Tofugu» Culture A Japanese Language & Culture Blog Wed, 23 Jul 2014 16:00:58 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Three Legs Are Better Than Two: Japanese Soccer and the Legend of Yatagarasu Wed, 23 Jul 2014 16:00:58 +0000

Here in Japan, the heat and humidity of summer have crept up on us, providing the perfect atmosphere to enjoy the 2014 FIFA World Cup – uchiwa in hand. Despite Samurai Blue’s (as the Japanese national team is often referred to) disappointing early exit, there’s something to take solace in – they still rock the tournament’s most unique and fashionable uniforms.

Okay, that last part is pure opinion. But given the team’s history of distinctive and often quirky jersey designs, I always look forward to the next iteration. In 2006 they featured a cool, light blue wave design. In 2010 a red square highlighted the center collar with an off-blue design of cascading feathers woven into the fabric.

Japan’s 2014 Uniform


Photo by BagoGames

The 2014 uniform did not disappoint, receiving special attention when Adidas collaborated with Nintendo to release a special Pikachu jersey for fans. The blue top features three white stripes on the shoulders, with red trim at the end of the sleeves. The Adidas logo adorns the upper right chest with a white, uniformed Pikachu featured underneath.

A national jersey wouldn’t be complete without the nation flag which sits on the left side of the chest, notably higher than the Adidas logo. The JFA (Japan Football Association) crest sits beneath the flag. And if you look closely, you’ll notice my favorite detail – faint sun-rays emanating from the JFA crest.


Yet despite ever-changing designs, Samurai Blue’s uniform’s most intriguing element has remained constant, returning year after year – the giant crow that dwells within the JFA crest.

Japan’s Crows


Photo by Frankyboy5

Even Pikachu can’t pry the title of The Most Unique Creature on Japan’s National Team Uniform from the claws of the giant crow that has secured it. To the casual observer, a crow might not seem like a fitting representative of Japan. But visitors to Japan, Tokyo in particular, can attest to the formidable presence of the Jungle Crow, a giant variety of the species that inhabit the city.

If the name sounds scary, it’s deservedly so. The Japan Time’s Rowan Hooper explains, “(Jungle Crows) will aggressively defend their favored garbage sites against other crows, and in the breeding season there are often reports of attacks on humans. The population explosion has led to the decline of other bird species, as crows will prey on the nestlings of other species (sometimes attacking with such violence that the nest is destroyed).”

The Texan in Tokyo, Grace Buchele Mineta noted, “I’m not a fan of crows in Tokyo. These huge birds, often 18-23 inches, creep me out, occasionally attack me, and often wreck my garbage.”

I have also fallen victim to Jungle Crow attacks. One dive-bombing bird took swoops at me during my walk to work, forcing me to take the long way home (albeit only a few extra yards).


Which brings us back to the JFA – why choose the Jungle Crow, that wreaks havoc on Japan’s cities, citizenry and garbage, to symbolize the organization?

A better questions is – does a more fitting mascot exist? The big, strong Jungle Crow instills fear in its foes. What’s more, the bird has earned a reputation for its aggressive attack (on humans and other birds) and formidable defense (of its territory) – definitive attributes of a world class soccer team. In reality the Jungle Crow makes the perfect mascot for the JFA and Samurai Blue!

Only those aren’t the reasons the crow was chosen.

In fact, the bird that graces the JFA logo is no ordinary Jungle Crow at all. Close investigation reveals the single detail that separates the JFA crow from the rest of the murder (or horde if you prefer, both mean a group of crows). There it stands – head held high, wings spread, both feet firmly planted on the ground with a soccer ball grasped in its other foot.

Wait, why does this crow have three feet? Because the FFA crow is none other than the legendary Yatagarasu!

The Legend of Yatagarasu


Who or what is Yatagarasu? Kevin Short, a cultural anthropology professor at Tokyo University explains,

“According to ancient Japanese Kojiki and Nihonshoki chronicles (the oldest writings in Japan) and Shinto canon, this great crow was sent from heaven (by the Sun Goddess Amaterasu) as a guide for Emperor Jimmu on his initial journey from the region which would become Kumano to what would become Yamato (later called Japan). Based on this account, the appearance of the great bird has traditionally been interpreted by the Japanese as evidence of the divine intervention in human affairs.”

Why does Yatagarasu have three legs? Most theories credit Yatagarasu’s origin to ancient Chinese and Korean legends that feature a similar creature. Katherine Marshall of The Huffington Post asked priests at Kumano Shrine (a shrine dedicated to the bird), who had this to offer, “(The three legs) may represent the three ancient clans that dominated Kumano’s history. Or perhaps the three main virtues of the gods: chi (wisdom), jin (benevolence) and yuu (valor). Then again, the three legs may stand for heaven, earth and mankind (as in the Taoist triad).”

Yatagarasu is a legendary creature and its three legs carry deep symbolism, but what does any of this have to do with soccer?

Why Yatagarasu?


The JFA’s own explanation is not very clear, “The three-legged crow holding a ball is called ‘Yatagarasu’ and represents the god of day, namely, the sun, cited from a classical book of old China.”

A little research uncovered a more detailed explanation. According to Julian Richards of the Wakayama Prefcture website, Yatagarasu honors the most influential man in Japan’s soccer history – Kakunosuke Nakamura (中村覚之助).

Tanabe Kumano of a Kumano News Blog explains, “In 1900… (Nakamura) translated an English book, Association Football. This book was the basis of the introduction of legitimate soccer to Japan in 1902. In the same year, Nakamura established Japan’s first soccer team, the so-called Ashiki Shukyu-bu.” He went on to play and coach soccer, becoming the founding father of the sport in Japan.

But how does Yatagarasu make a fitting symbol for Mr. Nakamura? Julian Richards explains again. “As Nakamura, the so called ‘founder of Japanese soccer,’ is from Nachi Katsuura in Wakayama Prefecture, the symbol was based on one of the Gods of Kumano Grand Shrine in the same town.”

Although the Nakamura connection is the most widely cited reason for the logo, it’s not he only one. Yatagarasu’s reputation as a guide may have helped inspire the JFA’s choice. Katherine Marshal elaborates, “A sign at the (Kumano) shrine notes that the Japanese soccer association has adopted the crow as its mascot to make sure the ball finds its way into the goal. Helping those who are lost to find a path is the essence.”

Yatagarasu, Still Guiding After All These Years


Photo by m-louis

Although an ordinary Jungle Crow would make the perfect soccer mascot for Japan, Yatagarasu, the heaven sent, three-legged bird is far more fitting. It represents one of Japan’s most important and influential people to the sport – Kakunosuke Nakamura. Furthermore, Yatagarasu helps guide the ball to the net as it had guided Emperor Jimmu in ancient times.

And Yatagarasu still guides people today. The JFA logo guided me to aspects of Japanese culture and history I never would have discovered otherwise.

Researching and writing about Yatagarasu also served as a reminder – the World Cup supersedes sport as a celebration of countries and cultures. Most team’s colors, uniforms and logos hold some cultural significance. Yatagarasu has left me wondering, why does France’s uniform features a rooster? And what’s up with the Dutch lion?

There’s still a lot to be learned from the World Cup… when we’re not glued to the TV enjoying the beautiful game.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Traveling The Hidden Spots Of Japan With MATCHA Tue, 22 Jul 2014 16:00:18 +0000 I was visiting my family and friends in Japan last month and one of my friends asked me what I do for work. I proudly answered Tofugu, but didn’t expect that he would know what Tofugu was because he was Japanese and Tofugu is intended for non-Japanese people who are interested in Japan.

Yet, I received an unexpected reaction – “What!? That Tofugu!? Really? I’m jealous!” Then he told me that he often comes across the name Tofugu online and showed me the most recent site he had read, as well. The site that he showed me was this Mr. Saitou’s personal blog named DoaBLOG. In this blog, Mr.Saitou gave Tofugu loads of praise and also introduced a site called MATCHA, which is the site he works for. I got interested in his article on MATCHA about a hammock cafe, then left a comment on his blog saying, “I want to swing on the hammock in the cafe”. Well, I still haven’t swung on the hammock in the cafe, but I did swing by for this interview and got the opportunity to ask him about this new Japanese travel web magazine called MATCHA.

Let’s find out how this powdered green tea travel blog, MATCHA, tastes!

Interviewing: Shinnosuke Saito. Position: PR


Q. What’s your story?

I’m a third-year student at Meiji University’s School of Commerce. I like English and international exchange, so I’m going to New York City in America to study this summer. I have various hobbies from travel to photography, to music, to café-hopping, to reading. I also host foreigners coming to Japan about once a week via Couchsurfing. While hosting non-Japanese people, I came to realize that they are often able to point out aspects and components of Japanese culture that I had never even thought about before. I found several times that I could only provide inadequate explanations.

For example, I was at a loss when I was asked about otoshi while in an Izakaya restaurant. Otoshi is the small appetizer that is brought to you while taking your seat even without ordering it. It is not on the house because it is provided as compensation for the seating charge. On the spot I was asked, “What is that?” but I had no idea how to answer.

That kind of new discovery is interesting to us, the Japanese people, as well. I simply like things that are unique to Japan and if I keep my eyes open, I can find an ample amount of such strictly-Japanese things. Then I began to want to tell everyone outside my home country of the true value of Japan, so I became a member of MATCHA. That’s what I want to introduce to you all today. I work as a project planner and in PR, but I sometimes write articles as well. I’m passionate about informing as many people as possible about the good things of Japan, so I do a lot of running around talking about MATCHA and Japan to various people. Today I got the opportunity to make my voice heard on Tofugu and let you guys know how great Japan is, too!

Q. Okay, I suppose you should tell us about Matcha then.


MATCHA is a web-based magazine for foreign tourists coming to Japan. Its writers, like myself, introduce the good and interesting things that are only found in Japan and place their articles under one of five categories (FOOD, SHOP, SPOT, HOW TO, and OTAKU). We now translate our articles in 7 languages. They are Japanese, English, Chinese (in both simplified Chinese characters and original Chinese characters), Korean, Indonesian, and “Easy-Japanese”. The Easy-Japanese is aimed at the more than 10,000,000 Japanese learners that exist in the world today.


The “How To” section is intended to help Japan-beginners to travel around Japan without getting lost. So we teach people how to buy a Suica (transportation card), give instructions on taking a taxi, have information on how to connect to Wi-Fi, ATM maps, etc… As for the articles found under SHOP and SPOT, they would even be interesting to Japanese people. In fact, there is a great deal of website access from Japan. We’ve received comments such as “I didn’t know that” or “I read MATCHA although I’m Japanese” from many people and I’m really happy about that. There are so many valuable things in Japan, but if nobody preserves them, they won’t last into the future. Hence, MATCHA is a media source that will help preserve the memory of such things unique to Japanese culture.

Q. Why did you start working at Matcha?

Yu Aoki, whom I have respected for a long while, played a big role in my desire to join MATCHA. He was originally blogging about his around-the-world trip on his own blog called Hibilog. I was a fan of his and joined the morning activity that he had started and soon after was asked to join MATCHA. He is the first person to start generating the collection of information regarding valuable Japanese culture in order to preserve it.

Yu Aoki Sen.Inc CEO

As I mentioned above, I do ‘couchsurfing’, or rather, I host ‘couchsurfers’. I’ve become a sort of tour guide for them and they are always satisfied with the excursions that I lead them on. They trust the information I offer them and return to their respective countries confident that they’ve seen “real” Japan by visiting those places and I’m very happy to be able to provide them with that.

However, this also means that they accept the information without a second thought. If the information quality is not good, they may have a bad experience. I think it is a little sad if they only know the Japan that I know. There is so much more I would like to know, myself. Sometimes I am asked about cultural aspects and I find I am unable to answer because I had never even considered it before that question, and I think it’s great that I can’t answer because I get to learn something new about Japanese culture. MATCHA was the most suitable place for me to unveil such answers after finding out. Of course, I would never turn down Mr. Aoki’s offer anyways because he is a person I really respect, when I was asked to join, I answered instantly, “I want to join you guys!”

Q. I think we’re going to focus this interview mostly on traveling Japan travel, but we’ll talk about your website a little bit too. You seem to focus on the smaller, lesser known places (we do that too in our travel section). Why do you do this?

MATCHA considers each writer’s passion to be an important part of the reading experience. Each writer has their own image in mind of the Japanese topics they write about and are encouraged to explore the special feeling they get about certain topics when they write. Because of that, the places tend to be niche spots rather than famous sightseeing places. On top of that, MATCHA is a media source that intends to perpetuate the existence of cherished Japanese culture. Unfortunately, cultural life, cultural goods, cultural traditions, and experiences could disappear if no one collects it. For example, Japanese breweries are said to be decreasing more and more. We often focus on such cultural aspects, places and things that are less popular and less well known and it shows in our content.

Q. If someone were to visit Tokyo, what 5 things do they HAVE to go see?


  1. Asakusa – Asakusa temple and the traditional shopping, entertainment and residential districts that represent Tokyo. The Skytree is also nearby, so you can easily spend the whole day in and around this area.
  2. Shibuya Scramble Intersection – It’s an incredibly famous intersection that you’re sure to have seen on TV before, where traffic lights allow pedestrians to cross in all directions simultaneously. It’s one of more fascinating spots for many foreigners, especially those not too accustomed to big cities, because it’s easy to be blown away by the sheer number of people. It is just intersection, but the chaos you experience here is well worth the visit.
  3. Harajuku – It’s the ‘Mecca of Kawaii’. If you want to see this world popular Japanese culture with your own eyes, you had better visit here. It may even be worth visiting while doing  cosplay too!
  4. Tsukiji – Raw fish, the smell of busy stovetops, the lively chatter….everything is fresh. If you go there at 5 am, the first 120 people in line get to observe the tuna auction! You can eat some of the freshest Kaisen-Don (Raw fish on rice in a bowl), as well!
  5. Akihabara – It’s the Mecca of Japanese anime and otaku culture. The flash of lights and eruption of color that covers everything adds percussion to your wandering feet. There are so many kinds of music that you can listen to, as well. It’s very much as if you were in a different world. Actually, I live in this area right now.

Q. If someone is visiting Japan, what 5 things do they HAVE to go see?

  1. Kyoto. It has a completely different atmosphere than Tokyo. I especially recommend Gion which can sum up the atmosphere of Kyoto. Red lanterns line the street and the alleys show us a traditional face with a very Japanesey taste. You would do nothing but be very excited if you visited here.
  2. Osaka – Osaka is also a very large city. Okonomiyaki and Takoyaki are famous to everyone, right? This is also a stereotypical spot to venture to, but I recommend you visit Dotonbori. Not only can you enjoy the famous Glico advertisements, takoyaki shops, and Okonomiyaki shops, but also peer into the deeper parts of Japanese culture. Oh, and the illumination of the street is also very beautiful.
  3. Matsushima – This is in Miyagi prefecture, where I’m from, and I really recommend visiting. It was voted as one of Japan’s top three most scenic places and you can enjoy fresh seafood, such as oysters and muscles. It is also close to the March 11th disaster area, so I would like people to visit there to see what happened.
  4. Hiroshima – There are world heritage sites, such as Itsukushima shrine and the Atomic Bomb dome. Also, Saijo is known for having one of the three biggest Japanese sake breweries.
  5. Gifu Shirakawago – This place allows all of us to realize that the really great spots in Japan are all in the rural countryside. I want everyone to feel the traditional tone and natural style of Japanese life – Japaneseness!

Q. What are the three weirdest spots you’ve written about on Matcha?


  1. These beautiful restrooms.
  2. This cafe where you can get coffee in a wine glass.
  3. and this anime-inspired Kamakura Pilgrimage.

Q. What are the three most beautiful spots you’ve written about on Matcha?

  1. The Meijijingu Shrine in Harajuku.
  2. This secluded bamboo temple in Kamakura.
  3. and  these World Heritage Sites: 1993-1998, 1999-2013.

Q. What are the three tastiest spots you’ve written about on Matcha?


  1. The extremely pastel colored KIKI LALA Cafe.
  2. Totoro Cafe, where you can get Totoro themed cream puffs.
  3. and Japan’s most delicious Dorayaki at Kameju.

Q. What are the three most stereotypical otaku spots you’ve written about on Matcha?

  1. Maison de Julietta, where you can become a Lolita.
  2. Nakano Broadway, for your medal addiction.
  3. These three anime shops in Akihabara.

Q. What kind of travel advice do you have for someone visiting and traveling within Japan?


Memorizing easy Japanese greetings. We feel happy when a visitor even just says “Arigato! (Thank you)” and it is that kind of simple phrase that makes a really good impression. Oh, and you should practice using chopsticks too, though there are so many Japanese restaurants around the world nowadays so maybe it’s already easy for you. Yet you will still receive praise if you can use them really well.

Q. What prefecture do you think is the most underrated in Japan (That people should go visit)?

Mmmm, my personal choice is Nagano. Nagano is a bit far from Tokyo and it will take a while to get there, but there are so many fascinating places, such as the Southern Alps of Japan, Jigokudani, which famous for the monkeys that live in a hot spring, traditional inn towns, and all the delicious soba noodles and Japanese sweets. I highly recommend going there at least once.

Q. In your opinion, which prefecture has the best food in Japan?

Miyagi prefecture, where I’m from, has the best food in Japan. Maybe I’m prejudiced, but to me the best food in particular is Gyu-tan (Beef Tongue) of Sendai in Miyagi prefecture.

Q. What’s your favorite secret spot in Japan?

It’s too difficult to answer. I’m sorry, but I have to pass on this question.

Q. If Tofugu Readers Want To Check Out More Matcha…?

MATCHA English:
Easy Japanese:

If you want to see the other languages please visit one of the above URLs and choose your preferred language.

MATCHA Facebook page:

Q. What can we expect from Matcha in the future?

MATCHA will be one of the great Japan tour media sources to represent Japan. Soon we will cover all 47 prefectures and convey valuable information about each of them. We distribute new articles every day, so please check it out, especially when you come to Japan!

Bonus Wallpapers!

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How The Ainu Do Mythology: A Primer Mon, 21 Jul 2014 16:00:17 +0000 I have kind of an interest in the Ainu, one of Japan’s original inhabitants. As someone who is mixed (like many modern Ainu) but looks just different enough to stand out, I have a vague idea of what it’s like to be seen as an outsider in my home country. I’m not a Native American though, so it’s not nearly as strong, but like the Ainu, my father’s culture is largely viewed by my home country for how it was centuries ago, not what it’s like today. However, I understand the power of that attraction. I find that mythology is, at the very least, a good way to introduce some of the bare basics of a different culture and its beliefs. Like the gaming displays in your favorite electronics store, I hope that sharing just a little mythology with fellow Tofugu readers will awaken a thirst for greater knowledge and investment in other cultures (but without charging you for it!).

A Quick Overview of the Ainu


Photo by seriykotik

So for those who aren’t sure who the Ainu are, I’d like to quote Nick’s article on Traveling to Hokkaido:

_In a quick history overview, the Ainu are an indigenous group of people in Japan with rather mysterious origins. While they initially inhabited a large part of northern Japan, they were gradually pushed north by the Japanese, eventually limited exclusively to Hokkaido. After the Meiji Restoration (1867), Hokkaido was annexed by the Japanese and the Ainu were forcefully assimilated and their language and culture was largely destroyed. Only very recently, beginning in the early 1990s, have the remaining descendants of the Ainu gained significant ground in the revival of their language and culture. _

Odd as it may sound, I actually originally found Tofugu, not because of its focus on Japanese culture, but to cross check another article I read. I was looking for Japanese words with Ainu origins, and Tofugu didn’t disappoint. I was surprised that, at the time, the article was fairly new. Finding information on the Ainu isn’t all that easy, especially in English. In fact, there’s a certain museum in Japan that focuses on different ethnicities from around the world, and one of the very few displays that is only in Japanese is the Ainu display. Apparently, even though displays on African, Australian, and Mezzo-American tribes were bilingually displayed, the curators said that they wouldn’t display other materials in English because it would show linguistic favoritism.

The Ainu in Japan are rarely talked about, to the point where if I mention them in Japanese, I have to also talk about Hokkaido, beards, and bears before people realize that, yes, some foreigners know about the people who inhabited these lands before the Wajin (term for Japanese people usually used to differentiate between them and other ethnicities living in Japan). Textbooks make very little mention of them, and my students seem to know more about the hardships of black people in America than… well, anything that has to do with Ainu culture. In fact, I’ve had schools that take students on their class trips to Hokkaido but don’t bother to visit anything Ainu related.

This is one of the reasons I really started to read Tofugu. There are a decent collection of related Ainu articles. There is an overview on who the Ainu are and the article on reviving the Ainu spirit, while other articles, like about Japan and bears, will often include references to the traditionally bearded northerners. There’s nothing in our Tofugu handbooks that require this, we’ve just got some wise writers that I’ll simply piggy back off of while I try to add a little something more.

Part of this is because, well, a lot of western information about the Ainu is based off of very old texts, mostly by John Batchelor, a missionary who wrote a whole lot about the Ainu (though there are some ethnocentric ideas present in texts one has to wrestle with as well). If it’s not Batchelor, it’s Kyousuke Kindaichi, a Japanese linguist who made some foreign friends and trained or worked with other influential Ainu researchers. The best place I’ve personally visited to find information on the Ainu is the Ainu Culture Center in Tokyo which has a rather full library of English texts for those who want to continue doing research on the Ainu but can’t find any authentic informant. What you’ll quickly find, though, is that many books reference texts made around the early 1900s, of which the culture center has copies of for your reading and researching pleasure (and yes, Batchelor and Kindaichi’s names will come up in those texts unless you’re reading something written by them). However, it is because these texts are so old that I have a bit more interest in Ainu mythology and wish to share what I’ve learned.

Ainu Mythology 101


Photo by davidooms

Unlike a lot of the raw culture books, Ainu mythology personally feels more alive and aware of itself. I must admit that I’ve gotten some help from Verity Lane who actually is lucky enough to live in Hokkaido and talk to Ainu people. Perhaps if enough people beg her, we’ll be fortunate enough to have an advanced Ainu mythology article sometime in the future!

Now, because the Ainu language had no system of writing prior to contact with the Japanese, myths were handed down orally. Recent projects, such as Project Okikirmui and Project Uepeker, are trying to keep the Ainu spirit alive and international. If you like video games, there’s a little game that has a lot of Ainu mythology in it. I’d like to think that for those interested in a modern use of Ainu mythology, Ms. Byrne’s article will provide some insight and use of things I’ll be discussing.

However, my best friend for this article is Donald L. Philippi’s 1979 book “Songs of Gods, Songs of Humans.” Not only is it one of the bigger collections of English Ainu mythology that I’ve been able to find (sadly not available at the Tokyo Ainu Culture Center), but it contains a wonderful introduction that explains some of the themes, structures, and linguistics details used in Ainu mythology, building on both research done by the above mentioned researchers as well as their students. If this is starting to sound like your English Literature classes, good. We need some context first, because diving right into some myths will certainly reveal patterns and habits, but hopefully some explanations will allow you to appreciate them more.

First is first person. While this isn’t always true (at least, when I’ve read some of the more modern translations that don’t give the original Ainu language glossary for me to research), most Ainu myths are told in first person. While men tell stories too, it’s often a female shaman speaking for the dead or the gods, uttering their tale as she is possessed by them. When the tale is in first person, we often can’t tell who the speaker is, or even their gender. It is revealed through the story, and at times, may even shift to another speaker, causing the listener to once again figure out who exactly is speaking. Luckily, the last line or two are spoken as the shamaness, naming who the spirit or god was who told the tale.

It’s important to note genders here because Ainu women had their own culture and practices that were kept apart, even secret, from men, such as stitching family patterns on the inside of girdles. Because these were shamanesses, and because many early researchers were males, we’ve lost some information to the ages, so female informants and translators such as Chiri Yukie have been invaluable.

It is important to know about this idea of the possessed narrator because these tales aren’t just for humans, but sometimes meant for gods or animals. For example, while humans don’t have claws or fur, we have words (well, and the ability to make art and wine). If a human wants or needs something, they can’t just take it, especially not by force, but must ask for it. While other spirits and animals can sometimes use human speech, it’s not as powerful as our own. In fact, human speech for the Ainu can literally cause pain or change the mind of the gods. If an animal or god needs help, it is through a human, like the shamaness, that they can gain access to our power. Gods do have their own abilities (I mean, what’s a godess good for if she can’t act on her own?), but our words have a different kind of strength that the gods fear at times, envy at others. It’s our unique powers that attract the gods and spirits to the human world. When our words fail, there are inau, a kind of carved prayer stick, and… well, millet wine. The gods love that stuff. Combining words with wine and sticks may sound like a bad idea, but it seems to work everytime in Ainu mythology.

Kamui moshir, which means “land of the gods,” will come up from time to time, especially when compared to ainu moshir, or “land of the humans.” Don’t think of this so much as heaven and earth but the same place, accessible to different beings. The gods very much walk among humans, but we can’t always see them. However, they are very human-ish. That is, the gods have their own homes, clothes, taste in food, and even prayers. Just the same, because humans apparently smell bad, they do travel in disguise and don’t want to be discovered.

One thing that many people know about the Ainu is that there’s a sort of bear worship. However, much like the Native Americans, there were various groups of Ainu, and the bear wasn’t the main god for everyone. A group by the sea might worship the orca, or another might worship the owl. Bear worship is simply known the best because its followers are the majority now. In some ways, I feel one could argue that Kamui Fuchi, the hearth goddess, is one of the main gods in Ainu mythology. Prayers to the gods are often delivered at the hearth in an Ainu home because the hearth goddess transmits messages between the world of humans and the world of spirits. Want to send a little wine to the gods? Give it to Kamui Fuchi. Thanking a deer for providing your family with meat and fur? Again, talk to Kamui Fuchi. There’s a reason why the bear sacrifice ceremony, iyomante, involves visiting the hearth a few times. How can you send a little god home without telling his friends to start a party and then later sending a thank you offering?


Ainu myths aren’t purely myth though. The Okhotsk culture wasn’t really something discussed or researched until the 1930s, but had been present as other people separate from the Ainu in various myths. Tales that bring up the making of pottery in very old myths hint at the Ainu’s possible connection to the Jomon, ignored for awhile in favor of outlandish theories that the Ainu were a lost tribe of caucasians. It’s important to remember this, since these myths really do show what Ainu society was like, which can be difficult to do in a society that didn’t keep written records.

One such way we can see this is through formulaic expressions. While kamui (meaning “god/ess” or “divine”) comes up often in these expressions, such as kamui katkemat (divine lady) or kamui ranke tam (god given sword), there’s a lot of kane, meaning metal. Those studying Japanese might be a little surprised by that one, but the word isn’t Ainu in origin. Because the Ainu were hunter-gatherers, they never mastered metal working, so they often traded for iron made goods. For this reason, kane kosonte doesn’t literally mean “metal robes” but is meant to express that the robes are strong, sturdy, and made of the best materials. Literally translating that from Ainu would certainly be confusing if you didn’t take the culture into account!

We can also gain insight from the role of women in these myths. While men fight physically, women will also participate in battles, often as a shamaness with her own powers, but she is often as brave as the men in her stories. In fact, you will sometimes have a woman doing battle in the sky while a man is in a different battle on the ground, both taking place at the same time and showing how the woman is matching the man in her battle prowess. This is just one example of how the Ainu use parallelisms in their myths, not just for artistic purposes, but to illustrate important comparisons.


Sadly, part of this emphasis on formulaic expressions carried over to the Ainu themselves. The stories had their own sort of grammar not used in everyday life, and there were certain phrases that the narrators themselves could no longer explain but had simply memorized from their teachers.

Finally, remember that Ainu myths were songs. Literally, songs, with their own melodies and burdens with improvised lyrics. These songs were so intense that the speaker would sometimes lay down while performing. Reading these myths removes them from their context in a big way, similar to adapting an improv-comedy routine into a written joke. It can be done, but to various degrees of success. Add to it that there’s few people who speak the language, and it becomes a bit more difficult to convey just how out of place a written myth is for the Ainu, but due to historical circumstances and cultural differences, this is the situation we find ourselves in.

The Ainu and the Fox: A Modern-English Retelling of an Ainu Myth


Photo by mushimizu

So one of the great parts of mythology is that, as the stories are passed down, they change. They’re adapted for a new audience, a new time, a new people. It’s why comic book heroes’ backgrounds change every other decade and why we’ve got a Spider-Man reboot (ignoring that whole thing about the director and cast not wanting to come back for a fourth movie). There are some Ainu myths you can find online, but to make things a little easier, we’re going to retell the myth of “The Ainu and the Fox” based on the version by Shigeru Kayano, translated into English by Deborah Davidson and Noriyoshi Owaki, which was originally recorded in 1973 and told by Nepki Nabesawa in Biratori, Saruba, Hokkaido. There are other adaptions you can find, but this one is the Tofugu version. While it doesn’t have all the elements discussed in our primer, it hopefully has enough to give you a small idea of what you might expect should you ever go out and read other Ainu myths:

I am an Ainu who once lived in in South West Hokkaido, in Usakumai near Lake Shikotsu. In my day, there were plenty of wild deer and bears roaming the mountains. Whenever I wanted meat, I had to go hunting in the mountains with my bow and arrows. After each hunt I shared the meat with the other villagers. We lived as a family, and smoked a lot of meat to eat later.

When fall came, the river filled with salmon heading upriver to spawn. Many fellow Ainu came to the river then. Not just our neighbors, but Ainu even from distant villages Piratori, which you now call Biratori, to catch salmon and preserve them for winter food. We humans were not the only ones to come for the salmon, but also bears and foxes. We all lived peacefully together, and my father would also leave fish for the crows. Their share was one fish for every ten we caught, and my father lay them out with the skin cut for the crows to eat, and so we did not get in each other’s way.

Life with my family was good. As time went on, people began to call me “grandpa.” My strength left me, so I no longer went into the mountains to hunt. I stayed at home and made tools and wood carvings for my family and village. It was a good life

One night, after carving late into the night as I usually had done, I wrapped myself in soft fur blankets and slowly fell asleep. However, at once, I heard a voice coming froma distance. At once, I heard a voice coming from nearby. I wondered who would be up at such an hour. I listened hard, but the voice was silent. Again I put my head on my pillow and wrapped myself in soft fur blankets. Again I heard the distant voice. Again I heard the nearby voice.

How was it far but close? My curiosity got the best of me, so I quietly got up, trying not to wake my family, and went outside. The moon was bright and lit the land for quite a ways. Slowly and softly I moved towards the voice. It was always nearby, and always so far away, as if from another world.

Eventually I saw was a fox. A normal fox, I thought, but this fox could speak our language, the human language. I listened carefully and discovered that it was making a charanke, a passionate argument we use to persuade), but his was a claim against the Ainu people!

“Ainu people! Listen up! The Ainu didn’t make the salmon! The foxes didn’t either, but it was the gods who made the salmon, and the god and goddess of this river, the Ishikari river, Pipirinnoekuru and Pipirinoemat, are the ones who decide how many salmon should swim up the river, so that the Ainu, the bears, and the foxes can all have their share to eat. However, this afternoon, I took one, just one salmon from the myriad salmon you Ainu had caught from our shared river. You know that gods won’t let us starve but will provide us all what we need! Still, one of you became so angry at me that he shouted at me, using the cruelest words there are in your language. The pain was so great that I felt like I was being attacked by horrible black flames.”

“And that’s not all! That man then prayed to the god of water and the god of the mountains, asking them both to banish us foxes from the land we share with you Ainu. He asked the gods to send us foxes far away to a place of barren hills, where there are no trees, nor grass or birds.”

With tears in his eyes, the fox called out, “I can’t stay silent. If the gods only hear his side of the story, they will think he is right, and we foxes won’t be able to live here any more. If something isn’t done, we foxes are doomed! Listen you gods! Listen you Ainu! Hear my story! Help us!”

The fox’s words touched me. He was right about what he had said. The salmon aren’t food only for the Ainu. The gods provide them for other creatures too, so when morning came, I gathered the villagers together and told them about the fox’s charanke. I called out the man who had insulted the fox and sternly lectured him. We carved many inau to help make our apology stronger, offered much millet wine to show our sincerity, and solemnly apologized to the fox god.

The other gods also heard our apology and decided not to banish the foxes, but to let them stay with us in Ainu Moshir, the Land of the Ainu.

Remember this, modern Ainu, modern men. The fish of the sea, fruit on the trees, and water of the river are not just for you and me. They should be shared with all the other animals. We must live together.

These were the final words of an Ainu elder before he died.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Gotta Catch ‘Em All: Karuta! Fri, 18 Jul 2014 16:00:58 +0000 Nintendo has been a household name in the world over for the last 30 years, and their Pokemon franchise took the world by storm in the 90s. But did you know that the multimedia Nintendo empire started out as a humble karuta company in 1889? That’s right, not 1989, 1889. Long before Mario and Princess Peach’s torrid love affair began, there was a type of Japanese playing cards called karuta (かるた or カルタ). Oddly enough, mastering karuta requires some of the same skills as mastering your average video game–a combination of lightning reflexes, memorization, and lots of time to waste. And for the Japanese language learner, karuta also offers the perfect blend of procrastination and productivity, a way to work and play at same time.

Clam Shells + Portuguese Sailors = Karuta


Photo by Scott S

Karuta, as it exists today, is the hybrid descendent of 12th century clam shells and 16th century Portuguese sailors. During the Heian period (794-1185), Kyoto aristocrats whiled away the hours with pastimes like writing elaborate poetry (read: passing gossipy notes back and forth that happened to be written in meter) and playing kai-awase (買い合わせ), a “shell-matching” game. The inner surfaces of clam or oyster shells were painted with matching scenes and/or poetry, a set of shells were laid face down, and players competed to see who could match the greatest number of shells in the shortest amount of time.


Photo by Sudare

Karuta’s second ancestor arrived through the port of Nagasaki in the mid-1500s. Here Portuguese sailors introduced the resident samurai class to European playing cards that they called carta. As filtered through Japanese ears, carta became karuta. During the ensuing Edo period (1600-1868), karuta fully evolved from a foreign Portuguese import into a distinct Japanese custom, combining traditional kai-awase gameplay with the European paper card medium. Although painstakingly hand-painted at first, before long karuta were being mass-produced via cutting-edge woodblock print technology. Now people from all walks of life could afford to buy their own deck, and oysters once destined to become kai-awase could breathe a sigh of relief.

How To Play


In order to get your game on, you’ll need to buy, borrow, or make your very own karuta deck (there’ll be more on that later). The standard way to play requires a “reader” or “caller” and two or more players. In any karuta deck there are two types of cards:


yomifuda (読み札): “reading cards” with written information on them

torifuda (取り札): “grabbing cards” with pictures and/or written language on them

Note: each yomifuda has a corresponding torifuda

Once armed with your deck of choice, you’re ready to play:

  1. Spread all the torifuda face up on a flat surface between the players.
  2. The “reader” randomly draws a yomifuda from the deck and reads it aloud.
  3. Players race each other to determine which torifuda corresponds to the yomifuda clue and then to touch/grab/claim the correct card first.
  4. Repeat steps two and three until no cards remain.
  5. Whichever player has the most cards wins!

Competitive Karuta


Now if you’re a casual gamer like me, you’ll probably be satisfied with the low-stress version of karuta described above. But if you’re the masochistic sort who likes their recreational activities to induce stress, you might want to try your hand at kyogi karuta (競技カルタ), or competitive karuta. Sure, a paper cut might be the most severe injury you can receive in a match, but competitive karuta is no joke. You’d be surprised at how intense the last few rounds can get–two formerly unassuming obaasan can morph into fierce warrior women before your eyes! The televised matches remind me of competitive poker–and strangely enough, karuta used to be a popular form of gambling.

The official karuta deck used in competition is also the most common (and/or popular): the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu Karuta, with 200 cards per deck (100 torifuda and 100 yomifuda). Each yomifuda showcases a complete waka poem (also known as tanka, a form requiring 31 syllables to be arranged in a 5-7-5-7-7 pattern) along with an illustration of the poet who wrote it. The corresponding torifuda list only the second half of the poem (the final 7-7 lines). (There’ll be more about this deck and others below.)

In competitive karuta, 50 randomly selected torifuda are split 50-50 between two competitors. Before the game begins, each player arranges his or her 25 cards face-up on his or her territory in any one of a number of strategic positions. A fifteen minute period is provided in order to memorize the position of his or her own (and his or her opponent’s) cards and a two minute period is reserved for players to practice striking at cards. When time’s up, the reader opens the game by chanting a poem that doesn’t appear in the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu deck. After that, the action starts–the reader sings out the first lines of the first poem while the players scramble to identify and then claim the torifuda card containing that poem’s last few lines.

This is where cat-like reflexes and a memory built like a computer’s hard drive come in handy. The keys to mastering competitive karuta are memorizing all 100 poems and honing hand-eye coordination, so that 1) within the first few syllabes of the yomifuda you know exactly which card you need and 2) the instant you’ve identified your target you’re able to swipe it. Watch these pros in action for an idea of just how competitive competitive karuta can be:

Since the mid-Meiji era, large-scale kyogi karuta competitions have taken place on a national level. The All-Japan Karuta Association (established in 1957) currently sets the standard for the official rules and format of kyogi karuta. The rules are more complicated than you might think–see for yourself here: English Kyogi Karuta Handbook. The media covers many of the tournaments sponsored by the AJKA, particularly the New Year’s national championship held every January at Omi Shrine in Shiga Prefecture. This is where the AJKA crowns the male and female Grand Champions as Queen (クイーン) and Master (meijin 名人). And as if that wasn’t hyperbolic enough, seven-time Grand Champions are bestowed with the title of Eternal Master (eiseimeijin 永世名人) or Eternal Queen (eiseikuin 永世クイーン). Just imagine how that would look on your resume.


Photo by 47 News

If you think you have what it takes, there’s a budding international tournament you can set your sights on. The first one was held in 2012 and competitors from the US, China, South Korea, and New Zealand showed up to show each other up. Hurry up and snag your trophies while you can, before they add karuta to the Olympics and everyone and their okaasan start competing for the glory.

That said, don’t worry if you feel unprepared to compete on the world stage. There are lots of levels on which to enjoy karuta. For over a century, a rousing game of karuta has been a staple of New Year’s celebrations in Japan. It can be enjoyed year-round at community centers (where members often create and use their own karuta with local scenes) or high school and college clubs devoted to studying and playing karuta. Karuta’s even made it into the curriculum approved by the Ministry of Education–studying and playing karuta is one of its recommended teaching materials. Karuta is also a media darling–there’s Karuta Queen, an NHK drama, and Chihayafuru, a wildly popular manga (and then anime) series that follows a school girl who takes up kyogi karuta.

Varieties of Karuta


Whether you want to brush up on your classical Japanese poetry, finally memorize the names and location of all 47 Japanese prefectures, or gain a questionably useful but unquestionably entertaining knowledge of traditional Japanese monsters, there’s a karuta deck for you. To give you a sense of the variety out there, here’s a sampling of some of the most popular and/or common karuta decks I’ve come across:

Hyakunin Isshu Karuta (百人一首かるた)


This is the most widely known and popular version of karuta, probably due to the fact that it’s the variety used in competition. This deck is based on a famed poetry anthology of the same name (which literally translates to “100 people, 1 poem”), a collection representing both male and female poets from the 7th through the 13th century. The 100 poems featured in Hyakunin Isshu Karuta are the same 100 poems selected and compiled by poet and court noble Fujiwara no Teika in the early 13th century. This is a great way to exercise your classical Japanese skillz, also known as kobun (check out Rochelle’s thorough and thoroughly awesome Introduction to Kobun Series if you need a primer.).



Poem by Koukamonin no Bettou
Translation by Clay MacCauley:
For but one night’s sake,
Short as is a node of reed
Grown in Naniwa bay,
Must I, henceforth, long for him
With my whole heart, till life’s close?


Poem by Sosei Hoshi
Translation by Clay MacCauley:
Just because she said,
“In a moment I will come,”
I’ve awaited her
E’en until the moon of dawn,
In the long month, hath appeared.

Iroha-garuta (いろはがるた)


This is the second most widely known and popular version of karuta, and it’s also more widely accessible than its poetic counterpart. Often used in conjunction with teaching children the hiragana syllabary, Iroha-garuta feature 48 proverbs (kotowaza). The proverbs vary according to the set but, in all cases, the full proverbs appear on 48 yomifuda while a corresponding picture and a kana with the first syllable of the proverb appear on 48 torifuda. While 48 might seem like an arbitrary number, it’s based on the number of hiragana syllables–each of the syllables is represented by a proverb beginning with that syllable. However, since no words begin with “n” in Japanese, the custom is to replace the “n” with the character kyo (京) for “capital” as a nod to the game’s origins in Kyoto.



Inu mo arukeba bou ni ataru (“A dog that walks around will find a stick”)


Issun saki wa yami (“An inch ahead is pitch-black”)

Obake Karuta (お化けかるた):


Photo by Kotonoca

These “monster” (obake お化け) karuta were created and popularized during the Edo period but remained common through the 1910s-20s. Charmingly creepy illustrations of 48 bakemono (monsters) from Japanese folklore slither, slink, and skulk on the faces of the torifuda cards, along with an accompanying hiragana character in the corner signifying the creature’s initial syllable. Clues to identify the monster appear on the yomifuda that correspond to each ghoulie, ghostie, and long-legged beastie. Hmm, a Japanese card game about monsters…sound familiar? It’s hard not to see Obake karuta as the grandaddy of modern phenomena like Pokemon and Yo-kai Watch.



Photo by Yomi Kikase

Obake names from left to right: Nopperabo, Rokurokubi, Karakasa, and Hitotsume Kozo

Regional Karuta (hougen karuta and kyodo karuta 方言かるた and 郷土かるた)


Photo by Sanzo Kuame

Tired of speaking plain-old, run-of-the-mill Japanese all the time? Want to know more about the unique and fascinating regions of Japan’s islands? Regional dialect karuta (hougen karuta) can arm you with the words and phrases you need to sound native whether you’re in Hokkaido, Osaka , Kyoto, or Aomori. And regional history cards (kyodo karuta) can introduce you to the local events, specialties, and historic sties of areas as far flung as Gunma (Jomo Karuta) and Hokkaido (Hokkaido no Meisho or “Famous Places in Hokkaido”). Tokyo’s not the only game in town!


Photo by Katoko

Translation of tsuppe (Hokkaido dialect): to tsuppe suru is to put a piece of tissue in your nose when you have a nosebleed


Translations of cards from left to right: “Gunma Prefecture, shaped like a crane in flight”; “The hot springs of Ikaho, among the best in Japan”

National Karuta


Karuta like Todofuken karuta (都道府県かるた) and Nipponichi karuta (日本一かるた) both fit under this category, since they represent all of Japan’s various regions in a single deck. Playing with Todofuken karuta can help you memorize the shape and characteristics of all 47 of Japan’s prefectures, while Nipponichi karuta will introduce you to a traditional folk craft from each of Japan’s prefectures via poems inscribed on the yomifuda. These decks are a great way to bust the myth of Japanese homogeneity and learn more about Japan’s internal cultural diversity–Nagasaki is not Gunma, just like Maine isn’t Alabama.



Nipponichi karuta: Here we have an homage to Nara’s luxury socks on the left and the tairyoubata (大量端) banners of Chiba symbolizing great catches on the right.


Todofuken karuta: Two sides of the pair of cards featuring Hokkaido (in this set, the torifuda and yomifuda are double-sided in order to pack in as much info as possible)

Shakespeare Karuta (シェイクスピアかるた)


This one’s a bit of a wild card. Similarly to Hyakunin Isshu Karuta, this Shakesperean variety features a poetic verse on the yomifuda and the last few lines of that verse on the torifuda. The twist, of course, is that Shakespeare’s Old English has been transformed into modern Japanese. If you’re a translation dork like me, this is the kind of stuff that gets you going–the opportunity to see how familiar English phrases like “To be or not to be” and “Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo” become retrofitted to an entirely different language and culture.


But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Hyakunin Isshu is almost like the original Monopoly, and like Monopoly with its twenty million variations, the karuta industry endlessly generates new variations on its centuries-old theme.

How to Catch ’Em All


Photo by Gilgongo

One of the best things about picking up karuta as a hobby is that it doesn’t have to break the bank. I picked up my first deck on a whim for 500 yen (roughly $5) at Daiso in Harajuku (a popular “100 yen store”). That doesn’t mean you can’t drop a small fortune, though–a single reproduction of the famed Ogata Korin Hyakunin Isshu set, elegantly hand-printed and highlighted with fine gold foil, goes for around 1,100,000 yen (roughly $11,000).

Though I haven’t yet been myself, the Okuno Karuta Store, established in 1921 and located in the Kanda-Jinbocho district of Tokyo, promises to be a karuta pilgrimage worth taking. On the first floor, the Okuno family sells a ridiculous array of karuta, including over 30 decks exclusive to the store as well as antique, hand-painted sets dating to the Meiji era. Having been in business for almost a century, the Okuno Karuta owners have curated some stunning collections over the years. These collections can be seen on the second floor (added in 2009), now the home of a minis-museum dedicated to traditional Japanese games with displays rotating on a monthly basis.


If you can’t afford to ship yourself to Japan and back again, you can always get karuta shipped to you instead. Online stores like Punipuni Japan, Rakuten, Japan’s, River Whale, and Discovery Creative all offer a wide selection of affordable karuta (including all the varieties listed above) for international shipment. And if you’re cramming for a test, head over to Gakken, a company that specializes in explicitly educational karuta–practice your Japanese while you memorize world geography or the elements of the periodic table.

If you’re not satisfied with the available decks, you can buy a stack of blank karuta cards (sold on Rakuten) to make your very own set on the topic of your choice. On the other hand, if it’s the cost that’s got you down, you can always use cut up your own blank card stock to create your own custom deck or recreate an established one.

Last but definitely not least, you can print out free downloadable karuta decks on sites like Happy Lilac and Nifty Kids–see for a Hyakunin Isshu set or for Iroha-garuta.

Get Your Game On


Photo by fdecomite

You might be thinking, “Alright, this could be funbut I don’t have anyone to play with!” Never fear! You’re not alone in your quest to master karuta on your own. A number of sets come with a CD-ROM that stands in for a reader, calling out the yomifuda for you so you can concentrate on grabbing those torifuda. The same principle works if you play via app (here’s just one version:

Another option (my personal favorite) is to just do the reading yourself. And hey, taking on both reader and player roles gives you the most language learning bang for your buck–combining reading, pronunciation, and listening practice. Just record yourself reading each of the cards as a separate audio file, import those files into a folder on iTunes, and let them play on Random mode to act as the reader while you play in real time as the player.

Whatever way you choose to play–solo or group, casual or competitive, IRL or online–you’ll be flexing your Japanese muscles, beefing up your knowledge of the deck’s topic, and exercising your memory all at the same time. That’s a lot of heavy lifting for a single deck of cards. So take a break from some other time wasters and give karuta a try–you’ll never become an Eternal Master by playing online solitaire, that’s for sure.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Can You Dig It? Of Love and Earwax Thu, 17 Jul 2014 16:00:17 +0000 Forget hugs and kisses. Throw away your candy, flowers and rings. If you want to truly express love for someone, clean their ears.

Is It a Love Story?


Image from the anime, Hen Zemi (変ゼミ)

Perhaps you’ve seen it in anime, manga, drama or movies. Or maybe you’re one of the (un)lucky ones to have experienced it yourself. In Japan it’s common imagery – a blissful man rests his head on the lap of a woman who takes a long, pointy tool and picks, pulls, or wipes the excess earwax out.

How romantic.

However, ear cleaning, or mimi souji (耳掃除) isn’t limited to romantic interests. Family members might also get in on the act. Hitome Kobayashi, associate professor of otorhinolaryngology at Showa University School of Medicine explains, “Many Japanese grew up having their ears cleaned by their mothers, and associate it with pleasant feelings of maternal closeness.”

How did such a rudimentary cleaning routine come to embody intimacy? Few areas of the human body are as important yet as vulnerable as the human ear. Even a pressure change during air travel can rupture the delicate human eardrum. So it’s no wonder any physical contact with the ear’s organs should be avoided. Luckily they sit deep inside our heads, protected by the outer ear, pinna, and (sometimes hairy) ear canal.

You wouldn’t let any Jo-suke Schmo off the street poke around in your ears, would you? Of course not. Only the most trusted people should be allowed access to this vital, vulnerable area – particularly when it involves long, pointy objects. In an ideal world no one would be more trusted than one’s parents or lover(s). So ear-cleaning as a symbol of love kind of makes sense.

Or A Horror Movie?


But to the (un)trained eye the scene appears more fitting of a horror film. Ear cleaning tools resemble a dentist’s ensemble at best, medieval torture devices at worst. When I first witnessed the act my muscles tensed and my forehead broke into a cold sweat! I couldn’t escape the thought that a only small slip would cause major damage.

And I’m not the only worried Westerner. Andrew R. of Oita Prefecture wrote of his culture shock, “Imagine my horror when I came home one evening to find my Japanese wife bent over our little son, about to thrust a sharpened stick into his ear!”

So if the act appears (and is) dangerous, why do it? A cotton swab or a towel over my finger always the job done for me. Are all of these tools really necessary?

Turns out they might be – not all earwaxes are created equal.

Earwax Nomenclature


Photo by Hiro

There are two basic types of earwax. Genetics determines which type you have, but it’s also connected to race.

Erika Engelhaupt of reported on earwax research performed at Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. “‘We could obtain information about a person’s ethnicity simply by looking in his ears,’ chemist Katharine Prokop-Prigge said. If you would describe yourself as white or black, your earwax is probably yellow and sticky. If you are East Asian or Native American, it’s likely to be dry and white.”

It appears that earwax type and underarm odor might share a connection. “As for our different ear odors, they came about because of a tiny change… that long ago granted an East Asian population a reprieve from both smelly underarms and sticky earwax.”

Why study earwax? Researchers hope to create an earwax test, similar to blood or urine tests, that would indicate health problems a patient might have.

Understanding earwax types allows us to understand the differences in ear cleaning cultures. Although my sticky earwax adheres to a cotton swab or towel, the “dry, flaky” earwax common among Japanese people doesn’t. This warrants the scoops, shovels and picks that pick and pull the dry, flaky earwax out. And considering the tools, having a partner perform the act seems seems safer than performing it alone.

Tools of the Trade


Whatever the reasoning, when it comes to ear-cleaning in Japan a simple cotton-swab won’t do. Ladles, loops, disks, picks and ear rakes line hygiene aisles. Ear cleaning tools, or mimi kaki (耳かき) come in plastic, wood, and even silver and gold models.

Some have puffs at the end to help pull wax out or brush it aside. Others have safety guards to prevent picks held by unsteady hands from entering too far.

The most technological models use LED lights to illuminate ear canal, making it easier to see. Some models even feature figurines for style. So Hello Kitty fans, for example, can reap extra satisfaction by cleaning their ears with an official Kitty-chan ear-pick.

If you’re single, don’t worry. Just because your love-life suffers doesn’t mean your ears have to. Daniel Krieger of TravelCNN reports, “When the Japanese government… (made) medical licenses unnecessary for ear cleaners, a new type of business sprung up in Tokyo and other big cities: ear-cleaning parlors, which now number in the hundreds.” Mr. Krieger purchased the hospitality of a “kimono-clad young woman,” tea, conversation, and the intimacy of a private ear cleaning for about $30.

Women with waxy build-up need not fret. “Though most Japanese ear-cleaning parlors cater more to men who may long for the maternal tenderness of their childhood, female-oriented salons have been appearing,” Mr. Krieger explained.

And if your love for mimi souji has grown into a fetish, there are parlors that cater to your needs as well. The Australian reported on the workers at a parlor called Tenshi no Tobira (Angel Gateway), “a job description that falls somewhere between beautician, unobtainable sex fantasy, and psychotherapist.” At these “discount versions of the traditional hostess bars” a cute member of the opposite sex cleans a customers ears while providing pleasant conversation and, according to an AFP News report, blowing their ears clean.

A few ear-cleaning parlors provide even more thorough, less innocent cleaning services. According to The Tokyo Reporter, “Mimi Kaki Club charged a heady 20,000 yen (about $200) for a 60-minute session, of which only the first 10 minutes involved ear-reaming.” If you’re having trouble imagining what followed mimi souji please read the article, but be forewarned that it includes adult language and strong sexuality. And please remember this type of mimi souji is the exception, not the rule.

But even improved ear cleaning technology and strong-lunged workers can’t hide the truth – most experts agree ear cleaning is unnecessary.

A Sound Argument Against Ear Cleaning


Photo by Ricky Qi

Wet or dry, earwax serves a noble purpose. Alice Gordenker explains, “(Earwax is) there to protect the skin of the ear canal and keep out things you wouldn’t want in your ear, including bacteria, water and (bugs).”

Doctor Timothy C. Hain of agrees, “One should realize that wax isn’t all that bad. It keeps your ear dry and helps prevent infection. Thus, you don’t want to eliminate wax.”

Perhaps my eyes didn’t deceive me. Maybe we should all tense up at the though of earwax removal – be it by finger, cotton-swab, pick, rake, or scoop. The act appears dangerous because it is. Even the innocent-looking cotton-swab causes its share of injuries. Rose Eveleth of Smithsonian Magazine explains, “Removing wax yourself can be dangerous… Thousands of people go to the hospital every year because of those pesky cotton swabs.”

Besides, ears are self-cleaning by design. Ross Pomeroy of RealClearScience explains, “‘(Excess wax) falls out of the ear without us noticing.’ Much of this cascade occurs while we eat. The movement of the jaw massages wax out of the ear canal. Along with the wax comes any particulates or dirt that were gumming up the hearing works.”

But what about waxy buildup? Surely some situations call for the physical removal of wax, right? Professor Kobayashi suggests that “there are times when ear wax has to be removed, but it should be always be handled by a medical professional.”

“If someone experiences symptoms such as pain, discharge, a sense of fullness or hearing loss,” Professor Kobayashi continued, “they should go to a doctor who has training and special tools.”

Is That Waxy Buildup In Your Ears, Or Are You Just Happy To Hear Me?


“Remember, never stick anything smaller than your elbow in your ears,” an elementary school teacher of mine once said.

“My elbow’s too big to fit in my ear!” a classmate called out.

“Exactly!” He said with a smile. Though I couldn’t maneuver my elbow anywhere near my ear to try, the teacher had made his point – don’t stick anything in your ears.

And health professionals agree, cleaning one’s ears is unnecessary and often does more harm than good. Self cleaning can lead to deeper wax buildup, infections, and damage to the inner ear. And thanks to natural mechanisms, ears clean themselves. So is it really worth the risk?

Some people think so. In many countries ear cleaning has become a hygienic ritual. This is especially true in Japan, a culture that prides itself on cleanliness. But mimi souji supercedes hygiene. Many consider the act a pleasurable, comforting experience that embodies love and trust.

Mii-chan, an ear cleaning parlor girl concluded, “The ear is a very sensitive place and, when someone is cleaning it, you feel loved.”

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Takarazuka’s Crossdressing Starlets: Better Than Real Men? Wed, 16 Jul 2014 16:00:57 +0000 The Takarazuka Revue is a unique Japanese all-female theater company that has gained incredible popularity since it was founded nearly one hundred years ago. With over one thousand performances each year and an audience of two and a half million, including people who come from all over the world, The Takarazuka Revue is one of the largest theater companies in the world. A single-gendered troupe of such incredible popularity is a unique phenomenon, though Japan is no stranger to gender bending in theater performance. The traditional theater Kabuki has been restricted to men only since 1629, with males playing female roles.


The revue is not only unique because of its fame, which is on the same level as Broadway musicals in the United States, but also because of its unique stylistic elements. The women in the troupe are split into two categories, otokoyaku, who play men’s roles, and musumeyaku, who play women’s roles. Once these roles are decided, the actresses specialize in that role and almost never switch from one to the other.

Becoming Takarazuka


The goal is not to trick the audience into believing that the otokoyaku are men, but to present an idealized male character through a woman’s body. The productions are almost always romantic, glamorous musicals, and thus attract a mostly female audience. They are generally Western-style musicals, with costumes and music very similar to American Broadway musicals. Although they often stage adaptations of Western plays such as Romeo and Juliet and Gone with the Wind, they are even more glitzy and extravagant than their Western counterparts. It is as if they took the idea and exaggerated it. For an American like me, it is a strange sight to see the actresses with their blonde hair and eye-exaggerating makeup.

The Takarazuka Revue was founded in 1914, in the small Takarazuka City near Osaka, for which the group was named. The founder, Kobayashi Ichizou was a railway tycoon, and his original intent was to increase the use of his new railway by attracting people to Takarazuka City and making it a leisure location. Kobayashi created the revue’s motto, which still endures today: Kiyoku, Tadashiku, Utsukushiku (Purity, Integrity, Grace). The company currently has five troupes with about eighty performers each: The Flower, Moon, Snow, Star, and Cosmos Troupes, which all perform both in the Takarazuka Grand Theatre located in Takarazuka City and the Tokyo Takarazuka Theatre, as well as going on tour both in Japan and abroad. The company has in-house playwrights, costume designers, stage art directors, music composers, and orchestras.

The audition to be accepted into Takarazuka is extremely competitive, with fewer than one in twenty girls passing each year. Originally they accepted girls in their early teens, but now only girls aged fifteen to eighteen may apply. After passing the audition, the girls attend the Takarazuka Music School for two years where they receive rigorous instruction not only in performing arts, but also in how to become disciplined in everyday life. The school is renowned for its strictness; for example, first year students must get up in the early hours of the morning and clean the school from top to bottom in complete silence. Furthermore, there is an even more controlling aspect of Takarazuka: the actresses must remain unmarried until they retire from the group, and in fact are not permitted to date or even have interaction with outside men.

The “Dream Factory”


The characters that the otokoyaku try to create are heroic figures, masculine enough to seem strong and supportive, but gentle enough to be romantic and loving. This is not meant to seem realistic by any means, but to portray an ideal, impossible man that will delight the hearts of the audience. As a foil to the otokoyaku, the musumeyaku portray exaggeratedly feminine women, who therefore make the male characters seem more masculine by comparison. The otokoyaku train their voices to reach low octaves, attempting for a husky tone, while the musumeyaku practice an unnaturally high tone. Beyond that, the Japanese language also provides a way to set them apart from each other, as they can use gendered language to an extreme that most Japanese people don’t use in their day-to-day speech.

Before I went for my year abroad in Tokyo, I had heard about Takarazuka and was intrigued. During my time there, I saw two shows at the Tokyo Takarazuka Theatre and I found myself enraptured by their performances. There was a Disneyland-esque feeling of a fantasy land being brought into the real world. Indeed, Takarazuka is sometimes called a “Dream Factory.” The otokoyaku held a particular mesmerizing appeal.

One Takarazuka show I saw while I was in Tokyo was The Rose of Versailles, the company’s most famous play. Based on a classic manga series of the same name, it follows the story of Oscar, a female who is raised as a male because her father needed a son. This show adds another delightful layer of gender confusion, and throughout the years there has been discussion about what kind of actress should play Oscar; the actresses who play females, the musumeyaku, or the actresses who play males, the otokoyaku? Generally they choose an otokoyaku, who then ironically plays a more feminine character than usual, a woman pretending to be a man rather than a pure male character. This is further complicated by her romantic relationship with her male friend and companion, Andre. This is my favorite scene, in which a young Andre is introduced to Oscar, who immediately challenges him to a sword fight. You then get to see them grow up together in a few flashes of theater magic:

The advance tickets were sold out for this show within hours of becoming available, but there were also limited same-day at the door tickets. I stood in line with some hardcore fans from 6:00 am to 10:00 am in the freezing winter cold in order to secure these tickets.


Luckily my friends and I could take turns to run to the local convenience store to buy hand warmer packets. During that time I was bemused to observe fan club members, dressed in identical scarves and shirts, standing in a line outside the theater and waiting patiently for hours until their favorite actress arrived so that they could hand her gifts and letters. The clubs will perform this ritual both before shows and after, simply to have that moment of contact with their favorite star.

The Takarazuka Fanclub


Almost all of the star actresses have one or more specialized fan clubs, where dedicated fans take on almost a cult-like tendency as they support their favorite actress. The Takarazuka official fan club, Takarazuka Tomonokai (Takarazuka Friends’ Society), was founded in 1934 and is a general club for any Takarazuka fan. But almost all of the stars have their own personal fan clubs. The top stars often have more than a thousand loyal fan club members. Although the group was originally intended to appeal to families and to young girls, the typical fans today are usually middle aged married women.

Club activities include writing letters together, discussing theater, and staging their own plays. Letters to the actresses typically contain compliments, requests for advice on personal problems, gentle criticism of the star’s latest performance, or may sometimes even contain love confessions or sexual content. While the newer fans can only have contact with their favorite actress through those letters and fleeting moments outside the theater, long time fans will perform duties such as chauffeuring her to and from the theater, preparing meals for her, and in some cases even providing financial support.

When attending a Kabuki performance, I saw two otokoyaku accompanied by two fans sitting in the most expensive seats, no doubt purchased as a gift by the fans. How did I know they were otokoyaku? Even outside the theater, they dress in a particular style that is fashionable and sleek and androgynous. They also have a particular aura, such that one could practically feel their presence in the room. The rest of the audience also seemed keenly aware of their presence, but they were guarded the entire time by their adoring fans. My friends and I noticed them immediately, and since we were up in the balcony we spent the entire intermission peering down at them with our binoculars.

How Do You Categorize Them?


Quote from a fan of Takarazuka:

Japanese men are boring, so of course women love Takarazuka. The husbands work so hard that they have no time for their wives, and Takarazuka is a place for wives to go that doesn’t threaten their husbands. At Takarazuka, women can express the emotion they can’t show their coldhearted husbands. Takarazuka never disappoints them. (Takarazuka: Sexual Politics and Popular Culture in Modern Japan).

Because Takarazuka fans seem so passionate about their favorite actresses, Western scholars who study Takarazuka often describe it as a “lesbian” phenomenon, while Japanese scholars, fans, and actresses alike insist that there is no romantic attraction at work. Instead they explain the bond as a sisterly bond, with younger fans and actresses acting as the adoring imouto(younger sister) and the older ones acting as the wise, protecting oneesama (older sister). In fact they often use these words to describe each other. But as many fans of anime and manga have no doubt noticed, this kind of relationship can seem very romantic to an outside eye. And in some ways, it is romantic.

Even so, there is no way to call Takarazuka fans lesbians. They do not fit into Western ideas of romance and sexuality, where one must fall into one of several neat categories. They exist somewhere in between, and while Americans might try to figure out the exact nature of the relationship, Japanese Takarazuka fans are perfectly content to leave that question unasked, and to enjoy their hobby with no shame.

When an answer can’t be nailed down, sometimes we have to let that question go and enjoy the uncertainty.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Understanding The Ways That Japan Tells Time Tue, 15 Jul 2014 16:00:50 +0000 Can someone tell me what year it is? 2014? Wait. What system are you using? It’s obviously Heisei 26 right now, the 26th year of the current emperor’s reign. Sure, you could use the Gregorian calendar, but that’s not the way Japan does it. The native Japanese calendar is utilized, nearly interchangeably, with our Western one. In fact, the native Japanese calendar, or “the nengō naming system”, is the official dating system still used in Japan today. The Japanese government and most businesses continue to date things using this method.

We now know that the date is Heisei 26 because it’s the current emperor’s 26th year in power. But, I bet you’ve heard of some of the other era names too. Showa? Meiji? Taisho? Genroku? Anything sound familiar here? If not, that’s fine – you’ll be getting plenty of exposure to them from here on out.

Made in China


Photo by: Jonathan Corbet

Like many other conventions in Japan, the nengō system of naming the periods by the reigns of emperors was imported from China. Originally, this was one of the many ways Japan tried to legitimize themselves in the eyes of the various Chinese dynasties. There was one big difference, though. In Japan, there has only been one single “dynasty.” The imperial rule has arguably been the same since the beginning of their history. In China, however, there is something called the “Mandate of Heaven,” which basically says that if there is an unjust guy on the throne, the heavens will make sure he is overthrown and a better ruler can take over. Smart of the Japanese imperial family to leave this little tidbit out of the Japanese emperor rulebook.

While Japan didn’t really understand the concept of different families ruling, they did understand the need to legitimize the succession of the imperial heirs. Since the start of recorded history there have been numerous methods of keeping the same bloodline going. From inter-marriage, female empresses, and the inclusion of distant relatives, the Japanese imperial family has worked very hard over centuries to continue their only dynasty. With all of the work they were doing to keep the same family at the top, creating a distraction from unpleasant events seemed like a good solution.

Pretty Names Made People Forget the Bad Stuff


After China’s Han Dynasty (205BC – 220AD), the Han Emperor began attaching names onto the years in which emperors ruled. In English, we call these attachments “reign titles”. These reign titles were not the names of the emperors, but rather descriptors of what the emperors wanted their reign to be associated with, such as Jianyuan (establishing the first) or Jianzhongjingguo (establishing middle, peaceful country). By 645AD Japan’s Emperor Kōtoku adopted this custom. Japan called their reign titles nengō (年号). For anyone who is confused by that kanji, don’t think of the 号 as a number, think of it as a name. That will clear things up for you.

The very first nengō was Taika (大化) which started in 645AD with Emperor Kōtoku. So we would call 648AD the “third year of Taika,” rather than the “third year of Kōtoku.” This is the same as calling 1989 the “first year of Heisei” (or the last year of Showa if it’s early January).

Emperors in Japan would give these names to the periods of their reign and they were not limited to just one. Some, like Emperor Go-Daigo had as many as eight different reign titles. Some of them would even have more than one in a single year. Nengō were meant to signify a change, new beginnings, and good things. Although this is a wonderfully artistic way to do things, for someone who is unfamiliar with these types of naming conventions, it can make things overly complicated.

For those wondering what kind of event would cause one of these names to change, it could literally be anything.

Many of these nengō are not so important that you will instantly know when or who they are referring to. However, if you are studying a certain period, you may notice that a particular name is used frequently in reference to it. For example, maybe you’re looking up the forty-seven Ronin (Try and stay away from the Keanu Reeves one) and you keep seeing Genroku (元禄) everywhere.


What is that anyway? Well Genroku was the nengō Emperor Higashiyama gave to the first years of his reign. So from 1688 to 1704, we call it the Genroku Period (元禄時代). The first year to every new emperor’s rule would get a name and this emperor was certainly optimistic about the start of his. Genroku basically means “the origin of happiness.”

However, even with such a nice name picked out, the Genroku period was plagued with huge fires and violence. Finally, after the Great Genroku Earthquake, the reign title was changed to Hōei (宝永) which means “eternally prosperous.”  This was the new beginning the people of Japan needed. This was going to be a great, successful time! (Then there was another earthquake less than four years later.)

Luckily for us, emperors were limited to one name after the Meiji restoration, which is why, although there were 63 years in the Showa period, we only have one name for it. Also, notice that the emperor’s posthumous name and the nengō for their period are the same. So if you know who the Taishō Emperor (大正天皇) is, you know his nengō was Taisho (大正). It’s certainly much easier than it once was.

Made up of Heaven and Earth


Photo by: Tranpan23

Now that you know all about how the emperors name things, let’s complicate it!

Once more we have something that came from China – but this time it was adopted completely, no extra complications. That’s good, right? We call it the “Sexagenary Cycle,” and it’s made up of the “Ten Heavenly Stems” and the “Twelve Earthly Branches,” which you can see in the picture above.  Here is a list of all the on’yomi and kun’yomi readings, respectively:

Heavenly Stems:

甲 – kō / kinoe
乙 – otsu / kinoto
丙 – hei / hinoe
丁 – tei / hinoto
戊 – bo / tsuchinoe
己 – ki / tsuchinoto
庚 – kō / kanoe
辛 – shin / kanoto
壬 – jin / mizunoe
癸 – ki / mizunoto

Earthly Branches:

子 – shi / ne
丑 – chū / ushi
寅 – in / tora
卯 – bō / u
辰 – shin / tatsu
巳 – shi / mi
午 – go / uma
未 – mi (or) bi / hitsuji
申 – shin / saru
酉 – yū / tori
戌 – jutsu / inu
亥 – gai / i

If the Earthly Branches look familiar to you, it is because they are the same characters used for the Chinese Zodiac and they are also used in the solar calendar in Japan – but let’s not get distracted by that right now.

The order they are in is set (don’t mix them up!) and there are sixty possible combinations of Heavenly Stem + Earthly Branch. The first combination is 甲子, then it goes 乙丑, 丙寅, 丁卯, and so on taking the next from each respective row. When you reach the end of the Heavenly stems, just go back to the beginning and you end up with 甲戌, until you have all 60 and end up back at the start. Each one of these combinations is a cycle.

If you’re wondering how to read them, they can be with either the on’yomi or the kun’yomi, so no worries. Usually how you say it only depends on context, but you shouldn’t sound super weird either way. If you want to say 2014 you can choose to say kōgo or kinoeuma for 甲午.

The great thing about these cycles is that China, Korea, and Japan all use it the same way, meaning that no matter where you go in these three countries it should remain consistent, unlike the nengō, which are different based on which country you’re in. This is important because this system is used all throughout East Asia to name important events in history. It also can be used to compare nengō dated events and the sexagenary cycle. For example, let’s look at the Japanese invasions of Korea:


In Korea the first invasion is called the Imjin Waeran. Imjin (壬辰) being the sexagenary cycle year of 1592, the year it began. This same event is called the Bunroku no eki (文禄の役) in Japan. Bunroku (文禄) was the nengō that started under Emperor Go-Yōzei that same year.

In modern times these two systems are still being used. Postcards, art, signs, and really anything that might need a date on it. They can be used to date something without having to use any numerals at all, and gives whatever they’re on an artsy, old-timey feel.

Here is an example: it is currently 2014, which means it’s the 26th year of Heisei, or 平成26. But, by combining the nengō and the cycle name, it can be written as平成甲午. You may pick out a postcard at the top of Mt. Fuji and notice those characters somewhere on the front of the picture. Years from now, when your grandkids ask when you were there, you can look at at that date and say, “Ah! 2014!”

Modern Calculators Make It All Easier


Photo by: Sean McEntee

The cycles are also assigned to months and days but they come up much less often than they do with years. There is a mathematical calculation to find out what year is assigned to what cycle, but remember, Japan did not start using the solar calendar until the Meiji period, so if you decide to do some math you need to base it before or after Meiji.

Here is an example. To determine the sign for 1977 you will follow this guide:

1. 1977 – 3 = 1974
2. 1974 ÷ 60 = 32 (If you end up with a fraction, simply drop it.)
3. 1974 – (60 x 32) = 54
4. The 54th pairing in the Sexagenary cycle will then give you 丁巳. That’s 1977.

If you’re math-shy like I am, you can always search online to see what the date you want to know was called. If you want an even easier method you can use this nifty calculator called NengoCalc.


“Oh hey, I was born on a Wednesday!”

I know, I know. It says nengō, not cycles, but it can help with both! This tool can help you find out the nengō for any year from 598 to 2008. Not only will it provide you with the Japanese and Western dates, but it will also give you the sexagenary cycle year and day too. It even tells you what day of the week it was. It may take a bit of trial and error to get the hang of it, but it’s a great way to find the names you need in a hurry.

You never know when being familiar with these naming systems will come in handy. You may encounter a beautiful painting when you’re studying abroad in Japan. You can see the artists signature in red in the corner, but there are no visible dates. How do you know which Tanaka painted this possible masterpiece? Well odds are they have the nengō and the cycle on there instead. This is the case with some of the postcards you see at tourist spots today. If you’re in Japan around New Year’s, you may also see something like this:


Photo by: Akira Kawamura

This lists the year with both the nengō and the sexagenary cycle: 平成二十五年癸巳歳. More simply, this was 2013. You may also notice the earthly branch 巳, being from the Chinese Zodiac, also tells us that this is the year of the snake. (Thus, the flowery snake in the picture.)

The government in Japan also still uses this system of dating on official paperwork, though it is less common that you would be able to see this in your day to day life.

While it’d take a lot of time, sweat, and effort to memorize all these nengō and sexagenary combinations, at least you now know how to look them up, convert them, and seem like you know what’s going on. Who knows? It may just come in handy some day!

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Is Japan Really “Conservative”? Fri, 11 Jul 2014 16:00:14 +0000 I don’t think that I’m the only one who has experienced this but I often hear the word “conservative” being applied to Japan. At first I just accepted it as being true – because Japan is very obviously conservative on many fronts. But after a while, I started having doubts – maybe “conservative” isn’t the best word to describe Japan.

I’m going to try to explore how “conservative” Japan really is in this article. But first a definition is in order. I think most people have a their own idea of what conservative means, so when I use the term in this article, I mean prizing the group over the individual, a rejection of change, and a preservation of social and sexual mores.



Photo by Joe Jones

Election campaigning truck from the conservative – and dominant – Liberal Democratic Party

Politics in Japan does show a conservative stance, certainly. This is seen firstly in how rarely the regime changes. Since 1955, Japan has had only had four changes in the main governing party with no change in the main ruling party between 1955-1993.

Secondly, the main and dominant party in Japan, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), has a conservative slant. For example, while most of the other major political parties support some legal recognition of same-sex couples, the LDP is strictly opposed to it. In addition, it has also traditionally and, especially recently, shown a nationalist stance involving efforts to revise the peace clause in the Japanese constitution, visiting the Yasukuni shrine, and so on.

But even so, there’s some qualifications to be made. The LDP for example, has also traditionally been heavily in favour of protectionism and wealth distribution from the cities to the countryside. Not very economically conservative then.



Photo by May S. Young

Conservative or not conservative, that is the question

Stuff is a bit mixed when it comes to society. It’s a bit “yes and no”. Let’s start with the “no” side.

Compared to other East-Asian countries, Japan is actually quite liberal on some issues. The Pew Attitudes Report, for example, notes that Japan is actually one of the few countries where there is a clear plurality (44% vs 28%) that views abortion as acceptable. Japan also has a relatively high acceptance for divorce, contraceptives, and homosexuality – especially when compared to other Asian countries.

Very interestingly, Japan has the fewest number of people who view alcohol use as immoral among all countries. And while I do agree with Japan’s stance on this issue…why am I not surprised?



Photo by

Entrance to Kabukicho, the most infamous red-light district in Japan

This is hard to talk about without overblowing all the sensationalist imagery with which Japan is associated – tentacles, kinks, and all.

What is clear, however, is that Japan has commercialised sex to an extent not often found in other societies. This isn’t just regarding their (in)famous pornography or how adult magazines are uncensored and right next to shonen-jump at convenience stores. Commercialised sex permeates Japanese society in a way which may appear very nonchalant to an outside observer.

For example, it is not uncommon for some very traditional Japanese companies to, after work, have a company nomikai (drinking party) at a strip-club. The little TVs in capsule hotels also will probably have one porn channel which anyone staying there can access. The size of Kabukicho (the most well-known red-light district in Tokyo) and how blatant it is – after all, it is but a few minutes from Shinjuku – may symbolise how ubiquitous and normalised commercialised sex is in Japan.

This often shocks outside observers, but I don’t think moral judgements on Japan are that easy to make in this case. After all, it’s not as if sex isn’t commercialised in other countries – it may not be as blatant, but it certainly happens. However, if one views commercialised sex as exploitative of women, this would be a problem.

Sex and Gender


Photo by OiMax

While there is certainly a degree of freedom in terms of commercialised sex, there are some qualifications and contradictions to be pointed out here.

For one, there is a permissiveness towards sex. But this does not mean that it’s talked about in an open manner – in my opinion, this is likely linked to a reluctance to discuss one’s private life and an avoidance of generally “serious” topics in conversation.

In any case the above applies to male sexuality – it won’t be mentioned in polite conversation but for a salaryman to go to a sex joint is perfectly “acceptable”. For a woman to do these things is frowned on much more.

This also shows some ways in which Japan appears to be very conservative – gender roles. While Japan scores well in terms of female health in international rankings, consider the following:

  • Politics – This is still pretty much a boy’s game in Japan. Only 8.1% of the lower house of parliament are women, according to this website. This is lower than the world average (21.9%) and is 132nd among 189 ranked countries.
  • Education – Differences are very clear when it comes to higher education. For example, the male to female ratio in the University of Tokyo is around 8:2. The number of male “ronin” (students spending an extra year to retake the University examinations) is around 3 times that of female “ronin”. Females also tend to apply for 2 year university courses instead of four year courses.
  • EmploymentThis article mentions some points about employment. In any case, the Japanese workplace is still quite gender unequal.
  • Society – If you go to a nomikai in Japan and, especially if it’s formal, it’s obvious that women at the table will be very attentive to the beer levels in everyone’s glasses. Once they hit dangerously low levels, women swoop in and pour. This perhaps emphasizes how there’s an underlying assumption that women are supposed to be subservient.

In Other Words…


So maybe “conservative” isn’t the right word to describe Japan. The word I’m thinking about is more along the lines of “change-resistant”, because very often things move slowly in Japan. This may be surprising to people who view Japan as a hyper-modern high-tech society with robots and such. But when you consider how change-resistant Japanese organisations are, how job and university applications are still done by paper, and how fax is still used in Japan, this needs to be qualified.

There are many reasons for this resistance to change, but here are just a few I could think of:

  • Adversity to Risk - Japan and the Japanese people are still very risk adverse. And this is pretty much visible in all parts of society. From the low levels of entrepreneurship, to low numbers of people going abroad, to the tendency to vote for the “safe” conservative political party. Take a look here for an article on Businessweek on this. In any case, without risk-taking, there won’t be as much change in society.
  • Hierarchy – When society is structured based on age with seniority the main criteria for “moving upward”, then it probably means that decision making is likely to be centered on a more change-resistant group of people.
  • Consensus - This isn’t exactly a bad thing but, stereotypically speaking, Japanese firms take much longer to make decision than, say, American firms. One reason is the cultural need to build consensus and ensure that everyone is on the same page before making that decision.

You can see how this can have its benefits. However, one downside to this is that decision-making as a whole is slowed down. In addition, I personally think that consensus also means that often the “lowest common denominator” decisions are taken – not exactly conducive for radical reform.

Yes and No


Photo by D. Julien

Obviously whether Japan is “conservative” or not really depends on the definition and what you’re comparing Japan to. However, in contrast with many other countries and many of Japan’s close neighbours, it certainly can’t be said that Japan is “extremely conservative”, even though it has its very rigid parts.

I’m now wondering if anyone else has heard any other “Japan is ________” statements that they feel are suspicious or worthy of examination. Leave your comments and suggestions below and I’ll see whether I can write another article examining these stereotypes.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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More Than Gaijin: Specific Ethnic Groups Living in Japan Thu, 10 Jul 2014 16:00:03 +0000 When you hear that Japan is a homogenous country, know that it’s a lie. There’s certainly less diversity here than other places, but there are tons of foreigners. Some are harder to spot than others, partially because there is pressure to conform and blend in, but diversity is here. We have preconceived notions of many ethnicities in our own countries, so Japan isn’t alone in its treatment of foreigners. But their treatment is a bit different (again, partially because of that emphasis to fit into the group). There are so many other foreigners out here that I feel some comments should be made about some of these stereotypes. That way, hopefully, people have a starting point for in-depth discussions about, not only being a gaijin in Japan, but something more specific. Being Nepalese, being half Korean, half Japanese, Vietnamese American. In Japan! Something more than just gaijin.

She’s Not Foreign!


Photo by Dylan Raife

I know people forget this often but, sometimes, just because someone looks foreign, doesn’t mean they are. Some of us are born to parents who look a little different from other native people and end up kind of in between two or more cultures. I know a bit about how this feels, but Japan isn’t my home country. I have been mistaken for half in Japan, but it’s more funny than insulting to me. I know I’m foreign here, but for the kids born here that look foreign, I know it can be rough.

As a teacher, the first day of the first semester generally means I have to do a self introduction. While for normal people this should take less than a minute, for some reason, Japanese teachers want to make it much, much longer. I’ve turned mine into something more akin to “people and places in my life before Japan” because, well, talking about yourself for up to an hour seems really narcissistic. Anyway, while I’m doing my presentation, I notice there’s a little commotion centered around one student. The room’s a bit dark at this time, so I can’t tell why. I keep looking to the teacher, and he just smiles. I’m still not sure if it was because he knew why it was happening and wanted to surprise me, or because it was normal and he didn’t think much of it. When the lights come up and I ask if anyone has any questions, I see the students staring at the kid: she’s half white, half Japanese. I’ve been in similar situations myself but, as a kid, I didn’t really share my ethnicity and people could never guess it. I knew the girl didn’t want to be singled out, so I just taught class as I usually do. She never spoke and never raised her hand. She didn’t try to come talk to me after class or school. Instead, on her introduction card, which only I see, she says the obvious, like any other normal Japanese kid would. It turns out her mother is from the same state as me, but she spells it the way Japanese people would.

I rarely interact with her but, when I do, she’s fully Japanese. Some students get very interested when I randomly call on her or in the very rare cases she’s brave enough to ask for help in class, but she’s very much a normal Japanese girl. Her English isn’t great. There are many students better at English than her, even in her own class. We have no special bond, no chats after class, nothing like that. I know she’s Japanese but mixed, and she knows it too. She knows kids are staring and expect her to do something different, to suddenly turn super foreign and, I don’t know, speak perfect English and suddenly know all about America. But it doesn’t happen. It’s not that much different from the states except that here, it stands out much more.

If anything, I probably end up connecting more with the kids who are mixed asian. Students secretly (or sometimes openly) tell me they’re also mixed or born to foreign (asian) parents after my self introduction, if my mixed heritage comes up. I’ll talk about it a bit more later, but sometimes it’s the teachers who tell me someone is mixed, like it’s a secret, and those are the kids that, like the girl I described above, might distance themselves from me a bit. Moreso than her, though, there’s kind of some unspoken tension because we both know what being mixed and “not foreign” is like, and calling any attention to it is just not needed most of the time except when the kid gets teased.

It’s not just something that happens in class though. I had a kid somehow mistake me for her dad in the super market and grab my leg. Maybe it’s because we both were wearing black jeans and, being a small child, she didn’t look high enough before latching onto my leg. I heard perfect Japanese, no accent, and looked down to see a little black girl. Mom (Japanese) and dad (African) had a good laugh as the kid noticed her mistake and found them a few aisles down.

Asian Foreigners or “Oh, So You’re Not a Japanese Girl?”


Photo by camknows

I hope that Tofugu faithfuls recall Austin hitting on this topic, but will hopefully allow me to make a few broad additions and add new voice to the discussion.

As Austin mentioned, the Japanese often can’t tell the difference between their country’s men (or women) and non-Japanese Asians until they hear an accent, and sometimes even then they seem to have trouble. For example, I went to a Chinese restaurant with some Japanese friends and I noticed the waitress’ accent. I mentioned that I thought she was Chinese, but my friends didn’t believe me, so we asked her in the politest way possible (“Can you speak Chinese? Oh, where did you learn it?”) and yes, she said she was Chinese and had moved to Japan. Now, I’m not saying everyone can do this, but let’s compare this to my trip to Korea where my Japanese friend, who always approached people in English, always had Korean people greeting him in Japanese. As much as he thought he’d be able to blend in, he somehow stood out like I normally do in the Japanese countryside.

From what I’ve gathered, in Japanese eyes, Koreans seem “preferable” to Chinese. I’ve never heard complaints about the accent or personalities from Japanese people about Koreans, only sometimes that Koreans can be a bit “outgoing.” When I’ve brought up the idea of studying a foreign language, a fair number of students I’ve had in Kanto said they wanted to study Korean. It’s seen as “cool” by the younger generation. Korean dramas and bands are really popular here, and the “Korean Towns” I’ve visited aren’t just filled with Koreans.

However, even being Korean-Japanese still gets you treated as a foreigner. Teachers will sometimes “out” a student to me. I will say that the Korean students do stand out a bit most of the time, and seem to be popular. But for the most part, I would have never guessed they were foreign born unless I had been told. In some ways, it almost feels like the reverse of the American perspective of Canadians, in that they’re seen as friendly neighbors, but Japanese kids at least seem to think Koreans are cool, or at least when there’s no political misalignment (though a lot of the kids don’t seem to understand why Koreans are sometimes angry at Japan).

The Chinese, though, get a lot of complaints, both from Japanese men and women. I had a student everyone called “China” even though his dad was Japanese. He had a Chinese accent and was tall, so it was hard for him to blend in. The person he seemed closest to (and got teased by the most) was a yankiI think they meshed together because they were both outsiders. Unlike other kids, when he learned I was mixed, he was pretty happy. I could get him to work a little harder just by giving him a little extra attention, or he might hang back in the hall to talk a bit if I saw him between classes or after school, which isn’t totally uncommon for Japanese students, but it’s usually the sign you’ve won them over.

Like in English, Chinese accents (and thereby the people) are often accused of “sounding angry” in Japanese, which is something part of my culture is accused of (I prefer see it as “passionate”). Chinese are often seen as selfish and loud, more so than rude Americans, except that no one here understands Chinese (even though Mandarin is honestly spoken in my city more than English). The typical idea of Chinese here seems to be that they always want to be first in line and always speak loudly and don’t care who’s around. I’m sure white foreigners are a bit familiar with this idea, except Japanese really don’t understand Mandarin or Cantonese, so whatever’s being said is just a mystery to the locals. With Western English speakers, however, they usually understand quite a bit about when you’re complaining about Japanese culture.

What’s funny though, I’ve heard many Chinese people here say the Japanese are too quiet and polite, and that the food here “has no taste”. Of all the foreigners though, I feel like I get along with the Chinese best in that we try to blend in a bit, but also understand that we have our own culture and want to share it. One thing to note, though: If you’re dating Chinese and Japanese out here, be ready for a bit of a rant if you tell one that you’ve dated the other!

My Vietnamese friend and her mother who visited kind of blended in, until they spoke. My friend would get dirty looks because, truthfully, she’s more endowed than your average Japanese girl and showed a little skin, but once she started speaking to her mom in Vietnamese, people apparently got a little confused. I was recently talking to her and figured it might be nice to get some exact quotes from a female, non-Japanese Vietnamese, American-born perspective:

“It was oddly comfortable in Japan compared to say when I was visiting Canada or France. Maybe it was because everyone was Asian, so non-Asian foreigners stood out a lot more. However, in Tokyo, it was clear that my mom and I were foreigners in some sense because of the way we dressed. Tokyo’s very…stylish and the women there dress very feminine, while my mom and I were more comfortable in jeans. I really think that I was the only girl my age wearing jeans…and I got even strange looks when I finally took out my flip flops. Of course, the “low cut” shirts were also a very odd experience since that’s what would be considered mildly “conservative” where I’m from. My sister-in-law mentioned that when she went to Japan during May two years back, when she wore shorts, and got a lot of stares. And she doesn’t wear Daisy duke short shorts; they’re typical shorts that stop just above the knee.”

“I would get strange looks from Japanese people when I was speaking in Vietnamese to my mom – and when I couldn’t think of the word – switch to English. Or a full-on English sentence.”

“My mom wasn’t really into all the bowing. She felt uncomfortable when we went to the hotel and the staff members bowed at us. For me, I understand that it’s a cultural thing, but for my mom, who really takes pride in women standing up for themselves and all that, felt uncomfortable and sorry for the staff.”

European and Not “White”


Photo by camknows

During the last Cherry Blossom festival, I met an older German woman selling bratwurst. I can’t tell every nationality apart, but from both the look and sound of her, I knew she was German when she stood up: heavy accent, fading blond hair, blue eyes, and tall. Very tall. We had a short chat, and one thing that was kind of interesting popped up: Japanese people apparently thought she was from England!

That’s important because in Japan, many people (Japanese and traveling foreigners alike) see white Europeans and seem to think they’re American, English, Australian, or Canadian. If you’re Irish, they might ask why your accent’s so different. French? “Your English is amazing!”

Often on trains, I’ll see “white” people who are French, Spanish, and Portuguese. The travelers are always happy to ask me questions since my English is (naturally) better than the locals’ and they have questions. Those who teach here though are sometimes a bit miffed. Sometimes they’re accused of “not speaking real English” because it’s also their second language though. At the same time, they’re seen as experts. It can be a frustrating situation from what I’ve seen and heard, but I hear most of it second hand. Just know that if you’re from Europe but not England, Japanese might ask you about your hometown, what foods you like, and might even ask for some recipes. How do I know ? To be honest, after a bunch of drunk Americans walked by a little ramen shop I was having lunch at, the store owner turned to me and asked where my parents came from. I claimed the French part. And I taught them about French toast. Not my proudest moment, but now you fellow Americans who know your background, maybe a little of the language and food can pull that off if your colleagues get horribly embarrassing and you are tired of playing ambassador (sorry America!).

Quick aside to those who are mixed in America and are asked about their heritage by European people: If your grandparent came from Europe, but not your parent, you might be told you’re not European, just American. It’s happened a few times when trying to explain my various ethnicities (more on that later). Simply note which exact family member came from which European country in order to possibly avoid the long debate on when Americans stop being foreigners and become Americans (personal opinion: when people stop questioning your nationality).

“What are you?”- The Rest of Us


Some cultures here are rarer than others, and while I have maybe a single, strong experience with a group or many small run-ins with the same people, I’m kind of lumping them together because I have experience (or a great link to share) and have done the “cross culture” chat with them a few times so I don’t look like a total boob. That being said, remember these are just my experiences, and everyone will have a different one.

Now, I really hate saying this, especially with the current political climate, but in Japan, Muslim people stand out in Japan, and in a horrible way. I don’t really mean it in the “terrorist” way, but there’s that too. I used to have a long beard and long hair I kept under a beanie, and my brother was often described as either “That guy that looks like Jesus” or “the terrorist.” And that was in English. In Japan, he got stopped pretty often and attracted a lot of attention, good and bad.

No, it’s not quite the “terrorist” thing. The religion is seen as extreme, and the dietary restrictions are starting to become well known even in the inaka.” I had a co-worker who was Muslim and she had a very difficult time with food, which is one of the things Japanese really try to share. The easiest way to bond with most people is through food in my opinion, and when you can’t do that, things become difficult. Japanese people don’t realize that almost everything they eat is haram, or “not allowed.” They know about the “no pork” thing, and some know about “no alcohol”, but they don’t know quite how far Muslims take this. For example, I was told that a lot of baked goods (even the bread!) from convenience stores comes from factories that use pork-based grease on their pans. That’s not allowed. Mirin? It’s a kind of rice wine. Not allowed. Even things with soy sauce are dicey because natural soy sauce is fermented. Fermentation is how you make alcohol, which is very much haram. How the new Muslim Egyptian sumo is able to keep his weight here is a mystery to me.

Black people in Japan is something I don’t want to talk a lot about, not because it makes me uncomfortable, but because it’s a whole other article. Dark skin in asian countries is usually not viewed well, but Nigerians in Tokyo have particularly stood out and are associated with crime. Obviously not every Nigerian is like that, but the stereotype is hard to avoid, even out in the inaka where the rare black people I see are often working in a hip-hop store if they aren’t teachers. For those who want a really good, slice-of-life black-in-Japan look, I suggest reading Gaijin Chronicles. The blog hasn’t been updated in a few years, but it covers the topic so well, and in so much detail for everyday life, that I really can’t even try to do it any justice. Just give it a read.

Next time you to got an Indian place, ask yourself this: are they Indian or Nepalese? I won’t lie, I can’t tell the difference, which is why I ask. My favorite “Indian” restaurant here is actually run by a guy from Nepal, and he actually had another place in Tokyo before. Japanese people who lament not being able to practice English in the inaka always forget that Indian and Nepalese people speak English. They say it’s “not real English” but let’s be honest: there are so many dialects of English, you might as well use what you’ve learned and talk to someone else who can understand you. Honestly, any Japanese people reading this: go talk to foreign staff at your favorite curry house! They’re always friendly, to the point where the half Indian kid who barely speaks English (born in Japan) still goes out of his way to greet me if we bump into each other, even though I only ate at his parents’ place one time. Same goes for the Indian guys from another place. The Nepalese guys… I only go to their place twice a year, but they seem to know I love their food, or are just happy to have someone to practice English with. Anywhere I see them they give me a head nod at the very least.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m mixed. If I say I’m part Ainu, people are actually willing to believe it, even though it’s a joke. If a co-worker introduces me as half Japanese, people will believe it. Sometimes, if the conversation is right, Japanese people will think I’m half too. That’s only the ones that are more culturally aware though. Most Japanese just see my beard and think I’m American, English, or German (got a bit of all of that in me though, so that’s fair). However, I do get asked where my parents are from, and “America” isn’t good enough because, like many Americans, some Japanese can tell I’m “not quite white.”

Other foreign people seem to pick up on it too though. Spanish people have approached me in Spanish first. I’ve gotten a “guten tag” while I was in Kyoto before my terrible German quickly revealed to them that I was not a native speaker, and just last month, I had an Indian or Nepalese ask for directions yet insist that I was from a Middle Eastern country (I have Persian friends who would have been a bit upset with that).

Some people say I should be mad, or I should call them out on their racism, but let’s be honest: if you’re not a little bit racist, you’re probably terribly innocent. Americans people love cheese and bacon, Germans love beer, Asians can use chopsticks. You can actually offend people by questioning them about these things, even though there are honestly people out there that these stereotypes don’t apply to. I’ve seen it happen, and I’ve been the guy that didn’t fit the stereotype and the one that was shocked I was asked about it. It’s just how our world works.

In general, foreigners stand out a lot, even in Japan, unless you’re a quiet Asian. Much like the “Are you Chinese?” question many Asians report encountering, Japan has only the faintest idea of where people come from. And sometimes it’s really, really far off. Just smile, laugh, and try to educate people a little.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Translation, Localization, and Nice Japanese Things: A Q&A with Matt Alt Tue, 08 Jul 2014 16:00:20 +0000 When it comes to Japanese pop culture, I’m like a lot of fans. Despite years of off-and-on attempts at study, I don’t know the language well enough to follow the original versions of manga, anime, or live-action drama and movies. And yet, I know enough about the culture – and sometimes the language – to be annoyed about what translators do to them.

Probably all of you have your own pet peeves. One of mine is when tanuki is translated as “raccoons,” an error with a history going back to the nineteenth century. And as someone who watches a lot of dramas about food, I groan at how even some of the most devoted fansubbers can’t leave well enough alone, and instead come up with many different ridiculous “translations” of “itadakimasu.”

Here on Tofugu, these discussions pop up from time to time. A recent article about a new American production of Doraemon was the occasion for much weeping and rending of garments on our Facebook page. A comment on a recent blog post that compared the anime Yokai Watch and Pokemon bemoaned how boring the English version of Pokemon was, since they’d taken out all the Japanese cultural references. You all know what I’m talking about: it’s like a dysfunctional relationship. We’re totally dependent on translators but, a lot of the time, we hate them. They’re the only reason we have access to the stuff we love and, at the same time, we feel like they are why we can’t have nice things.

So I’ve always wanted to ask a translator some questions. If they love the products of Japanese culture enough to make a career of translating them, why do they mess with them so much? On the other hand, I also thought: maybe, if we understood more about the process, we wouldn’t be so mad all the time.

Well, I was finally lucky enough to have that conversation.


Matt Alt is the co-author of a bunch of cool books about some difficult-to-translate parts of Japanese culture: yokai, yurei, and ninja. I’ve followed him online for a few years, observing that he knows about everything from 1970s robot toys to Japanese giant salamanders. And at some point I discovered what he does for a living: He co-founded a company, called AltJapan, that specializes in translation and localization. In fact AltJapan is working on the translation of the Doraemon manga right now. I wasn’t sure what localization was, but I knew what it sounded like: it’s why we can’t have nice things, right?


Still, as much as you can tell from just knowing someone on the internet, I felt sure that Matt was a good guy and that his goal would never be to ruin nice Japanese things. He proved both true by being generous enough to answer my questions and – much to my utter shock – managing to convince me for a split second that maybe, just maybe, there was more than ignorance behind calling a tanuki a raccoon.

Q. Localization vs translation in 25 words or less. Go!

Localization is the art — and it is an art — of adapting content into different languages and cultures.

Now I’m going to cheat and go way over 25 words. The idea is for content to “feel” the same in the target language as it did in its native language. The reason “localization” is used instead of “translation,” incidentally, is because it often involves a lot of work beyond just the translation of text: manipulation of layouts, even the content itself in some cases, all with the aim of reducing the barriers for the target audience. If something’s meant as light entertainment in Japan but you need a PhD in East Asian Studies to make heads or tails of the translation, someone messed up.

Q. A good translation isn’t always exact, because word for word accuracy might not convey the intended effect. With puns, for example, a translation has to either change the content or lose the wordplay. You have to change something to convey the spirit rather than the letter of the original, right?

When it comes to Japanese-to-English (and English-to-Japanese) translation, you’re talking about two languages with absolutely nothing in common linguistically. Japanese grammar is the reverse of English, it doesn’t use articles like English does, it has honorifics, and, in casual speech, often omits subjects entirely. All of that has to be accounted for in translation. The longer and more complicated a sentence gets, the more possible ways there are to translate it.

This is why, for example, the translations of Alfred Birnbaum and Jay Rubin feel so different, even when they’re working from the exact same Haruki Murakami texts. It isn’t because one is wrong and one is right. It’s because there’s no precise one-to-one correlation between Japanese and English and translating between them means a constant stream of judgment calls.


Getting to your specific question, yes, wordplay and puns can be really challenging to translate, particularly if they’re accompanied by specific images. For example, “time flies when you’re having fun” is no problem at all to convey in Japanese conceptually, but it isn’t a set idiom. So if there’s, say, a drawing of a flying clock on the page, readers might not get that joke.

My company is translating the Doraemon manga series right now. There’s one (yet to be released) episode with a gadget that transforms homonyms, words that sound the same, into their different forms. When Nobita points it at some clouds (kumo), it transforms them into spiders (also kumo). Puns with images are extremely difficult to deal with in translation. We handled that one by explaining that it was a tool for learning Japanese and keeping the Japanese homonyms in the English text. But that approach might not work in other contexts.

Q. I get that, in some cases, if everything is translated or reproduced precisely, readers/viewers who don’t know Japanese culture will be confused. But for those of us who do know the culture, stuff that we love gets lost – and I think we also sometimes feel our intelligence is being insulted. Let’s talk about some examples in the upcoming American version of the Doraemon anime that got our readers up in arms. Some of these changes seem necessary and trivial to me: replacing the circle for a grade with F. Others make me want to scream. Are audiences so ignorant that we really need to have chopsticks replaced with forks?


I wasn’t involved in the anime and so can’t comment about the decisions made there. I can only talk about my experience in general.

But my basic stance is that if you are passionate enough about Japanese culture to want to understand every nuance, you’re passionate enough to learn the language and watch or read it in its original form. I wasn’t satisfied with the translations of anime and video games I played as a kid, and that spurred me to study the language so I could do a better job myself.

And now that I am doing that job myself, I can see that things aren’t nearly as cut and dried as I thought they were when I was a kid. Translators don’t work in a vacuum. It’s a service business. There’s a bigger picture, and translators are only one (important!) part of a larger mix. There are broadcast or publishing regulations, technical issues, cultural issues, demographic considerations, legal and copyright issues, budgets, schedules, and all sorts of things that affect the localization process.

If Hiroko and I are asked to make a change that troubles us, we never hesitate to raise the issue with the higher-ups, but there are some cases where we get overruled for whatever reason. Sometimes it’s just out of the translators’ hands. Rolling with that is part of being a professional.

Q. Okay, but if these changes are supposed to make the cartoon more accessible, here’s what I don’t get: They haven’t re-drawn the street scenes, sliding doors, etc – all the evidence suggests that the cartoon is still taking place in Japan. So if they’re in Japan, why are they eating American food with American utensils and using American money? Isn’t that confusing?

Again, I wasn’t directly involved in the anime production, only the manga. But as a localization professional, with any production we’re involved with, whether it be a book, a video game, an anime, whatever, we have to clarify who the audience is. Is it for adults? Teenagers? Little kids? If it’s for kindergarteners, it’s entirely conceivable they’ve never used chopsticks before, perhaps never even seen them. The people who read this site are deeply interested in Japanese culture, so chopsticks are a no-brainer, but that simply isn’t the case for everyone. A lot of people, adults and kids, don’t want to learn about Japan. They just want to be entertained. And the Japanese people I know have just as many forks and knives in their kitchens as chopsticks. So it doesn’t feel that out of place to me.

Now, I’m not arguing for or against changing chopsticks to forks. I’m just saying that the people who make manga and anime in Japan, in my experience, are open to nearly any changes that might make them popular abroad. We’ve even had [anime and manga] creators tell us they’re okay with changing the genders of protagonists and things like that! That might come as a shock to foreign fans, but it’s true. And the bottom line is, when you’re talking about a kids’ show, how do children feel? Do they enjoy it? That’s really what’s important in the end.

Q. So part of what you’re saying is, sometimes we have to remember that we’re fans of a show for five-years-olds.

Yes, exactly! And there’s nothing wrong with that!

Q. It works the other way round too. There are Japanese fans of Mickey Mouse, after all.

I did a homestay in Japan back in high school, and recall being shocked at seeing high school kids wearing Sesame Street shirts and openly, unironically loving the show. Guys and girls. For them, it was just a way to learn English with a bunch of cute characters and there wasn’t any context or stigma of wearing something for pre-schoolers.

Q. So in that context, some of those changes I was whining about make more sense now. A five-year-old won’t recognize that those yen bills are money, so whatever is actually taking place in that scene won’t make sense. Whereas if you change them to dollar bills, a five-year-old isn’t going to know that they wouldn’t be using dollar bills in Japan, so that’s not really a problem. And something like what the street scenes look like is a big deal to change but probably not noticeable to a five-year-old. Right?


Speaking from experience on totally different projects, there’s a limited amount of time and money that needs to be spent on the most “high value targets,” so to speak. When you’re adapting something you need to pick your battles. The more changes, the more work, and that means more money.

When you’re translating for fun you can obsess endlessly over your translations, but when you’re a pro it becomes about delivering quality within the limited amount of time and money you’re given.

Q. Moving on from things like eating utensils and money, which exist in all cultures – There are Japanese words/things/whatever that simply don’t have English equivalents. Tanuki are not raccoons or even related to them, and yokai are not ghosts/demons/monsters, for example. To me, if Disney needed the animals in the Ghibli film Pom Poko to be familiar to the American audience, they should have redrawn them as raccoons, not just called them by THE WRONG NAME. Aaargh! If American children can watch a movie about Madagascar with lemurs in it, I think a movie about Japan with tanuki in it would not make their heads explode. As far as yokai, we also seem to be able to deal with mythological beings from other cultures like the yeti, so why use a bad translation for Japanese monsters? To me, those substitutions are fundamentally different. Am I just being crazy because I am a geek about certain things?


Believe me, Hiroko and I are huge proponents of calling yokai “yokai” even in English. We made a special point of emphasizing that in our book “Yokai Attack! The Japanese Monster Survival Guide.” So you won’t get any argument from us on that front. In fact, a key part of localization as far as we are concerned is when NOT to localize something. The word “yokai” is one example of that, and we often advise clients to leave it as-is when we’re working on their stuff. And even though we weren’t involved, I was really happy to see that the Yokai Watch people left yokai in the title.

Now, not having been involved in Pom Poko either, I don’t know how it was localized, but that is one helluva Japanese movie. It is packed with cultural references both obvious and subtle, and it would be a challenge even for experienced translators like Hiroko and I to do (a challenge we’d welcome!). My inclination would be to let a tanuki be a tanuki, but that doesn’t make the existing localization of Pom Poko “bad.” It just means they took a different approach.


For Japanese, tanuki are a very common, everyday sort of animal with a lot of culture and folklore associated with them. You don’t need to explain that to Japanese audiences and introducing that concept isn’t the point of the film. Calling them raccoons is one way to get that baggage off the table in one fell swoop. Even if, technically speaking, it’s wrong, because tanuki are canines while raccoons are in the bear family. But if the creator agrees, the change makes it more enjoyable for the viewers, and particularly if it sells, then there’s nothing “wrong” from a localization standpoint. It’s just shades of gray. Not everyone who watches that film is going to be as up on Japanese folklore as we are.

Q. I never thought this would happen, but I kind of get it.  The way tanuki are drawn must have seemed like a godsend to translators. It is so stylized that they could be raccoons. The traditional incorrect name is “raccoon” and their folkloric personality is similar. Though I now understand, I still hate it.

While I try to recover from the shock of almost seeing that point of view, let’s move on to something I have less of a personal stake in. Your company also localizes English stuff for the Japanese market, right? I’m curious about this because I feel like American culture dominates the world so much, what’s left about the US that people aren’t familiar with? I’m assuming a children’s cartoon wouldn’t need to substitute chopsticks for forks for a Japanese audience, but I have no idea what you do need to do when going in the other direction. Can you give some examples?

We weren’t involved with it, but I heard quite a few changes were made to Grand Theft Auto V, such as editing out the sex scenes.

I can’t think of any changes to things we’ve done off the top of my head. Most recently, we did the Japanese versions of Capcom’s Lost Planet 3 and Strider, and helped out on the Japanese subtitles for the film Magic Mike. I can’t think of any major cultural changes made to any of those.

But it’s a bit of an apples and oranges comparison. Besides the fact that content is for adults, not kids, there is an absolute hunger for translated content in Japan. If something is big abroad, chances are it’ll get translated into Japanese. Japan as a nation is very interested in foreign ideas and it isn’t at all uncommon to see translated content on bestseller lists.

Meanwhile, with very rare exceptions (such as with manga), there isn’t much of a market for books or films to be translated in the US. Americans don’t seem to be as interested in what’s going on abroad as the citizens of other countries are. It’s isn’t uncommon for foreign content to get totally remade, such as La Femme Nikita, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, or the Godzilla films. Even foreign material already in English, like the British House of Cards series, gets remade for American audiences. Americans have a much lower threshold for “foreignness” than Japanese do.

Q. Finally – is there an argument to be made that, even if fans think that Pom Poko and Doraemon are ruined by these changes, we should put up with them? Because in the long run, if they are successful, more Japanese stuff will get translated for us, and maybe even more accurately, right?

The key thing to remember is that this is a business, and the point is to sell product – even in Japan, turning a profit trumps everything else. It isn’t some freeform artistic exploration for creativity’s sake. And when it comes to localization, nobody wants to change anything for the heck of it. That’s more work and effort on top of the already huge effort needed to translate it! They do it because they think it will make the end product more popular and thus more profitable. That’s the name of the game.

As I said before, I think that if you’re passionate enough to get upset about a localization, you’re passionate enough to channel that energy into learning the language. And let me be clear: I am not saying anyone is wrong for expressing their dissatisfaction. I’m not in the business of shutting down personal opinions. What I am saying is to seize that discontent. Passion and emotion are powerful things. Use them to better yourself and, maybe, in the future, better the localization industry. Dissatisfaction with the status quo drove me to learn Japanese as a kid, in the late eighties, when it was far harder to do than it is today. And believe me, I’m not the world’s greatest student or linguist. If I can do it, any motivated person can.

So consider this a challenge – if you think you can do better, do it! Study hard, pay your dues, and wait for the chance to prove that you can. But along the way, you might find things aren’t nearly as black and white as you think.

Check out a few of Matt’s awesome books:

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Noboru Iguchi: Master of Movie Mayhem Thu, 03 Jul 2014 16:00:45 +0000 The Japanese are no strangers to weird and wacky cinema, in fact, as most YouTube commenters are quick to attest , “OMG JAPANESE MOVIES ARE SO WEIRD!!!1” A host of cultural differences and an inclination towards the subversive tends to make many Japanese movies come across as strange and impenetrable to a Western audience—and then there are Noboru Iguchi movies. Directors like Iguchi go above and beyond the normal levels of weird to give viewers something truly, truly bizarre.

The Why of Weird


A popular social theory that many have used to explain wackiness in Japanese media is that Japan’s polite and often rigid society constricts so much that, in the areas where people get to take a break from the formality and let loose, like movies and television, they REALLY let loose. This seems to ring true with Iguchi, because his films incorporate very traditionally Japanese elements meshed with a vulgar and comedic mix of over-the-top visuals, a smattering of somewhat-deviant sexuality, and a heaping helping of violence and gore.

When Noboru Iguchi was asked in an interview with Twitch if there was a limit to the amount of blood and violence he was comfortable with putting in a movie, he had only one response: “not really.” This is indicative of the types of movies Iguchi wants to make. His personal philosophy stems from an idea that going to the movies should be a spectacle. He makes sure to pack his films to the brim with images that will entertain, confuse, and shock his audience. In another Twitch interview he stated some of his inspirations, “I was influenced by the ghost houses or freak shows at Japanese play lands. I was easily scared but loved those facilities since I was a little child. I always think a movie should [be] like that, as an entertaining tool. My policy of making movies is to surprise and entertain the people at the same time.”


Iguchi has had definite success creating the atmosphere of a freak show or a haunted house in his movies as they are often disturbing, yet strangely endearing. His films stem from a darker side of Japanese action and horror movies that were already hyperviolent. However, Iguchi’s innovation in his own words was that, even though, “very bloody films already existed, what was new about [our movies] was that we merged the gore with a funny action film, and we took it further from there in our later films.”

Not surprisingly considering the overt sexual content of many of his films, Iguchi got his cinematic start in the world of Japanese Adult Video. He was even given the 2005 Best Rental Video award for some of his work with a title I’d rather not drop in polite company.

During this time he worked on some rather fringe adult films, one of which featured a robotic girl with guns for breasts, and that’s when Iguchi met long-time co-conspirator and special effects make-up artist Yoshihiro Nishimura. The two of them have worked together on many films since and Nishimura even has had promising solo directorial releases, like “Tokyo Gore Police”.


Iguchi (left) and Nishimura (right) wearing fundoshi. Did I fail to mention they do Q&A panels wearing traditional Japanese loincloths? These guys rule!

The Insanity Sampler


Iguchi’s mainstream filmography (although mainstream might be overselling it) is a strange and diverse catalog, starting with “Machine Girl”, which incorporates elements and stars from his adult video past.


“Robo Geisha”, another evolution of Machine Girl’s premise, is a movie that I thought was entirely sure was fake when I first saw the trailer. I remember thinking, “no one would actually make this.” It was an international hit at film festivals and put Noboru Iguchi’s name on the alternative film map. The overseas success, Iguchi said, was due in part because, “things like ninja and geisha are actually not that popular in Japan. It’s mostly foreigners who really go for that.”


The delightfully demented and parodical “Mutant Girl Squad.” is number one for sheer entertainment value. I don’t think I can recommend this one enough.


The uproarious “Dead Sushi” features some truly bizarre scenes with evil flying sushi, rice zombies, fish monsters, and a completely unexpected amount of scantily clad women.

And these are just a few of his most well-known movies. He has also made forays into pure horror with “Kaidan Shin Mimibukuro Igyo”, the 9th installment in the Tomie series, “Tomie Unlimited”, as well as more conventional action films for wider audiences, such as “Karate Robo Zaborgar”, his highest budgeted film to date. Iguchi is never content to stay in one place, always tries to show his signature style in as many ways as possible, and doesn’t show any sign of slowing down. He has said: “I’d love to make very different kinds of films, from different genres. I want to try everything at least once. Actually I am a big fan of the Farrelly brothers and would really like to try making their kind of movie.” It’s hard to tell what else we will see from Iguchi over the years. Every time he announces a movie, it is a new surprise.

A Hidden Depth


It’s important to note that, despite the nature of most of his films, cinematically and thematically Iguchi is no slouch. His movies often retain an emotional core and a strong use of allegory even though the delivery method is typically wacky and unconventional. For example, “The ABCs of Death” is a film in which 26 different directors picked a letter of the alphabet and created a short film centered around death and their chosen letter. Iguchi’s piece entitled, of course, “F is for Fart” (considering his past and his other ‘F’ options, I like to think he was showing some restraint) is ostensibly about death by farting. But Iguchi has stated in interviews that a little more thought goes into it than just the juvenile surface level:

“Even though the theme this time was ‘death,’ I wanted to make a movie where no blood was spilled. I set out from the start to create a story about death that didn’t involve the kind of splatter I’d shown in films up to now. Instead, I wanted to draw a lyrical portrait of young girls who are fated to die. Because I tried to include some humor and some fetishistic aspects, it turned pretty substantially into a comedy. And because I also wanted to include the themes of the earthquake in Japan, along with a radioactive gas leak, the ‘gas = fart’ equation came together pretty naturally from within my own interests. Surprisingly, while making the film, I also found myself conscious of young people’s feelings and the current state of affairs in society. At least in the way people think about death, that was the case. If you compare it to Machine Girl, I found myself thinking at that time about the bullying problem in Japanese society. During Karate Robo Zaborgar, it was the problem of unemployed people. I think I always want to bring various problems in modern society to bear upon the plot of what, at first glance, seems to be a totally different subject within a genre movie.”

Wow! There you have it. A lot more thought goes into Iguchi’s films than your average genre film. I mean, my five-year-old cousin already pitched me the basic concept for “F is for Fart” a few years back, but in practice Iguchi has attention to detail and themes that far exceeds his subject matter. If you’re the kind of viewer that can look beyond the on-screen antics, you may also be able to take away more than you’d imagine from these bizarre flicks.

If you haven’t seen any of Iguchi’s movies and you don’t mind a little bit of ultraviolence, a little bit of fanservice, and a LOT bit of over-the-top shenanigans, it might be time to give these a try. If he did his job right, you will be shocked AND entertained. And trust me, both the shock and entertainment comes in spades.

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Rice: The Crop That Sparked the Tokugawa Miracle Wed, 02 Jul 2014 16:00:36 +0000 It’s that glorious grainy excellence that let’s you know you’re eating an authentic Japanese meal. I’m talking of course about rice. At tables all across Japan, this sticky libation is a staple of the evening, afternoon, and, in some cases, morning meal. It’s so common that it’s easy to assume it’s always been a major part of Japanese life. Considering the crop’s history in Japan dates back 2500 years, that wouldn’t be an unfair assumption to make. However, there was a time when rice was more than just a staple at the table; it was the only thing standing between peasant families and a life spent entirely in hard labor.

In the Beginning, There Was Rice


Photo by Janine

Well, not the very beginning, but close enough to it. Archaeologists have placed the “birth place” of rice in the Yangzi region of China at about 7,000 years ago. The crop is believed to have arrived in Japan’s southern island of Kyushu at the tail end of the Jomon period (about 400 BC). It then slowly became popular throughout the rest of the islands. It doesn’t appear that rice was ever intended by the ancient peoples to be a staple in the Japanese diet but, as we will see, that attitude has changed quite a bit. Really, rice has been a part of Japan for so long, one could say it’s ingrained in their culture.

Peasants, Daimyo, and Samurai (Oh My!)


Fast forward about two thousand years to the Tokugawa period. Life in Tokugawa Japan went something like this (at least at the start of the period): If you were powerful, it was hard. If you were powerless, it was harder. At this point in Japan’s history, the country was completely isolated from outside influence, so even in the seventeenth century, feudalism was alive and well. The nation was separated into a couple hundred of state-like units called hans. Each han was ruled by a daimyo who pretty much had supremacy in that area. Under Tokugawa law, daimyos were required to build a residence in their respective han. However, they were also required to have a second house in Edo where their first wife and first son were required to live. On alternating years, daimyo would march with as many samurai as they could afford to take and move to Edo. They were also required to have a third house built in Kyoto. All of these were strategic decisions made by the Japanese government in order to prevent civil war and to keep even the wealthiest poor enough to rely on the Tokugawa shogunate.

As many restrictions as the daimyo and samurai were subjected to, there was still one group that had it worse. As my history instructor once put it, the peasants of Tokugawa Japan lived in “well regulated concentration camps” and it was the goal of those in power to make sure they “could neither live nor die”. Just as with the daimyos, the state was preventing any kind of uprising from the peasant class by ensuring they lived in constant poverty. Really, they did nothing but farm. All day. That might be kind of cool if we were talking about Harvest Moon, but we’re not. Their lives were nothing but back breaking labor. It was even against the law for them or their families to enjoy sake or tea.


The reason they had to work so hard was because, much like any economy, the working man was the backbone of Tokugawa Japan. The peasant population was responsible for providing the daimyo with funding for his trips to Edo, the food and living stipends of the samurai, as well as a flat tax for their use of the land. That’s quite a heavy price for one group of people to pay, even if they did make up the majority of the population at the time. However, it’s actually the taxes themselves that allowed the peasants to break out of this cycle of struggle.

Flat Tax = Cash Stacks


At some point the peasants got fed up with that whole constant poverty thing and decided to try to start making some real money. Some brilliant soul (whose name history has forgotten) realized that a flat tax rate would allow for plenty of surplus. Farmers began growing FAR more rice than they needed, so that when the time came to send the rice to Osaka that would pay their taxes, they had plenty left over. It would have been fine to stop there and simply have more money to work with in their community, but if nothing else, the Japanese are innovative. Instead of being content with the amount of surplus they were able to produce with their old farming methods, they used the extra money to research and develop more effective farming methods, thus allowing even greater surplus! One of the discoveries they made was the role of fertilizer in agriculture. On farms in castle towns (towns where daimyo lived), peasants would use their own daimyo’s excrement as fertilizer. Gross, but effective. They also made their own natural pesticides using whale oil.

All of these innovations meant a huge spike in the amount of rice each farming unit was able to grow. The arable land in each village as well as the population nearly doubled. This led to one last innovation, which was the introduction of commercialized agriculture. They could start growing things to sell as luxury items rather than just what was needed to maintain a substantial diet. They began to produce cotton, hemp, silk, and opium. However, none of these were the top-selling commercial crop in Tokugawa Japan. It was rice! Rice could be used in the production of sake, which has been in high demand in Japan since it’s invention. Through commercialized agriculture, peasants were able to become far richer than the samurai, despite being considered part of the lower class. It was an amazing rags-to-riches story.

Into the Future


Photo by Les Taylor

The accumulation of wealth by peasants continued throughout the Tokugawa period. This caused a lot of panic among the higher-ups. The peace and stability found in the Tokugawa period was largely dependent upon everyone knowing their place and not making attempts at social mobility. Obviously, things weren’t going to continue smoothly this way. Even though the peasants were making more money, samurai stipends didn’t increase to meet the resulting inflation, so naturally there was some unrest. Also, many richer peasant families began making deals with poorer families to combine their farms. This meant that some peasants were beginning to live like feudal lords themselves. The emperor took notice and declared that peasants ought to remember their place and live the simple life they were born into. By this time, though, it was too late. The economic boom had already come, and there was no stopping it. It was in this strong economic state that Japan entered the Meiji restoration. Japan’s isolation was over and it was becoming an economic force to be reckoned with.

The Rice of Life


It’s interesting to see how rice has become, in a way, the identity of Japan. Without it, sushi would be a very different dish, some major deities would not have been honored, restaurants would not have been founded, and, perhaps most importantly, Japan may not have gained the economic means to become a world power. The introduction of commercialized agriculture, as we have seen, allowed for a larger population and thus, more people in the Japanese workforce. A strong workforce creates a strong economy. Not only that, but it meant more people were buying luxury items and therefore the economy was spurred in that regard. None of this would have been possible were it not for the simple rice plant. Honestly, imagining Japan without rice means imagining a world without many of the modern comforts we enjoy from Japan, or at least a world where those things weren’t invented until much, much later.

So, tell me, are you going to hug a rice plant today?

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