Tofugu » In Japan A Japanese Language & Culture Blog Mon, 08 Dec 2014 21:04:56 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Bushido: Way of Total Bullshit Mon, 08 Dec 2014 17:00:23 +0000 The term bushido calls forth ghosts of Japan’s hallowed samurai class.  A class so bent on preserving honor, they’d rather slit their own bellies in ritualistic suicide than live a shamed existence. In The Last Samurai, bushido melds with Nathan Algren’s soul, curing the troubled American of alcoholism, war trauma, and self-loathing.  What powerful medicine!  A reinvigorated, purified Algren turns […]

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The term bushido calls forth ghosts of Japan’s hallowed samurai class.  A class so bent on preserving honor, they’d rather slit their own bellies in ritualistic suicide than live a shamed existence.

In The Last Samurai, bushido melds with Nathan Algren’s soul, curing the troubled American of alcoholism, war trauma, and self-loathing.  What powerful medicine!  A reinvigorated, purified Algren turns his back on his employers to join rebel samurai bent on defending bushido, their dignified honor-code of loyalty, benevolence, etiquette, and self-control.

At least, that’s what popular culture would have us believe.  In reality the term bushido went unrecognized until the early twentieth century, long after Nathan Algren’s fictitious character joined the factual Satsuma Rebellion and years after the ousting of the samurai class.  In all likelihood samurai never even uttered the word.

It may come as an even greater surprise that bushido once received more recognition abroad than in Japan.  In 1900 writer Inazo Nitobe’s published Bushido: The Soul of Japan in English, for the Western audience.  Nitobe subverted fact for an idealized imagining of Japan’s culture and past, infusing Japan’s samurai class with Christian values in hopes of shaping Western interpretations of his country.

Though initially rejected in Japan, Nitobe’s ideology would be embraced by a government driven war machine.  Thanks to its empowering vision of the past, the extreme nationalist movement embraced bushido, exploiting The Soul of Japan to pave Japan’s way to fascism in the buildup to World War II.

And so too The Last Samurai exploits Inazo Nitobe’s depiction of bushido, renewing movie-going audiences’ admiration for a venerable concept and glorified past that never truly existed.  But as bushido’s precarious history proves, the truth often takes a back seat to more fashionable depictions, whether it be to change Western perceptions, fuel a fascist war agenda, or sell movie tickets.

Inazo Nitobe


Photo by あばさー

Born in 1862 in Iwate Prefecture, Inazo Nitobe was just a baby when the final remnants of Japan’s ruling samurai class came to an end.  Despite being of the samurai class themselves, Nitobe’s family remained far removed from the battlefields and warrior culture of old Japan, gaining recognition as pioneers of irrigation and farming techniques.

At age nine Nitobe moved to Tokyo to live with his uncle where he began intensive English study.  A unique subject of study at the time, Nitobe would become fluent in the language.  In Death, Honor, and Loyalty: The Bushido Ideal, Cameron Hurst writes, “The Christian son of a late Tokugawa samurai… who was educated largely in English at special schools early in the Meiji era, Nitobe… could communicate with foreigners to a degree that even the most ardent exponents of kokusaika (internationalization) today would envy” (511).

In 1877 Nitobe made his way to Hokkaido where he enrolled in Sapporo Agricultural College.  Created under the influence of William S. Clark, a devout Calvinist from New England, the school served to further solidify Nitobe’s commitment to the Christian faith and he joined Clark’s own “Sapporo Band” of Christians (Oshiro).

In Sapporo, Nitobe’s estrangement from the Japanese society, culture and people grew. Japan’s northernmost island remained largely unsettled wilderness and shared few cultural connections with mainland Japan.  “Hokkaido was only just becoming a real part of Japan,” Hurst writes, “so Nitobe was essentially isolated spatially, culturally, religiously, and even linguistically from the currents of Meiji Japan” (512).

Following his graduation from Sapporo Agricultural College, Nitobe began graduate school in Tokyo. Unsatisfied with his studies, in 1884 Nitobe moved to the United States and enrolled in John Hopkins University.  After graduating, the globetrotting Nitobe would bounce around Germany, the United States and Sapporo and even become the under-secretary general of the League of Nations (Samuel Snipes).

Unique to his era, Nitobe’s knowledge of English and Western literature remains impressive even by today’s standards.  Oleg Benesch, author of the in-depth study Bushido: The Creation of a Martial Ethic In Late Meiji Japan writes that Nitobe grew to be “more comfortable in English than Japanese” and eventually “lamented his lack of education in Japanese history and religion” (159).

It was during his time in California that Nitobe penned Bushido: The Soul of Japan. The contrived imagining of the samurai class reshaped Western perceptions of Japan and would eventually come to redefine Japan’s own interpretation of bushido and the samurai class.

Playing Catch-Up: The Meji Restoration


While Nitobe immersed himself in Western religion and culture, the Japanese government continued its own international pursuit – modernization.  Professor Kenichi Ohno of GRIPS explains, “The top national priority was to catch up with the West in every aspect of civilization, i.e. to become a ‘first-class nation’ as quickly as possible” (43).

Years of isolationism meant Japan had fallen behind the world powers in terms of technology and military power. When Commodore Matthew Perry flexed his black ships’ military muscle in the early 1850s, Japan had no alternative but to accept his terms.  In professor Ohno’s words, resulting exposure to foreign technology and culture “shattered their (Japan’s) pride,” making Japanese view their own nation as backward and out of step with the world (43).

Japan’s Meiji government looked to the West not to Westernize per se, but to become a powerful nation on the world stage.  While Nitobe doted over Western culture, the Meiji government devised a three pronged plan for modernization that focused on “industrialization (economic modernization), introducing a national constitution and parliament (political modernization), and external expansion (military modernization)” (Ohno 18).


Photo by World Imaging

Political modernization would bring an end to Japan’s feudal system and therefore its ruling samurai class.  New policies stripped the samurai of privileges and blurred class separation.  Voyages in World History explains: 

The Meji reforms replaced the feudal domains of daimyo with regional prefectures under control of the central government.  Tax collection was centralized to solidify the government’s economic control…  All the old distinctions between samurai and commoners were erased: ‘The samurai abandoned their swords… and non-samurai were allowed to have surnames and ride horses.’ The rice allowances on which samurai families had lived were replaced by modest cash stipends.  Many former samurai had to face the indignity of looking for work. (686)

Meanwhile, by strengthening its military Japan sought to protect its interests and become a player on the world stage.  And Japan’s efforts saw quick results.  Kenichi Ohno writes, “In the military arena, Japan won a war against China in 1894-95 and began to invade Korea (it was later colonized in 1910). Japan also fought a victorious war with the Russian Empire in 1904-05.”  These victories demonstrated Japan’s growing military might and gave the nation a needed confidence boost.  Victory over Russia, a “Western nation,” proved Japan had become global power.  The world took notice.

Class mobility and economic freedoms ushered in by ending the samurai led feudal system spurred Japan’s furious growth.  The Meiji government’s plans had begun to bear fruit.

Nitobe’s Ulterior Motives


Photo by Okinawa Soba

While the Meiji government plotted to strengthen Japan’s presence on the world stage, Nitobe sought to change Westerners’ perceptions of Japan from within.

At the time, Westerners knew little about the formerly isolated nation.  Rumors about Japan – a feudalistic society whose armies relied on swords and bows and arrows – painted the picture of an unsophisticated, archaic island nation.  In From Chivalry to Terrorism Leo Braudy writes, “Before World War I, many in Europe viewed Japan as a warrior society unadulterated by either commerce or the control of civilian politicians, with it’s aristocratic military class still intact” (467).

Nitobe put faith in the power of his pen and began to write.  By simplifying the most eloquent, ideal aspects of Japanese culture into terms the West could relate to, he hoped to paint a new, noble image of Japan.  Writing in English only served to make Nitobe’s contrivance more deliberate.  Maria Navarro and Alison Beeby explain,

The original text (of Nitobe’s book) was written in English, which was not Nitobe’s mother tongue… Writing in a foreign language obliges one to “filter” one’s own emotions and modes of expression…  It allows the writer to express more empathy for the ‘other culture’ (in Nitobe’s case Western culture). Furthermore, one is much more conscious of what one wants to say, or what one wishes to avoid saying, in order to make the work more acceptable for intended readers.

In 1899 Nitobe, “the self-described bridge between Japan and the West” published what would later become his most famous work, a romanticized, Westernized summation of the ideals of Japan’s governing class, Bushido: The Soul of Japan (Braudy 467).

Christianity and the Taming of the Samurai


Photo by World Imaging

Bushido: The Soul of Japan represents a synthesis of Japanese culture with Western ideology. Nitobe tames Japan’s samurai class by fusing it with European chivalry and Christian morality.   “I wanted to show…” Nitobe admitted, “that the Japanese are not really so different (from people of the West)” (Benesch 165).  Although it saw release years after the extinction of the samurai, Bushido: The Soul of Japan presents an original idealization and idolization of the samurai class.

Yet Nitobe shapes the concept of bushido around principles of Western culture, not the other way around as might be expected.  Bushido: The Soul of Japan offers a suspicious lack of references to Japanese source material and historical fact.  Instead, the student of English literature relies on Western works and personalities to explain the bushido’s principals.  Nitobe quotes the likes of Mencius, Frederick the Great, Burke, Konstantin Pobedonostsev, Shakespeare, James Hamilton and Bismarck – sources that that have no connection to Japan’s history or culture.

In his self-proclaimed formulation of The Soul of Japan, the devout Christian references the Western Bible more than any other sources.  Somehow Nitobe sees Bible quotes as appropriate and satisfactory support for bushido.  “The seeds of the Kingdom (of God) as vouched for and apprehended by the Japanese mind,” Nitobe declares, “blossomed in Bushido.”

Nitobe spends much of the book ascribing bushido to the tenets of Christianity.  Politeness, he quotes Corinthians 313, “suffereth long, and is kind; envieth not, vaunteth not itself” (50).  Bushido’s benevolence, Nitobe explains, is “embodied by the Christian Red Cross movement, the medical treatment of a fallen foe (46).”

Even a quote by Saigo Takamori, the legendary samurai, takes on a Biblical aura.   “Heaven loves me and others with equal love; therefore with the love wherewith though lovest thyself, love others” (78).  Nitobe himself admits, “Some of those sayings reminds us of Christian expostulations, and show us how far in practical morality natural religion can approach the revealed” (78).

Nitobe even goes as far as to paint the samurai as Japan’s heavenly sent forefathers, holy mechanisms that shaped Japan.  “What Japan was she owed to the samurai.  They were not only the flower of the nation, but its root as well.  All the gracious gifts of Heaven flowed through them” (Nitobe 92).

Giving Soul to Suicide and the Sword


Photo by WikiImages

In his taming of the samurai, Nitobe even justifies their most savage attributes – seppuku (also known as harakiri or ritual suicide) and the sword – under the guise of Christian mores.  And it all starts with the soul.

Nitobe declares that in both Western and Japanese custom, the soul is housed in the stomach.  “They (The Bible’s Joseph, David, Isaiah and Jeremiah) all and each endorsed the belief prevalent among the Japanese that in the abdomen was enshrined the soul” (113).

This assertion allows Nitobe to exalt suicide to a holy act, “The highest estimate placed upon honor was ample excuse with many for taking one’s own life,” before challenging Western readers to resist his interpretation, “I dare say that many good Christians, if only they are honest enough, will confess the fascination of, if not positive admiration for, the sublime composure with which Cato, Brutus, Petronius, and a host of other ancient worthies terminated their own earthly existence.” (113-114).

The sword receives similar treatment and Nitobe declares swordsmiths to be artists, not artisans; swords not weapons, but representations of their owners’ souls.   He explains:

The very possession of the dangerous instrument imparts to him (the samurai) a feeling and air of self-respect and responsibility.  ‘He beareth not the sword in vain’ (Romans 13:4).  What he carries in his belt is a symbol of what he carries in his mind and heart – loyalty and honor…  In times of peace .. it is worn with no more use than a crosier by a bishop or a sceptre by a king (132-133).

Nitobe’s skilled manipulation dignifies and venerates even Japan’s most “savage” customs.  The author’s dedication to and knowledge of Christianity and Western culture allowed him to forge a propaganda tool under the guise of historic fact. Nitobe hoped Bushido: The Soul of Japan would change Western opinions of Japan, raising the country’s status in the world’s eyes.

The Soul of Japan‘s Reception in The West


Photo by Rob at Houghton

Bushido: The Soul of Japan became a hit with Western readers.  “The slim volume,” Tim Clark writes in The Bushido Code: The Eight Virtues of the Samurai, “went on to become an international bestseller,” influencing some of the era’s most influential men.  Nitobe’s treatise so impressed Teddy Roosevelt that he “bought sixty copies to share with friends” (Perez 280).

Although almost exclusively read by scholars, Nitobe’s influence seeped into the Western conscious.  Braudy writes, “This view of Bushido was an attractive image for Westerners…  Balden-Powell has included bushido as an ideal code of honor in his exhortation to the Boy Scouts.  Parliamentary groups… invoked the samurai as kindred spirit and writers on war preparedness haled up the samurai ethos of the Japanese army as a model to follow” (467).

Nitobe’s account shocked readers by providing a glimpse into an unfamiliar, misunderstood world.  With nothing to offer a counter point, Western readers accepted Bushido: The Soul of Japan as a factual representation of Japanese culture, and it remained the West’s quintessential work on the topic for decades.

The Soul of Japan‘s Reception in Japan


Photo by Lx 121

Bushido: The Soul of Japan received a different reaction in Japan.  Although bushido had yet to enter Japan’s mainstream consciousness, scholars’ interpretations of the concept varied and few agreed with Nitobe’s representation.  In fact,”Nitobe stated that he resisted the Japanese translation of his book for years out of fear of what readers might think” (Benesch 157).  Many of those readers attacked Nitobe’s work for its agenda and inaccuracies.

Oleg Benesch explains that most Japanese scholars did not take Nitobe’s work seriously:

At the time of its initial publication, Nitobe’s Bushido: The Soul Of Japan received a lukewarm reception from those Japanese who read the English edition.  Tsuda Sokichi wrote a scathing critique in 1901, rejecting Nitobe’s central arguments.  According to Tsuda… the author knew very little about his subject.  Nitobe’s equation of the term bushido with the soul of Japan was flawed, as bushido could only be applied to a single class… Tsuda further chastised Nitobe for not distinguishing between historical periods. (155)

Many of Nitobe’s contemporaries subscribed to an orthodox bushido based 0n Japan’s ancient history.  This purely Japanese form of bushido was seen as unique and superior to any foreign ideology.  Orthodox writer Tetsujiro Inoue went as far as declaring European chivalry as “nothing but woman-worship” and even derided Confucianism as an inferior Chinese import (Benesch 179).  The orthodox school of thought dismissed Nitobe’s”corrupted,” Christianized version of bushido.

To complicate matters, at the time of Bushido: The Soul of Japan’s release,  few Japanese even recognized the term bushido.  In Musashi: The Dream of the Last Samurai Mamoru Oshii explains, “Bushido was not known among Japanese people…  It appeared in literature, but was not a commonly used word.”

Benesch supports Oshii’s argument:

Indeed, (Bushido: The Soul of Japan) was only the second book-length specific treatment of the subject in modern Japan…  Only four works in the database mention the term before 1895.  The number of publications increases from a total of three in 1899 and 1900 to seven in 1901, six in 1902 and dozens per year from 1903 onward. (153)

Nitobe’s treatise predated bushido as an understandable term and therefore appeared alien to its potential Japanese audience.

To make matters worse, Nitobe’s book romanticized an old fashioned and exploitative class system everyone but the samurai hoped to leave behind.  Accounts of samurai abusing the lower classes run rampant.  Although rare, samurai could lawfully kill members of the lower class (kirisutegomen) for “surliness, discourtesy, and inappropriate conduct” (Cunnigham).

With such inequities, it’s no surprise the lower classes felt no love for Japan’s elite.  Benesch writes, “The disdain most commoners had for the samurai has been described as legendary” (27). Not far removed from the inequities and immobility of the former class structure, the common people had no interest in idolizing or celebrating their former ruling class.

However, Nitobe wrote for Western audiences and therefore never intended for Bushido: The Soul of Japan to be read by Japanese readers.  Nitobe wrote in English, referenced English sources and romanticized facts to satisfy his agenda and influence Western minds.  He did not expect people with critical knowledge on the subject to read his work.  “I did not intend [Bushido: The Soul of Japan] for a Japanese audience,” Nitobe admitted (Benesch 165).

Critique of Inazo Nitobe


Photo by  KoS

Nitobe’s “fear of what (Japanese) readers might think” proved sound when Bushido: The Soul of Japan received heavy criticism in Japan.  However, Nitobe soon found himself under attack as well. Many Japanese scholars accused the author of being unqualified to write on bushido, questioning his expertise on Japanese history and culture.

Unlike the era’s other bushido theorists, Nitobe inhabited the outskirts of his own country and culture. He grew up studying English, sheltered from Japanese culture in Hokkaido.  Nitobe would go on to live abroad, marrying an American woman and dedicating himself to Christianity. Although he eventually returned to Japan and took work as a professor, it was long after Bushido: The Soul of Japan had been written and published. Critics claimed that Nitobe’s alienation from Japanese culture meant he lacked the necessary historical and cultural knowledge to write on an inherently Japanese topic like bushido.

Nitobe’s astounding lack of references to Japanese history and literature add weight to this argument.  Bushido: The Soul of Japan remains curiously void of factual backing, becoming a vehicle for Nitobe’s equivocal ramble and yearning for an imaginary past.

The few Japanese references Nitobe made call his integrity into question. For example, although Saigo Takamori did in fact lead the Satsuma Rebellion, the heroic motivations and suicide Nitobe references were embellished to lionize Saigo as the ideal samurai.

To be fair, many of Nitobe’s critics also ignored factual history and cherry picked data for their own interpretations of bushido.

Many writers on bushido, even in the 20th century, tended to propose their own theories without references to, or regard for, the ideas of other commentators on the subject.  Instead, they gradually relied on carefully selected historical sources and narratives to support their theories. (Benesch 116)

However, Nitobe’s contemporaries’ actions don’t excuse his own.  At its core, Bushido: The Soul of Japan presents baseless conjecture while exposing its author’s detachment from Japanese history and culture.  Nitobe forgoes fact while presenting a wonky rambling on a history he does not and can not support.  While proselytizing a universal morality to gain Japan favor in the West, Nitobe fails to prove bushido’s actual existence.

Give Me That New Old-Time Bushido?


Photo by  T0XiC0k82

Popular culture presents bushido as a concrete moral code so intertwined with Japan’s hallowed samurai class that the two appear inseparable.  But in reality the term bushido did not exist until the twentieth century.  In fact, Nitobe, one of the first scholars to embrace bushido, thought he created the term in 1900.

“Terms like budo (the martial way), bushi no michi (the way of the warrior), and yumiya no michi (the way of the bow and arrow) are far more common,” Benesch writes (7). Although these terms prove that warrior ideals had a place in the Japanese consciousness, equating them to bushido would be inaccurate.

The concept bushido came into use during the Meiji era but wouldn’t gain widespread acknowledgment until Meiji’s end.  Despite popular imagery, ancient samurai did not write about or discuss bushido.  Dishonorable acts didn’t end careers and lives as romanticized histories lead us to believe.

That isn’t to say that ancient Japan lacked laws or moral codes – claiming such would be ridiculous.   Rosalind Wiseman puts it best in her book Queen Bees and Wannabes, “We all know what an honor code is.  It’s a set of behavioral standards including discipline, character, fairness, and loyalty for people to uphold and live up to”(Wiseman 191).  From small communities like workplaces and clubs to large institutions like religions and nations, every culture has honor codes and concepts of morality.

But popular representations of bushido, samurai, and ancient Japan depict a clear and strictly enforced code of honor.  To dishonor oneself was to commit spiritual and physical suicide.  Popularized after the samurai class’s demise, books like Bushido: The Soul of Japan and Yamamoto Tsunetomo’s Hagakure help facilitate this myth, making it seem as if samurai lived and acted according to a literal, clearly defined set of rules that never existed.


Photo by Chris 73

Some researchers cite “kakun” (家訓), or family house rules, as the origin of bushido.  “In many cases the kakun were meant to serve as ethical and behavioral guidelines for the sons or heirs of the writers and often reflect concerns regarding the prosperity and the continuity of the clan” (Henry Smith).

Attributing family kakun to an overarching moral code is a leap most researchers don’t take.  Benesch comments, “Bushido receives little or no mention in postwar scholarship on medieval house codes… Evidence indicates that the association of bushido with (kakun) is a product of late Meiji-era interpretations” (8). Passed down from generation to generation kakun varied greatly by family. The scrolls became family heirlooms, not a set of rules to live by.

Early discourse on the subject exposes how vague warrior class values had been.  “An examination of source materials and later scholarship relating to samurai morality does not reveal the existence of a single, broadly-accepted, bushi specific ethical system at any point in pre-modern Japanese history” (Benesch 14).  Besides, warriors focused on victory and survival – battle didn’t lend itself to counterproductive codes of honor.

Any laws or moral codes put into place during the Edo era actually served to tame Japan’s wild, unprincipled warrior class as they moved from the battlefield to desk jobs.  “The samurai were too busy fighting in earlier centuries, and only began to concern themselves with ethics in the relatively peaceful Edo period” (15).

With no battles to wage, the Tokugawa government relegated swords to ornaments of class, the ultimate status symbols.  Samurai became upper-class bureaucrats with leisure time to spend on philosophical pursuits.  Ideas of honor and etiquette frowned upon disloyalty and senseless violence, playing into the Tokugawa government’s strategy to maintain control over a united Japan.

The Honorable Samurai: Fact or Fiction?


Bushido had never existed as an honor code or term in ancient Japan as Bushido: The Soul of Japan implied.  Nitobe’s representation of the samurai class proves itself just as contrived.  Like all human beings, samurai morals varied by individual.

Honorable Warriors?


Photo by Guidod

Historical accounts show that samurai did not follow an honor code, which would have been an impractical obstacle to survival, victory, and comfortable living.  Timon Screech writes “We are talking mythologies. The belief that samurai ever fought to the death does not survive investigation, nor the claim that they made the sacrifice of disembowelment when atonement was required. The motto the way of the samurai is death was invented long after death had ceased to be on most samurai’s minds or a reality in their lives… they were bureaucrats.”

Although depicted as common practice, seppuku was not the mainstay of the samurai as Nitobe depicted. “It hurt too much,” Screech explains.  “Suicide actually took the form of a pretended stab carried out with a wooden sword, or even a paper fan, at which a signaled assistant would sever the head from behind, cleanly and painlessly.”

Benesch writes that seppuku was “limited to hopeless situations in which a defeated warrior was certain to be subjected to torture, a common practice at the time” (16).  Ignoring seppuku’s factual history, writers romanticized the practice and exalted it to the ultimate form of honor.


Photo by Lepidlizard

And what of the sword, the so-called soul of the samurai?  Charles Sharam explains, “Prior to [the Tokugawa era], the samurai were in fact mounted archers who were highly skilled with the bow and arrow, occasionally using other weapons if necessary. For the greater part of their history, the sword was not an important weapon to the samurai.”

Depicted as the antithesis of the sword in modern media, firearms came to represent the abandonment of “samurai values.”  The loud foreign weapons embodied a loud, dirty (literally due to the gunpowder and smoke), dishonorable way of killing from afar.  But what about archery, the samurai’s original weapon of choice?  Though elegant, bows fired projectiles and killed from afar – just like firearms.  Shouldn’t archery be viewed as just as dishonorable as guns?

Furthermore, samurai had the privilege and advantage of mounted combat.  In fact, Oshii theorizes that Miyamoto Mushashi created his legendary niten ichi (二天一), or two sworded technique for better balance and more efficient killing from the saddle. Both the shooting and cutting down of foot-soldiers from a favorable mounted position clashes with the honorable image of the grounded sword fighter popularized by modern depictions of the samurai.

In Bushido: The Soul of Japan Nitobe describes loyalty as the shining attribute of the samurai class.  However, samurai sullied Japanese history with rampant examples of disloyalty.  G. Cameron Hurst III writes:

In fact, one of the most troubling problems of the premodern era is the apparent discrepancy between… codes exhorting the samurai to practice loyalty and the all-too-common incidents of disloyalty which racked medieval Japanese warrior life. It would not be an exaggeration to say that most crucial battles in medieval Japan were decided by the defection – that is, the disloyalty – of one or more of the major vassals of the losing general. (517)

And although bushido denounces materialism as a corruptive force, samurai weren’t the epitome of anti-materialism that bushido writers like Nitobe described.  Benesch explains:

Loyalty required payment.  Reciprocity was expected at every stage of the process… and most samurai would have considered their own lives to be considerably more important than the lives of their superiors…  (Furthermore) repeated looting of Kyoto evidenced of a lack of ethics, and the great importance warriors placed on appearance (represented) the antithesis of the popular image of the austere and frugal samurai. (19-21)

Honorable Lifestyles?


Photo by WTCA

Tokugawa ushered in an unprecedented era of peace that forever altered the live’s of Japan’s warrior class.  Many samurai moved from the battlefield to civil service positions.  As society’s upper class, these samurai held cushy positions in the new era’s bureaucracy.  Swords became symbols of status, not battle.  With ample leisure time, these samurai enjoyed hobbies such as tea ceremony and calligraphy.  Others spent time in the pleasure quarters.

While peasants toiled in the fields to feed the nation and pay taxes and merchants struggled to maintain a respectable position in society, the samurai worked desk jobs for rice stipends.  Disposable income afforded samurai the luxuries of materialism and the former warriors became Japan’s most fashionable class.  In other words, samurai represented “the one percent” (actually  six to eight percent according to Don Cunningham) of the Tokugawa era.


But not all samurai enjoyed life in the upper class.  Low status samurai made small stipends that barely afforded daily living.  Bound by the Tokugawa era’s strict laws that forbade outside unemployment, some of these samurai renounced their status to become artisans or farmers (Cunningham).

Still other Tokugawa era samurai could not find employment.  These vagrants often turned to dishonorable acts.  As Don Cunningham explains in Taiho-jutsu: Law and Order in the Age of the Samurai, “Facing unemployment and an ill-defined role within their new society, many samurai resorted to criminal activities, disobedience, and defiance” (Cunningham).  With few prospects and mounting frustrations, these samurai dressed and spoke flamboyantly, harassed lower classes, joined gangs, and brawled in the streets.

Whether elite civil servants or unemployed ruffians, Tokugawa era samurai did little to reinforce Nitobe’s depictions of an honor-bound class that set a high moral standard for other classes to aspire to.

Honorable Interpretations?


Photo by World Imaging

The loss of status ushered in by the Meiji government did not please those samurai accustomed to the Tokugawa system.  Benesch states, “The samurai found their social status increasingly challenged by economically powerful commoners, some of whom were also purchasing or receiving samurai privileges such as the right to wear swords” (24).  Rendered useless in an age of peace even the sword, “the soul” and symbol of the samurai had lost meaning.  New class mobility allowed the uppity lower classes to challenge the samurai in both wealth and status.

As the Satsuma Rebellion of 1877 proves, the changes pushed some samurai to take action.  “Gradually eliminating their stipends and special status…  created a large group of disgruntled shizoku (samurai), a number of whom gathered around Saigo Takamori and instigated rebellion.”

Romanticized histories like Bushido: The Soul of Japan and The Last Samurai, depict Saigo as a defender of truth, honor, and the purity of the warrior’s code.  In truth, holdouts from a bygone era rebelled, attempting to preserve their status and cushy way of life that included rice stipends, property, and nepotism.  Professor Ohno points out:

The previous samurai class, now deprived of their rice salary… were particularly unhappy with the new government which was established, ironically by young samurai…  Silk and tea found huge markets, soaring prices enriched farmers.  Enriched farmers bought Western clothes.  The merchant class grew, particularly in Yokohama… Inflation soared (and) samurai and urban populations suffered. (41-43)


Photo by Diogo151

Low ranking and unemployed samurai, many of whom pushed for changes, saw the Meiji era as a change for the better.  A weakened class structure meant poor or unemployed samurai could seek fortune elsewhere.  The abolition of the heredity system allowed for mobility.  Suddenly those in high positions found incentive to work hard.  Although a minority, Saigo and other top ranking samurai had the most to lose and rebelled as a result.

Lucky for Nitobe, honor is in the eye of the beholder, a concept open to interpretation.  For example Nitobe cites The 47 Ronin Story as the ultimate example of loyalty, but others interpret it as a cowardly sneak attack.  Japan celebrates Miyamoto Musashi as its most skilled sword-fighter, yet he arrived late to duels and “dishonorably” sneak-attacked opponents.  Nitobe describes the Satsuma Rebellion as a battle of honor, not a rebellion driven by the preservation of class status.

Although Nitobe and his fellow writers lament the corruption and destruction of bushido by modernity, the concept never existed as they describe.  Samurai were not the loyal, honorable, bastions of bushido that they have come to represent.  Charles Sharam writes in The Samurai: Myth Versus Reality, “Samurai were a superfluous burden on Japanese civilization… that contributed little to society but drained a considerable amount of wealth. That said, their elimination in the years of the Meiji Restoration was most definitely warranted for the betterment of the nation.”

Fascism – Nitobe’s Unintended Consequence


Just decades after ousting the samurai, the Japanese government would find a new use for its former ruling class.  Despite military victories abroad, Japanese officials felt troops lacked confidence and fighting spirit.  Bushido’s image of honorable samurai fighting to the death provided the solution (Oshii).  The ideology that changed the West’s perception of Japan would now serve to fuel fascism and the Japanese war machine.  

According to Nitobe, Japan came from a long line of honorable, brave, and capable warriors that could be extended to all classes.  He wrote, “In manifold ways has bushido filtered down from the social class where it originated, and acted as leaven among the masses, furnishing a moral standard for the whole people” (Nitobe ).

Trickle down bushido meant even the lowliest citizen could aspire to and attain the glory and honor of a samurai.   The warrior spirit was ingrained in the Japanese soul.  By taking bushido mainstream, the Japanese government looked to boost its soldiers’ and citizens’ confidence by applying the ideology among its military and citizenry.


Photo by:  PawełMM

Furthermore, bushido justified Japan’s imperialistic cause by demonstrating Japan’s moral and cultural superiority to other nations.  Bushido writer Suzuki Chikara “felt that both Western and Chinese thought were alien to Japan, and that the nation would have to focus on its own ‘true spirit’ and promote ‘national spirit-ism'” (Benesch 101).  Like America’s Manifest Destiny and the religious zealotry that fueled the crusades, romanticized bushido served to motivate and rationalize Japan’s imperialist agenda.

Now that it had found an ideology, the Japanese government had to make bushido “leaven among the masses” or moving propaganda.  “Civilization and Enlightenment” and “Rich Nation, Strong Army” became wartime slogans.  The nationalized education system streamlined curriculums to spread government rhetoric and foster an enlightened, battle-ready citizenry.

The national curriculum changed history to fit government agendas.  “The Edo-period texts that showed the greatest nostalgia for pre-Tokugawa conditions were carefully selected, condensed, and edited to purge them of those elements which ran counter to the national project in the early twentieth century” (Benesch 21).

Mandatory texts romanticized past events and personalities.  According to Oshii, “False images were created out of government necessity.”  Thanks to the government’s agenda, unfamiliar entities like bushido, Hagakure and Miyamoto Musashi entered the mainstream conscious.


Photo by PawełMM

Nitobe’s Bushido: The Soul of Japan gained popularity in prewar Japan thanks to its ideology and romanticism of the past.  Nitobe declares, “Yamato Damashii, the soul of Japan, ultimately came to express the Volksgeist of the Island Realm” (27).  Defined as the spirit of the people, Hitler embraced Volksgeist for his own fascist agenda (Griffen 255).  Like bushido, Volksgeist celebrated its country’s folk history, cultural heritage and race.  These unrealistic nostalgias for the past sowed the seeds of fascism that would lead to the unspeakable violence and tragedies surrounding World War II.

Bushido would find its ultimate embodiment in kamikaze pilots and foot-soldiers who “honorably” sacrificed themselves for their country.  “Although some Japanese were taken prisoner,” David Powers of BBC writes, “most fought until they were killed or committed suicide.”  As these soldiers’ government issued volumes of Hagakure taught, “Only a samurai prepared and willing to die at any moment can devote himself fully to his lord.”

Nitobe’s Legacy


Although he had never intended it, Nitobe’s fanciful idealization of Japan’s past had obvious fascist implications.  In an eerie prediction of what was to come, Bushido: The Soul of Japan states,

Discipline in self-control can easily go too far.  It can well repress the genial current of the soul.  It can force pliant natures into distortions and monstrosities.  It can beget bigotry, breed hypocrisy, or habituate affections. (110)

Both Nitobe and the imperialist government subverted the truth and exploited Japan’s past for their own ulterior motives.  Thanks to Nitobe, Japan’s ancient soldiers and bureaucrats became honorable, spiritual warriors.  More concerned with loyalty, benevolence, etiquette, and self-control than victory, monetary gains or rank in society, the samurai became a paradigm for readers to aspire to.

But history is ever-changing.  True events fade from memory and years of interpretation’s tincture, both intended and unintended, shape modern understandings of the past.  Blurred mixtures of fact, opinion and fantasy enter mainstream consciousness and gain acceptance as “true” history.

Did Saigo Takamori really commit seppuku at the Satsuma Rebellion’s end?   Did Davy Crockett really fight to his death at the Alamo, or was he executed upon surrender as some historians believe?  Was the Satsuma Rebellion a battle for virtue or for status?  Was the Boston Tea Party a rebellion against unfair taxation or wealthy American merchants fighting to maintain their monopoly over tea?  And what about George Washington cutting down his father’s cherry tree?  And his wooden teeth?

While the truth may never be known or agreed upon, it’s important to question the events and the motivations behind our so-called histories.  In Japan’s case, government manipulated histories, including a glorified samurai class and bushido code, became propaganda that helped inspire a fanatical war machine.

Society often looks for answers to our present problems in the past.  Like the current Tea Party movement’s misinformed exploitation of America’s past, Nitobe’s bushido created a yearning for the unsubstantiated simplicity and purity of a bygone era.

As The Last Samurai proves, Nitobe’s legacy lives on.  Accurate or not, his simplified idealization of bushido and the samurai still garners the world’s admiration.  And as long as it does, popular culture will follow in the footsteps of both Inazo Nitobe and the Japanese government, exploiting their mythical image for its own motives – consumer’s hard earned cash.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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  • Benesch, Oleg.  Bushido: The Creation of a Martial Ethic In Late Meiji Japan
  • Braudy, Leo. From Chivalry to Terrorism: War and the Changing Nature of Masculinity. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003.
  • Cunningham, Don. Taiho-jutsu: Law and Order in the Age of the Samurai. Boston: Tuttle Pub., 2004. Print.
  • Griffin, Roger, and Matthew Feldman. Fascism: Critical Concepts in Political Science. London: Routledge, 2004.
  • Hansen, Valerie, and Kenneth Robert. Curtis. Voyages in World History. Second Ed. Print.
  • Hurst, Cameron G. “Death, Honor, and Loyality: The Bushido Ideal.”Philosophy East and West 40.4 (1990): 511. Web.
  • Miyamoto Musashi: Souken Ni Haseru Yume. Dir. Mizuho Nishikubo. Prod. Mitsuhisa Ishikawa. By Mamoru Oshii. Production I.G., 2009. DVD.
  • Navarro, María Teresa Rodríguez, and Allison Beeby. Self-Censorship and Censorship in Nitobe Inazo, Bushido: The Soul of Japan, and Four Translations of the Work. TTR : Traduction, Terminologie, Rédaction 23.2 (2010): 53.
  • Oshiro, George M. “Nitobe Inazo and the Sapporo Band.” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 34.1 (2007): 99-126. Nazan Institute for Religion and Culture.
  • Perez, Louis G. Japan at War: An Encyclopedia. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2013. Print.
  • Powers, David. Japan, No Surrender in WWII. BBC.
  • Wiseman, Rosalind. Queen Bees & Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and Other Realities of Adolescence. New York: Crown, 2002.

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Beauty is in the Language of the Beholder Thu, 04 Dec 2014 17:00:00 +0000 Is a rose in full bloom beautiful? How about a decaying flower losing its petals? Are straight teeth or crooked teeth more aesthetically pleasing? Would you rather put a gilded porcelain vase or a warped, weathered piece of pottery in the middle of your living room? Photo by: mout1234 That depends on your sense of aesthetics. […]

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Is a rose in full bloom beautiful? How about a decaying flower losing its petals? Are straight teeth or crooked teeth more aesthetically pleasing? Would you rather put a gilded porcelain vase or a warped, weathered piece of pottery in the middle of your living room?


Photo by: mout1234

That depends on your sense of aesthetics. Beauty might seem like a self-explanatory concept but it’s actually remarkably malleable and culturally variable. Humans like pretty things, but they don’t always agree on what qualifies as pretty. Heck, Western academies invented a whole branch of philosophy known as aesthetics just so they could argue with each other about the nature, creation, and appreciation of beauty. And just about every language comes equipped with a vocabulary of aesthetic concepts, a verbal set (or sets) of standards that a culture uses to appraise beauty.


Japanese, of course, is no exception. Biishiki (美意識) refers to one’s sense of beauty, and the word is the closest Japanese relative to the English word “aesthetics.” However, rather than a philosophy reserved almost solely for the fine arts, biishiki as a concept is much more integrated with all realms of life. There are a slew of aesthetic concepts that fall under this linguistic umbrella, but I’m going to introduce just 7 manifestations of biishiki in this article. Aesthetic vocabulary words in any language are like mini-solar systems, where a single word acts like the gravity gluing together a constellation of related ideas that it keeps in orbit. These little words can mean so much thanks to their decades and even centuries of usage, as layer upon layer of meaning accumulated around a select few phonetic symbols.


Without further ado, let’s begin our (roughly chronological) tour of some key Japanese aesthetic concepts.

Miyabi (雅 / みやび)


…a spray of plum blossoms, the elusive perfume of a rare wood, the delicate blending of colors in a robe…A man might first be attracted to a woman by catching a glimpse of her sleeve, carelessly but elegantly draped from a carriage window, or by seeing a note in her calligraphy, or by hearing her play a lute one night in the dark. Later, the lovers would exchange letters and poems, often attached to a spray of the flower suitable for the season.

– Sources of Japanese Tradition: From Earliest Times to 1600

In a word, miyabi can be translated as “courtliness.” The court in question here refers to the aristocratic court of the Heian period (794-1185) that fostered this aesthetic ideal. Related to the word miyako (都), or “capital,” miyabi is all about refinement and elegance—and in the Heian period, the capital of Japan was the capital of miyabi. Cultivating miyabi entails 1) eliminating all vulgarities, absurdities, crudities, and roughness, and 2) polishing appearances and/or manners to the most graceful possible level. In addition to objects and experiences, people can also be endowed with miyabi—the miyabi individual is cultured, dignified, and strongly adheres to decorum.


Photo by: s.yume

Miyabi’s hold over the Japanese cultural imagination had a limiting effect as well as a generative one, since it often prevented the direct expression of “cruder” emotions or unsavory aspects of life. Because really, just how many poems about moon-viewing can you write before you want to stick a calligraphy brush in your eye? Luckily, miyabi is no longer the final word on artistic merit, but it will forever have a place in Japanese culture.


Photo by: Aurelio Asiain

Surprisingly, the miyabi aesthetic ideals of the Heian elites filtered down into the subsequently ruling military class, and from there diffused into the populace at large. As East Asian scholar William de Bary observes about the presence of miyabi in modern Japan, the “love of conventionally admired sights of nature is genuine, not a pose, and it extends to all classes. The annually renewed excitement over cherry blossoms or reddening maples or first snow is an important element of the Japanese year. A letter that failed to open with mention of these sights of nature would strike the recipient as being curiously insensitive.” Furthermore, the continued preference for indirect expression in modern Japanese can be traced to miyabi.


Aware/Mono no Aware (哀れ・物の哀れ)


Photo by: Gideon Davidson

The blossoms of the Japanese cherry trees are intrinsically no more beautiful than those of, say, the pear or the apple tree: they are more highly valued because of their transience, since they usually begin to fall within a week of their first appearing. It is precisely the evanescence of their beauty that evokes the wistful feeling of mono no aware in the viewer.

– The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

京にても 京なつかしや 時鳥

Kyou nitemo
kyou natsukashi ya

Even in Kyoto—
hearing the cuckoo’s cry—
I long for Kyoto

-Haiku By Matsuo Basho

Aware has come a long way in the last thousand years. Many, many moons ago, back at the beginning of the same Heian period that brought you the hit aesthetic concept miyabi, aware functioned as an exclamation of surprise or delight like “oh!” or “ah!” But by the year 1200 aware had gone from a simple “oh!” to a complex emotion. Gradually the word came to be tinted with sadness, an expression of gentle sorrow upon seeing a sight both achingly beautiful and woefully temporary.


Photo by: T.Kiya

In the 18th century aware went through another growth spurt. The groundbreaking scholar Motoori Norinaga expanded and expounded upon the notion of aware as a foundational aspect of Japanese culture in his literary love letter to The Tale of Genji. In his writings, Motoori used the phrase mono no aware (variously translated as “the pathos of things,” “empathy toward things,” and “the ahhness of things”). He argued that this concept went beyond mere sadness and joy and instead signified “a profound sensitivity to the emotional and affective dimensions of existence in general.” (From “The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy”)

Whether it’s called aware or mono no aware, the pathos, empathy, or “ahh-ness” inherent in the concept encompasses a Buddhist awareness of the transient and ephemeral nature of all things, with an accompanying sadness or wistfulness at their passing, as well as a heightened appreciation for their momentary beauty. Deep stuff! In other words, aware is a kind of reverse nostalgia, an aching for the present from the perspective of the future. Aware still inhabits the arts and daily life, finding expression equally in the acclaimed films of Yasujiro Ozu and the annual custom of hanami. And the word has even come full circle as a conversational exclamation, albeit in a more depressing vein. To gasp “aware!” now means something along the lines of “how wretched” or “how pitiful!”


Photo by: sunnywinds*

Yugen (幽玄)


Photo by: Roger Andrés

…it may be comprehended by the mind, but it cannot be expressed in words…its quality may be suggested by the sight of a thin cloud veiling the moon or by autumn mist swathing the scarlet leaves on a mountainside…

- Shotetsu monogatari in Zoku gunsho ruiju

Of all the aesthetics in this article, yugen might be the trickiest one to pin down. The term made its first appearance in Chinese philosophy texts where it signified “dark” or “mysterious.” From the early 13th century through the 15th century, yugen accumulated layers of connotations until it became the marker for a subtly profound, gracefully remote, and deeply mysterious beauty.


Photo by: MIKI Yoshihito

One of the two founders of the Noh theater, Zeami, esteemed yugen as the highest possible artistic ideal, and made lasting contributions to its conception. Zeami’s writings, almost as obscure and inscrutable as yugen itself, describe yugen as a beauty that leaves empty space for the audience’s imagination to fill in, as an aesthetic that prefers allusiveness over explicitness and completeness.

Or as William de Bary describes its effect: “Although the gesture is in itself beautiful, it is the gateway to something beyond as well, as the hand points to depths as profound as the viewer is seeing. It is a symbol not of any one object or conception but of an eternal region, an eternal silence.”

Well, then. I’ll just let the eternal silence speak for itself.


Photo by: 55Laney69

Jo-ha-kyu (序破急)


Photo by: Wally Gobetz

…I often ask a group of actors to sit in a circle, close their eyes, and clap their hands together, while trying to keep the sound in unison. No leader, no pre-fixed rhythm. Every time, once the group has come together, the clapping will start to imperceptibly speed up until a climax is reached. Then it will slow down again (though not as slow as the original starting point), and once more start to speed up until it reaches a second climax. And so on…This is an organic rhythm which can easily be observed in the body’s build-up to sexual orgasm. Almost any rhythmic physical activity will tend to follow this pattern if left to itself.

-The Invisible Actor by Yoshi Oida


These three stages of sprout, flower, and fruit, are, as I said, the jo-ha-kyu of training throughout your life.

- Zeami: Performance Notes by Zeami

Sprout, flower, and fruit? Literally, the compound jo-ha-kyu means “beginning, scattering, rushing.” As an aesthetic concept describing temporal and/or spatial movement, jo-ha-kyu originated from the three-part structure (the jo, ha, and kyu) of bugaku court music and dance (practiced by elites since the Heian period). Rather than a “beginning, middle, and end” or a “witch’s hat” plot model, jo-ha-kyu is a cyclical structure that gives shape to performances that lack a single climax or clear sectional divisions.


Photo by: Pinky-san

Jo begins slowly, engaging in exploration and building expectation. Ha speeds things up, the unfolding and then scattering of an idea. Kyu dissolves rapidly into the original pace, a culmination of the ha and then a reincarnation as jo. Jo-ha-kyu usually runs through multiple cycles, so that the cumulative effect is of an undulating wave, like the ocean repeatedly crashing on a shoreline—rippling, surging, and cresting, over and over again. To see and hear how this works, check out this video:

For a while, jo-ha-kyu existed only in the bugaku music and dance that accompanied it. However, during the Muromachi period (1337-1573) the concept was adapted and incorporated into a wide variety of performance mediums that survive even in modern Japan–from the tea ceremony to kendo to Noh theater. Along with our dark and mysterious friend yugen, Zeami made jo-ha-kyu of central concern to Noh theater. He further argued that the structure expressed the universal pattern of movement of all things, the very rhythm of the universe–from the sexual cycle to the setting of the sun.


Photo by: Christian Kaden

Wabi-sabi (侘び寂び)

beauty is in the language temple

Photo by: Synn Wang

Are we to look at cherry blossoms only in full bloom, the moon only when it is cloudless? To long for the moon while looking on the rain, to lower the blinds and be unaware of the passing of the spring—these are even more deeply moving. Branches about to blossom or gardens strewn with faded flowers are worthier of our admiration…

- Essays in idleness (Tsurezuregusa) by Yoshida Kenko, selected by William de Bary to Convey sabi

Hana mo momiji mo
Ura no tomaya no
Aki no yugure

Looking about
Neither flowers
Nor scarlet leaves.
A bayside reed hovel
In the autumn dusk.

– Fujiwara no Teika’s Poems, selected by Takeno Joo to convey wabi

Though they’re basically conjoined twins now, wabi and sabi weren’t always attached at the hyphen. Wabi or wabishii was once relegated to describe things wretched, dreary, and shabby. Meanwhile, sabi or sabishii was the adjective of choice for desolate, old, and lonely things. Around the 14th century, both words got a makeover. Wabi gained the positive or at least neutral connotations of natural, simple, humble, asymmetric. And sabi evolved into graceful, fleeting, aged, weathered. These fuzzy little linguistic caterpillars turned into butterflies, or at least moths.


Photo by: Snake Cats

Over time the revamped individual meanings of wabi and sabi overlapped and converged into the unified aesthetic of wabi-sabi. The humble and the aged, the natural and the fleeting—far from being disparaged, or merely accepted, things endowed with these qualities came to be outright celebrated. Not to mention that wabi-sabi had Zen Buddhism on its side, since both word and religion encouraged the appreciation of transience and imperfection in nature, humanity, and man-made objects.


Photo by: gullevek

As an ironic side-note, the definitionally humble wabi-sabi became so prized that it also became obscenely expensive. During the Muromachi period, large amounts of time and money were spent to acquire and produce flawed, aged objects—objects that now lie in laser-secured glass cases in museums around the world and fetch outrageous sums at auction. Though I suppose that’s not a far cry from the phenomenon of “distressed” designer jeans with ludicrously expensively pre-ripped knees…

beauty-is-in-the-language Christian Kaden cup

Photo by: Christian Kaden

Shibui (渋い)


Photo by: Tzong-Lin Tsai

…as a critical term, the Japanese use the word in innumerable aspects of their everyday lives. “That’s a shibui color, isn’t it”; “a shibui performance”’ “he has a shibui voice”; “her dress is shibui”; and so on. Just as there is shibui material, so there are shibui houses. A sumo wrestler may have a shibui style and so even, may a baseball player…the concept of shibui implies an outlook which is practical, devoid of frills, and unassuming, one which acts as circumstances require, simply and without fuss…neither flashy, nor yet dull…

True beauty lies in its ability to share intimately in one’s daily life; in its practical usefulness and its simple efficiency; in its rich human touch; in its ability to create just this kind of healthy relationship…Compared with this, the beauty for its own sake which the word “beauty” usually refers to, even though originally a product of everyday life, has gradually become divorced from life…

– The World of Shibui by Michiaki Kawakita

During the Muromachi period, poor little shibui meant nothing more than “astringent” or “bitter,” the antonym of “sweet.” It was a word to describe an unripe persimmon, not a pretty thing. Shibui is still a word to describe an unripe persimmon, but ever since the Edo period (1603-1868) it’s also been a signifier of minimalist beauty–of the understated, subdued, and restrained.


Photo by: Christian Kaden

The burgeoning commoner class of the Edo era transformed shibui from a literal taste into an aesthetic taste that reflected the virtues of their own songs, fashions, and craftsmanship. On that basis, the shibui forgoes unnecessary frills and rejects the artificially ornamental in favor of overall simplicity and subtle detail.


Photo by: 挪威 企鵝

From the elegantly austere geometry of Edo-period textiles to the sleekly refined design of modern Japanese electronics, shibui has been and continues to be highly influential in Japan. And even if the word itself hasn’t become common international currency, shibui does seem to be traveling abroad. The growing global presence and popularity of Japanese retail outlets like Uniqlo and Muji (selling shibui clothing and shibui home goods respectively) suggests that 17th century Japanese commoners would be quite pleased if they somehow time-traveled to the 21st century.


Photo by: Tony & Wayne

Iki (粋)


…Iki developed in a social context in which one found no faces blackened by the sun, no tough palms or stout, strong-jointed fingers, no conversations shouted in broad dialect. The rough behavior that might accompany tilling, logging, fishing, or salt making was entirely out of place. Indeed, any activity taking place in fields, forests, or waters—activities in which efforts were directed at the nonhuman—were incompatible with iki. Iki emerged entirely from the subtle tensions in human relationships…an aesthetic of the metropolis…the realm of possibility, a realm in which relations between people maintain a subtle vibrating tension, appearing and vanishing, at once weak and impassioned, both intimate and distant.

- Edo Culture: Daily Life and Diversions in Urban Japan, 1600-1868 By Matsunosuke Nishiyama


Photo by: Mami H.Gibbs

One beautiful April morning, in search of a cup of coffee to start the day, the boy was walking from west to east, while the girl, intending to send a special-delivery letter, was walking from east to west, but along the same narrow street in the Harajuku neighborhood of Tokyo. They passed each other in the very center of the street. The faintest gleam of their lost memories glimmered for the briefest moment in their hearts. Each felt a rumbling in their chest. And they knew:

She is the 100% perfect girl for me.

He is the 100% perfect boy for me.

But the glow of their memories was far too weak, and their thoughts no longer had the clarity of fouteen years earlier. Without a word, they passed each other, disappearing into the crowd.

A sad story, don’t you think?

Yes, that’s it, that is what I should have said to her.

– “On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl One Beautiful April Morning” By Murakami Haruki

Basically, iki was cool before “cool” was cool. Like shibui, iki emerged from Edo period urban culture, particularly from the burgeoning brothel and theater districts. The essence of iki is the essence of urbanity, an effortlessly stylish and unpretentious chic that is both alluring and aloof.


According to Edo period historian Matsunosuke Nishiyama, the three main ingredients of iki were: 1) hari, a “straightforward, coolly gallant manner,” 2) bitai, a “flirtatious allure and light coquettishness,” and 3) akanuke, an “unpretentious air…an unconcerned, unassuming character.” Iki can broadly apply to someone’s persona (of either gender) as well as to experiences and to man-made phenomena like films, urban landscapes, and fashion.

After the Edo period came to an end, iki faded out of cultural consciousness until the 1930s, when Kuki Shuzo re-popularized the concept with his influential philosophical tract, The Structure of Iki. Since then iki’s been alive and well. Heavily urbanized modern Japan serves up iki everywhere from Murakami Haruki’s writing (often cited as an embodiment of iki) to the “host clubs” that populate entertainment quarters (and deliberately cultivate an iki atmosphere for their female clientele).


Photo by: Héctor García

Roses Are Dead, Violets Are Too


Photo by: Randy Woolsey

For every biishiki term I covered, there’s a dozen I had to leave out. So if this sampling’s got you hungry for more, there’s plenty to choose from. Check out this article for coverage of the kawaii craze (an aesthetic concept that arose in the 1970s) or pick up a copy of Japanese Aesthetics and Culture: A Reader by Nancy G. Hume for a general (but thorough!) overview. That said, even the seven concepts I did cover have a whole lot more to offer. I chose them because they’re particularly meaty and foundational to Japanese culture, but that also meant that I had to leave quite a bit out. After all, there are entire books worth of material in multiple languages dedicated to just about every one of them. So if one of the above biishiki particularly strikes your fancy, you can be assured I only scratched the surface.


Photo by: Thomas

You know when you learn a new word and then suddenly you start seeing it everywhere? Whether you’re super into traditional Japanese screen paintings, dream of touring famous sites in Kyoto, want to try your hand at learning kendo or tea ceremony, or get invited to take part in a hanami picnic, you’ll start seeing biishiki popping up everywhere. Even if you’re just walking around your own backyard in the dead of winter, or using a particularly well-designed object—you’ll start seeing wabi-sabi and shibui where you would have seen nothing particular before. At least that’s how I felt when I first learned about all these concepts. They’re each like a pair of glasses that can uniquely frame and filter the world around you, giving definition and shape to previously blurry surroundings. Suddenly, decaying flowers can be just as beautiful as blooming ones—and now you don’t have to worry about watering them regularly.


Photo by: Stuart Brown

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Atari, Hane, and Monkey Jumps: How to Play Go Tue, 02 Dec 2014 17:00:00 +0000 Why play Go? Go is simpler to play than chess but harder to win. Go is older than Japan yet you can see it being played every Sunday on Japanese Channel 3. Go starts with an empty board then builds until the game looks like a work of art. Most importantly, Go is an awesome […]

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Why play Go? Go is simpler to play than chess but harder to win. Go is older than Japan yet you can see it being played every Sunday on Japanese Channel 3. Go starts with an empty board then builds until the game looks like a work of art. Most importantly, Go is an awesome abstract strategy board game with an almost entirely Japanese vocabulary that you can learn to play in the time it takes you to read this piece I wrote to teach you how to play it (and it’s pretty short, trust me).

Go Culture

Go is like chess (the western kind or the Japanese version, shogi) except its rules are simpler and the resulting game is more complex. Go looks a lot like Othello/Reversi (black and white stones on a board with a grid of lines) and there’s a cool anime and manga series about it called “Hikaru no Go.” Also cool: Despite all kinds of efforts made by programmers, computers still aren’t very good at Go. Unlike chess, Go programs only very rarely beat professional players.

Japan started playing Go a long time ago, in the Nara period, in the 8th century. But the exact same game has been played in China for much, much longer: Confucius and his followers wrote about the game in the Analects in the 5th century BC. The game has been played by Chinese aristocrats for almost the entirety of recorded history, and it has hardly changed. Back then, they played on a 17×17 grid instead of 19×19, and there were no komi compensation points for the player who goes second. Those are the only major differences between how the game is played now and how it was played by the Zhou Dynasty 2500 years ago.

There is actually a huge network of Go players out there in the U.S., Canada, and the rest of the world. I found people to play against in my small hometown, and my small college town, and there is always a huge community ready to play online.

The only downside: No one can decide what to call it in English. We mostly call it “Go,” based on the Japanese name: Igo. Unfortunately, Go is already a super common English word, so I have to capitalize it every time (unlike chess or shogi) and it’s just about impossible to Google anything about the game without using one of its other names. In China, it’s called weiqi, and in Korea, baduk.

Go also uses a cool ranking system to determine handicaps, so you can officially or unofficially “level up” as you get better at the game. Like in judo and some other martial arts, amateurs start at something like 20 or 30 kyu then work their way up backwards to 15 kyu, 10 kyu, and eventually 1 kyu. After that the next ranking is 1 dan, which goes up from there to 7 dan. Even before I was any good at the game, saying I was an 18k level player was always fun and it was rewarding to move up the ranks by beating higher-ranked players.

The Rules

Photo via  Wikimedia Commons

The rules of Go are deceptively simple. Though there are variants, the traditional and by far most common game is this:

  • There are two players. One uses black stones and the other uses white.
  • They take turns placing stones on any intersection on a 19 by 19 grid of lines (19 is just the most common. The board can be any rectangular size from 2×2 to 786×918 if you want). They may put a stone anywhere that does not already have a stone (except for spaces where their stone would be captured).
  • A stone or group of stones is captured when there are no empty spaces adjacent to it. Kind of hard to explain, so check out some examples here. Captured stones are removed from the board and those spaces are now empty and new stones can be played on them.
  • The goal is to surround as many board spaces with stones of your color as possible by the end of the game.
  • You get a point for each space you surround with your stones, and you get a point for each stone you captured during the game. The white player also gets komi points due to black’s advantage in going first. Usually the komi is 6.5 or thereabouts, with the .5 added to break any ties.
  • You can’t play a move that takes the game back to exactly where it was previously. This is the only kind of weird rule, and it’s just to prevent the (fairly common) ko situation, in which both players can capture each other in the same spot over and over. Don’t worry about it.

That’s it. Nothing so complicated as chess and every piece’s different maneuvers. Now you know how to play, but the question now becomes “Where the heck do I put my pieces on this giant board?” We’re going to go over a little bit of basic strategy in a moment, but it’s a huge, endless subject, and maybe the best thing to do would be to play a few quick games. At this site, you can play against the computer on different board sizes. Play some games on a 5×5 board to start getting a feel for when pieces are captured and how the game is scored. Then come back here and read on for some strategy and where to go next.


Photo via Blue Ruin 1

Hoo boy, here’s where it gets complicated. If you’re playing on a 19×19 board, you can feel completely lost at the start of a game when you don’t really know how to play. And it doesn’t get any easier after that: How do you create territory? What do you do when your opponent creates huge territory but doesn’t solidify it with more stones? How do you know a piece can’t be taken? Let’s go over a few of those questions right now.

Where do I play my first turns?

Like chess, Go has a lot of opening strategies. A standard 19×19 board is huge, and with no experience playing or watching Go, the number of choices can be overwhelming. Thankfully, a standard board has something to help guide you:  The bold spots on the intersections in the corners, center, and sides, called the hoshi or star points. Boards will almost always have the star points or hoshi emboldened, as you can see here:

Go board


Because the game is about building territory, it’s recommended that you play first on the corners. It takes fewer stones to make viable territory in a corner, so the corners of the board are valuable. The most popular spots to start are either on a corner star point or on the third line from the side next to a star point. After claiming two corners with a stone each, you can either fortify those or move to a side star point and begin creating influence on a side. Or you can choose to attack one of your opponent’s corners. There are too many choices to mention in a beginner’s guide.

Why not play first on the center spot, also called tengen? The center spot is a very strong opening move on smaller board sizes, but on the 19×19, a single stone in the center doesn’t have enough influence on eventual territory to be considered a viable opening move. There is a “gimmicky” or “silly” opening strategy called the Great Wall which involves playing first on the center spot which can be effective if it’s not played against inventively. But don’t get too bogged down in thinking about your opening. In general, play in the corners, then the sides, and then the center, and you’ll have the right idea of building territory in Go.

How do I take my opponent’s stones?

First of all, most of the common beginner’s mistakes in Go come from trying too hard to take your opponent’s stones. It’s very hard to capture stones against a competent opponent. Some captures will happen in every game, but you don’t win by trying to kill your opponent. You win by building the right amount of influence in the right areas to build as much territory as possible, while making sure you only play in areas where you can build a living shape (more on that in a second).

That being said, if you want to figure out how to incisively attack your opponent’s groups, try some Go problems. These are constructed Go game scenarios that primarily build your ability in protecting your groups and attacking your opponent’s groups a few moves at a time. It’s not the most important skill to develop right away, but with enough practice on Go problems, you will start to naturally understand how to attack and defend.

When are shapes “alive” and when are they “dead?”

Groups of stones form shapes, and those shapes can be eaten whole by your enemy no matter how big they are if they don’t have any empty spaces around them. The key to keeping a shape alive is to give it “two eyes.” No matter how big or small, a shape that fully surrounds two empty spaces (little holes in  your shape that almost look like eyes) cannot be taken. Here, the black group here has two eyes and cannot be taken:

Go two Eyes configuration

 Image from Sensei’s Library

If you only have one eye in your shape, then your opponent can completely surround that shape then put a stone in the eye, taking your stones’ last empty space and capturing each stone. He can’t do that if the shape has two eyes. He would have to take two moves at once to fill in both holes and take the shape, and he can’t play a stone in a space that’s surrounded by your stones unless it kills the shape.

That’s why a shape with two eyes is called “alive” and a shape that cannot create two eyes is “dead.” Once a shape can’t possibly make a second eye, there’s no point in playing stones in that shape any more.

What Now?

Find a Go club! Nerds like me are always thrilled to teach the game to new players to feed our egos, so virtually any Go club is friendly to newbies. The American Go Association keeps a list of clubs, and this Google map also has quite a few on it. Even more can be found on or BoardGameGeek or other websites where someone might try to find other Go players.

If you’re not a fan of real human people, or if you’re too anxious to wait five whole days for the next Go club event, I would recommend KGS. It’s a popular online Go server that keeps track of your stats and archives your games for you. There are specific rooms for beginners, so you can find a game with other weak players and play online quickly. You can even play computer opponents through the internet through KGS if you want, though there are plenty of other programs you can download if you just want to play a computer.

If you’re not in the mood to play, you could read about the game at Sensei’s Library, a wiki about Go. You can learn about anything there from strategies to terminology (like atari, hane, and monkey jumps) to reports of famous games in the history of Go.

You can also start following professional Go. Go is covered almost like a sport in China, Korea, and Japan, with newspaper and TV coverage of the top competitions. With the right software, you can download game replays from big competitions like Japan’s Kisei Tournament and click through them move by move, sometimes with commentary added. It will be hard to understand the details move-by-move until you know a lot more about Go, but it doesn’t hurt to see a few professional games just to get a sense of how things should generally look in a real game.

You can also buy books, or watch Hikaru no Go, or play around with weird Go variants, but that’s all ahead of you for now. There’s so much to learn about the game, and who knows? Maybe you’ll be a genius and you’ll become a professional player, touring the world and making money with mind sports. You’ll be up against players who have studied the game since they were five years old, nothing’s impossible.

Go may be the deepest board game of all time, and it’s fun to play at any level. Give it a shot, learn some new vocabulary and culture, and you’ll come away smarter even if you decide not to play much more of the game. Meanwhile, I’ll be reading my big book of joseki and battling it out online with some 12 kyus.

Bonus Wallpapers!

[Desktop – 1280×720] ・ [Desktop – 5120×2880] ・ [Mobile – 640×1136]

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Megane Culture: Japan’s Love Affair with Glasses Mon, 01 Dec 2014 17:00:31 +0000 Glasses. I choose to wear glasses. I own contact lenses, and I can finance laser eye surgery, yet I still choose glasses. Glasses just make sense. Perhaps if my profession deemed eyewear to be an obstacle, say skydiving or kite surfing or something requiring me to bare my eyes, I would reconsider. As it is, […]

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Glasses. I choose to wear glasses. I own contact lenses, and I can finance laser eye surgery, yet I still choose glasses. Glasses just make sense. Perhaps if my profession deemed eyewear to be an obstacle, say skydiving or kite surfing or something requiring me to bare my eyes, I would reconsider. As it is, I go without, or is that go with? Glasses are me, and in Japan, while not my defining trait, the word megane 眼鏡 (glasses) is often used to describe men and women who wear them.

Me-ga-ne-kun!” Yo-yo wagged her finger as she playfully tried to dissuade me from entering the fifth optical shop on our itinerary. Donning a lensless pair, her eyelashes extended beyond the frames. She batted her eyes, pouting, “No more today? I’m hungry.” Crossing an arm, she pointed to her chin.

For every Meganekun there are three Meganekko メガネっ娘, and she is that glasses wearing girl! Going ten notches further than her masculine juxtaposition is a pleasant, bookish, clever class representative, the hall monitor, the prefect minding the shop. This isn’t just some kind of anime trope. It’s real, in the work place, at school, and on the street. Meganekko isn’t the hot secretary or naughty librarian. She is not playing coy. Unfortunately, what this also means is that glasses are often thought to be her most attractive trait, or rather, what her glasses symbolize. Taking Meganekko’s glasses away rarely ends well. Why? Because she needs them.

Necessities Of War

In 1549 the Society of Jesus founded in Spain sent missionary Francisco St. Xavier to Japan. Taking possession of the many gifts the Jesuit brought, the Japanese also acquired eyeglasses for the first time. It was only later in the 17th century that Japanese artisans began polishing natural quartz into ophthalmic lenses. Later in the century, glass was substituted for quartz. And it was at this time Japanese “gem-artists” (opticians) began designing frames with ergonomics in mind.

“During this 17th century, the Japanese excelled in string spectacles, added the midline nasal projection bridge, and reserved the largest spectacles for the nobility.” – Spectacles in Japan

From early optics to today’s modern form, Japan reveals itself in its pursuit of adaptation, quality, and aesthetic. In 1873 the Japanese government sponsored Matsugoro Asakura to study optical manufacturing in Austria. Having returned to Japan in 1875, Asakura began building a lens making factory. By 1883, his son, Kametaro Asakura produced Japan’s first multi-element photographic lens. The Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895) saw the importation of high powered Carl Zeiss (German) binoculars which highlighted the strategic necessity of quality optics. This military need created a rush toward domestic development as well as the beginning of many well-known Japanese manufacturers.

1911 – Fujii Bros. import German fabrication equipment and Zeiss measuring instruments to manufacture quality optics.
1914 – World War I begins.
1915 – Optical glass supplies from Germany interrupted.
1917 – Fujii joins with the Tokyo Keiki Seisaku Sho (Tokyo Measuring Instrument Works – metal fabricators), and Iwaki Glass, (also Mitsubishi, who provided investment funds), to form Nippon Kogaku (Nikon), for the purpose of manufacturing optical munitions.
1918 – Nippon Kogaku exported over 15,000 prism binoculars (in 18 models) to England, France, America, and Russia.
1918 – World War I ends.
1919 – Asahi Kogaku (Pentax) begins manufacturing ophthalmic lenses.
1919 – Takachiho Seisaku Sho (Olympus) founded.
1921 – German scientists and engineers brought to Nippon Kogaku for redesign.
1928 – Nichi-Doku Shashinki Shoka (Minolta) founded.
1930s – Nippon Kogaku develops highly effective field reticle binoculars.
1933 – Seiki Kogaku Kenku Sho (Canon) founded.
1934 – Fuji Photo Film Co. founded.
1938 – Fuji begins producing optical glass.
1939 – World War II begins.
1939 – Nippon Kogaku ramps up production with 25,000 employees and 25 factories.
1942 – Minolta commissioned by Japanese Navy to manufacture optical glass.
1945 – World War II ends.

Pushing Technology

With significant history behind the lens, no reader should be left in doubt as to Japanese competence in the field of visual acuity. If the timeline demonstrates that, “necessity is the mother of invention,” then I will note that war is the invention of necessity. As with the need for precision glass optics in military use, advancement of plastics can also be attributed to the munitions industry with their innovations in both lens and frame materials. Recent military lens technology, such as Trivex, has led to dramatic improvements in material clarity, strength, and weight. Further redefining the optics industry, Japanese manufacturers Hoya and Seiko have begun using digital eye mapping technology, otherwise known as Wavefront (the same technology utilized for laser eye surgery), in creating precision tuned High Definition eyeglasses.


As a rule, dispensation of corrective lenses throughout Japan is much less regulated than in the Western world, which significantly cuts down on cost. In addition to the fierce competition that exists between retail outlets, these savings are passed directly to the consumer. So let it be argued that any trip to Japan would be remiss if one were to forego a visit to one of the many optical dispensaries.

The first thing that hits a customer when entering a Japanese optometry is the sheer number of quality frames. They carry everything from the super chic to the overtly funky. Just as one might compare 100-yen shops in Japan to those dollar stores abroad, there exists a lopsidedness. Part of the equation is the relative distance of Japan from their foreign subsidiaries, this, in addition to the vast number of domestic competitors, creates a win-win scenario for shoppers.

Eye wear is strictly personal and one of the first and last things people will remember when they interact with someone who wears them. So of course, choosing the right pairs isn’t science, it’s inevitable.

Now one may argue that online retailers are cheaper, and I concede, they are a third of the cost compared to brick and mortar shops in Japan. But the cost argument is finite. There is no comparison when online retailers are put up against every other measure. Online quality cannot stand to brick and mortar businesses when it comes to immediacy. And let’s not start into the whole branding debacle. One of the nicest things about Japanese optical is the huge selection of unbranded frames.

Technically Speaking

In the future, everyone wears glasses. Sure, you’ve heard of Google Glass, but have you heard of Jin’s Meme? Recently, I was listening to a program featuring Nicholas Negroponte (founder of MIT Media Lab), a man who predicted the widespread use of touchscreen tech in a Ted Talk from 1984. Yeah, okay, one might say that Gene Rodenberry, the creator of Star Trek (1966), was perhaps the first to actually visualize the touchscreen on screen. None the less, the Japanese optometry chain Jin’s is siding with Negroponte’s outstanding futurist prediction: the proliferation of eye tracking technology.

So what do these glasses do? They watch you. Essentially, it’s all about bio feedback. Negroponte sees these devices as the next leap, acting as a kind of virtual assistant, something like the Operating System in the film Her (2013). When excited, our pupils dilate. When tired, our blinks weaken.

“Based on changes in eye movement, JINS MEME is able to determine levels of mental and physical tiredness, which many people are unable to notice on their own. Recovery rates from tiredness in humans drop dramatically once a certain threshold is crossed. JINS MEME can detect and alert you to those levels before reaching that point, providing a new kind of management tool for preventing tiredness from accumulating and for improving work efficiency.” – Jin’s Meme

Bury Me Wearing Glasses

There is something smart about future spectacles, something narcissistic, and something definitely cool. Before this future, Japanese optical shops are it, the best, perchance the definers of worldwide style and precision.

I’m not obsessed, I’m a connoisseur. So what if I own more glasses than I do shoes? Some pairs I’ve had for ages, favorites, simply replacing lenses as needed. Most times I’m being absent minded and I break them. Other times, they’ve saved me from peril. Thankfully, I’m never far from replacements. And there’s something quaint about shopping for necessity. Remember that thing I said about war?

Purchasing eyeglasses in Japan is much the same as it is around the world: find a frame, supply your prescription, choose your lenses, and pay the cashier. Don’t have a prescription? No problem, it’s included in the price. Don’t want a new prescription, but forgot your current one? No problem, the shop will pull your prescription from your current lenses. The real treat about purchasing eyeglasses in Japan is the sheer volume of style. Eyeglasses are all at once elegant, practical, and fun. Try them on, bring a friend and take a chance on something so totally not you. There is nothing wrong with an alter ego or two.

I’ve returned to the shop; it’s an hour later. The clerk pulls my newly minted glasses from their case while I sit before her. She opens each arm and I lean forward allowing her to position them upon my face. She delicately lifts the frames by the temples to judge their fit before retrieving them to make a slight adjustment. We do this a few times, and I’m smiling. Yo-yo faces away, her legs crossed. She maintains a masterful blank stare as the clerk grants me a final, wicked grin confirming everything I already knew.

Bonus Wallpapers!

[Desktop – 1280×720] ・ [Desktop – 5120×2880] ・ [Mobile – 640×1136]


Note: All photos taken by the author.

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How To Cope When Japan Isn’t Perfect Mon, 24 Nov 2014 17:00:54 +0000 Life is life wherever it happens. Even if your dream of living in Japan has come true, you can still be blindsided by awful things sometimes. Bad things happen everywhere, but living in a foreign country can add an extra layer of challenge on top. During my time in Japan on the JET Programme, I […]

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Life is life wherever it happens. Even if your dream of living in Japan has come true, you can still be blindsided by awful things sometimes. Bad things happen everywhere, but living in a foreign country can add an extra layer of challenge on top. During my time in Japan on the JET Programme, I faced plenty of troubles, the worst of which was a bus accident during my commute which caused severe injury to my face (I’ll just say that the name “safety bar” is deeply ironic.) The accident was ugly and tangled me up in medical, insurance, workplace exploitation, compensation, and legal issues. This, on top of the everyday stresses of living in Japan, certainly took a toll on my mental well-being. Though my physical injury is not yet completely healed, I’ve been able to deal with the practical, mental, and emotional aspects of the accident thanks to the support I received. So it feels only right to share what I learned while dealing with these troubles. A few of my solutions will only apply to JETs, but others will help anyone who lives in Japan. But no matter your situation, I hope my experiences can do something to help you cope with crises in Japan.

Culture Shock


Photo by Joel

Culture shock is the disorienting, overwhelming feeling that often affects people living in foreign countries. It’s the most common problem faced by foreigners moving to Japan. I don’t think I know anyone who didn’t get a touch of it. Culture shock has many causes including, language barriers, information overload, social stress, and change in diet. There are four stages, sometimes called 1) Honeymoon, 2) Frustration, 3) Adjustment, and 4) Mastery.

One of the main causes of culture shock in Japan is people’s expectations before they arrive. As Buckaroo Banzai once said, “No matter where you go, there you are.” Going to Japan might change your life, but it’s not going to change you. For some people this can be hard to accept. You’ll be taking your strengths and weaknesses with you. Keep this in mind when comparing your life in Japan with life back home. Other people have difficulties caused by excess expectations of Japan itself. If you arrive in Japan thinking you’re going to be living in an anime, you’re going to have a difficult time and miss out on the good things about the real Japan. Tempering your expectations and approaching Japan with a fresh mind can help.

However, even the best preparations won’t prevent culture shock completely. I knew a guy who proved that culture shock can happen to anyone. He had studied in Japan, was fluent in Japanese, and had Japanese heritage. Yet even he got stuck in the dreaded stage 2 of Culture shock. In some ways it was worse for him because he didn’t recognise what it was for a long time.

Recognising culture shock is the first step to dealing with it. If you’ve been feeling down, angry, sleeping too much or too little, eating too much or too little, unmotivated to study Japanese, or found yourself frustrated at Japan you might have culture shock. Even if you’ve been living in Japan for a long while, you can still experience it. Unfortunately going though culture shock once is no guarantee that you won’t go through it again. It is a cycle. I went through the cycle several times in three years, and had to learn to keep an eye on myself.

Coping with Culture Shock


Photo by Pank Seleen

Thankfully, once you’ve recognised that you’re being culture shocked, there are some practical things you can do to help you feel better. Compare your eating, drinking and socialising habits with how they were back home. Then try to reclaim the things which made you happy in your home country. If you drank less at home, try to drink less in Japan. If you got more sleep, try to get more sleep. Do and eat things that remind you of home. But, as with all of this advice, don’t go to extremes. I knew someone who moved into an apartment that their JET predecessor had been living in. The new JET found a room full of American drinks and candy. Every time his predecessor had seen a bottle of Coca-cola or a snickers, he’d bought it because it reminded him of home. He hadn’t eaten them though, just kept them as a shrine to America. So snacks from home are good, but don’t take it too far. In fact, when dealing with culture shock, moderation should be your watch word.

Exercise can seem like the last thing you want to do when suffering culture shock, but it really helps. Even just going for a walk can be good for you. Get out of your house and connect with people. They will be your lifelines when things are roughest. You might feel watched if you go out for a jog, but don’t let this get you down. People are going to comment on the things you do. The sooner you can come to terms with it, the better you’ll feel. Just put in some headphones and get in the zone.

Try to eat well too. Fruit can be expensive in Japan, but indulge yourself sometimes, or try tinned fruit, which is cheaper but still healthy. Don’t live entirely on kombini meals. Yes, they are convenient, but they are also loaded with stuff that will ruin your energy. Getting to grips with Japanese cooking is not only healthier, but learning about Japanese food will also make you feel more confident when you walk into the supermarket, which will help in making Japan a home for you. When I first arrived I felt overwhelmed by all the unknown packets and bottles. For my first three months I only bought food which had pictures of what it was on the package. Going shopping was a big frustration for me. I tackled this by researching more about Japanese food. Cookpad is a great Japanese home-cooking recipe site in both English and Japanese.

Learning more Japanese is another good way to battle culture shock. If you are having frustrations in an area of your life, focus your studies on that area to overcome them. I used to dread going to the post office. It stressed me out until I sat down and crammed some vocabulary. This wasn’t an instant cure for my culture shock, but being able to regain some control helped bring me out of my stage 2 slump.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, talk to someone. This can be hard for some people, but remember talking to people is a sign of strength and decisive action. Luckily we live in the future, so even long distance video calls are possible and cheap or free! Talk to people back home. Getting a perspective from outside Japan can help, as well as reminding yourself that there is a place beyond Japan.

However, don’t get trapped only talking to friends and family outside of Japan, some of whom might want you to come home sooner than you’d like. Sometimes this means talking to other foreigners in Japan who might have gone through similar things. Be wary of “stage 2 parties” though. This is where lots of expats get together and moan about Japan. It’s fine to let off steam, but don’t let that sort of thing suck you down further. Try to get a wide range of perspectives, foreign and Japanese.

However, there may be some times when you feel as if you have no one to talk to at all.



Fear not! There is always someone for you to talk to! If you are a JET you can call the AJET Peer Support Group (PSG.) This is a telephone service that runs from 8pm to 7am every night of the year. If you call 050-5534-5566 or Skype AJETPSG (for free!) you will get through to a member of PSG. They are trained listeners who also point you in the direction of all sorts of resources; medical, legal, counseling and more. All of the members are drawn from the JET community, so they will understand the sorts of problems you are going through. You don’t have to tell them your name and they have a strict confidentiality policy so they will never tell your employer or anyone else anything you say to them. The only exception to this is if they feel you are in danger of hurting yourself. Then they will take any steps necessary to ensure your safety.

Don’t think that you have to be in a really serious situation to call them though. While they are trained to deal with severe problems, you can also call them for any reason at all. If you are undecided about recontracting, it can be very useful to bounce ideas off someone. If you’re having difficult times at work, they can help you think of ways to improve your situation. If you want to talk about personal issues, they will give you a non-judgmental space to express yourself. They don’t work for the JET Programme, they work for JETs. You’re not going to hear the usual official lines from them and they won’t just say, “Every Situation is Different.”

If you do need to hear the official lines though, then calling the JET Line, which lets you speak to one of the Programme coordinators at CLAIR in Tokyo, is the way to go. The line operates Monday to Friday from 09:00 to 17:45. You can reach it on 03-5213-1729. I had a mixed experience calling the JET Line.The first response I got from the JET line was the basic “Every Situation is Different,” which didn’t address my problems. My Prefectural Advisor, who was herself a fantastic source of support and an angel in human form, encouraged me to call again after the problems got worse. The second time I called, the JET Line was much more effective. The JET Line spoke with my Contracting Organisation on my behalf. After that my Board of Education slowly began to change the situation. You should keep in mind though, that as a JET, you are employed by your Contracting Organisation, not CLAIR. The JET Programme can’t do more than put pressure on your employer to improve your situation. JET acts as an agency, placing you with employers, but does not directly employ you.

There is often a feeling in the JET community that we should put up with a lot because we are lucky to be here. While I agree that JETs should try their best to adapt to cultural differences, foods and so on, that doesn’t mean we should let ourselves be exploited. JET is a large programme, and there are going to be problems in it. Things like the JET Line and the Prefectural Advisers system are mechanisms to fix those problems. Take advantage of them when necessary. It’s not failure to ask for help.

Workplace Problems


Photo by ancorena

The English teaching market outside of JET has its own problems. There are a lot of dodgy businesses out there. Even respectable businesses can turn nasty if you get sick. I had a friend who was fired but not fired because she got a lung infection. Her doctor told her she needed rest to recover fully. Her employer just told her not to come back, but that she wasn’t being fired, so they wouldn’t pay her severance. Of course, this is illegal under Japanese law. If you find yourself in a situation like this, call your local Labour Standards Bureau. They will provide a free mediation service between you and your employer. Some offices have English speaking staff. This option is not open to you if you are a JET or other kind of public servant, only if you are employed by a private company. There are also unions which defend the rights of foreign workers and language teachers in Japan and may be able to offer you advice and legal counsel.

Wherever you work, take some time to read through Japan’s Labour Standards laws. They are surprisingly generous to workers in some cases. Of course, this won’t be much comfort if you’re working for a black company, but it’s still good to know the ground you are fighting on.



Photo by Emran Kassim

If you aren’t a JET, there are also people for you to call. TELL (Tokyo English Life Line – operates a phone service across Japan. The number is 03-5774-0992 and the line is open from 9am to 11pm daily. They offer support to anyone going through a hard time in Japan, as well as dealing with emergency calls and providing information. Their directory ( is also a great place to look for contacts to other services that could help you with a specific problem, covering everything from counseling services to housing disputes. TELL also offers a face to face counseling service, based in Tokyo and Yokohama ( .

Living in Japan, particularly taking part in workplace drinking culture can cause problems for some people. There are some familiar support organisations that also operate in Japan. For example, Alcoholics Anonymous (, Al-Anon ( for friends and family of alcoholic, and Over-eaters Anonymous ( There is also JHelp which offers emergency assistance across Japan. If you live in Tokyo, you can get help from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Foreign Residents’ Advisory Center. These organisations can provide you with support in English.

Don’t forget that you can also contact your Embassy. After I was unable to get the forms I needed to claim an accident insurance payment from my employer, I called the British Embassy in Tokyo. The staff was incredibly helpful. They contacted my employer and were able to get me the forms. Of all the people I called following my accident, the British Embassy were the most compassionate and helpful. The US Embassy also provides a useful list of sources of help in Japan.

Finding Different Perspectives


Photo by Adam Sharron

Life in Japan can be stressful. It is easy to fall into the trap of blaming Japan for all your problems. Take a moment to consider which of your problems are really caused by Japan specifically and which could happen to you anywhere.

Personally, after the traffic accident that left me severely injured, I was very angry at Japan. It took me time to realise that accidents happen all over the world. It wasn’t Japan as a whole I needed to be angry with.

We can never know what would have happened if we’d made the choice not to come to Japan. All we can do is face reality as best we can. That doesn’t mean rolling over and accepting our fate though. While I came to terms with the accident, I still fought to get the compensation I was entitled to and for change in my commuting situation so that the same sort of accident wouldn’t happen again.

Dealing with problems in Japan requires a fine understanding of what you need to adapt to and what you need to fight to change. It’s tough, so don’t beat yourself up if you fail sometimes. Just take a breath and get the help you need.

Bonus Wallpapers!

[Phone – 640×1136]

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Rascal’s Secret Plan: the Raccoon Invasion of Japan Fri, 21 Nov 2014 17:00:00 +0000 Ah, mother nature. Forests and hills, rivers and oceans, blossoms and bees. Truly, the beauties of the natural world are essential to a happy life. Of course, mother nature has another, harsher side. Storms, droughts, and floods can be deadly. And the world is full of creatures that bite, claw, sting, and poison. Many harmful […]

The post Rascal’s Secret Plan: the Raccoon Invasion of Japan appeared first on Tofugu.

Ah, mother nature. Forests and hills, rivers and oceans, blossoms and bees. Truly, the beauties of the natural world are essential to a happy life.

Of course, mother nature has another, harsher side. Storms, droughts, and floods can be deadly. And the world is full of creatures that bite, claw, sting, and poison.

Many harmful natural phenomena can’t be helped; we must simply deal with them as best we can. But then there are problems we humans bring upon ourselves. Messing around with nature has gotten us into big trouble more than once.

Case in point: Raccoons… in Japan.

But they’re so cute!

Japanese Raccoons

Photo by Ingrid Taylar

It’s true, they are… and as we shall see, that’s how they ended up in Japan. But first, a bit of an introduction.

There are three species of raccoon in the genus Procyon, but the most well-known and numerous is Procyon lotor, also called the common Raccoon or North American raccoon. That’s what’s usually meant when “raccoon” is used on its own, and that’s the one we’ll be talking about here. In Japanese, raccoons are known as araiguma. (Note that the raccoon dog, or tanuki, is a completely different and indigenous creature of Japan.)

Raccoons are a short-legged, omnivorous mammal of medium size, typically in the 10-20 pound range. Native to most of North America, raccoons have rough coats (colored in various mixtures of grey, brown, and/or black), erect ears, and pointy muzzles. Most distinctively, the raccoon has a dark “mask” over its eyes, as well as dark rings around its tail.

In short, a raccoon looks like this:

Japanese Raccoons

Photo by jmwests

Pretty darn cute. And the cuteness meter rises even higher when they manipulate things with their dexterous front paws, which feature long, furless “fingers.”  The manual dexterity and overall cleverness of the raccoon helps to explain why people might think they would make good pets.

Japanese Raccoons

Photo by alasam

Raccoons become dormant in cold weather, for periods of days or months, depending on how cold it gets in whatever region they happen to live. Their diet is quite diverse, encompassing worms, insects, nuts, berries, amphibians, fish, and birds eggs. Raccoons are equally open to catching live prey or scavenging – with the latter option including human refuse.

And therein lies a major problem (from the human perspective, at least). Raccoons absolutely thrive in human settlements. Agile, (relatively) small, intelligent, bold, willing to dine on pretty much anything edible… and willing to live alongside human beings. (Apparently they aren’t too picky about the company they keep.)

Raccoons tear open garbage and knock over compost bins. They damage buildings and gardens. They carry diseases, including rabies and distemper. They even, on rare occasions, attack people and their pets.

Japanese Raccoons

Photo by stevehdc

Obviously, none of this is their fault…they’re just being their raccoony selves. But humans often don’t see it that way.

The Invasion


So raccoons are cute, but they can also be troublesome neighbors. That’s just dealing with nature, right? After all, raccoons were around long before human beings.

Well, yes… in North America. But elsewhere? Raccoons are indeed found in a few other places, namely Europe (especially Germany), the Caucasus region, and (you guessed it!)…Japan.

The red area on the above map represents the raccoon’s native range. In the blue areas, raccoons are what is known as an “invasive species”. This term denotes an organism that, due to human activity, inhabits a region to which it is not indigenous. “Invasive” also implies that the species has some kind of harmful effect (or at least a major transformative effect) on local ecology; the term “introduced species” is sometimes used to avoid this implication.

Ever since we humans evolved, we’ve been zipping all over the world, with plenty of critters hitching a ride as we go. Sometimes we even bring them along on purpose, as crops, farm animals, or pets. The vast majority of them don’t become invasive. Most species, when introduced to foreign conditions, simply fail to survive in an environment for which they haven’t evolved. A few, however, manage to hang on and consistently reproduce. Some even find themselves at a sudden advantage, often due to lack of natural predators.

An infamous example is the brown rat, originating in China and carried across the world, primarily by seafaring Europeans. The effect was often devastating, notably on bird populations in regions where land predators were hitherto absent, such as remote islands. Indeed, remote islands seem to have experienced the brunt of invasive-species carnage, given their sheer evolutionary isolation.

brown rat

The most famous victim of species invasion may be Australia, whose vegetation has been ravaged by the introduction of rats and rabbits, while native animals have been gobbled up by wildcats and foxes (the latter having been introduced to control the rabbits). Cane toads, which were introduced to control crop-destroying beetles, ended up slurping down crop-beneficial insects, as well as killing off indigenous predators that are poisoned by their toxic secretions when they eat one.
Pretty much every part of the world has its invasive species issues, though. Many native species of fish in the African Great Lakes have been supplanted by introduced fish. The North American Great Lakes struggle with invasive mussels and eels. The storks and small mammals of Florida are being snapped up by released pythons, which are even out-competing alligators for food.

So what about Japan? To start with, mongooses (or “mongeese”, heehee), introduced to control venomous snakes, have been pummelling non-venomous snakes and various wild and agricultural mammals (even goats!). Meanwhile, native fish struggle to dodge the voracious mouths of introduced bass and bluegill. In a 1984 scientific sampling of fish from the moat of the Imperial Palace, 80% of the catch consisted of native species; fifteen years later, a single invasive species (bluegill) had exploded to 90% of the catch. (Someone protect the emperor!)

Photo by kalleboo

Japan also has issues with animals originally imported as pets. Through a combination of escape and deliberate release, several foreign species have come to form wild populations. Hedgehogs, red-eared turtles, and ferrets are three prominent examples. Another is the raccoon.

How Did It Happen?

Rascal: The Japanese Raccoon

This is one of those rare instances where a major environmental change can be traced back to one individual. And, even rarer, a fictional individual. This is Rascal, star of the 1977 Nippon Animation series Rascal the Raccoon (Araiguma Rasukaru).

The series, set in early twentieth-century rural Wisconsin, follows the adventures of a young boy who rescues a baby raccoon orphaned by a hunter. Rascal, as the boy names his new friend, proves a loving companion. Rascal becomes a crucial source of comfort when, not long after his arrival, the boy loses his mother.

In time, however, Rascal’s position within his human family becomes increasingly strained by his emerging wild animal personality. When Rascal is caught snacking on the crops of neighboring farmers, his outdoor ramblings are suddenly reduced to the confines of a pen. As if that weren’t enough, his unhappiness with domesticated life redoubles when he spots a lady raccoon beyond the walls of his well-intended prison. Ultimately, the boy faces a a very difficult, emotional choice…where does Rascal truly belong?

With the massive success of this anime, suddenly everyone wanted a raccoon for a pet. Over the following years, upwards of two thousand raccoons were imported to Japan annually. Apparently algae balls just weren’t cutting it anymore.

Unfortunately, humans don’t have a great track record when it comes to choosing pets. Wild animals that look cute and cuddly aren’t likely to be that way in human hands, or in human homes, and there’s the house-training issue. There might be some exceptional success stories, but for most families, the fantasy of having their very own “Rascal” didn’t work out. Apparently this caught many fans of the anime by surprise, even though Rascal’s unsuitableness as a pet was a central theme.

And that’s how raccoons came to be released into the Japanese wild. It was a pretty sweet deal for the raccoons, too, given that in Japan they lack any significant natural predators. (Their main predators in North America are wolves and coyotes, which don’t exist in Japan, as well as wildcats, which inhabit only a couple of small Japanese islands.) Over the ensuing decades, the raccoon population soared, and Rascal established himself in nearly every part of the country.

Japanese Raccoons

Photo by kat+sam

What was good for the raccoons was bad for a range of native species, notably birds (whose eggs, as noted earlier, are a staple of the raccoon diet). In human-inhabited areas, raccoons have been scavenging garbage, damaging crops (notably corn and melon fields), and even attacking pets. They’ve also been tearing up buildings, as they scrabble in and out of their adopted homes (typically attics or basements) which the humans so thoughtfully constructed for them.

Which brings us to perhaps the most infamous raccoon issue in Japan: temple damage. It’s estimated that some 80% of Japan’s temple architecture has experienced some kind of damage from these masked bandits.

Architectural wounds are inflicted as the raccoons climb around, leaving gashes in pillars and walls, and punching holes in roofs and ceilings. As they find themselves snug little corners to sleep in, they tear and pry at anything that stands in their way, be it wood, tile, insulation, pipes, or wires. And they naturally leave lots of little raccoon droppings around, which are inappropriate for most buildings, but especially temples.

Japanese Raccoons

Photo by 663highland

The most famous victim of raccoon vandalism may be Byōdō-in, a temple in Kyoto Prefecture, and one of Japan’s most famous and celebrated buildings. Given that Byōdō-in has been standing for over 900 years, you can understand why people were alarmed at the appearance of deep claw marks in the ancient wood. Traps were set, and metal fencing was laid over potential points of entry. It’s a painful irony that the success of one iconic Japanese cultural form (anime) should ultimately lead to the harming of another.

What Can Be Done?

Japanese Raccoons

Photo by Charlie Anzman

How do we handle invasive species? Three basic strategies are:

  • damage mitigation
  • reduction (possibly elimination) of the invasive population
  • prevention of further introduction

The first approach is the most immediate. In Japan, as in other raccoony parts of the world, laborious attempts are made at sealing buildings from entry (particularly in the case of historic properties), while garbage is locked away from those dexterous little hands. Fences can help protect crops. But completely securing fields, buildings, and garbage from thousands of small, clever critters is a truly Herculean (Kintaro-ean?) feat.

In terms of controlling raccoon numbers, local governments across Japan have developed varying policies. Some arrange the killing of thousands of raccoons each year, citing population reduction (or even, incredibly optimistically, eradication) as the goal. Such programs find support among many farmers and urbanites, while taking fire from animal rights advocates.

Naturally, prevention is the best strategy of all against invasive species. Tight regulations on shipping and travelling help to avoid inadvertent arrivals, while pet regulations halt the deliberate import of problematic critters. Not surprisingly, it is now illegal to import raccoons to Japan.

It’s also important to look at the cause of Japan’s raccoon importation specifically: a pet craze. Media-driven pet trends are found across the world, a familiar recent example being spurred by the 101 Dalamatians movie remake (and its sequel), which was followed by a sharp increase in unwanted dalmatian puppies turning up in American dog shelters. Resistance to such crazes, which are patently unfair to the animals involved, must be fostered among the general population of all countries.

Rascal’s Lesson

Japanese Raccoons

Photo by Harlequeen

In the end, we humans are responsible for introducing thousands of Rascal’s cousins to the mountains and cities of Japan. It seems kind of incredible that today, with all our technology, these furry little rascals continue to evade us so effectively. They’ve moved in, and there’s not that much we can do about it.

We need to take this as a learning experience. Think of all the trouble we could avoid, for animals and for us humans, if we can prevent further “species invasions”. If we wise up, Rascal could become a symbol of a great leap forward in human wisdom and responsibility.

Bonus Wallpapers!

[Desktop – 5120×2880] [Phone – 640×1136]


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The Unwritten Rules Of Job-Hunting In Japan Mon, 17 Nov 2014 17:00:56 +0000 Like the Eskimos and their many words for snow, there are quite a few words to describe job-hunting in Japan. 職探し (shokusagashi) and 求職 (kyuushoku) have the same meaning as “job-hunting” in English, referring to the general act of looking for employment. 転職活動 (tenshoku-katsudou) refers to looking for a change of occupation. 就職活動 (shuushoku-katsudo, aka “shuukatsu” for short) […]

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Like the Eskimos and their many words for snow, there are quite a few words to describe job-hunting in Japan. 職探し (shokusagashi) and 求職 (kyuushoku) have the same meaning as “job-hunting” in English, referring to the general act of looking for employment. 転職活動 (tenshoku-katsudou) refers to looking for a change of occupation. 就職活動 (shuushoku-katsudo, aka “shuukatsu” for short) refers to the job-hunting process of fresh high-school and college graduates.

The reason for all of these different “job-hunting” rules is thanks to the unique hiring practices of the Japanese. The biggest and uniquest of these has to be the 新卒一括採用 (shinsotsu-ikkatsu-saiyou), where many companies simultaneously hire students in bulk. Before 1997 there was an official date where companies could start their recruitments. If you started before this date it was called 青田刈り (aotagari), which literally means “harvesting rice while still green.” After 1997 the new guidelines suggested that companies should announce recruitments on December 1 (for third year students) and start screening applicants on April 1 (for fourth year students). Just recently, the Abe Cabinet requested these dates get pushed back further so that students could focus on their studies. 2016 graduates will now wait until March 1 for recruitment to begin and August 1 for the screening to start.

Because companies hire all at once, they compete first for the students of the better schools because they tend to have “better” students. This puts more pressure on high school students, because if you can get into a good university you’re more likely to get a good job, even if you don’t do much studying once you get there. This system also makes university students join companies earlier. If you wait too long, there are fewer of these finite jobs left remaining. To put it bluntly, students really feel like they need to get a job during this shinsotsu-ikkatsu-saiyou period. If they don’t, they’ll find it very difficult to find ideal work. They even lose their advantage for the next year, because companies focus on fresh graduates, not one-year-old meat.

The Unwritten Rules Of Job-Hunting In Japan


Already, you can see there is a lot of pressure on students to get a job, with a lot of rules and order to go along with it. It doesn’t stop there, though. A huge list of “unwritten rules” exists for these students too. If you don’t do these things, it’s more unlikely that you’ll be able to get a job. Just in terms of your looks there’s a huge list you need to follow.


  • Should be short enough for the ears to show and be combed neatly (men).
  • The ears should show and be combed or tied neatly (women).
  • It has to be clean.
  • It shouldn’t be dyed.

Mustache / Beard


  • You should wear a typical dark suit appropriate for a job interview.
  • A single suit with two buttons is better than a double suit.
  • The top button must be fastened.
  • The shirt must be white.
  • The necktie should be simple.
  • There should be a neat crease in the trousers.
  • The color of socks should be a similar color to the suit.


  • They must be simple and the color should be black or brown.
  • They must be polished well.


  • It should be simple and not flashy.
  • It’s better not to use perfume.


  • Nails must be cut nicely.
  • It’s better not to put on nail polish.


  • It’s better not to wear them.


  • Must be simple and not flashy.

Women’s Clothing

  • It should be a typical dark suit appropriate for a job interview.
  • Black, dark blue, or gray is safe.
  • If it’s a skirt, it must not be too short.
  • A white shirt is safe.
  • The pantyhose must not have a run.

Women’s Shoes

  • They must be a simple pair of pumps.
  • Their color should match the color of the suit.
  • The heels shouldn’t be too high.
  • They must be polished well.

Despite being “unwritten rules”, a lot of people think they are very important (and many of these people are on the hiring end of the table). If you don’t do all these things you’re less likely to get hired, and with lifetime employment still “a thing” in Japan, you want to get the best job that you can as early as you can. That or risk living at home in your parent’s shrine playing Pokémon cards for the rest of your life.

The Japanese Job Hunting Suit


I’d like to focus on one part of this list though, and that is suits. Recently there has been some controversy about this and a lot of raging has occurred on the Japanese internets.

It all started with an article in the “Weekly Toyo Keizai” titled “Choose a black suit for shuukatsu job hunting! – Do not try to stand out with clothes”. This was published on October 28, 2014. According to the article, 90% of recruits wear black suits so it suggests that other applicants should follow the majority to be safe. As an example, they compared the reactions of what an interviewer might think if you wore a “unique” striped suit versus a normal black one:

What would an interviewer think if you wore a stripe designed suit for an interview? The reaction of the interviewer will be one of three types.

  1. They’ll evaluate it as a positive, as in “a striped suit is better because it’s different from others.”
  2. They are not interested in a graduate’s clothes, so they don’t take it for a positive or a negative.
  3. They evaluate it as a negative, as in “he/she doesn’t know manners, wearing a striped suit for a job interview is too flashy to make a good impression.”

We don’t know which reaction is likely because we haven’t researched it, but let’s assume that each case has equal possibility – a three in one chance. In that case, if you wear a black simple suit to an interview, the interviewer wouldn’t react in any particular way since most applicants wear a black plain suit anyways. It’s neither positive or negative, but neutral, so it can be said there is no risk if you choose a black suit.

However, if you wear a striped suit to an interview, an interviewer could get a negative impression of you one-third of the time. It’s quite a big difference, isn’t it? You don’t need to take any risks intentionally. Instead of standing out by appearance, you should try standing out by who you are and impress the interviewers with what you say.

In response to this article, Kenichiro Mogi, a Japanese brain scientist who is a senior researcher at Sony Computer Science Laboratories and a visiting processor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, brought forward a counterargument. He tweeted:

What’s the point of this article? A country where recruits wear “uniforms”. I deliberately want to say that this is a worthless and pointless article. It’s stupid. Adults who do or say such things are just idiots (regarding “choose black suits for shuukatsu job hunting!”). -@kenichiromogi

Many people agreed with his views and replied to his tweet.

There are a lot of meaningless rules for appearances in Japan -@ys1dream

This article is really stupid, isn’t it? Is it saying not to demonstrate personality? When I was job-hunting, it took me a while to get a job offer. I ended up hating both the look and wear of my suit and went to an interview in jeans and a jacket with a pair of sneakers in the end… then I got an offer. Wearing casual clothes makes you relaxed, so I recommend it.” by @mii_sang3791

I think it’s correct not to join a company which decides who to hire only by the color of their suits. by @mizutamabeat

Shoji Kokami, a Japanese playwright, director, and filmmaker, agreed to Mr. Mogi’s tweet and stated his opinion in three tweets.

For example, imagine if there was a child who doesn’t want to use a satchel and his/her parents persuaded/begged/commanded/encouraged the child to use it. In that case, I respect parents who can tell their child not “you won’t be bullied if you use the satchel” but “this country doesn’t allow diversity, but hopefully it will change when you will become adult.” I never ever want to be a person who confidently tells a child “when you graduate from university, you will have to wear a recruit suit, which is a satchel for adults, or else you won’t be accepted. It’s all for your benefit.” Instead, I want to be someone who can talk about my true feelings about the recruit suit – containing opinions about both those who agree with the black suit and those who are not comfortable with it. That would be a steady step, though it’s a small step, to reduce this country’s stuffiness and light a fire of hope. I think an adult who can do such things is a wonderful adult. -@KOKAMIShoji

Of course, there were counterarguments to the counterarguments. Things are really getting heated! All just for the color of a suit!

Freelance writer Tomohiro Akagi wrote a blog post with his opinion. Aft first he took it for granted that there are people who feel uncomfortable or question if using black suits is the right thing to do after reading Toyo Keizai’s original article. He said that if a recruit asked him what was best to wear for a job interview, he would tell them to choose a black suit because the purpose of job-hunting is not to wear a colorful suit but to obtain a job offer. If there is a risk in wearing a unique colored suit, then the best advice certainly would be to follow the majority. After making these introductory remarks, he took up the main subject, which is “where do Mr. Mogi and the others’ angers come from?”

Akagi assumed that they got upset with the fact that an individual person with their own personality is treated in a uniform manner because they grew up in the period when people made a strong appeal not to wear school uniforms but to wear whatever they like in their school days. He concluded that their opinion comes from believing that accepting a variety of clothes equals accepting a variety of personalities.

Then he pointed out that graduates who were currently job-hunting were very used to wearing school uniforms so they know how to take advantage of it. Especially “high school girls”, who have become a sort of icon, which means they benefit from a consumer society, which equals having their value recognized by society. Because of that, they don’t have any doubts about wearing the same black suit like everybody else. This means that the “worthlessness” or “stuffiness” that Mr. Mogi and the others insist on only exists in their own generation and there is a high possibility that such ideas don’t exist at all among the current recruits.

In that way, it clears up why I doubted their anger. I guess whoever feels worthless or stuffy from the sight of all applicants wearing black suits are only Mr. Mogi or Mr. Kokami. Therefore, I think the truth of their anger is that they are using recruits as chessmen in a proxy war to fulfill their self-respect.

Sick burn, bro.


Photo by k14

In the end, though, why are these people fighting about this? Isn’t the most important thing for recruits to think for themselves? If they want to be safe and do what everyone else does, then they can wear a black suit and follow the unwritten rules list. Plus, a simple black suit can be used in many other situations as well. This is an extreme example, but if someone somehow found a great reason to wear a golden suit that can be explained logically, then I think that’s fine too. The interviewer would probably ask you why you chose that suit, and then hopefully you can explain a reasonable answer, using logic, that impresses him or her.

The worst part is that both sides are making groundless claims against the other. Everything is purely opinion. The recruits and the interviewers had hardly any say at all. Even the original article that sparked all of this controversy said that they wrote their thoughts without doing any proper research. Akagi’s response against the individualist side is just as bad. He’s just speculating about how Mr. Mogi and friends think, which doesn’t help anybody.

It’s too bad that we can’t do a study on job-hunting suits this year. I wonder if these articles and arguments even moved the needle in either direction. How many people will wear simple, black suits? How many will try something a little more wild, like *gasp* pinstripes? I hope that on December 1 you think about all the people in Japan searching for a job. And then, I hope they find an occupation that makes them happy and allows them to wear whatever is comfortable for them.

Bonus Wallpapers!

[Phone – 640×1136]


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Invasion of the Species Thu, 13 Nov 2014 17:00:00 +0000 Dear readers, I don’t mean to alarm you, but we are currently experiencing an alien invasion. Some of these aliens are just arriving, but others have been amongst us for decades. They have contaminated our seas, our wilderness, our gardens, and even our food. But these aliens are not from another world. No, I speak of invasive […]

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Dear readers, I don’t mean to alarm you, but we are currently experiencing an alien invasion. Some of these aliens are just arriving, but others have been amongst us for decades. They have contaminated our seas, our wilderness, our gardens, and even our food. But these aliens are not from another world. No, I speak of invasive species from right here on our own little blue-green marble. These are species that have been introduced to environments to which they are not native, and may cause significant damage. Some of these species are native to Japan, and they are absolutely fascinating.

Japanese Beetles


Photo by: Michael Gil

“Oh what a pretty beetle,” you might be thinking. Its carapace has such lovely iridescent green and copper colors. There’s another one. And another. Now they are everywhere. “What are they doing to my hydrangeas? Have mercy, not the hydrangeas!”

You, like so many suburbanites, have fallen victim to Popillia japonica, the Japanese beetle. In Japan they are known as mamekogane 豆黄金, or “mini-gold.” The mamekogane menace has spread to China, Russia, Portugal, Canada, and the United States. It was first discovered in the U.S. in New Jersey in 1916. It’s thought that they were introduced as larva in a shipment of imported iris bulbs prior to 1912, when inspections for such things began. In the intervening decades they have spread to over thirty states.


A pest through much of its one year life cycle, after hatching the grub eats grass roots, potentially killing lawns in their subterranean assault. They emerge as adults around July to wreak havoc on a new front. Japanese beetles are known to consume the leaves of over 300 different species of plants, chewing around the veins of a leaf, so that only a skeleton remains. On average the beetles live as adults for about 60 days, during which time they feed, mate, and lay their eggs. Over those two months, a single female can lay up to 60 eggs, and thus the cycle begins anew.


Photo by: Lisa Brown

How can we battle the beetle? American homeowners often resort to an arsenal of poisons and traps, but I’ve often wondered what keeps them under control in their homeland. The English sources I’ve seen sometimes state that they have natural predators which are not present in the territories they have invaded, but don’t offer much on what those predators might be. According to Japanese sources, as larva, Japanese beetles are preyed upon by the likes of crows, moles, centipedes, and ants. As adults they are hunted by birds, robber flies, and some wasps of the Scoliidae family. Of course, most of these animals are present in much of the territory the beetle has invaded, so I’m not quite sure where the difference lies and why their reign of terror continues.



It is coming. Inexorably it extends its tendrils, creeping over trees, walls, abandoned cars and homes until it engulfs everything in a leafy sea of green. It is coming.

Kudzu refers to several vines in the genus, Pueraria.  The name comes from the Japanese word for the plant, kuzu.  Kudzu was introduced to the U.S. in 1876 at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia and to the Southeast region in 1883 at the New Orleans Exposition, but it wasn’t clear from my sources if they really knew what they were dealing with. Kudzu’s high growth rate must have soon become apparent, but for decades this quality was seen as an advantage. In the first half of the twentieth century, it was used as both cattle feed and as an erosion-preventing cover plant. It was not until 1953 that the U.S. Department of Agriculture removed kudzu from its list of suggested cover plants, and in 1970 they finally listed it as a weed. It was too little, too late.


Photo by: Katie Ashdown

Kudzu became known as “the vine that ate the South,” where it’s now estimated to cover over 3,000,000 hectares (7,400,000 acres) of land.  Under ideal conditions (like those in the American South) kudzu can grow up to a foot a day!  It can smother other plants, making it a threat to biodiversity.  It’s also incredibly resilient.  It’s even resistant to herbicides.  Physically removing it is like fighting the hydra, as it requires removing the crown of the plant as well as removing and burning all the vines, lest they take root again.


Photo by: shawnson

Various bugs and fungi are being tested as ways of fighting kudzu, but a perfect solution has yet to be found.  The fungal pathogen, myrothecium verrucaria seems like it could be quite effective, but has the unfortunate downside of being highly toxic to mammals.  The best method may actually be to let goats or sheep graze on kudzu, as even a small herd can clear an acre a day.  Of course, that may not be a feasible solution in every situation.


At least Kudzu can be used for some practical purposes.  The stems can be used to weave baskets.  Its fibers can be used to make paper or cloth.  The starchy roots can be used to make a powder used in Japan for making food like kuzumochi, kuzumanju, and kuzukiri, or in hot water as kuzuyu.

Japanese Knotweed


There is another herbaceous horror from Japan that is now plaguing poleis across the U.S., U.K., and New Zealand. Like kudzu, Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica) is a fast grower, and has a strong root system, allowing it to damage roads, concrete foundations, and other manmade structures.

Despite its English name, Japanese knotweed is also native to China and Korea. In Japan it is most commonly known as itadori, but has other names in various dialects. Japanese knotweed has become so problematic in the U.K. that some banks and mortgage companies have refused mortgage applications due to knotweed having been found on the property, or even the neighboring property.


Controlling Japanese knotweed is quite difficult, because to kill the plant one must eliminate the entire large root network. These roots can grow up to three meters (ten feet) deep, and leaving only a small amount can be enough for it to quickly regrow. Various control methods have been tried, including herbicides, digging up the roots, covering the plants with concrete slabs, and injecting steam into the affected soil, but none of these have been foolproof. In Japan, a certain leafspot fungus is particularly potent against knotweed, and foreign research on it is being carried out. There has also been an experimental attempt to introduce psyllid insects into the wild in the U.K.. Their diet is exclusively knotweed and the attempt showed potential. Let us hope it is not too late.



Photo by: Bing

Look! There! It’s something green and slimy. What’s that lurking in the depths of your miso soup? The algae known as wakame may seem innocent enough, but this sinister seaweed has been carrying out a naval campaign for over thirty years.

Native to the coasts of Japan, Korea, and China, wakame is a species of brown kelp, known to scientists as Undaria pinnatifida. Like other seaweeds, wakame has no roots, drawing its nutrients from the water. However, it does have root-like appendages that allow it to attach itself to rocks, shellfish, pilings, buoys, anchor chains, and other surfaces. Wakame can also survive in a relatively wide range of temperatures and salinities, aiding in its invasion of new territories.


Photo by: edgrimley

It is thought that it was most likely introduced to new areas by attaching itself to ships or finding its way into their ballast water. Once it enters a new environment it can spread quickly, scattered by the currents, clinging to new surfaces, and reproducing via microscopic spores. Wakame’s full impact on an alien environment is not well understood. Full grown wakame forms dense forests which reduces the light and slows the water in their territory.

Wakame has been found in Australia, New Zealand, Italy, Mexico, and Argentina. After being introduced to Brittany as a crop in 1983 it spread to the UK, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Spain. It is also present on the west coast of the U.S. It has become a bit of a problem in San Francisco Bay, where it was first found in 2000. There have been efforts to keep it under control by people such as Dr. Chela Zabin, a biologist at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. Dr. Zabin recalled her reaction after first encountering wakame in the bay: “Oh God, this is it, it’s here. I was really hoping I was wrong.”

Tsunami Invaders


Photo by: Tyler Batty

The latest front in the struggle against invasive species is on the west coast of North America.  The 2011 tsunami caused much death and devastation in Japan, but its aftereffects are also being felt elsewhere.  The currents have eventually brought both debris and new species across the Pacific to North America.  The aforementioned wakame has been brought to new territories, as have the Northern Pacific seastar, Asian shore crab, Mediterranean blue mussel, and others.  There are estimates that tsunami debris could continue to wash up on North America for up to ten years.  Authorities are largely relying on citizens to report the arrival of debris, so if you are a resident of the West coast remain vigilant.  You never know when a new invasive species may rise from the depths. Stay alert, my friends.

Bonus Wallpapers!

[Phone – 640×1136]



The post Invasion of the Species appeared first on Tofugu.

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How Japan Made Halloween Their Own… Then Ruined It For Everybody Tue, 11 Nov 2014 17:00:10 +0000 Halloween is over, but Japan is still cleaning up the mess. It seems like every year the outrage against Halloween in Japan increases. A decade ago Japanese people were complaining about foreigners dressing up and riding trains. Now they’re complaining about a lot more. In what feels like only a couple of years, Halloween has become one […]

The post How Japan Made Halloween Their Own… Then Ruined It For Everybody appeared first on Tofugu.

Halloween is over, but Japan is still cleaning up the mess. It seems like every year the outrage against Halloween in Japan increases. A decade ago Japanese people were complaining about foreigners dressing up and riding trains. Now they’re complaining about a lot more. In what feels like only a couple of years, Halloween has become one of the biggest (adult) holidays in Japan.

In Tokyo, you begin to see costumes as early as the first weekend in October. Halloween parties run rampant on the weekends. Clubs, bars, and retail stores cash in and push, push, push Halloween down the throats of every open-mouthed citizen. I imagine this is how other Western holidays, like Valentine’s Day and Christmas came about in Japan. It was merely an opportunity for corporations and companies to make money, so they set their marketing wheels in motion. The Japanese versions of these holidays aren’t the same as their original counterparts (for example, on Christmas couples will go on extremely expensive dates with extremely expensive hotel stays… well played, hotel industry!) but they all have a couple things in common:

  1. There are companies making boatloads of money.
  2. These companies push people to spend more money and do certain actions because “it’s what you do during the holidays!”
  3. Eventually, it becomes a cultural norm, and the CEOs of these companies can sit back and relax in their swimming pools full of gold coins.

Halloween has just reached this point, I think. As far as I can tell, Halloween is being marketed as “an adult holiday where you can behave badly, and it’s totally okay!” Bars, nightclubs, and other industries that involve debauchery say this is the biggest business opportunity of the year. This year was the wildest of them all, and it looks like it’s only getting wilder. There has finally been some outcry against it, but unfortunately, there’s too much money being pumped into this Halloween war machine for it to be stopped.

Halloween: One Giant Cosplay Event?

Last year, we wrote Halloween: Japan’s Most Recent Holiday. This article explored Halloween’s rise in popularity, and talked about how Trick-or-Treating never really caught on in Japan. Instead, Japan has zeroed in on the costumes, which I think fits well with Japanese culture. It has turned into a massive cosplay event for adults. We’re famous for our cosplaying, after all!

2014 saw the biggest Halloween turnout yet (Halloween landing on a Friday didn’t hurt either). Shibuya seemed to be the place to be if you were dressing up. Thousands of people in costumes unexpectedly gathered that night, and 200 police officers were dispatched to keep guard. To put things in perspective, one man interviewed by said that he felt embarrassed and uncomfortable walking around in his “normal clothes.”

They did a good job dressing up, too. When it comes to Halloween, Japan kinda of does it better than everyone else. Sorry Western countries, Japan won Halloween.


Photo by TokyoFashion


Photo by TokyoFashion


Photo by JapanTimes


Photo by @komayo_j_u_r


Photo by mase_1213


Photo by kemekime


Photo by 27ringo


Photo by ryokutya55


Photo by TokyoFashion


Photo by sudokeeeeen

Anyway, go waste some time looking at Kotaku and TokyoStyle for more fantastic Japanese Halloween costumes.



Photo by @A_Lvl7

Sure, costumes are great fun, but unfortunately that’s not the only part of Halloween culture that crept its way into Japan’s version of the holiday. Debauchery and a general attitude of being irresponsible has become a Japanese Halloween staple. Perhaps Japan’s Halloween motto should be “Trick & Costume” instead of “Trick or Treat.”

People in Japan have been calling out for “NO MORE HALLOWEEN IN JAPAN!” and for good reason. In some ways, it has gotten out of hand, and I imagine that people are envisioning a future where each proceeding year just keeps getting worse and worse. I hope this won’t happen, but I understand why people are concerned. Halloween left Tokyo coated in trash. Empty snack bags, drink cans, and used costumes were discarded all over the streets and fake blood was smeared on many walls, windows, and countertops.


Photo by @A_Lvl7

Here’s one story: Twitter user @mitaka_cos found blood in the sink of a public bathroom in Shibuya. He felt disgusted and voluntarily started cleaning it up. Some other people came into the bathroom to find him cleaning up the sink. Unbelievably, they handed him their used blood-soaked costumes and asked him, “can you take care of this too?” He responded with angry words which were followed up with the excuse, “but today is Halloween!” Upon hearing this, he stormed out of the bathroom.

This sort of attitude has been popping up more and more around Halloween in the last few years. It’s a holiday that gives you permission to be bad and some particularly bad apples take advantage of it, even though they’re probably considered good people the rest of the year.

Volunteer Cleaning


Photo by Shibuya_akkun

But it wouldn’t be Japan without people trying to clean up. After all, Japanese people were known for cleaning up stadium seats after a soccer game at the World Cup. Several volunteers posted pictures of themselves cleaning the streets on Twitter, because they wanted to make the mess-makers realize that they had done something wrong. Shame and guilt go a long ways in Japanese culture.


It’s okay to enjoy Halloween, but there are simple guidelines to follow, right? Don’t leave Shibuya in a mess. Put your garbage in a garbage can. Even kindergarten kids know that. Is it okay to do whatever you want for the sake of fun? Young people in Shibuya are now cleaning the leftovers from everyone’s fun night. @shibuya_akkun


We cleaned up the trash in Shibuya ( ´ ▽ ` )ノI never expected people to be so careless in enjoy themselves. It surprises me that they didn’t care about messing up the place. There were still a few people in costumes (walking the streets in the morning). I hope they will feel some sense of shame by watching us clean the streets. We will continue cleaning the streets.

I thought the decision those volunteers made was great, however a few people called them hypocrites. For example @hawk_kaito tweeted:

I assume those people who cleaned the street and tweeted about it think, “I’m cleaning the street! I’m awesome, right? Praise me!

and @takumi_cast said

自分でボランティアしましたとか ゴミ拾いしましたとか ましてや、 ダメな人と比べて 自分は好い人ですよアピールする人は 絶対に偽善者。 偽善者=悪魔ぢゃけぇ、うざい。
The people who say that they volunteered or cleaned up the garbage are definitely hypocrites. It’s needless to say that those are the appeals of people that think they are better than others. Hypocrites = devils, so I’m annoyed.

There were actually a lot more nasty comments left on Twitter, but many of them deleted their tweets soon after. In some extreme cases accounts were deleted because of the backlash. I guess it’s nice that people support cleaning up so strongly.

Halloween Invades The Yakuza

There’s nothing more Japanese than the Yakuza, so if Halloween is penetrating its way into Japan, it’s going to be embraced by the Yakuza as well. While most adults would be too afraid to play the trick or treat game with the Yakuza (does trick = cut off your pinky?), it appears that many children are immune to that fear. The Yamaguchi-gumi (Japan’s biggest crime family) general offices were handing out pink treat bags to any elementary student who wanted one. Yakuza members stood in the compound entrance with open-armed offers of candy (though it seems like they didn’t wear costumes, what party poopers).


Trick or Treating isn’t all that popular in Japan yet, so children were overjoyed to find a place giving away free candy, not to mention so much of it! Look at all those future Yakuza members! How cute!

Of course, the people of the internet reacted:

Even the yakuza are attuned to the trends of the time -2ch

Do you know how many young yakuza members bled in order to hand out those candies? -2ch

It’s understandable if children go by themselves, but I can’t understand the how the mother can push the baby stroller towards them. haha -2ch

This sort of Yakuza generosity isn’t a new thing. Doing generous, public things has always been part of the Yakuza’s strategy. During New Years, they participated in お年玉, a tradition that involves adults giving envelopes of money to children. The Yakuza, being everyone’s adults, went around to their neighbors handing out envelopes with 10,000-30,000 yen inside ($100-300 USD). I remember in Kyoto when they were doing this too (before the police put pressure on them to stop). Even friends of my husband (non-Japanese) went there to receive money, but I told my husband not to accept it because I thought it was a shameless thing to do.

The Yamaguchi-gumi is also known for assisting with the Great Hanshin Earthquake when it hit Kobe in 1995. They distributed meals and relief supplies and really were the first on the scene to help out. Even with the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011, which isn’t even their home region, they sent 25 trucks filled with foods and supplies right away, and even provided places for victims to stay. Some praised the Yamaguchi-gumi while others said it was a publicity stunt. I think this one 2ch comment said it best, though:

Those who pass judgment on the people receiving Halloween candy from the Yamaguchi-gumi are also passing judgment on the Kobe citizens who lined up for meals provided by them during the disaster.

Halloween, Here To Stay

I think Halloween will get crazier and crazier over the next few years, but I also think that opponents to Halloween will become more vocal as well. I hope that soon the two groups can reach some kind of compromise, though. I love the costuming that Japan does. I also love that people are having a good time, and are able to have fun and relax. However, it shouldn’t come at the expense of others. There’s a difference between being an inconvenience and being rude, and Japan will have to figure out where that line needs to be drawn.

As for the Yakuza giving out treats… well, as long as the children are happy, I guess. I hope at least one of them was dressed as a Yakuza gang member for Halloween. I’m sure that would have made for a fun scene. Perhaps the attention caused by all this will make the trick or treat side of Halloween more prevalent and popular in Japan too. If more kids get involved with Halloween, then hopefully some of the drunken debauchery will calm down at the same time.

I’m sure we’ll see Halloween in Japan continue to evolve. It’s a relatively new holiday, one that is still malleable to the effects of the masses and the corporations. I’m interested to see which one wins out the most before we hit the holiday plateau. I guess we can only sit back, relax, and watch to see what happens (hopefully from a vantage point free of smeared blood).

Bonus Wallpapers!

[640×1136 – Phone]

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Miyagi 3 Years after 3.11: Slogans Are Cheap Wed, 05 Nov 2014 17:00:06 +0000 It’s been three and a half years since the disaster struck Japan. After writing about the situation in Fukushima prefecture, I was able to visit the tsunami disaster areas in Miyagi prefecture. Three and a half years after the tsunami, I have to wonder: how smooth has the “recovery” has been? How is it going now? How […]

The post Miyagi 3 Years after 3.11: Slogans Are Cheap appeared first on Tofugu.

It’s been three and a half years since the disaster struck Japan. After writing about the situation in Fukushima prefecture, I was able to visit the tsunami disaster areas in Miyagi prefecture.

Three and a half years after the tsunami, I have to wonder: how smooth has the “recovery” has been? How is it going now? How it will be in the future? The rubble may have been cleared, but there is still a lot to do.

Sendai and Matsushima


Is this what you would call disaster?

I first set off on a Monday morning on my trip from Sendai, the largest city and population hub for everything in the Tohoku region. Sendai, as you can imagine, shows virtually no signs of the disaster at present. At most there may be temporary housing for refugees but even those aren’t obvious.

The recovery is going well here then, I suppose.


New buildings at Tohoku University

My friends living in the city have told me that “recovery” has been pumping Sendai full of money. Aside from the reconstruction of damaged buildings, Tohoku University has been getting brand spanking new buildings and central funding. The city is finally going to have a new subway line next year. The Sendai which I arrived to on a Saturday evening was positively bustling. People shopping, young couples hand in hand – not very different from what you might find in Shibuya.

I first headed off to Matsushima, one of Japan’s “Three Views“. Nothing really seems off at all, but it wasn’t that heavily damaged by the Tsunami in the first place. On top of that, as a tourist location, it had to be cleaned up quickly.


The recovery is going well here too, it seems.

I boarded the train from Matsushima station towards Ishinomaki, the first major disaster spots I visited.

Matsushima → Ishinomaki


There is a reality of Japan that most tourists, zipping around with JR Japan passes do not see. Many think that Japan is all convenience with punctual and reliable public transport. That is true! However, forget “convenient” once you’re out of the big cities.

When you get to the more rural parts of Japan, the trains come once every hour or two and often only have one or two carriages. Train stations may often be just an elevated concrete platform. This is the Japan where a car is a must. The majority of people on the trains I saw were students too young to drive and the elderly too old to do so.


The rural landscape in late September Tohoku can be summarized by golden field after golden field. Beautiful, but the crisp chill in the air heralds the coming winter. The rice has just been harvested – you see the hanging bushels strung up on poles. These fields are broken only by the occasional settlement or wooded area.



How can you bring recovery to what was already sick?

Ishinomaki was one of the worst affected cities by the earthquake. It was – and is – a port city. Aside from the port being entirely destroyed, 3,533 people lost their lives and another 434 are still missing.

In the southern part of the city there is a ridge. If you look at 3.11 disaster pictures, pretty much everything south of it was flattened.


This doesn’t look like a city that was flooded by a tsunami.

A sense of normalcy has been restored to the city. There were no obvious signs of the tsunami aside from the “Ganbarou Ishinomaki” signs near the station. Looking around you can see some buildings which look very new, newer perhaps than what would have been without the disaster. There is some building damage here and there, but you can’t be sure that those aren’t relics of three years ago.

The question is: if the earthquake didn’t damage this city, then what did?


Walking around, you notice rows upon rows of closed shutters in the shopping district, and entire streets of unused shop space. On some streets the number of open shops, outnumbered the shoppers. And while I would like to chalk it up as a symptom of Monday afternoon, the Monday afternoons I’ve seen in other places certainly haven’t been half as dead.


Ishinomaki was already losing residents long before the earthquake. Its population peaked in the 1985 census, after which it began to decline. Between 2005 and 2010, it lost around 6500 residents, or around 4% of its population. Latest statistics indicate a further decline with a loss of more than 10,000 residents between 2010 and 2014.

Look at official statistics and you’ll see that the largest age group in the city are those between 60 and 64 years of age. At the moment, they’re still considered part of the “labor force”, but a few years from now they’ll be part of the heavy inverse population pyramid driving the city into the ground.


Exploring Ishinomaki city center left me with a few questions. Was the decay I saw really due to the disaster or a part of the slow decline that would have happened anyway?

There are two disasters here: the tsunami and the crumbling population. Ishinomaki may have “recovered” from the first, but with second unaddressed, it has transitioned from a free fall to a slow downward glide.

Understand that the Japanese word for recovery is 復興 – a return (復) to prosperity (興). But fundamentally, how can you bring back to prosperity that which has not been prosperous for twenty years?

Ishinomaki → Minami-Sanriku


Yanaizu BRT station – the train platform can be seen in the background.

The trip to Minami-Sanriku involved more small trains that come once every hour or so. I had to switch at Yanaizu to a “Bus Rapid Transport” system which has replaced the destroyed portion of the Kesennuma Line.

JR East has not announced any plans to rebuild the train track. It doesn’t take a genius to see why. It’s not worth it.

Railways, trains and stations are expensive to build and buy and, even if they did rebuild the train line, would there be anyone to use it? Or would it be one of those lines causing huge losses like those that JR Hokkaido operates?

The buses are comfortable enough. A train ride would have been smoother and probably faster, but beggars and tsunami victims outside big cities can’t be choosers.



If Ishinomaki’s city center felt only whispers of the disaster, Minami-Sanriku was screaming Tsunami all over. The answer to the disaster seems simple. Rebuild what was destroyed.

And there is a lot to rebuild.


There’s nothing but wild grass and a few skyscrapers in the majority of the area. The shops that do exist are operating out of angular temporary buildings. Among the flat land there’s the building pictured above though. Am I the only one who sees the parallel between this and the Nuclear Dome in Hiroshima?


Aside from this, there is grass and grass and grass and construction vehicles rushing around doing reconstruction work which I couldn’t see anywhere. In some sense, it seems like they’ve tried to wipe away any reminders of the disaster by clearing the rubble. To me that just made the scene even more poignant. The debris would make the scene that of what was, now the lack of it smells of what had been.

You can see things in the area, some not very obvious, that have not been cleared yet. For one, they’ve entirely cleared any traces of the former train tracks and what used to be the main train station of Minami Sanriku, Shizukawa station. But they haven’t been able to clear it off Google Maps.


Below is what Google Maps led me to.



This used to be the station.


And this, perhaps is the most symbolic thing I saw in Minami Sanriku. Interpret it as you wish.

The population left in Minami-Sanriku is still trying to live their lives and have the same Japanese hospitality as everywhere else. Living and working in housing which resembles containers, there was a clear sense of perseverance and the Japanese sense of enduring with dignity.

Maybe it was the encroaching twilight, but there were wisps of despair all around. Three years after the earthquake and the future is still up in the air, tossed between the very tall grass, waving in the wind.



“A step towards the future, Ishinomaki; The breath of hope, Ishinomaki” – Ishinomaki High School.

After March 11, 2011, a few slogans became prevalent in Japan: がんばろう日本! (Work Hard Japan!), it’s sister slogans of がんばろう 東北!(Work hard Tohoku!), 絆 (kizuna, human bonds) because the disaster jolted Japan into (re)appreciating their loved ones and lastly, the aforementioned 復興 or recovery.

No doubt the Japanese have endured the crisis well with minimal chaos. But whether they’re actually working hard, or more importantly, effectively, to recover from the disaster is a different question. “Recovery” remains heavily uneven and, for some places, there may be no going back.

Because it isn’t as simple as recovery and ganbarou. It isn’t as simple as kizuna. To the disaster victims getting bashed online and Minami-Sanriku citizens visiting sparkling Sendai, the aforementioned slogans probably sound cheap.

But there are realities to deal with and loud unspoken questions: how much longer until things return to normal? How “normal” can “normal” possibly get? And more cynically, is returning to normal even worth it?

Bonus Wallpapers!

[Phone – 640×1136]

The post Miyagi 3 Years after 3.11: Slogans Are Cheap appeared first on Tofugu.

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Who’s that Pokémon? Yōkai Edition! Fri, 31 Oct 2014 16:00:43 +0000 It’s no secret that most Pokémon are based on actual animals found throughout the world. Who could forget gems like Beedrill the giant hornet, Swellow the swallow, and Sunflora the sunflower? How creative! Most Pokémon are pretty easy to figure out (a bird is a bird, a plant is a plant) but there are others that are […]

The post Who’s that Pokémon? Yōkai Edition! appeared first on Tofugu.

It’s no secret that most Pokémon are based on actual animals found throughout the world. Who could forget gems like Beedrill the giant hornet, Swellow the swallow, and Sunflora the sunflower? How creative! Most Pokémon are pretty easy to figure out (a bird is a bird, a plant is a plant) but there are others that are a bit harder to understand for people outside Japan. A considerable number of Pokémon are actually based on myths throughout East Asia, sacred animals of legend, and everyday things. But some of my favorite Pokémon were inspired by yōkai 妖怪, supernatural monsters, ghosts, and phantoms of Japanese folklore.

While Pokémon never delved as deep into the yōkai world as shows like the newer, and almost as popular, Yo-Kai Watch, there are still quite a few Pokémon that were directly influenced by Japanese ghosts and ghouls. Gotta catch ‘em all, Yōkai!

Sazae Oni 栄螺鬼

The sazae oni, or turban shell ogre, is a giant turban shell with a human like body coming out of its shell head. They are created one of two ways: Either a turban snail gets old enough to shape shift, or an overly sexual woman is thrown into the sea, turns into a snail, and lives long enough to become this strange monster.

Sazae oni turn into women and pretend to be drowning as humans pass by on their boats or are walking along the shore. When men try to save or capture a sazae oni, they’re usually eaten alive.

One legend tells of a pirate ship that picked up what looked like a drowning woman. Their intentions were anything but pure and the “woman” slept with them all and then proceeded to take two rather important body parts from each of the pirates. In the end, the pirates had to barter away all of their pirate gold to get their own “gold” back. Their 金玉, that is.

Who’s that Pokémon?


It’s Slowbro and Slowking!

They may seem innocent but the Slow family was inspired by the idea of a turban snail coming to life and causing havoc. Slowking is visually the closest to the sazae oni, but they were all inspired by it. As for the shapeshifting, ever wonder why a Slowpoke becomes water/psychic when it evolves into Slowbro?

Sōgen Bi 叢原火 / 宗源火

This is a specific fireball yōkai , similar to a will o’ wisp, which takes the form of a man’s head surrounded by flames and floats around in the sky at night.

Sōgen was the name of a monk who lived in Kyoto a long, long time ago and he was pretty bad at his job. He was always stealing from the temple and selling things off for money. Those aren’t exactly the actions of a pious monk. Finally he got old and died, but because he was such a jerk he was was reborn in hell. The legend says that Sōgen was forced to wander the earth, and it’s said his floating head, shrouded in flames was seen in hovering around Kyoto after he died.

Who’s that Pokémon?


It’s Gastly!

This one was probably obvious, as there aren’t too many other Pokémon that fit the “floating head covered in fire” description. Though with Gastly it looks more like eerie smoke than fire. Not every Gastly may be the head of Sōgen the terrible monk, but if you notice yours trying to take off with your money and valuables, you may have been (un)lucky enough to find him.

Baku 獏

The baku is pretty scary looking because it’s an amalgamation of a bunch of different animals, kind of like a chimera that eats dreams. But don’t worry, it won’t hurt you.

They originated in China, and in Japan they’re associated with the tapir. They may seem scary but they’re the nice kind of yōkai . Other yōkai are afraid of them and, while they eat dreams, they stick to a diet of bad ones, mostly nightmares. Baku can be seen carved on temples to keep evil spirits and sickness away.

Who’s that Pokémon?


It’s Drowzee, Hypno, Munna, and Musharna!

All four of these Pokémon were inspired by the dream-eating baku. If the tapir-like noses and the fact that they can use the move “Dream Eater” don’t convince you, just read their most recent Pokédex entries:

Drowzee: “Puts enemies to sleep, then eats their dreams. Occasionally gets sick from eating only bad dreams.”

Hypno: “It carries a pendulum-like device. There once was an incident in which it took away a child it hypnotized.”

Munna: “This Pokémon appears before people and Pokémon who are having nightmares and eats those dreams.”

Musharna: “The dream mist coming from its forehead changes into many different colors depending on the dream that was eaten.”

Jinmenju 人面樹

You might mistake this as an ordinary tree if it didn’t have human heads hanging down from its branches. The heads have faces, human faced fruit that is, that smile and laugh at travelers from above.

Legends of these tree yōkai (another one that came to Japan from China), tell that the fruit would laugh when it was ripe and fall to the ground. Apparently, even the seeds of these plants had faces of their own. They say the fruit faces were a mix of sweet and sour and that we don’t see anymore today because humans ate them all.

Who’s that Pokémon?


It’s Exeggutor!

There’s only one Pokémon that could possibly be a tree with face fruit, and that’s Exeggutor. While its heads look more like coconuts than a soft fruit, there is no mistaking this yōkai. Perhaps exeggcute isn’t made up of eggs at all. Maybe they’re the jinmenju’s seeds.

Yamauba 山姥

An old woman who lives alone in a hut in the mountains. She is kind to travelers and lets them rest at her hovel for the night. Then, while her guests are sleeping, she transforms into a decrepit witch and tries to eat them!

Yamauba are created a couple different ways, but all of them end with a woman living a life in isolation, changing with time and becoming evil. They have white hair, wear red-kimono, and have large, disgusting mouths (probably from devouring so many people).

Who’s that Pokémon?


It’s Jynx!

Though there are some pretty horrible (read: racist) rumors in the United States and other countries about what Jynx is based on, it’s really inspired by the Yamauba. Jynx is an ice/psychic Pokémon and, because these hags lived in snowy mountains and were corrupted by their surroundings, the description fits. The darker skin is a nod to how they look in Nō plays in which actors paint their faces black, wear silvery-blonde wigs, and red kimono.

Nekomata 猫又

A type of bake-neko 化け猫, a cat that is transformed into a yōkai. But unlike its cousin, the nekomata isn’t something you’ll want to bump into in a back alley. They start off as normal cats then, when they get old, run off into the mountains.

There, they transform, their tails splitting in half, creating two identical tails. Suddenly they can walk on their hind legs, speak, manipulate people, and summon fireballs.

Who’s that Pokémon?


It’s Espeon!

Considering there is only one split-tailed cat in the (current) Pokémon universe, this may have been an easy guess. But I’d never think of Espeon as something sinister. In fact, while it may have inherited its tail, intelligence, and psychic powers from the nekomata, it looks like thats where the similarities stop, which is probably a good thing for anyone who wants to raise one.

Nukekubi 抜け首

One of the two types of rokurokubi 轆轤首, or yōkai whose heads come off. The nukekubi is less of a yōkai and more of a woman or girl with a curse. When they fall asleep, instead of snoring, or sleepwalking, their heads come off and terrorize the town.

They’ll chase men, suck their blood, and even rip animals apart. At the end of the night the head comes back to its body and the poor girl has no idea what’s happened. Even worse, this can be passed on through your family. So if a mother is a nukekubi, her daughter could be too.

Who’s that Pokémon?


It’s Misdreavus!

A Pokémon that only appears at night to scare people and apparently absorb their fear? That sounds about right. While there haven’t been any cases of a Misdreavus’ body turning up in the Pokémon universe, it is pretty uncanny that it’s also a lady’s floating head that spooks you out of the darkness.

Kamaitachi 鎌鼬

Weasels that dwell mainly in the mountains of Japan and attack travelers. They have spiky fur and claws like steel that can slice through your skin in a flash.

They ambush humans in threes: One pushes the poor guy down, the second slices him up with its claws, and the third heals (only) the fatal wounds with a salve so that the victim won’t die as they make away with pieces of his flesh. Not very nice, but at least they don’t kill you, right?

Who’s that Pokémon?


It’s Sneasel and Weavile!

Sneasel and Weavile look just like the descriptions of the kamaitachi. They’re spiky weasels with sharp claws that you can only find in the icy mountains of the Pokémon world. They’re even dark/ice types. How fitting! Weavile’s original Pokédex description is even more convincing:

“They live in cold regions, forming groups of four or five that hunt prey with impressive coordination.”

Futakuchi Onna 二口女

During the day and with other people, they’re ordinary women, but at night and when they’re alone, they let down their hair to reveal a second mouth in the back of their heads. Futakuchi Onna will eat whoever they live with out of house and home, pulling food into their mouth heads with their hair that can act like hands.

There are a few different ways someone can become a Futakuchi Onna. Sometimes they’re curses, brought on by the mistreatment of others (usually by starving someone to death), or they’re a kind of karmic retribution on someone miserly. They have giant lips and sharp teeth hidden behind the dark, thick hair on a woman’s head.

Who’s that Pokémon?


It’s Mawile!

Just from looking at Mawile it should be pretty obvious that its design was inspired by the Futakuchi Onna. It almost looks like a girl from the front (back?) but when you see the giant fanged mouth coming out of the back (front?) of its head it isn’t so cute anymore. At least the Futakuchi Onna didn’t have teeth that could chew through iron beams like Mawile.

Tsukumogami 付喪神

This is a larger category of yōkai, that a certain Pokémon seems to be based on. They’re basically any type of (once) inanimate objects that either spontaneously gain life or have spirits inhabit them.

Some of the most common tsukumonogami include hahakigami 箒神, living brooms that blows leaves around, honekarakasa 骨傘, discarded paper umbrellas that float around in the sky, and of course the jatai 蛇帯, obi that move like snakes and try to strangle you in your sleep.

Who’s that Pokémon?


It’s Banette!

Poor Banette is one of those Pokémon I have a soft spot for. It’s said they start as a Pokédoll that was thrown away. They tend to live near trash and wander around at night, holding a grudge for the child or parent that discarded them. So whatever tsukumonogami that’s in there, it’s similar to the old, tattered umbrella. Coming back, just trying to fulfill its original purpose.

Chōchin Obake 提灯お化け

A specific type of tsukumogami that inhabits a paper lantern. They usually have one eye (but can have two) and a large mouth around their middle, with a long tongue that hangs out.

Luckily they don’t really attack people. They just like to roll their eye and flail their tongue around to scare them in the night.

Who’s that Pokémon?


It’s Dusclops and Dusknoir!

These ghost Pokémon are aren’t quite as harmless as their yōkai counterpart. They’re both hollow on the inside; Dusclops sucks things (including people) into its black hole of a body, and Dusknoir sucks in lost souls to guide them home. So maybe Dusknoir isn’t so bad, but a black hole body isn’t somewhere I want to go.

Yuki Onna 雪女

They appear to be strikingly beautiful women, originally viewed as evil creatures who used their ice breath to freeze travelers solid. They’re associated with blizzards and cold winter winds. They have beautiful, long black hair, pure white skin, and piercing eyes.

However, in more recent years Yuki Onna seem have been portrayed as beautiful spirits, not really harming anyone. In some stories they even fall in love and lead almost normal lives with ordinary human men.

Who’s that Pokémon?


It’s Froslass!

They didn’t even have to change much to make Froslass. She’s pretty much the exact depiction of the newer, less violent Yuki Onna, sans the black hair. But this Pokémon does have a kimono style design and a pair of piercing eyes. She even has the ice breath! Check out its latest Pokédex entry:

“It freezes foes with an icy breath nearly -60 degrees Fahrenheit. What seems to be its body is actually hollow.”

Nurarihyon 滑瓢

This one is a little creepy. They look like old men, but their heads are engorged. To me they look kind of like lumpy gourds, covered in wrinkles and veins. When people are busy, usually around dinnertime, this thing slips into their house and indulges in all the luxuries therein. Soon everyone is convinced it’s the master of the house and treats it as such. Finally, it slips away into the night.

Other legends say that Nurarihyon originated in the ocean, taunting fisherman. Their bulbous heads floating right below the water. When the fishermen try to catch it, it sinks just out of reach, bobbing back up tease them some more. Nurarihyon are said to be the leaders of all yōkai, making their authority over humans understandable.

Who’s that Pokémon?


It’s Jellicent!

While this Pokémon is more loosely based on this yōkai than many of the others, it is said that the lumpy head and strange sea activities of one type of Nurarihyon inspired this Pokémon creation. That would also explain the crown, as Nurarihyon is the ruler of all yōkai, Jellicent’s crown must mean it’s the ruler of.. well, something right?

Hitodama 人魂

These are like will o’wisps (not to be confused with the fireball head that is Sōgen Bi) that appear as colored lights, usually near graveyards or places where someone recently passed away.

They aren’t evil or malicious, just the souls of the dead trying to find their way somewhere. Some of them head toward temples at night, though they have been seen during the day too.

Who’s that Pokémon?


It’s Litwick!

It’s one of the few Pokémon that is more dangerous than the yōkai it’s based on. Litwick, a ghost Pokémon, seems to be leading people places. While it does this, it drains them of their life force:

“While shining a light and pretending to be a guide, it leeches off the life force of any who follow it.”

Instead of just looking like a ball of light, Litwick has a candle body (perhaps a more modern light to follow). But since it’s a ghost, it could just be a clever disguise to help it lead people around in the dark with its purple flame.

Kodama 木霊

You may have heard of these before, as they were made popular by the Studio Ghibli film Princess Mononoke. They’re tree spirits whose souls can leave their bodies, looking like a ball of light or a misshapen doll.

They’re considered protectors of the forest. You’ll know a kodama inhabits a tree if it bleeds when you try to cut it down. If the spirits themselves appear to someone, they’re supposed to tie a shimenawa around it, because if you cut down a tree with a kodama, the kodama dies too.

Who’s that Pokémon?


It’s Celebi, Phantump, and Trevenant!

First let’s talk about Celebi: If you’ve seen the fourth Pokémon movie, Pokémon 4Ever – Celebi: Voice of the Forest, you already saw this coming. This legendary pretty much sums up the idea of the kodama. While it looks like an onion fairy, it only shows up to people who respect nature and do everything they can to protect its forests.

Phantump and Trevenant are newer, more accurate representations of the kodama yōkai. They’re spirits that possess trees and, if someone threatens the forest, they can get violent. They’re not exactly kodama though. Instead of a spirit that comes from a tree, Phantump in particular, is supposed to be the spirit of a child who got lost and died in the woods, then inhabits a tree stump. So the process is kind of backwards. Trevenant is more of the protector, check out its Pokédex entry:

“It can control trees at will. It will trap people who harm the forest, so they can never leave.”

It’s a Pokémon Halloween


That’s it! There are a few more yōkai inspired Pokémon out there, but they’re amalgamations of more than one, and the connections aren’t as obvious as the list above. Hopefully this puts you in the right mood for a spooky Halloween night. And remember, gotta catch ‘em all – even the scary ones!

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll be in my room hatching shinies in X until my copy of Alpha Sapphire gets here.

Happy Halloween everyone!

Bonus Wallpapers!

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The Skeletal Structure of Japanese Horror Fiction Thu, 30 Oct 2014 16:00:36 +0000 Mankind has been telling scary stories ever since we decided to start telling stories at all. It only makes sense—a lot of scary crap happens in life. The horror genre was born from folklore and oral tradition that explored death, sadness, and the unexplained, and grew into a contemporary form of entertainment with a host […]

The post The Skeletal Structure of Japanese Horror Fiction appeared first on Tofugu.

Mankind has been telling scary stories ever since we decided to start telling stories at all. It only makes sensea lot of scary crap happens in life. The horror genre was born from folklore and oral tradition that explored death, sadness, and the unexplained, and grew into a contemporary form of entertainment with a host of exemplary graphic novels, literature, games, and film.

Japan ,of course, developed its own tradition of creepy tales entirely independently from the rest of the world. One of the amazing things about Japanese horror is that even with its direct link to traditional folklore and culture, it has proven incredibly popular outside of its country of origin. Japanese horror films, like Ringu and Ju-On: the Grudge, essentially jump-started a love for Asian horror cinema outside of Japan. They prompted Hollywood remakes and they captured the dark imaginations of movie-goers across the globe.

Every last aspect of a classical Japanese horror story’s construction, from structure, to mechanics, to themes and motifs, are integral to the unique sensibilities that have made J-horror so famously eerie. It’s easy to forget how important story structure is to an effective narrative, but the simple details of plot organization and structure determine just about everything that a viewer experiences in a story. In this article, the first of a series about this topic that is so near and dear to my horror-loving heart, I aim to illuminate how plot structure and organization, the blood-soaked backbone of story, contribute to the uniqueness and resonance of Japanese horror.

Visualizing Stories in Japan and the West


The first thing we need to do is look at the differences in storytelling between the Japanese and Western models. This is the sort of thing that is much easier to do visually by using some established narrative diagramming. One of the tools for visualizing how stories are organized is story grammar which is a (sometimes) simple model that displays the ways that a story’s basic structural components interact to further the plot to a resolution. Think of it as a more nuanced version of the model that is taught in primary school.

To understand how Japanese story grammar is different from the Western model, let’s take a look at the story grammar that a typical Western folk tale might follow, as diagrammed by storytelling scholar Utako Matsuyama:

Figure 1

figure by Utako Matsuyama

In a Western story the plot is moved forward by the character’s goals. Bits of story, called episodes, are steered by subgoals that the protagonist needs to accomplish in order to conquer his or her main goal and the successes or failures of that character in meeting those goals determine the outcome. Take “Cinderella” as an example of this Western model of storytelling, she has a clearly defined goal: Go to the ball to hit on the prince. The plot progresses as she encounters opposition to that.

Can a Japanese model of storytelling really be that much more complicated?


figure by Utako Matsuyama

Instead of having goals and subgoals that carry the plot from beginning to end, the classical Japanese story grammar is guided by a series of actions and reactions that lead a character to a thematically significant resolution. Causality, rather than conflict, is the vehicle in this type of storytelling. These stories move based on character actions (or often actions outside of the control of the characters) and the motivations are often irrelevant or not elaborated upon. Matsuyama posits that the lack of a goal structure is due to the traditional Buddhist value of eliminating worldly desires, which is in direct contrast with the very goal-oriented ideas of the West. Japanese protagonists tend to be unmotivated by an initial goal in the interest of making them more classically “good” in a Buddhist sense.

These types of stories tend to follow one of two paths: a simple action-and-reaction structure, or a complex action-and-reaction structure. In a simple-reaction story, the character’s own actions and the universe’s reactions to them drive the story to a conclusion that may or may not have anything to do with character goals. The complex-reaction path is where character goals come into play. Unlike the West, however, it isn’t the protagonist’s goals that drive the story it is the antagonist’s. In these stories, a “bad” character has a goal path that comes into direct conflict with the protagonist, setting events into motion that lead to an ending.

Utako Matsuyama has developed a mock-up of the archetypal Japanese folk tale to illustrate the complex-reaction story structure:

“The typical plot would be as follows: the main character is an honest and kind person who happens to help a trapped animal, helpless jizo [statue], or hungry god.”

Note, that this wasn’t the character’s goal, it just “happens” to occur. This is the initial action that sets the story in motion.

“Following that event, many good things happen to him.”

The reaction.

“Then, a bad person, usually the good person’s neighbor, sees the good person’s fortune and tries to get the same luck.”

Here is the complex reaction, the introduction of another character that has a strong, motivating goal. The end result being that the bad character will get his comeuppance and the good character will continue to blissfully be good and austere.

“The ending at the story level is that honesty and kindness are rewarded virtues.”

This leads us to the second significant difference between Japanese and Western story grammar: the conclusion. The Japanese story grammar ends with “events and/or emphasis,” whereas the more western model ends with a “resolution.” What that effectively means is that some Japanese narratives don’t need to have a resolution, heavily based on plot events and tying up loose ends. A Japanese story can potentially conclude with plot events or it can end with “emphasis” which is to say that it just ends. The resolution in this case is an emphasis of the virtues or ideas displayed in the story. The nearest Western equivalent that comes to mind is an Aesopian fable that ends with pronounced belief-based morals, or something weird like “The Sopranos” series finale (spoiler alert).

The Grammar of Japanese Horror


Now you know more than you ever wanted about the structure of folk tales (unless you’re into that sort of thing). But how does this contribute to horror stories in Japan? Since horror stories originated directly from folklore, much of Japanese horror has a similar structure with a lack of goal paths for protagonists and the use of an action-reaction model for plotting.

The lack of a goal structure works for horror because, to be an effective horror protagonist, the viewers must sympathize and be able to imagine themselves in the plight of that character. Relatability is the reason that so many J-horror protagonists are ‘everyday high school/college students’ that just want to live normal lives. These characters don’t typically have a strong goal that sets events into motion, rather a series of actions and reactions begins to unfold around them that puts these characters in peril.

The action and reaction model of plot also works wonders for horror, because it creates a sense of helplessness in being subjected to an uncaring reality. For a grisly example of this model we can point to movies in the notorious Guinea Pig series of films. Known for having such realistic effects for blood and gore, an FBI investigation was conducted to determine if they weren’t just snuff films. The first two movies in the series have no plot besides the kidnapping, drugging, torture, and dismemberment of innocent females. These short films are purely driven by actions and reactions and end without any form of proper resolution beyond an “emphasis” on the terrifying things just seen by the audience.

Taken together, these two key ingredients of Japanese story structure give you the essential recipe for typical Japanese horror fiction. An initial action starts the character’s journey. It will either be something they do themselves, like watching a cursed video tape, or moving into an apartment with an upstairs leak. Or else it will be an action by someone (or something) else that directly affects them, like being selected for a dark government program. This initial action will cause them to either become subject to the whims of an outside entity that has a goal of causing them harm, like a vengeful ghost or a deranged killer (consider this the complex-reaction model), or else the reactions beyond their control build up and threaten to consume them, like a curse, disease, or delirium (consider this the simple-reaction model).

So much of Japanese horror fiction follows this basic structure that, if you start looking for it, you might begin to see it everywhere.

Kishōtenketsu and Horror Without Conflict


The components that make the recipe for Japanese horror so complex and eerie are the same components that make Japanese scary stories more likely to be told in ways that defy the traditional three-act structure often seen in the West. In the three-act structure, a problem or conflict appears early on, it reaches a tense climax, and is finally resolved. While this style can work for horror stories (and there are some good examples where it does) there is another model of development that is often employed for great effect with horror stories. That style is called kishōtenketsu (起承転結).

In Japan, kishōtenketsu is a very common way of structuring stories, poems, and even arguments (more on that in another article). To summarize, kishōtenketsu is a four-act structure that contains an introduction (起), development (承), twist (転), and resolution (結). Here’s how it plays out: act one introduces the topic, setting, characters etc. Act two elaborates on this information. Act three, the main event when it comes to horror stories, introduces a major twist that changes the way all the information is perceived. Finally, act four concludes by reconciling what you learned from the first two sections with shocking new information in the third.

Since kishōtenketsu revolves around this twist in the third act, it is not well-suited for describing conflict like the Western three-act model. Instead it conveys discovery and a change of perspective that has far reaching consequences. This works for horror especially well, because, if what you discover in the third act is a little scary, it makes everything else scary by association.

The Worldwide Resonance of Japanese Horror


Photo by Mark Willard

One of the reasons that Japanese horror has been able to make such a smooth and influential transition to the West and other parts of Asia, is because of the similarity of the Japanese kishōtenketsu style to how horror stories are told elsewhere. There is something very intuitive about having horror stories that operate on a twist ending. I mean, it may sound obvious, but finding out some scary information tends to make people scared, and even more so when you thought everything was okay just before the reveal.

Scary folk tales and urban legends from around the world have used the kishotenketsu model without calling it that. It’s likely that you have heard urban legends that follow the kishōtenketsu model to a T. Take for instance “The Licked Hand” or “The Vanishing Hitchhiker.” If you haven’t heard these already, and they are pretty popular especially around Halloween. Click the links above and give them a read. When you get back I’ll show you how they fit into the kishōtenketsu mold.

The Licked Hand

Intro (起): A young girl is home alone with only her pet dog for comfort.

Development (承): She hears on the news of an escaped convict and becomes frightened. She is too scared to go to sleep without letting the dog lick her hand from beneath her bed.

Twist (転): When she awakes she discovers that her dog is dead and has been the entire night.

Conclusion (結): She finds the words “HUMANS CAN LICK TOO” written in blood.

 The Vanishing Hitchhiker

Intro (起): A young man is driving home in the rain late one night.

Development (承): He stops for a young, beautiful woman that is motioning for a ride and offers to take her home.

Twist (転): When he arrives at the woman’s house he discovers that the woman has disappeared from his car.

Conclusion (結): He knocks on the door of the woman’s house and is informed by an older gentlemen that the woman was his daughter who died four years ago on this very night, still trying to get home.

In stories like these, the twist changes the paradigm and makes the prior events scary, when before they were innocuous. The conclusion answers the questions raised by the twist in a way that situates the story’s plot. Scary folklore like this permeates many cultures outside of Japan and they form the baseline for how these cultures understand horror. The worldwide popularity of Japanese horror can possibly be explained by the fact that the Japanese approach to horror may have transitioned more easily to other cultures than love stories or action stories would if told in the same style.

Only Clawing at the Surface…


Japanese storytellers are markedly innovative and subversive. New ways to tell stories are constantly popping up in books and in cinema, but even contemporary horror stories often show a deep connection to the folkloric tradition of storytelling in Japan. I hope I’ve been able to show that some of the very basic things about story construction can carry a lot of weight.

Please join me next time as I discuss the mechanics of Japanese horror stories, focusing on the use of atmosphere and emotion. For now, I’ve taken up enough of your timeyou should be watching scary Japanese movies! Happy Halloween!

Bonus Wallpapers!

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