave the hardened fish into paper-thin pieces to use it. The traditional device for producing the flakes by hand, a wooden box with a sharp blade on top and drawers to catch the shavings, is called a kezuriki, pictured above.

The flakes are eaten in many ways – on top of okonomiyaki (where they dance around from the heat), on top of takoyaki, on top of cold tofu, and inside of rice balls. But their most fundamental use is for dashi stock, which is used to make miso soup and is an ingredient in many traditional dishes. You may not know what dashi tastes like plain, but Japanese food wouldn’t taste like Japanese food without it.

The most basic dashi is made of kombu seaweed and katsuobushi flakes. There are variations on how to do this, but basically, you soak a piece of kombu for while, then simmer it for ten minutes or so. Then turn off the heat and add the katsuobushi. The dashi is done once the flakes sink to the bottom of the pan (from half a minute to a few minutes, depending on who you read).

I always thought it was interesting and surprising that making dashi goes so quickly. Western soup stocks take hours of simmering to develop flavor, which made me wonder how the Japanese figured out how to make it so easily? But now I know the truth that dashi takes MUCH longer to make – it’s just that the majority of the time is taken up in the production of the main ingredient long before it gets to your kitchen.

Why So Good?


Something like katsuobushi has been around since maybe the eighth century, with the first evidence of smoke-dying in the late 1600s and the fermentation process entering the picture about a century later. Various legends tell of some brave soul who found some dried, smoked katsuobushi that had gotten moldy, decided to eat it anyway, and discovered that it had become even more delicious.

But why? In my fridge, mold makes stuff worse, not better. What’s going on? Here are some of the effects of mold in the process of making katsuobushi, according to the Tokyo Foundation:

1. Mold consumes the moisture in the meat to sustain itself, thus accelerating desiccation.

2. Mold has the ability to decompose fat, ridding the meat of both its fat and smell and converting the fat into soluble fatty acids. The process also takes the edge off the taste, enhancing the savor and aroma.

3. Mold breaks down proteins into amino acids and other nitrogenous compounds, which also increase savor (umami).

4. The coating of mold keeps off other microorganisms.

5. Mold breaks down the neutral fat and increases free fatty acids, resulting in a clear soup when katsuobushi shavings are boiled.

The result of all this is crazy full of umami. Umami is a trendy foodie concept now, but it’s actually pretty old – and it originally came from Japan. In fact, dashi itself is where the concept comes from.

You may have heard that there are four primary tastes: sweet, salty, bitter, and sour. But it’s generally recognized now that there’s a fifth: umami, which is the flavor of savory, meaty things. One reason dashi has become central to Japanese cuisine is that it helps impart that kind of rich flavor to meatless dishes based on soy, vegetables, and fish.

In fact umami was first identified in 1908 by a Japanese scientist named Kikunae Ikeda who was thinking about why dashi had that meaty flavor. His analysis identified a component of kombu seaweed that he decided to call umami from the Japanese word umai, “delicious.” (Ikeda built an empire on that work: basically he had discovered MSG, which he sold under the name Ajinomoto, now a giant food and chemical corporation.)

The combination of ingredients in dashi, because of the inosinic acid in katsuobushi and glutamic acid in kombu, have a synergistic effect that more than doubles that umami effect.

“One plus one becomes three or more on the umami scale,” as one chef puts it.


Photo by tokyofoodcast

Still, the very highest quality katsuobushi is about more than just a couple of molecules. There are subtle variations in flavor, with resulting differences in price (like in the photo above) and individual and regional preferences. Supposedly many cooks in fancy Kyoto restaurants prefer what’s called Satsuma type made in Makurazaki in Kagoshima Prefecture. And individuals have individual preferences as well – dashi that tastes like mom made it can be a big deal. On my first trip to Japan, a friend took me to an udon place where she waxed ecstatic about the flavor of the dashi, a subtlety that was completely lost on me. And she’s clearly not alone – it’s even a trope you can find in fiction, like in a drama that I’ve written about elsewhere, where the proprietor of an old restaurant says she’ll have to shut down if their traditional katsuobushi maker goes out of business, because their food would never be the same without it.

Modern Cheats


Photo by Julie Frost

It’s no surprise that such a complicated food would be the target of modernizers. If you’ve ever bought katsuobushi yourself, you probably bought it already shaved. That’s a modern development, if you count the early 20th century as modern – which is fair to say given how long katsuobushi has been around. Before that, everyone had to have one of those shaver thingies to make the flakes themselves. The shop that’s said to have first started selling katsuobushi in flake form in the early Showa era is still in business at Tsuskiji Market: Akiyama Shouten, which was founded in 1916.

It’s also worth noting that nearly all of that pre-shaved katsuobushi in packets is the kind that’s produced the fast way, by just smoking, not the kind that’s fermented for six months. You’re not going to find the best quality product in packet form, same as how you won’t find the finest aged Parmigiano cheese pre-grated in a cardboard box with a shaker top.

It still counts as making dashi from scratch if you start with a packet of shavings, though, and you should try it because it’s really easy. But of course nowadays there are even shorter shortcuts. Given how fast it is to make dashi I’m a little ashamed to say that sometimes I use these little tea-bag things that have the seaweed and fish and other ingredients in them, which you just pop into a pot of boiling water and steep for a while. They’re really not bad though, compared to the fact that you can also buy dried instant granules and liquid concentrate. Can we all agree that there’s no excuse for that? At least use the tea bag thingies, okay?

Not Dead Yet


Photo by Sophie

Although there are worries about the preservation of Japanese traditional food culture and few people shave their own bonito flakes at home anymore, production of katsuobushi has actually been rising. And despite my own sad feelings about instant dashi granules, the reason for this increase is precisely the demand for its use in processed foods – not just convenient forms of dashi but entirely pre-made dishes like instant miso soup.

And while the majority of production is the simpler arabushi, there are producers committed to preserving the handmade product. One city, Yaezu, Shizuoka, where katsuobushi production is a major industry, has designated the art of making it the traditional way as a living cultural treasure.

Not only that, people are starting to make it overseas. This year, the first katsuobushi plant in France is supposed to begin production. The idea for the plant started when some visiting producers tasted a bowl of miso soup in Paris and were shocked at its lack of umami flavor. They discovered that the reason was that the French couldn’t get the fancy kind of katsuobushi from Japan because EU rules prohibited the import of moldy foods. So they decided to build a plant to make it locally. Another chef is reported to be planning to make his own for an udon shop in Switzerland.

A famous American chef is even extending the technique to non-fish. David Chang of Momofuku in Los Angeles, who’s known for being into fermenting anything he can get his hands on, has invented butabushi, processing pork in a similar way. Chang seems to be another brave man in the history of fermented foods, judging from tales of the initial attempts:

Pork loin is steamed, smoked and “left to rot.” The first time he made it, it was “a technicolor weird thing” covered with mold. “I wondered, am I dying as I’m breathing this in?'” But when cut into, it was the same amber as katsuobushi, and just as delicious, according to Chang.

He had a hard time replicating it at first but eventually even got a scientific journal article out of documenting the process, which included having the DNA sequence of the mold analyzed.

At the end of the day, katsuobushi seems to be doing all right. People are preserving the old ways as well as changing with the times. And I’ll raise a cup of miso soup to that. But not one made with granules.

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Becoming a Father in Japan Wed, 01 Apr 2015 13:00:00 +0000 Her water broke at three o’clock in the morning. I’d been born two weeks early myself so I expected this. I put on yesterday’s clothes and picked up the suitcase that was waiting in the corner. We had to be prepared since Japanese mothers are usually expected to provide for themselves (toiletries, towels, pajamas, etc.) […]

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Her water broke at three o’clock in the morning.

I’d been born two weeks early myself so I expected this. I put on yesterday’s clothes and picked up the suitcase that was waiting in the corner. We had to be prepared since Japanese mothers are usually expected to provide for themselves (toiletries, towels, pajamas, etc.) during their often week-long hospital stay after birth.

The hospital doesn’t provide any amenities, but a week long recovery in the hospital is something a lot of the world’s mommies could only dream of. At the end of my wife’s visit, the hospital even gave her a special three star meal to celebrate. Prenatal services are also top-notch in Japan, with many cities offering expecting mothers free childcare and delivery classes. I remember my wife leafing through a special baby handbook city hall gave us, which thoughtfully included color photos of healthy baby poop. We’re well prepared.

I email the in-laws and tell them it’s time. I do this on my iPhone because the Japanese keypad is easier to use than a Japanese keyboard for me. Japanese mom and dad speak absolutely no English and I’ll be counting on Apple’s built-in dictionary for translating those especially difficult kanji.

My wife swears she’s not in any pain. She spends the ride to the hospital sitting on her knees because she doesn’t want to leak on the seat. I can’t believe she’s not in pain.

“My mother was the same way,” she explains. “She didn’t go into labor for hours after her water broke.”

At the hospital we’re told labor would start in 10 to 16 hours. We’re a bit sore about being woken up at three o’clock just to have to wait around till night, but I suppose that’s how it is. I make it a point to ask if I can be there during the delivery, since some Japanese hospitals don’t allow fathers in either the delivery or labor room. Even in the Japanese medical profession there are some surprisingly old-fashioned beliefs, and daddies not having much to do with baby stuff is one. Fortunately, our hospital says it’s okay for me to be there when my wife starts screaming.

By the early morning the nervous excitement’s worn off and we both would rather her start labor sooner than later because waiting for it’s driving us crazy.



Photo by Craig Sunter

Since the baby won’t be arriving anytime soon we both decide I should go back to the apartment to rest for the delivery. Just as I nod off, my alarm clock tells me it’s time to get ready for work. That reminds me that I hadn’t told them I won’t be coming in, so I shoot them an email. When that’s finished my wife mails asking if I’m awake yet. Shouldn’t have left in the first place, I realize. I eat lunch on my way back to the hospital.

She’s been put in a shared room. Hospitals often put mothers-to-be in shared rooms with nothing but curtains sectioning off beds. Private rooms are more expensive, and while the cost of labor is partially reimbursed by the Japanese national healthcare system, it’s a standard lump sum of 420,000 yen. (When all was said and done we paid about 60,000 yen out-of-pocket, which is about 500 US dollars.)

Anyway, my thrifty wife didn’t want to spend the extra cash and opted for the shared room. Behind the privacy of our curtain, I keep her mind off things the best I can, mostly by drawing funny pictures on my iPad. I wish I could have thought of something better, but funny pictures is the best I can manage. But you know what? That’s okay. I kept a smile on her face between nurse visits–visits that are making me worry I don’t have enough Japanese for this.



Photo by Racchio

The pain starts. At first it’s not so bad. Then it is. And it only gets worse because less than three percent of Japanese women get an epidural or any sort of pain relief during birth. Part of it is a lack of obstetricians and anesthesiologists. Childbirth is a risky field with unexpected working hours, and a lot of medical students are opting for easier lines of work like cosmetic surgery. Several years ago things were so bad that some women, called “birthing refugees,” had to roam the hospitals looking for a doctor to deliver their babies. Epidurals also require an anesthesiologist, which there just aren’t enough of on hand to administer a shot to a woman in labor while a heart surgery might be going on down the hall.

They move my wife to the labor room on the opposite side of the hospital so her screams won’t terrify the other women. I think of it as Purgatory, and the doctor or nurse or whoever she is starts checking in more often. She keeps giving my wife what I think is advice but I can’t tell. My Japanese medical vocabulary is sadly lacking. At one point she points between her eyebrows and says something about “wrinkle” and “scream.” Days later, my wife told me she was saying that screaming gives you wrinkles.

I see her massaging my wife’s lower back. Once she’s gone I keep it up, but am informed I’m doing it wrong. “Do it like she did, in circles.” She’s speaking in all Japanese now. This I expected, but now I’m worried I won’t be able to understand the next thing she says. Fortunately for me she isn’t saying much between screams.

All this pain, though, is supposedly a good thing. The other reason most hospitals don’t offer epidurals is that the pain of childbirth is thought to be a virtue that creates good mothers. Beliefs like embracing suffering are slowly going the way of the samurai in the face of modernity, but like fathers not needing to be there for their wives during childbirth, some old habits die hard in Japan. My wife had chosen this hospital because it looked attendant to her needs, but that service still didn’t include pain relief.

A lot is going through my mind, like what I can say to make her feel better. I quickly give up on that idea though. There’s not a word in English or Japanese that will make this easier. Mostly, I just think that I won’t ever, ever stop massaging her back.



Photo by Mingo Hagen

The nurse/doctor comes back again once the sound of a good mommy-in-the-making gets too shrill. She says more things I can’t understand and I’m starting to feel really bad that I don’t study Japanese as much as I should. Conversational Japanese is fine, but I’m turning out to be woefully unprepared for how much medical-speak this is involving. I do understand that she is counting the time between contractions and telling my wife to go “huuuuu” instead of scream.

So I’m massaging and she’s huuing and the nurse/doctor is telling her something else I don’t understand but it’s okay because I want this woman to deliver my baby. She has professional written all over her, carved in steel with a diamond-tipped ice pick. At this point I’m sure she’s a doctor. (I was wrong about that, actually. She was a midwife.)

My wife is huuing like a panicked barn owl vacuumed through a pipe organ and after a few hours the contractions are close enough that Purgatory ends. The midwife collects my wife and throws me a smock.

“Put it on,” she says. Finally some Japanese I understand.

I do, and she looks annoyed when I try to help her carry my wife to the delivery room. That’s her job, not mine.

She points to the side of the delivery chair. “Stand here and don’t move.”

My wife is happy to be in this room. In Japanese: “We’re here. In this room. It’s almost over!”

I lie and tell her she’s right, not saying that I think the bad stuff is just getting started. My own mother had said they’d put me behind her so I wouldn’t be able to see what’s going on. In Japan, if they let you into the delivery room at all, they put you beside her. Some hospitals even drape a cloth around the delivery chair so only the doctor can see what’s going on. The woman, meanwhile, is stuck behind it not being able to see anything, not even how many people are in the room.

I can’t massage her back anymore so I settle for her neck. I want to be useful, so I’m massaging anything I can.

“There’s a needle in my arm, Nathan. Stop touching it,” says my wife in Japanese. The midwife had put an IV in her arm.

“Yes….there’s a needle,” repeats the midwife. “Stop touching it.”

Idiot! They put an IV in her arm! Why are you massaging the needle? So, frantically determined not to be dead weight,  I massage her neck instead.

Suddenly the midwife looks concerned and calls down the hall for a nurse who isn’t there. Just as suddenly this hospital feels oddly empty.

“Push that button,” she orders me.

There’s a button hanging above the delivery seat. Pressing it brings a nurse that looks far too casual for my taste. The midwife tells her to “go get doctor so-and-so.”

Itai!” My wife screams, it hurts. “Itai…”

I get real quiet and let the midwife work. I wish I could understand what was happening and I promise myself I’ll study Japanese harder when all this is over. Mostly, now that things are bad enough to need doctor so-and-so, I’m just hoping my life isn’t turning into some bad soap opera. I remind myself that Japan has one of the lowest maternal death rates in the world, coming in at 11th in 2010, with western countries like the US coming in at 39th and the UK 23rd respectively. Still, 11th place was 6.8 deaths per 100,000 women, which feels very high when it’s your wife who needs a doctor who isn’t there.



Photo by JeffS

Baby’s head turns into a head and shoulders and I remember hearing that the shoulders are the hardest part. He comes out with limbs covered with a yellowish membrane attached to his skin. I think it might even be his skin. I remember watching a documentary about how some babies are born inside-out. I don’t want an inside-out baby. The midwife doesn’t look concerned, but this ice-woman-cometh wouldn’t have flinched if the baby came out with two heads screaming “banzai!” so that doesn’t mean anything.

While the nurse is cleaning him off the midwife asks my wife if she wants to see something. I get the feeling that something is the afterbirth. She says “yes” and I can’t look away as the the pan of gore is couriered over. The midwife explains how the boundary between her and the baby was like a liver. My lovely wife is fascinated.

Baby comes back without that yellow film on him just as doctor so-and-so finally shows up. They ask me to wait outside. As I leave I see doctor so-and-so sewing my wife up and realize what happened. Once I do, a thought flutters through my head about that whole afterbirth scene. It reads: why did you go on about the ins and outs of afterbirth instead of stopping the blood from pouring out of my wife’s body? Later, I learn it’s because of legal red tape. Japanese midwives can only perform medical interventions in the case of dire emergencies. Apparently that wasn’t one. It makes me wonder why a doctor wasn’t there in the first place.

So there I am, waiting in the lobby for some cosmic shift inside of my soul strata–something to turn on or even something to turn off, but so far there’s no plate tectonics. I had a child, but I didn’t feel like a father. I’d seen on TV there was supposed to be some magical moment when an angel waves an invisible wand over your head and everything falls into place inside you. But in real life becoming a father mentally and spiritually isn’t as easy as falling into a hole. It’s climbing a mountain.

Doctor so-and-so comes out and offers a smiley “Congratulations.”

“Is my wife okay?”

He nods and explains what happened. I don’t understand because he’s communicating in the High Speech, medical Japanese, but frankly I’m just glad he’s polite enough to do so.

As we’ve mentioned before at Tofugu, medicine is not a service industry in Japan. Japan has a strong social hierarchy and doctors are near the top of the totem pole. Unfortunately, that means some doctors think they’re Doctor House. I’ve had a particularly nasty one even call me an idiot before. While most doctors here are great and old farts like the one I saw are rare, even now we’re switching doctors about a foot problem my son has because our current one refuses to tell us what’s wrong. In his mind, he’s the doctor and that’s his domain, not ours.

After the doctor finishes his explanation I just tell him “thank you” because I already know what happened anyway. That’s one thing about communicating in Japan. Even if you don’t understand half of what someone’s saying, common sense can make up for a lot of what’s missing. The midwife pokes her head out and says I can come back in now. My wife is holding the baby.

“You okay?”

“Tsukareta.” She’s tired. “Here, hold him.”

And there, as I hold my son, the father inside me flickers to life.

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Kid’s Anime for Japanese Learners Mon, 30 Mar 2015 13:00:00 +0000 When I started learning Japanese, the inability to pick up on words in anime, movies and music frustrated me. Aside from “Okā-san!”, “Otō-san!” and “Kusou!”, I had trouble catching words and phrases and my listening skills developed at a slow rate. I used to sit back and wonder, “Will I ever be able to understand what they’re […]

The post Kid’s Anime for Japanese Learners appeared first on Tofugu.

When I started learning Japanese, the inability to pick up on words in anime, movies and music frustrated me. Aside from “Okā-san!”, “Otō-san!” and “Kusou!”, I had trouble catching words and phrases and my listening skills developed at a slow rate. I used to sit back and wonder, “Will I ever be able to understand what they’re saying!?”

A trip to the video rental shop answered my question. Instead of the anime, drama or comedy sections, I scoped out family and children’s DVDs. Among them I discovered Chibi Maruko-chanOden-kun, and other shows that served as more suitable learning material for a beginner. Although not easy, these programs featured language closer to my level, particularly when compared to the complicated plots of the anime and movies I had been watching.

At last I could improve my listening skills while being entertained! Some of these cartoons, like Anpanman, are made for toddlers and feature simple stories, simple Japanese and clear pronunciation. Others, like Nintama Rantarou, take aim at older children and feature a slight level-up in Japanese and plot. But all of the following shows can be used as study materials. But don’t take my word for it – give them a try!


Photo by DGlodowska

When using anime as a learning tool, kicking back with a bag of popcorn won’t lead to major gains (although chewing gum might help.) It’s best to formulate a concrete plan of attack. Koichi offers tips, tricks and strategies on the subject in his excellent article How to Learn Japanese from Anime, and here are some techniques I find useful.

Watch an episode multiple times to challenge your ear. During the first viewing, turn the subtitles off and try to pick out single words or listen for understanding. You can repeat the process as many times as you want and even take some notes. On the final viewing, turn on the subtitles to see how successful you were.

When watching Japanese cartoons, shows or movies, decide whether to listen for overall understanding or for single words or phrases. When I first started learning Japanese I focused on listening for words and phrases I had studied. As my Japanese improved I focused on trying to understand the overall content of statements and conversations and ignored focusing on single words.

A more painstaking method involves listening to the dialogue and trying to write out the Japanese. This method works best when the anime features Japanese subtitles to compare your work with afterwards. You can also use this method with Japanese music and then check the lyrics online. This technique’s advantage lies in its focus on raw Japanese. Since you don’t need to understand what you write, you can invest total focus on listening. Although time consuming, this study method’s big yields means it’s worth investing time in.

As with any studying strategy, it’s best to try a variety of approaches to find what works best for you. But even when you do, changing things up keeps studying fresh and revives motivation.

Get to the List Already!

impatient tv watching cat

Photo by Carbon Arc

This list features cartoons with varying degrees of Japanese. True beginners (one year of study or less) may not be able to use cartoons for a study tool with great results. But thanks to their simple plots and clear Japanese, the series in this list offer a great starting point for listening improvement.

Anpanman (アンパンマン)

One of Japan’s most popular childrens’ characters is based on a familiar snack food. Welcome to the world of Anpanman, an anpan (bread filled with anko, or sweet red bean paste) headed hero. Sure his weakness is water, but when dampness strikes, the kind old baker Uncle Jam saves the day with a fresh head of bread.

What started as a series of picture books by Takashi Yanase in 1973 grew into an industry spawning clothing, toys, video games, snacks and a hit cartoon. Making its debut in 1988, the cartoon continues today with over one thousand episodes and annual movies and tv specials.

Anpanman reigns supreme among children ages 0 to 4, so the dialogue and stories stay simple. Beginners looking to get their feet wet in Japanese should find Anpanman their best bet. And as a bonus you learn about the Japanese diet: from melonpan to currypan, the delicious cast of characters features foods common to bakeries and supermarkets across Japan.

  • Pros: Aimed at young children. Anpanman features simple stories and simple dialogue perfect for Japanese language beginners of any age. Learn about Japan’s unique takes on bread.
  • Cons: Almost too cute and maybe too childish. Also, Anpanman‘s characters might make you hunger for foods unavailable outside of Japan.

Chirubii (チルビー)

Make it past Chirubii‘s cute, dancing rabbit opening and you’re in for a treat. The series features (slightly) animated versions of popular Japanese picture books with enthusiastic narration and colorful background music. Chirubii aims at children without becoming too infantile. By featuring books from various authors, this cartoon’s visual style varies from episode to episode and the stories never get stale. Watch Chirubii and experience some of Japan’s best picture books while leveling up your listening skills!

  • Pros: Chirubii offers Japanese aimed at the youngest native Japanese learners, so it makes for great listening practice! The variety of stories and art keeps Chirubii fresh and interesting.
  • Cons: The minimalist animation may turn off some viewers.

Nihon Mukashibanashi (日本昔話)

If children’s books and anthropomorphic bread don’t interest you, you might enjoy some good old fashioned folktales. Nihon Mukashibanashi offers up classic stories brought to life by various artists in various animation styles. Like the two series mentioned above, Nihon Mukashibanashi‘s Japanese stays simple, although some of rural and old folks’ Japanese might be difficult to pick up on. Overall Nihon Mukashibanashi offers deep cultural roots with a relaxing vibe.

  • Pros: Like Chirubii, Nihon Mukashibanashi’s assorted art styles keep the visuals interesting. The traditional source material offers a distinct Japanese flavor.
  • Cons: Like most fables and fairy tales, the stories get repetitive. How is it that so many old men saved magical sea-life?

Ganbare! Oden-kun (がんばれ!おでんくん)

Welcome to coolsville. Unlike the childish Anpanman and Chirubii and old-fashioned Nihon Mukashi-banashi, Oden-kun offers up a hip, groovy and occasionally psychedelic flavor. Created by actor (All Around Us), writer (Tokyo Tower: Mom and Me, and Sometimes Dad) and all-around talent Lily Frank, Oden-kun reflects its author’s unique personality and art style.

The story stars Oden-kun, a small kinchaku or mochi-filled bag of tofu who lives in a big pot of oden (a Japanese stew of sorts). His friends include egg-headed girls, a wise old slice of daikon radish and even a sausage-headed alpha-male. Oden-kun uses the mochi in his head to get him, his friends and his customers out of hairy situations. But don’t worry, after being pulled from the pot and eaten, Oden-kun and his pals eventually reappear for new adventures.

  • Pros: With slow and clear pronunciation, Oden-kun‘s Japanese is easy to pick up on. Unique plots and characters make Oden-kun one of the most fun children’s cartoons to watch.
  • Cons: Some viewers might find the show’s depictions of god (dude chilling on a cloud with a beard and bishop hat) offensive. Another one that might give you cravings for Japanese dishes that you can’t get at home.

Nintama Rantarou (忍たま乱太郎)

If ninjas are more your style, give Nintama Rantarou a try! The show focuses on the titular hero Rantarou and his friends Shinbei and Kirimaru as they train to be ninjas at Ninja Gakuen. Childish jokes (some involving poop) give you the chance to learn childish Japanese words (like poop) and make this show a fun watch.

  • Pros: Did I mention ninjas! And a great sense of humor.
  • Cons: Fast talking makes this one more difficult than the previous series on the list.

Sazae-san (サザエさん)

A long-running classic, Machiko Hasegawa’s Sazae-san depicts the everyday trials and tribulations faced by a Japanese housewife and her family. Although often compared to Chic Young’s Blondie character of the comic-strip of the same name, Patrick Drazen compares Sazae-san to Peanuts‘ Charlie Brown, as a “wishy-washy” character engaged in the balancing act of everyday life (Anime Explosion 143). Watch Sazae-san to tune up your Japanese skills while reflecting on a low-key idealization of family life in Japan.

  • Pros: The long running classic is grounded in reality. Suited for all audiences.
  • Cons: Born from the post-war 1940’s, perhaps Sazae-san’s world is overly romanticized.

Chibi Maruko-chan (ちびまる子ちゃん)

My favorite family show, ,the long running Chibi Maruko-chan has made the jump from analog to HD. While Sazae-san focuses on a Japanese housewife, Chibi Maruko-chan follows elementary school student Sakura-chan and her experiences at school, at home and around her neighborhood. Another show based in reality, Sakura’s reactions and thought-process reflect an authentic innocence that make the series both touching and humorous.

  • Pros: A funny, realistic portrayal of a Japanese child’s world.
  • Cons: The narrator’s sense of humor, which often flatly stating the obvious, may get lost in translation.

Crayon Shin-chan (クレヨンしんちゃん)

If a cheeky (in more ways than one) version of Japanese family life is what you’re looking for, give Crayon Shin-chan a look. Shin-chan and his eccentric family put humanity’s imperfect, but realistic shortcomings on display. Shin-chan is best compared to Bart Simpson of the early 1990s, a young troublemaker with his own colloquialisms. But like the later Simpsons episodes, Shin-chan’s universe is not constrained to reality. Crayon Shin-chan offers a crude but “real” representation of Japanese family life with language to match. As such, it’s one of the more difficult series on the list.

  • Pros: Learn Japanese as cheeky little kids speak it.
  • Cons: One of the most difficult to understand on the list, thanks to Shin-chan’s voice and pronunciation.

 Dragon Ball (ドラゴンボール)

No introduction necessary, but here goes: The world-famous series that grew into the definitive shonen action-battle series started off as an action-comedy. Before Dragon Ball Z popularized fights spanning hundreds of episodes (at least that’s how they felt) and extended episode recaps, Dragon Ball kept things relatively simple and humor-based. Fans of the series know what to listen for and some of the characters’ slow, clear pronunciation make Dragon Ball an apt Japanese learning tool. And given its world-wide popularity, Dragon Ball should be the most accessible series on the list.

  • Pros: As a popular series abroad, it’s easy to obtain. Those who have already watched it in English know the plots and therefore what kind of words to listen for. For example, in the clip above Roshi (the old man) is trying to get Lunch (the girl) into the bathroom to peep on her. Since I know his intent, I know to listen for words like bathroom and bathtub.
  • Cons: When the action gets heavy, useful vocabulary dwindles. Goku’s (the main character) voice can be the most difficult to listen to.

Doraemon (ドラえもん)

The big, blue robot cat from the future debuted on the printed page as a manga in 1969 and on television in 1973. Doraemon has been a mainstay of Japanese television and movie theaters ever since. Sent from the future to help his inventor’s great great grandfather Nobita, Doraemon can pull all sorts of crazy inventions from the “magic pocket” on his tummy (think Felix The Cat’s magic bag of tricks).

Doraemon revolves around Nobita’s school and home life, though it occasionally crosses into the fantasy realm. Thanks to its sense of humor and innocent fun, Doraemon remains a favorite among all ages and you’d be hard-pressed to find a more recognized and beloved character in Japan.

  • Pros: Witness the closest thing Japan has to Mickey Mouse (aside from Kitty-chan?), in a long running, influential cultural mainstay. Even after hundreds of episodes, Doraemon’s unique and silly inventions will keep you guessing.
  • Cons: Although the inventions are interesting, the series’ plots get repetitive. Nobita’s bungling helplessness gets old.

Jarinko Chie (じゃりン子チエ)

Experience family life – Osaka style. Jarinko Chie deals with the eccentricities of Kansai life, the seedier, more in-your-face side of Japan. Experience Chie’s hard-knock life, complete with yakuza encounters and badass cats. Chie offers a refreshing change from the other child characters on this list as she faces the challenges of a broken home head-on and proves more responsible than many of the adults that surround her. But beware, taking on Jarinko Chie means taking on Kansai-ben (Osaka’s local dialect). Jarinko Chie is like a gritty, more capable Chibi Maruko-chan.

  • Pros: Experience Kansai-ben!
  • Cons: Experience Kansai-ben…

SpongeBob Squarepants (スポンジョボブ)

The popular American cartoon series has also seen success in Japan. SpongeBob and his friends speak with loud, clear pronunciation. While stories get crazy, the simple jokes and visuals make the dialogue easy to understand. Since the series is originally in English, it’s easy to find a source to compare the Japanese to. But since the series is originally in English, getting your hands on Japanese episodes might require buying the Japanese DVDs.

  • Pros: American humor (for Americans). Voice actors speak very clearly.
  • Cons: Some jokes don’t translate accurately, so the Japanese dialogue may differ from the English equivalent. Japanese episodes are hard to come by.


video store

Photo by Andy Nystrom

Access to these shows would have been nearly impossible just a decade ago. But thanks to the internet, most are easily accessible. Video sites like Youtube offer episodes that can be viewed for free. There’s even an official Doraemon channel you can subscribe to. Can’t find the series by searching in English? Try searching in Japanese. If Youtube doesn’t give you what you want, try different video hosting sites (like Dailymotion).

Online marketplaces like, Rakuten, Yesasia, Play-asia, and CDJapan offer many of these series on DVD or Bluray. Both shops have made international ordering easy by offering English versions of their stores and accepting foreign credit cards. Some series can be found at I found Oden-kun, Chibi Maruko-chan, Anpanman, and even Jarinko Chie there.

But beware of region restrictions that prevent imported disks from playing on domestic DVD players. Luckily region-free DVD players that can play DVDs from any country are inexpensive. Amazon sells units at under $40.

Although I don’t have a region free DVD player, I set my computer’s DVD drive to region 2 so I can play Japanese DVDs. I also play them on my Japanese Playstation 3. Although playing import DVDs can be problematic, there are many easy solutions.

If you want English subtitles, things get a bit trickier. Most Japanese DVDs do not feature English subs. Japanese SpongeBob DVDs feature both Japanese and English options. And most Western-released Dragon Ball DVDs feature both languages. So those are you’re best bets. Funimation’s Western release of Crayon Shin-chan, however, does not feature Japanese language options. So if you buy Crayon Shin-chan DVDs for study purposes, make sure to get the Japanese release.

Doin’ Time

Photo by Unsplash

As Koichi explains, learning Japanese from anime takes work. Passively watching while reading English subtitles results in few gains if any. But by buckling down and deciding on a specific strategy we can dramatically level up our listening levels.

When it comes to listening skills, we all develop at different speeds, but putting in the time and effort can help push things along. But finding the right study material helps. And since many Japanese children’s shows feature simple stories and simple Japanese, they make a great starting point. Most of the series mentioned above feature 15 minute shorts, a length perfect for repeated, focused viewings.

And don’t forget to go back later to check your progress. I love revisiting a series from years ago. Nothing has been more satisfying than cultivating what feels like a sixth sense and understanding dialogue that was once just a bunch of indecipherable sounds.

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Getting Famous in Japan the One Direction Way Fri, 27 Mar 2015 13:00:00 +0000 Japan is a popular target market for pop singers that want to take their fame internationally, particularly, it seems, when it comes to debuting in Asia. Is it because of the infectious fan base? Is it because the fandom of Asian pop music has not gone unnoticed? There are numerous stars who try, working to […]

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Japan is a popular target market for pop singers that want to take their fame internationally, particularly, it seems, when it comes to debuting in Asia. Is it because of the infectious fan base? Is it because the fandom of Asian pop music has not gone unnoticed? There are numerous stars who try, working to organize tour dates and scheduling media appearances in Japan, but are met with a relatively low breakout success rate. The ones who succeed are those who understand that while Japan is a big market, it is also a very different one. The most recent and relevant example of this: British boy band sensation, One Direction.

First, let’s characterize J-pop


Japan is the second largest music market in the world, just behind the United States with a retail value of over 3 billion dollars back in 2013. The Japanese market is dominated by (surprise!) Japanese artists. Japanese pop, or J-pop, is a genre that entered the musical mainstream of Japan in the 1990s, and was coined by the Japanese media in order to distinguish itself from foreign music. Japanese musical idols (or アイドル /aidoru) are a significant part of this music market, with girl groups and boy bands regularly topping charts. Some well known examples are Arashi, SMAP, Morning Musume, and, of course, the wildly popular, AKB48, who currently holds the Guinness World Record for being the “Pop group with the greatest number of members”.

For those unfamiliar with the idol culture in Japan, typically they are are young stars and starlets who are promoted as being particularly cute, manufactured to be a universal role model for everyone. They aim to play a wide range of roles as media personalities, and must have a perfect public image so as to be good examples to young people. As a consequence, a unique characteristic of J-pop is “cutesey” music, and the female artists’ subtle fusion of sexuality and child-like traits.

Another characteristic of J-Pop stars is that they have appearances that span a variety of media. In SMAP for example, group members appeared on at least ten regularly scheduled music and variety shows in the mid-90s. This added to their individual personalities and group persona. At present, they have their own weekly variety program called SMAPxSMAP, which has been airing every Monday since 1996. In addition, individual members also appear in many commercials and television dramas (Any Kimura Takuya fans out there?) Similarly, another aforementioned group, Arashi, also went on to have their own variety show as well, as well as stand out actors such as Matsumoto Jun, well known for his role on Hanayori Dango (Boys over Flowers).

This omnipresence is important for pop stardom in Japan because it creates a sense of intimacy between the artist and the fans. Since J-pop has a focus on marketing effectiveness, the fans are key. Between a curated connection with the fans and the branding of these pop stars as good-looking talents who are also portrayed as emotionally sensitive and caring (as is successfully done through constant media presence), fan-directed marketing is a huge driver for success.

The Stars of the Moment

Japan the One Direction

How, then, does One Direction fit into this world? The British band probably needs no introduction. They are the poster children for boy band pop today, and if the name doesn’t sound familiar, this song probably does:

Or this one:

In a nutshell, they are an English-Irish pop boy band based in London who came to fame from the British Television show The X Factor. They were propelled to success with the help of social media, which we will see is an integral part of their popularity in Japan.

In January 2013, One Direction (1D) touched down in Japan for the first time, donning traditional Japanese red happi coats that had “One Direction” written in katakana on the lapels. What can be assumed as a conscious homage to the Beatles from the 1960s, it was a smart choice for the boy band that was in Tokyo for a short, packed schedule of fan events and media appearances. Harry Styles tends to be the heartthrob of this boy band, but in Japan, it seems as though Niall, from Ireland, is the most popular. In an interview, Harry Styles stated that “In Japan Niall [is the most popular]. Because he’s got the blonde hair they go crazy for him.” Niall’s response was simply that “They’ve never seen people like me before. Little Irish people coming in with dyed hair and dancing,” which probably speaks more to the stereotypical Japanese affinity for things of novelty.

Branding in Japan

Japan the One Direction

The header image from

The finale of 1D’s Take Me Home Tour had a recorded audience of about 12,000 Japanese fans, which might be considered underwhelming for those who are used to performing for thousands and thousands of shrieking adolescents. But in the eyes of industry veterans, it was quite a showing. For every performer like The Beatles, Lady Gaga, and now One-Direction, there are numerous international acts that gets met in Japan with widespread indifference. Shows being cancelled, as both Kanye West and Selena Gomez have experienced, are not a surprising result.

Instead of letting themselves succumb to that same fate, 1D had a slower launch into Japan, duly noting the market at the time. Their arrival into Japan for media appearances mentioned above, gave Japan just enough to keep buzzing nationwide about this up and coming music group and their newly announced Japan tour.

But what really got the Japanese media’s attention was Sony Music Japan’s branding of the group. This was the start of the official Japanese Facebook and Twitter accounts, which showed translations of the members’ social media. Their first record had a delayed release in Japan but their sophomore album “Take Me Home” was positioned for a simultaneous release. And an even bigger social media innovation was to provide them with what most J-pop acts have: their own fan club.

January 2013 marked the establishment of One Direction Club Japan, which was the group’s only official fan club anywhere at the time. Members would pay approximately 5,000 Yen annually for enrollment which would come with perks such as first choice concert tickets, the opportunity to buy fan-only merchandise, and other special accesses. Even as social media’s influence in Japan grows, official fan clubs like this continue to be integral to J-Pop fandom. It’s the maintaining of that omnipresence that we talked about before. Having a fan club like this becomes smart for international artists since they are only in Japan for a few days out of each year, making it difficult for fans to have a connection with the artists. A Japanese style fan club is paid, it’s exclusive, and perhaps most importantly, it’s something familiar to Japanese people, crafting a perceived intimacy. Having a constant presence is a challenge that overseas artists face with the Japanese market, and it’s an advantage that K-pop (Korean Pop) bands enjoy, because of proximity.

One Direction has bridged that gap with their exclusive online fan club. This fan club not only made 1D’s Japanese fan base comparable in size, but also in breadth. The fact that international pop aimed at teenagers in Japan can find an older audience as well is an idiosyncrasy of the Japanese music market.

In comparison, consider the infamous Justin Bieber, who amassed an impressive fan base of over 40 million on Twitter, and proclaimed his love for Japan. The response from Japan, however, wasn’t quite as reciprocated. It’s all relative, of course, but One Direction’s two 12,000 capacity shows in Japan sold out immediately, while Bieber still had tickets available at the door for his single, 15,000 capacity venue. Even Creativeman’s Yoshinari Hirayama, 1D’s promoter for those Chiba concerts, seemed surprised: “I believe the response was much greater than anyone expected.”

The 1D Café?

Japan the One Direction

Photo by Victor Lee

AKB48 has their café in Akihabara so maybe it’s time for One Direction as well? The rumor mill heard stories of plans for a 1D café to open up worldwide, starting with Shibuya. It was supposed to have opened on Feb 11, 2014. The success of the café in Shibuya would go on to determine whether or not the chain would appear in other cities such as London, New York, Paris, and Berlin. Dissimilar to “pop up” shops, these cafes would stay open year round, selling merchandise of various types for younger fans.

The Story of Their Lives?

Japan the One Direction

It is unclear what the future holds for One Direction in Japan though they are arguably one of the most successful international musical groups that have infiltrated the tough Japanese market. Will One Direction be just another “boom” with a timely end to their popularity? Or will the Japanese fans continue to adore them even when they are old news? Japan can be a great country for an aspiring international artist’s debut, you just have to know how to approach the market and break in. It seems that Japan loves overseas bands, but the bands that make it in Japan are equally as enamored with Japan as well. Harry Styles, for example has taken on the role of incorporating some Japanese to his performances. On a tour stop in the US, Harry led the fans in a chant of “Gambarimasu!”, followed by an exuberant, “Yes! I’ve always wanted to do that!”

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