Tofugu » » Culture A Japanese Language & Culture Blog Wed, 01 Oct 2014 16:01:00 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Kamaboko: A Pureed Fish Cake Fit For Celebration Wed, 01 Oct 2014 16:01:00 +0000 What’s better than pureed fish made into a cake? Not much, I say. Kamaboko is exactly that, a traditional type of fish cake that is closely connected to Japanese celebrations, though slightly less now following the arrival of the Western cake. I took a trip to a kamaboko museum with Shoko, who wrote a great travel piece about it. So that you can further enjoy our experience at the kamaboko museum, I thought we could first learn about this traditional Japanese dish.

What Exactly Is Kamaboko?


Photo by Hajime NAKANO

Simply put, kamaboko is a variety of Japanese fish cake. It’s made from the meat of several kinds of fresh fish or reprocessed pureed white fish called surimi. It’s actually not all that hard to make, either. Fresh fish is mashed into a paste, some seasoning is added, and then it is formed and cooked. IT’s usually formed into a loaf-like shape, and then steamed on wooden boards until fully cooked and firm. It can actually be formed into many other shapes and sizes as well, and can also be cooked by boiling, broiling, or deep-frying it. It can be served chilled, in a noodle dish, in a hot soup (such as oden), or in a variety of other delicious ways.


Photo by Takekazu Omi



Photo by gamene

In fact, if you are familiar with fake crab meat, often used in “California Rolls”, you may have had a type of kamaboko. This type of kamaboko is called kani-kama in Japan, which is an abbreviation of kani (crab) and kamaboko.


Photo by Samson Loo

Despite its delicious taste, it’s full of health benefits as well. It contains very little fat, relatively large amounts of nutrients, and a very large amount of well-balanced proteins. kamaboko includes a well-balanced array of amino acids, including all nine essential amino acids. A study conducted by Tokyo University’s Department of Food Science and Technology also found kamaboko to have anti-oxidative effects.

History Of Kamaboko


Photo by netagura

It’s unknown when exactly kamaboko was first made in history, but the first known record of it is in picture form found in a tome from the Heian period. With detailed sketches, the book, called 類聚雑要抄 (ruijuu-zatsuyoushou), primarily depicts the furnishings and costumes of nobility for traditional ceremonies and events. There is also an illustration of kamaboko placed on a bamboo skewer, which was served when 藤原忠実 (Fujiwara-no-tadazane) held a feast to celebrate his moving to a new house in 1115 AD. Discovering the year in which Fujiwara-no-tadazane moved into his new house gave Japan the idea for Kamaboko Day, which is now held on November 15. Get it? 1115AD = 11-15, November 15!

As it’s depicted in the book, early kamaboko was wrapped around the end of a bamboo stick. It’s said the name became 蒲鉾 (kama-boko), which literally means cattail-spear, because the look of it is resembles the head of the cattail (plant), which is called 蒲 (Gama) in Japanese. Speaking of cats, the early kamaboko was made from freshwater catfish, whereas nowadays it’s made from saltwater fish.

The Edo period was when kamaboko on a cedar plank appeared. In order to distinguish the two types of kamaboko, people started calling the original tube-shaped kamaboko 竹輪蒲鉾 (chikuwa-kamaboko), which literally means bamboo ring kamaboko and called the loaf-shaped one 板蒲鉾 (ita-kamaboko), which literally means plank kamaboko. Eventually, the name kamaboko fell off from the chikuwa version and that tube-shaped one was simply called chikuwa, whereas the loaf-shaped one took the name kamaboko.

The oldest remaining kamaboko company in Japan is 美濃屋吉兵衛商店 (Minoya-Kichibee-Shouten) and was established around 1550 AD. It is located near Odawara station in Kanagawa Prefecture. When Shoko and I visited the museum, we didn’t do a large enough preliminary investigation into Kamaboko and we missed this place as a result. My apologies!

There were also some distinctive differences between the kamaboko from the Kansai area (Western Japan including Kyoto and Osaka) and the Kanto area (Eastern Japan including Tokyo). In Kanto, kamaboko was steamed. In Kansai, it was grilled after being steamed. It’s believed that this difference arose because the main cities on Kansai (Kyoto and Osaka) were far from the sea, so they grilled it for preservation purposes. A well known saying “江戸は蒸し、京坂は焼き” (Edo wa mushi, Keihan wa yaki), meaning “Edo (now Tokyo) is steamed and Keihan (Kyoto and Osaka) is grilled” found its origins as a result of this difference. This phrase characterizes the stereotypical cooking styles of the two regions still practiced today. Kamaboko isn’t the only dish that follows that cooking trend – check out the regional differences in these products’ eels.

Celebrating With Kamaboko


In early kamaboko history, white fish was very expensive and kamaboko was considered a feast. Thus, it was used as a special gift or the type of food served at celebratory feasts. It is said that kamaboko was the favorite food of 豊臣秀頼 (Toyotomi Hideyori), who was the son and designated successor of 豊臣秀吉 (Toyotomi Hideyoshi), the general who first united all of Japan. It was also served as the final meal of 織田信長 (Oda Nobunaga), one of the three unifiers of pre-modern Japan, before he was killed by the 本能寺の変 (Honnō-ji no hen – the Honnō-ji Incident) in 1582.

In Samurai custom, the sea bream was considered as a bringer of good luck because it had a beautiful red color, which was thought to be a lucky color. Sea Bream was rare, had elegant taste, and its name 鯛 (tai) was a play on the word めでたい (medetai), which means happy or joyous. Therefore, the sea bream became essential for wedding celebrations, but only to those who could afford it. When a real fish was too expensive to buy, a picture or an imitation fish would be substituted in its place, and 細工蒲鉾 (saiku-kamaboko) or 飾り蒲鉾 (kazari-kamaboko), which means decorative kamaboko, was used for this. This custom can still be seen in several places throughout Japan.

For example, in Toyoama prefecture, people who are invited to join the wedding ceremony are given a big, decorative kamaboko shaped like a sea bream, a crane, a tortoise (a symbol of longevity) or Mt. Fuji. Then, when they return home, they cut it up and hand it out to their neighbors to inform them of the marriage. If it’s in the shape of a sea bream, a family gives away the head and body parts and keeps the tail as their own.

The Words Delivered From Kamaboko


Photo by kazuh

Due to kamaboko’s large role in Japanese culture, there are various words in the Japanese language that are derived from kamaboko.

For example, we say 蒲鉾型 (kamaboko-gata) or “kamaboko-shaped”, to describe anything that is D-shaped. The arch-like barracks in military garrisons are sometimes called 蒲鉾兵舎 (kamaboko-heisha), which means Kamaboko barracks, as well. We also call the security vehicles of riot police Kamaboko because the style of the original riot police vehicles were similarly shaped. When you go bowling, if the oil used to make the lane more slippery is too thick in the middle and thin on the sides, it’s called 蒲鉾型レーン (kamaboko-gata-reen), which means kamaboko-shaped lane.

Or, there is the word かまとと (kamatoto), which means a girl who pretends to be sweet and innocent. This word was made up for this type of woman, especially a prostitute in from the Edo period, who would ask questions like, “Is this fish?” (fish is toto in old Japanese / sakana in current Japanese) while pointing at kamaboko and thus pretending that she knew nothing about the world. In the world of sumo, escaping from practice was also called kamaboko. Imagine a sumo wrestler trying to sneak out of camp, and while trying to avoid being seen, needing to put his back up against a wall – this conjured images of kamaboko on a cedar plank.

How To Eat Kamaboko


The Suzuhiro Museum we visited explained that the thickness and the temperature of kamaboko are important for getting the maximum taste out of it. When you eat kamaboko by itself, 12mm of thickness is ideal for enjoying the texture and flavor of the fish. When you want to use it as an ingredient, but still want a bit of its texture, you can thinly slice it. For example, if you slice it to 3mm, it can be a substitute for BACON! If you want to retain a lot of its flavor, cut it to around 15mm thick and add it to salad or other dishes.

The other important factor is temperature. Since it contains a lot of proteins, which can easily be denatured by heat, when you heat kamaboko in the wrong way it loses its nice texture and becomes quite hard. So, eating it at a cool temperature is the best, but if you really want to heat it, just heat up its surface at high heat very quickly and make sure the heat doesn’t make its way to the center of the kamaboko.

There is lot more to explore regarding kamaboko, especially in its ability to decorate food, but I’ll save that for the next time because I’m hungry for kamaboko, so I’ll need to begin my kamaboko hunt.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Is Abenomics Working? Mon, 29 Sep 2014 16:00:38 +0000 This is a continuation of my previous article, which explains what the 3 arrows of Abenomics are and how they are supposed to work.

It’s impossible to say with certainty whether Abenomics is working because the data is ambiguous. Actually it is almost always ambiguous in economics since there’s no such thing as indisputable data.

This page from the Prime Minister’s Office has a list of the grand achievements of Abenomics. But since it’s a government website trying to justify its own policies, you probably know that things aren’t as rosy as they are trying to portray. Richard Katz at The Japan Times for example, calls the whole policy bundle “Voodoo Abenomics”

The issue has two questions that need to be answered:

1. Has Abenomics been able to improve the Japanese economy in the short run? This we can discern from the current statistics.

2. Will, Abenomics ensure Japan’s long term economic health – and this requires speculation and will largely depend on the school of economic thought that one follows.

First, let’s look at some of the indicators so far.



Japanese government says: There has been a cumulative total of 4.2% GDP growth from Q3 (3rd quarter) 2012 to Q1 2014! This is a break from the prior recession in Q2-Q3 2012!


Japan just experienced a big slump in growth in Q2, with a quarter-on-quarter growth of -1.8% according to the most recent statistics. This is a slowdown worse than the effects of the 2011 earthquake.

The government’s being a bit sneaky by just limiting the data to until Q1 2014. The big fall from April to June of this year has mainly been attributed to the effects of the consumption tax hike in April. In short, because a lot of people spent stocking up on big items before the tax increase, consumption has slumped in the second quarter.

The problem is whether consumption will rebound significantly in the rest of this year and whether the effects of the tax hike will just be a heavy, but temporary hit. The Japanese government and the Bank of Japan are taking the optimistic view – and there are already some signs of recovery. Other commentators are expecting however, consumption to remain stagnant due to the tax hikes.

Big question: How permanent are the effects of the tax hike? Will growth recover?



Photo by Luigi Guarino

Inflation is defined as a steady and general increase in prices, with deflation being the antonym. The negative effects of the latter are explained in my previous article.

Deflation has been the bearbug of the Japanese economy since the 1990s. So how much has Abenomics been able to cause inflation? Bear in mind that the official inflation target rate is 2% at the moment.

Take a look at this link. At face value it looks like Japan has managed to reverse deflation, with positive inflation recorded from around June 2013 with a big jump near April 2014. So on paper it looks positive.

There are two main caveats to this, the most obvious point being that the big jump in April 2014 was due to the tax increase. This jump therefore will not be sustained and may lead to a long term lowering of the inflation rate as consumers spend less.

The second is that a big portion of this inflation is due to increased electricity / combustible prices which are in turn caused by the weak yen. If we exclude the increase in combustibles prices and tax from the inflation rate, inflation is even weaker and certainly below the targeted 2% rate. This suggests that inflation from consumer spending remains weak.

Big question: Will Japan be able to strengthen its inflation to reach their targeted 2% per annum?



Photo by Azlan Dupree

Employment in Japan is a complicated thing. While most of the world is battling very high unemployment, Japan is enjoying a very enviable unemployment rate of 3.8%. At present, for every job-seeker there are 1.09 jobs available in the job market. Needless to say this is far better than the situation in Europe and in the US.

The problems with employment in Japan aren’t with absolute unemployment but the form of employment. According to ministry statistics, at the moment more than one third of the Japanese workforce is tied down to “non-formal employment” (part time work, contract work etc). While this is justifiable in many cases (eg. A housewife working part-time at the local supermarket), the issue is that a large proportion of these are youth who actually want to be fully employed. After all, having only “non-formal” work means that you probably will get less benefits and pay than a full employee, not to mention less job security.

On the other hand, there is commentary about how Japan’s strict labor laws make their employees virtually unfireable. Thus, there are many non-productive and middle-aged staff in companies. Companies are also reluctant to formally employ new labor for the fear that they will not be able to remove them once employed. The Abe government will need to balance the protection of workers with the wishes of companies for more hiring / firing flexibility if it wishes to reform this area.

Labor Force Size

We’re moving on to the long-term issues. And in this sense, what seems to be a short term plus in the form of low unemployment is actually a sign of a long term minus: Japan’s workforce is shrinking and bringing with it a slew of issues such as the sustainability of the welfare system and labor shortages.



Photo by Azlan Dupree

So far the Abe government is pledging to increase women’s labor force participation rate. On the government’s official Abenomics webpage, they have a glowing figure of 620,000 more women joining the workforce since the administration came into power. Plus, the Abe government is also pledging to increase childcare facilities to alleviate the shortage which many parts of the country are already facing.

I’m a bit skeptical. Because firstly, 620,000 women is a statistic that is impossible to interpret without more context – after all it could just mean that more women were forced to work due to financial reasons. Secondly, increasing childcare facilities is just one part of the problem. If the state of Japan’s female employment is to change, issues of chauvinism and the “glass ceiling” need to be addressed. The culture of overwork needs to be lessened for change to occur too – after all given a choice of working 10 hours a day and doing housework, one can see the attractions of the latter.

Foreign Labor


If getting women to work doesn’t happen, or if it doesn’t happen enough, labor shortages will become serious enough that foreign labour will be needed.

There is less controversy with highly skilled labor entering Japan. After all professors and businessmen are considered to be rare resources that would be beneficial. In any case, their numbers would be limited. This is why, as I mentioned in the previous article, the government is putting in place measures to streamline the acquisition of permanent residencies by highly skilled residents.

Bigger controversy lies with allowing in lower skilled workers into Japan, for reasons such as fears about increasing crime, a breakdown of “social order”, wage depression, etc. However, the shortage is already happening and the government is making tentative steps towards allowing some foreign workers through a program which has already been criticized for allowing exploitation.

Big question: At the end of the day, how many people will there be in Japan working and paying the taxes needed for Japan to remain stable?

Structural Reform


Japan’s current Deputy Prime Minister, Taro Aso, pictured above in a parody of the 1958 film, The Ballad of Narayama, ridiculing his unfortunate statements about the elderly. I am not endorsing this as proper structural reform!

There are limited movements towards reforms, but they resemble needle pricks than a solid arrow at the moment. More are supposedly on the way.

Naturally, this depends on the industry. Main battle areas now are over free trade and the TPP, which exporters such as car manufacturers are pushing for. Agriculture is demanding exceptions. Even after removing it from the issue of free trade, Japan’s agriculture may be the target for reform in the future. View this article for a more detailed view on the issue.

Medical care is also facing its own problems as detailed here. As mentioned earlier in the article, labor reform is something which businesses are championing and which may be enacted.

This leaves us with two big questions:

Firstly, how much will Abenomics bow to vested interests (pro-reform or otherwise) and thus what reforms will it produce?

Secondly, are these largely pro-deregulatory reforms the correct solution in the first place?



Photo by Richard G

Then there’s this. Another big long term headache for Japan which I’ve written about in another article.

To summarize: the point is that the Abe government has succeeded in the last two years in bringing down the rate of borrowing – but borrowing is still happening and at a very large rate, as seen here.

It’s a balancing act – borrow too much and you can’t spend or will even crash in the future. Cut borrowing too quickly and you’ll cause lots of short term pain which may then crash in the future (some give European countries as examples).

Big question: Therefore, is the rate of cutting borrowing too fast or too slow right now?

So … is it working?


To be frank, I don’t know. Certainly I do have my own opinions. I do think that the indicators look generally positive though quite shaky at the moment. I consider myself also pro-reform, but since the majority of the reforms are still “in the works” I can’t even say what I think about them.

In any case, professors of economics argue about this stuff and mine is not a professional opinion. Since professors of economics don’t agree with each other you’re free to disagree with mine. Time will tell whether Abenomics will work or not for better or for worse.

Just giving a shoutout – anybody have any suggestions for stuff I should write for the next article? If there’s something about current affairs in Japan that intrigue you just leave a comment and I’ll consider. Thanks!

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Further Reading:

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Bishounen Fri, 26 Sep 2014 16:00:20 +0000 Girl meets boy, boy likes girl, girl meets girl-like-boy…

If you have never uttered the word bishounen with swooning exhalation, then, you are most likely a straight male with a floating thought bubble filled with question marks above your head just about, now.  The other nth of you prefer your men folk clearly defined by pronounced Adam’s apples, brow ridges, large hands, and husky voices or thereabouts.

For those on the adoration side of the aisle, if you could, you would not have your men any other way than bishie, but that is impossible.

Bishounen are not men.  They are not youths engaged in pederasty.  They are not actually “pretty boys” as many otaku running in anime circles might insist.  These beguiling beings are not superlative in any form, not really.

Idealization Of Youthful Male Beauty


These are boys who cannot grow up.  They are Japan’s answer to Peter Pan and Twilight.  In essence, bishounen are specters whose very existence defies Western conventions of masculinity.  They are seemingly asexual harbingers of tragedy, who choose neither the path of manliness nor femininity.

From afar, bishounen exhibit perfect qualities of youthful boyishness without any of the detractions of adult responsibility.  This does not mean they cannot perish.  At first glance, they appear to be flaunting their youth while at the same time tempting Death.  The tragedy lies in everything bishounen are not.

Bishounen are often connected with the ancient Japanese literary works known as chigo monogatari.  These pederastic love stories were written by Japanese priests during the Muromachi Period between 1337 and 1573 in such quantity that modern day scholars classify the prose as a genre.  The stories focused on the relationship between a Buddhist cleric and their beautiful boy acolyte, with the later often finding a tragic end.  Some tales depict absolute erotica, while others reveal more noble outcomes toward enlightenment.  The acolytes in these stories only share two similarities with bishounen: they are beautiful and forever boys.

This Is Where The Fantasy Ends


The reality is that chigo (acolyte children) “participated in formal processions, religious ceremonies and public functions,” and would also “serve meals, receive guests and attend closely to the master.”

“In exchange, the chigo were granted unusual privileges that were not given to the other temple children.  They were permitted to wear their hair long (waist length, in some paintings), powder their faces, and dress extravagantly.” Chigo in the Medieval Japanese Imagination

In manga, these beautiful boys are often indifferent protagonists.  Western readers may perceive bishounen ambiguity as effeminate, but that is a misreading.  Bishounen as perceived by the Japanese audience is neither effeminate nor ambiguous; rather they are seen as something like angels, wholly male and female.  Thus the character is sexually liberated, or is it the Japanese reader who is freed from their own traditional social restraints?

“But if the primary Japanese readership is female, shouldn’t these liberators be female as well?” asks the feminist.  Yes and no.  Bishounen are masculine insomuch that they assume this role.  On the other hand, bishounen are feminine in that they disregard this perceived maleness.

And that is what makes these males endearing to the masses of Japanese female readers, bishounen’s sensibility of character apart from their sexualization.  Of course, a significant part of this dynamic is how they are drawn.  Bishounen are distinctly neither male nor female in appearance.  By convention it is assumed those are male clothes, a boyish cut, and figure.  Soft features upon lanky frames with stylish hair, these boys are literal representations of asexual aesthetic.  More than this is the perceived vanity which female readers are connecting with, an ironic paradox, since the corporeal male aesthetic does not regard the mirror.

For the bishounen, this vanity is not calculated; instead, it is a misinterpretation by other characters, the ones we as readers define sexually and thus impart our social expectations upon.  Just as Peter Pan in Broadway productions is historically portrayed by women with a tap upon their nose, so bishounen give us a nod and a wink.

Readers Are In The Know


Androgyny further lends to the bishounen’s heightened vanity by literally drawing attention to it.  Like runway models with boyish figures, there is a reason this body type remains the go-to form upon the catwalk.  Yet unlike fashion models, bishounen protagonists, being male, are immune to the criticism of feminist rhetoric.  In essence, bishounen are idealistically feminist while remaining wholly male.

And while many readers claim bishounen to transcend gender, it is all important to recognize for whom bishounen are created. Western gender roles need not apply.

Cultural Contamination Skews Perception


Photo by Arjan Richter

One casual Saturday, I was able to visit Book-Off for second opinions, firsthand insight and to glean some reading material.  Cautiously navigating the stacks, I spotted several customers lining the bishi aisle AKA shoujo section.  Having my Girl Friday in tow, we approached with quasi sumimasen bows.

“Lots of bishounen read like total chauvinists, not just in my American mind, but I think universally.  They can often be purposefully insensitive,” I said to our first participant.

Mari, 33, Office Lady

“Exactly!  It’s because they are guys, they have that choice,” Mari exclaimed.
“No, but when bishi are jerks, don’t you hold it against them?” I instigated.
“Never, they’re too beautiful to hate forever; I just couldn’t.  I always give them a chance.  I hope they change, but it’s okay if they don’t.  As a shoujo reader, I’m optimistic, but that doesn’t mean I’m right.  Heartache is fun when it’s not your own.”

Kyou, 28, Salaryman

“Excuse us, but are you reading shoujo?”
“No, I was, yes.”
“Wonderful!  Do you have any opinions about bishounen?”

The man thought about the question so long we thought he was ignoring us and when he finally spoke, Yo-yo and I had already moved several bookshelves away.

“Yes. I have an opinion!” the man proclaimed.

Seeing Both Sides Of The Coin


Photo by nakimusi

“I think they’re…cool.”
“What do you mean?”
“They’re cool.  Bishounen don’t give a damn; they do what they want, and more importantly, how they want.  They act in a way I would never dare,” Kyou stated.

Yo-yo and I studied the salaryman.  He was tall, slender, and perhaps even bishi in a way.  His glasses flashed whenever he cut a look toward us.

“Why do you think Japanese women swoon over bishounen?”
He tilted his head as if we’d asked him the impossible.  “Men or women, it’s the same really: the fantasy. I never swoon, but sometimes I sigh.”

Sanami, 21, University Student

“Well, I find that most bishounen are just a convention these days.  They’re often alien or magical or something like that.  I’m not really a fan, but I tolerate them as supporting characters.”
“That means if the lead character is bishounen, you won’t read the manga?” I asked.
“Well, I might still read it.  I just might not finish it.  I know why office ladies love these characters, but it’s not my thing.  Like I said, I find bishounen really conventional.”
“Sorry, and why do office ladies love them?”

At this point, Mari rejoined the conversation as Kyou eavesdropped some distance away.

Mari: We love them because they’re on the other side of that glass ceiling.  I don’t mean that in a corporate sense.  It’s…”

Sanami is nodding.  “She means it the way people often see the grass as always being greener on the other side of the fence.  Bishounen are on that other side.  They’re this kind of social hybrid.”

Mari: Exactly!  And the fun is knowing that the grass isn’t actually greener at all, it’s blue or pink, it’s different, not better.

Me: So you’re saying that this “glass ceiling” mandates that bishounen must be male?  Or that bishounen actually reinforce traditional gender roles?

Yo-yo bats her eyes in my direction.

Sanami: This is why I dislike bishounen.  I know they’re male because of convention, while they’re actually supposed to be this ambiguous beauty thing.

Mari: I don’t think it’s defined so clearly, but there is a kind of formula these days. An expectation I guess.  It goes with the territory, and I love it.  It’s my escape.

Me: What about female empowerment?

Yo-yo: What about it?

Me: Ask them!

Yo-yo translates.

Mari: Oh that, yes, there is that.  I’m moved, and sometimes I think about how differently bishounen might handle a similar situation I find myself in, like when I am expected to serve tea at business meetings merely because I am a woman.  Sometimes I wish I was irresponsible.

Me: Right, that means you think of bishounen as a kind of man-child?

Sanami: That’s totally wrong.  They are their own thing.  Bishounen don’t actually exist, right, since this is part of the convention.

Mari: That’s right, they can only exist in manga.

Yo-yo is laughing.

Me: What is it?

Yo-yo: If every Japanese man were to suddenly disappear, oh nevermind!

Sanami: I know what she’s thinking.  Bishounen are the way Japanese women would act if they were to assume the masculine role.

Me: So why don’t Japanese women simply assume that role?

Mari is laughing, but stops suddenly as Kyou appears.

Kyou: Because they are still women.

Me: ???

Yo-yo: Feeling empowered and being empowered are two very different things.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Interview with Medama-Sensei: The Racism-Battling Monk of YouTube Thu, 25 Sep 2014 16:00:48 +0000 “In a couple of days, I will be gone for 1 year to become a buddhist monk in a forest monastery” is the Twitter post from last year that explained why one of my favorite Japan-video-makers had been absent on Youtube for a while. His name is Miki Dezaki, or Medama-Sensei online, and he made a variety of videos, mostly during his time as an ALT in the JET Program. You’ve probably seen his stuff – a lot of the videos are funny, some of them are serious, and one even brought a bit of nasty attention from right-wing Japan nationalists.

The JET Program is a career option many Tofugu readers consider and pursue, and we write about it a lot. Since Miki spent five years on the program, as well as a bit of time in the international media spotlight, his insight seemed like something worth sharing. Also,going from the JET participant to monk-in-training is a rare career shift, and I wanted to hear how that went. I learned a lot from his experiences and I think you will too.

Some Background


The interview questions and some of Miki’s answers will make more sense with a bit of background, so let me tell you, in short, about Miki’s career.

Miki went to university in the U.S. as a physiology pre-med student. Seeing stressed-out doctors in his field of interest, he took up meditation during his sophomore year. Meditation changed his outlook on life and made him consider becoming a monk.

He studied abroad during his junior year at Hiroshima University and eventually decided not to go to med school. He applied for and recieved JET placement as an assistant language teacher (ALT) in Yamanashi prefecture, and after a few years transferred to an Okinawan school system.

Inspired by his experiences in Okinawa, Miki made youtube videos. His ‘Racism in Japan’ video sparked the attention of a persistent group of Japanese nationalists and brought him a lot of attention, even internationally. Shortly thereafter, he pursued his plan of training to be a monk in southeast Asia. Earlier this year, he returned to the U.S. to be with family and is contemplating grad school in Japan.

The Interview

I interviewed Miki over Skype, so the Q&A content is very conversational.


Q: What made you decide to apply for JET?


I lived in Hiroshima for a year– decided I wasn’t going to go to medical school because I’d already decided to become a monk. I was going to give myself five years, see if after five years I was still interested. You know, if I didn’t meet an amazing girl or find my passion in life, or something else that would pull me away from being a monk. On top of that, it was a good time to pay off my school loans.

And, I was super interested in teaching Japanese kids. I love Japan, I love the Japanese students, I love Japanese people… and that’s why it killed me so much to teach there. Because it almost feels like the school system’s failing them. I’m sure I would feel the same way if I were teaching in America. It’s just, you see it so clearly. You’re like, okay, this teaching methodology is not working. Why are we doing this? Why are we wasting our kids’ time? Seeing a lot of that stuff, it really kind of– I was actually depressed for a whole year, the first year I was in the JET program. I was in a kind of hard school –Everybody’s school is different –but I was in a hard school because the teachers were really domineering… I didn’t like that. I didn’t like seeing that. They were yelling at the kids all the time.

If you teach on JET, I recommend trying to get into elementary or high school– I’ve taught at all levels. Elementary school tires you out, but you get so much energy from these kids. They are so happy, and the place is so wonderful– it’s so bright. High school is great because it’s like, people starting to move towards their actual futures. They have a lot of dreams and hopes and stuff like that. But the junior high school is like… it was hard for me. Basically, I chose to be a JET teacher because I wanted to teach Japanese kids stuff I’ve learned. I saw them strugglling so much. I thought I could help them a lot. In the end, I think I did help as much as I could. I did my best.

Q: What are your thoughts on English curriculum and the education system?

The way I see it is, the Japanese government doesn’t care if Japanese people can speak English. They use English as a measuring stick to get people into college, basically, and their efforts to help English education by making it more mandatory …  It’s so half- what would you say- half-ass or, chuto-hanpa, is what we say in Japanese.

So, it’s like it doesn’t help at all. In my mind, everything that the Monbu-kagaku-sho does with English education seems to be just like tatemae. It makes the parents talk about it and say, “Oh, look, our government’s trying to really help us.” And I was like, no they’re not. They don’t care, to be honest. And that’s my opinion, but I can say that, now that I’m not a JET.

So if you’re thinking of trying to change the Japanese education system, you’re gonna be really depressed like I was. [laughter]


Q: You made the Racism in Japan video at the end of your JET experience. What made you want to create that video?


[The] last lesson [I taught in] my JET career was racism and discrimination in general, and I used examples from Japan so that it hit home to them. [Japanese people] always think it’s an American problem, so the only reason I used those examples for the students was just to get them to feel like, “Oh okay, this is something that is close to me.” Especially because I was in Okinawa and this really was close to them, and they didn’t even realize when they hear these stories about their grandmother and grandfather being treated poorly by the Japanese soldiers and stuff like that, they didn’t make the connection that that was discrimination. When I said that to them, they were like “Whoa, okay,” you know?

So, I did that lesson, and I was really shocked because the kyoutou sensei (教頭先生, vice principal) came in and watched. After the lesson, she was like, “This lesson should be taught to every single kid in Japan.”  That gave me so much confidence. I got to teach it to all students in the school –to 900 students.

Basically the lesson was how discriminatory thoughts are developed through the media and your parents and wars and stuff like that. Then I gave examples from Japan and America, and I talked about how we could possibly make this better. The examples I gave in the Racism in Japan video– That was probably like a 4-5 minute video. That’s all I talked about as far as examples in Japan in my class. So I talked about those things and the rest of the 45 minutes I talked about discrimination in general. So people thought I was saying that Japan is the worst country in the world. People thought my lesson to the students was about criticising Japan and teaching my students how bad Japan was, or how discriminatory and racist it was, whereas that was like five minutes of my whole lecture.

So anyway, I did the lesson, it was really successful, everyone loved it, no complaints from parents or anybody. The students would come up to me and be like, “That was amazing, Thank you so much, that really opened my eyes,” because not only did I cover skin color discrimination, I covered discrimination based on sexual orientation and I showed them my “Gay in Japan” video.

Have you seen the Ohayou Ojisan video? He is basically a super famous guy but all he does is say hello to people, and people think he’s like the biggest weirdo in the world. I interviewed him and he was  really intelligent and speaks really good English and everybody was so shocked by that. I was like, “Look at how much you’ve discriminated against this guy without even ever talking to him. You’ve only heard stuff about him, ” and so that was a big lesson to them. They were like “Yeah, we totally did. We thought that he was a total creep and weirdo, because my mom told me that,” and when you see him on screen, he seems like the nicest guy in the world. So that was my lesson.

Q: So when did you make the video? And how did the attention, especially the negative attention, affect you?

I go home to America, feeling pretty good, and then I felt like I just needed to share this with the world because it got such a good response. I released that video Feb 14– I left to be a monk March 1. Between those two weeks, I did not sleep at all. I was trying to respond to people who were commenting, who were super angry, getting emails. Every morning I would get a couple emails from my past coworkers telling me to take the video down. People were saying things like, “The Kyouikuchou (教育長, Superintendent of Education) is super pissed, he’s coming to the school. The government might cut the JET program because of this.” And I was like, what? Just from my video? They were like, “This is serious. We’re getting calls every single day from these nationalists, telling us to take down the video.”

And I was online, looking at all these blogs the nationalists were posting, and it was all my information, where I worked, where I lived, really kind of creepy stuff. Meanwhile, I’m working full-time, trying to close up shop, pass my work on to someone else, and packing my life for a year to be a monk in Asia. I was the most stressed out person in the world in those two weeks.

As a monk, I realized how jaded I had become by it. I had grown this thick skin… somehow it really kind of deeply affected how I could feel — I didn’t feel innocent anymore. I didn’t have this innocent joy anymore. It was like, “Man this is hard. Life is hard.”

I felt a little betrayed by the teachers who were doing this to me. Like, “Okay, you guys are willing to call me and stress me out, and it’s all because of these people you don’t even know, these crazy nationalist people … and you guys can’t stand up for what you believe in at all just because you don’t want to deal with it. And I would tell them, look as teachers, as educators, I kind of expect more from you, to be honest. To try to censor another person’s voice is not a good message that you’re giving to your students.

Q: I hear that it takes a lot of work to be a teacher in Japan– I thought it’s supposed to be a really respected position.

They’re so afraid, I don’t understand why, but they’re so afraid of causing any more trouble, I guess. They’ll wait until other people get my back, and then they’ll go in. Even if they want to, they’re hesitant to do that first.

I had a very strong kind of belief that freedom of speech is very important and I don’t know if they believe that.

Q: If people can celebrate that ideal– freedom of speech– shouldn’t it be okay to disagree?

But Japanese culture is a lot of keeping secrets and “We shouldn’t talk about those things,” like, “Let’s not talk about all the war atrocities we’ve committed, we’ll just forget about ‘em, it’s not a big deal.” It’s bad to generalize, but people don’t want to talk about that stuff. I understand that, it brings up a lot of guilt and past emotions. It’s like, what can you do about it? You’re gonna talk about it now and what’s gonna happen? Nothing; it’s in the past. That’s their mentality about it and it kind of makes sense too. Why keep opening the wound? I mean, Americans love to do that. I think, we expect something like what Germany did– where they’re  totally super sorry. But that’s not gonna happen with Japan.

In the Ministry of Education there is a man who was actually one of the high officers that conducted all the tests in Unit 731. So obviously, he doesn’t want that stuff in the textbooks. I know that sounds like conspiracy stuff, but it’s true.

Can I recommend a documentary? The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On. It’s amazing. It’s about this other thing that just shows you the Japanese attitude about war and about what they did and how they’re dealing with it now. They’re like, “Oh that’s just in the past, let’s not talk about it.” I think every Japanese person should watch it.

Readers, I watched it and learned a lot. That link has English subtitles (CC), by the way.


Q: As a monk, you had a very established physical location to do your meditations. How do you do that in other places?


My technique is – it’s not my own creation, you know, people have known about this for centuries. It’s more of a mindful living type of technique. I still do sitting meditation and walking meditation, but I think the most useful practice that you can have is being mindful all the time. And what I mean by that is, as I’m talking to you, I am aware of my feet, I’m aware of how my hands are moving right now, I’m aware of, you know, how my voice sounds right now and how my chest feels and my stomach… This is the type of awareness that you try to develop, so that you can be aware all of the time. And watching your mind as you’re doing this stuff, so not only are you feeling the sensations in your body but you’re also aware of the thoughts in your mind as you’re doing anything.

I think it’s a very difficult practice and I’m not a master at it — it’s something that I’m constantly trying to develop more and more because it’s so easy to get distracted by things in daily life. So when I was a monk, yes, I sat in meditation for probably like –when I wasn’t doing intensive meditation– a regular day was probably like seven or eight hours of mediation.

Q: Continuously?

No no no, like one hour, then break, and then one hour and then break. But in between those breaks, a lot of people just, “Psh!”, let it go- but the most important thing is, from the time that you stop sitting mediation to the next sitting meditation or walking meditation you are trying to keep that continuity of mindfulness or awareness. So, that’s what I’m doing, since the time I left the temple. I’m trying to keep that continuity of awareness even as I’m helping my father or talking to you or whatever. That, I think, is my main practice. Sitting meditation is important, but this kind of meditation is much more important to me. Not only does it help you to become aware of your surroundings and what’s happening but it helps you to make better choices in your life and actions and stuff like that.

One very important aspect of this practice is mindful speech. So, I really try not to say harsh words now, like cuss words. I really try not to gossip, I try not to criticize, you know. And this is all very difficult for an American person, especially for [me, being] very analytical. So this is just being aware of that stuff, and it’s a very difficult practice.

Q: In an interview with the Yoshi Didn’t podcast, you said that becoming a monk was something you’d thought about doing for five years. How did that decision process work?

Five or six seriously, but I had been meditating for ten years. When I was a pre-med student, I met a lot of doctors, and I could see how stressed out they were, so I was like, “Okay, I need to learn how to deal with stress.” It just so happened I found this “Free Meditation for Stress” class at my university. It was like once a week. And you know, at the beginning, you just kind of like, just sit and kind of relax, I guess.

And then… at one point, probably like two months after I started, I had this incredible experience. I was just doing breathing meditation and all of a sudden my whole body like disappeared basically, and my ego and thoughts just went away, and I was like the embodiment of love and compassion. It was the most amazing, happiest moment of my entire life. After I came out of the meditation, I was like, “This is what, not only am I looking for, this is what everybody in life is looking for,” I think. I was so content. I was 100% content. I didn’t need anything at that point. I was full of love and I loved everything – you know, not just my family, but every thing, every being. And the more I did meditation, it kind of developed. It just kind of made sense to me: if I had the capability to love everything, then why not become a monk?

Q: So it wasn’t a faith-based decision?

Maybe I should consider myself a Buddhist, because I was a monk, but I don’t have that much faith, you know? There are people that have really strong faith; they almost look up to the Buddha as a god, which — he wasn’t meant to be that way, but some people take him that way. For me, it’s more like this super interesting journey into my mind and to learn about myself. And I really believe if you have inner peace, that will permeate and radiate out of you and you can affect people that way. I don’t think you can fight for peace when you’re super pissed off at other people.



Photo by Scott Lin

After the interview, I contacted Miki again for updates. There was one: “I reached out to some of my former co-workers,” he wrote, “and I am really happy to say that we were able to put this stuff behind us and continue our friendship.”

Again, I write a big thank you to Medama Sensei for taking the time to share his experiences: THANK YOU!

I’m on the JET Program now and can concur, from my limited experience, that racism definitely seems to be an “only outside of Japan” problem in the minds of many Japanese people I’ve met, children and adults alike.

Thankfully, the atmosphere around English education, at least, is an ever-evolving part of curriculum policies — not just in Japan –and so I’m having a much more optimistic experience on that front, and so are most other ALTs that I know. If you’re considering using English-teaching as a career ticket to Japan, the good news is that you will definitely learn about Japan if you get that job. In doing so, however, you may be challenged in a lot of the ways this interview brought to light. I hope this Q&A has been informative and helpful, but if it wasn’t, I hope you’ll leave your questions or thoughts in the comments section to help bring everything together!

Bonus Wallpapers!

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The In-between Island: Tsushima and the Sō Pt 2 Mon, 22 Sep 2014 16:00:40 +0000 If you haven’t read Part 1 in this series, make sure to go back and read it, before starting this one. Part 2 will make more sense and you won’t be missing out on all the cool drama, intrigue, cultural faux pas, and international conquest from Part 1!



In 1592 the invasion of Korea began. Ships set sail from northern Kyushu and stopped at Tsushima for final preparations. The Sō, having difficulty raising the 5,000 man quota Hideyoshi placed upon them, impressed a number of Koreans into service. On May 23, 1592, the first division of Hideyoshi’s army landed at Busan, commanded by Konishi Yukinaga and Sō Yoshitoshi. These 18,700 men were later joined by the other divisions, for an army totaling over 158,800. During the early stages of the campaign, the Japanese swiftly cut a swath through the Korean peninsula as they made their way to Seoul, defeating the Koreans at every turn.

Japan’s early success in the campaign could be attributed to a few factors. Firstly, the Japanese armies were more experienced and more efficiently organized than their Korean counterparts. Secondly, the Japanese were also much better equipped than the Koreans. Their melee weapons and armor were of a higher quality than the Koreans’, and more importantly, they possessed firearms.


Photo by alisdair

As mentioned in the last article, during one of the diplomatic missions prior to the war Sō Yoshitoshi had given the Korean king the gift of a musket. To their disadvantage, the Koreans chose not to try and replicate it. Though the Koreans did utilize a few types of cannon, the muskets used by the Japanese allowed for firepower combined with much greater mobility. When Chinese forces later joined the war, their use of muskets greatly enhanced the Koreans’ fighting capacity.



Photo by Feth

The one major advantage held by the Koreans was their navy. Had they been able to bring it to bear early on they might have prevented the advance of the Japanese. Unfortunately Korean politics once again hindered their military. However, after some time a resourceful Korean admiral named Yi Sun Sin was able to strategically bring their navy to bear. He used Korea’s superior ships (particular the famous armored turtle ships) to disrupt the Japanese supply line and occupy their forces long enough for Chinese aid to arrive.

Korea was a tributary state to China, but that relationship generally did not extend to military aid. Nonetheless, on this occasion China did eventually send in troops. Despite their initial successes, after the first year, the Korean campaign became a long, tedious occupation for the Japanese. Many commanders did not wish to remain in Korea, but dared not oppose Hideyoshi, whose power was well consolidated at home in Japan. With Hideyoshi’s death in 1598, his generals were finally free of their obligations and the processes of withdrawal and negotiation began.

A New Order


When Hideyoshi died, Japan was divided between those who supported his family and those who supported the Tokugawa family. The conflict culminated in the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600. The victorious Tokugawa clan became the ruling family of shoguns for the next 267 years.

Following the battle, they divided the various lords of Japan into three categories, from most privileged to least: shinpan daimyo (those related to the Tokugawa), fudai daimyo (those who allied or fought with the Tokugawa at the time of the Battle of Sekigahara), and tozama daimyo (“outside lords” who fought against them or did not ally with them prior to the battle). The Sō clan did not take a side during the battle, and was thus placed in the third category. Although being an outside lord was a disadvantage, by repairing their relations with Korea, the Sō were still able hold a uniquely powerful position.

Repairing Relations


Photo by blmtduddl

The Sō were able to repair their damaged relationship with Korea rather quickly. Though their first envoy following the war, sent in 1599, never returned, subsequent negotiations fared much better. In 1600, Yoshitoshi, returned 300 Koreans who had been held captive, as a goodwill gesture. Seoul responded by sending representatives to open talks. The Tokugawa tried to distance themselves from Hideyoshi’s invasion, saying they had never sent a single soldier overseas (technically true, though Tokugawa Ieyasu acted as a military advisor to Hideyoshi back home). The Tokugawa sent Yoshitoshi and the monk Genso to Korea on their behalf in 1603, after which several hundred more Korean captives were repatriated. By the following year Tsushima was once again trading (on a limited basis) with Korea.

Between 1601 and 1605 around 5,000 Korean prisoners were returned home. Throughout these negotiations, the Korean court dealt mainly with the Sō family and not the shogunate, once again highlighting the clan’s importance. One of the final conditions for restoring normal relations was official recognition from the “King of Japan,” by which they meant the shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu. Titles were often a sticking point throughout the history of Japanese international diplomacy. “King” was the title by which the Chinese court generally recognized leaders of other large countries (Korea included), but by accepting that title the shogun would also be accepting that his status was lower than that of the Chinese emperor. When the Sō got word of this condition they knew it would be a problem, and they took the risk of forging letters from Ieyasu to the Korean king. It would seem that somehow they were never found out.

In 1609, the Treaty of Kiyu was signed, which allowed for limited trade with the Tokugawa under Sō supervision at Tsushima and Busan. In 1617 formal relations were established. Thus, the Sō recovered from the war, and became stronger than before.

Politics, Parades, and Profits


Photo by PHGCOM

Once again, the Sō clan were gatekeepers of all official trade between Japan and Korea (and a lot more unofficial, but legal trade). Their position became all the more lucrative due to Tokugawa changes in foreign policy. By 1639 the shogunate had closed off most foreign trade. There were a few exceptions. One Dutch ship per year was allowed to dock at the tiny island of Dejima, off the coast of Nagasaki. Some Chinese ships were also allowed into Nagasaki. The Satsuma domain traded with the Ryukyu Kingdom (modern day Okinawa). However, Tsushima was the only route for Korean trade.

Another aspect of relations between Korea and Japan was occasional Korean processions to Edo. There were twelve such processions during the Edo period. The first procession in 1607, and the two that followed were at the invitation of the Japanese and included the repatriation of Korean captives from the war. The fourth was a celebration of prosperity, and the fifth a birthday celebration for the shogun. All those that followed were to celebrate the succession of a new shogun. As they say, “Ain’t no party like a shogun succession party.”

Processions departed from Busan, crossed the sea to Tsushima, then Kyushu, where they slowly made their way up to the capital, Edo. There were hundreds of people in the processions, many brightly costumed, playing music and dancing. The processions were quite the sight and attracted many spectators, most of whom would never have seen a foreigner before. Getting a foreign court to pay its respects to the shogun also boosted the prestige of the shogunate and of the Sō family.

Cutting Out the Middlemen


All good things must come to an end, and with the fall of the Tokugawa shogunate in 1867 and subsequent restoration of the emperor to power, change was on the way. After a bit of shuffling around, Tsushima became a part of Nagasaki prefecture in 1872, which it remains to this day. Like many former daimyo families the Sō were made members of the new peerage kazoku 華族. Under the usual standards, the head of the family should have been made a viscount due to the small income of Tsushima. However, in recognition of Tsushima’s special role in Korean relations, the head of the Sō family was given the higher title of count.

Still, with the introduction of steam ships and later, airplanes, Tsushima’s position became less and less valuable. What exactly became of the Sō family was unclear from my research. One of the last references to the family I found was to Count Sō Takeyuki, who was married by arrangement to Deokhye, the last princess of Korea, in 1931. The marriage was an unhappy one, and they divorced in 1953.


For a few years following World War II, Korea disputed Japan’s control of Tsushima, but then relinquished their claim. It is true that over the centuries the people of Tsushima had adopted a number of customs and a few words from Korea. However, their language had always been Japanese. Their lords had received seals and investiture from the Korean court it’s true, but if that constitutes a claim to the island, then by that logic Korea should belong to China.

Though Tsushima always played both sides to their advantage, they seemed to favor Japan a bit more. If nothing else, the history of Tsushima and its lords attests to the ambiguous nature of national identity in pre-modern East Asia.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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  • Beasley, W. G.. The Japanese Experience, a Short History of Japan. Berkeley: University of California, 1999.
  • Berry, Mary Elizabeth. Hideyoshi. Cambridge: Harvard University, 1982.
  • Cobbing, Andrew.  Kyushu: Gateway to Japan.  Kent: Global Oriental Ltd, 2009.
  • Ed. Hall, John Whitney. The Cambridge History of Japan. Vol 4. Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1991.
  • Ed. Joshua A. Fogel. Sagacious Monks and Bloodthirsty Warriors; Chinese Views of Japan in the Ming-Qing Period. (Norwalk: Eastbridge, 2002),
  • Hawley, Samuel. The Imjin War. Berkeley: University of California, 2005.
  • Ed. Lee, Peter H.. Sourcebook of Korean Tradition, Vol I. New York: Columbia University, 1993.
  • 佐伯弘次。対馬と海峡の中世史。「東京:山川出版社、2008年」“Saeki, Koji. The Medieval History of Tsushima and the Straits. Tokyo: Yamakawa Shuppansha, 2008.”
  • So, Kwan-wai . Japanese Piracy in Ming China During the 16th Century. Michigan State University, 1975.
  • Swope, Kenneth M.. A Dragon’s Head and a Serpent’s Tail; Ming China and the First Great East Asian War, 1592-1598. Norman: University of Oklahoma, 2009.
  • Swope, Kenneth M.. “Crouching Tigers, Secret Weapons: Military Technology Employed During the Sino-Japanese-Korean War, 1592-1598.” The Journal of Military History, Vol. 69, No. 1 (Jan, 2005), 11-41.
  • Yu, Sŏngnyong. trns. Choi Byonghyon. The Book of Corrections, Reflections on the National Crisis during the Japanese Invasion of Korea, 1592-1598. Berkeley: Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California, 2002.
  • “Joseon Missions to Japan.”
  • “Princess Deokhye.”
  • “So Clan.”
  • “Tsushima Island.”
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JAPANESE GHOSTS!! Everything You Want to Know Explained by Zack Davisson Thu, 18 Sep 2014 16:00:30 +0000 Ghost stories have been big in Japan for about as long as there’s been Japanese literature. When they were first written down in the Heian period, at the same time as the classic Tale of Genji, there were enough to fill a 33-volume collection. When the first printing press appeared in Japan around 1600, ghost stories were among the best-sellers.

But when it comes to writing about these stories, oddly, a Westerner has dominated this arena. If you go to a Japanese bookstore and ask for a book about ghosts, they’ll hand you the work of Lafcadio Hearn, renowned as the first major interpreter of Japan to the West after it opened to the outside world in the nineteenth century, and author of books including Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things and In Ghostly Japan.

Today, a modern day Lafcadio Hearn is picking up this ghostly torch. Zack Davisson is the author, translator, and folklorist following in Hearn’s footsteps. His book, Yūrei: The Japanese Ghost, is coming out in October. Tofugu got the chance to sit down with him and discuss Japanese ghosts, translation, and working for the godfather of horror manga, Mizuki Shigeru.

Q. Your book is based on your blog, which is called Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai. Can you explain the name of the blog?


Actually, both the blog and the book are based off my Master’s thesis Yūrei: A Study across Time and Media. I did the thesis first at the University of Sheffield, then the blog, and now the book!

The name Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai comes from a parlor game that was popular in Edo period Japan. It translates somewhat poorly as “A Gathering of a Telling of 100 Tales of Kaidan”. The basic way to play was to invite a bunch of friends over, light a hundred candles in a circle, then take turns telling spooky stories. You extinguished one candle with each tale, and the room got gradually dimmer. The tension built. With the final candle, the room was plunged into total darkness. Something was said to be waiting in the dark—the game was also a summoning ritual, you see. In practice, most people wimped out before the final candle. Most games of hyakumonogatari kaidankai ended with the 99th story.

It seemed like the perfect name when I started the blog—basically I was using it as a dumping ground for stories I had translated for my Master’s, and that fit the hyakumonogatari kaidankai theme. I’ve been told numerous times I should have named the blog something else— is hard to say and hard to remember, especially if you don’t speak Japanese. At the time I didn’t give it much thought: I honestly didn’t think anyone else would be reading. Now it’s too late, and I love the name so I am sticking with it!

Q. As you describe it, there were often no plots to these ghost stories, just a description of a weird thing that happened that did not “stink of literature.” So, basically Japanese people have always liked reality TV?

Ha! That is one way of looking at it! But yeah, telling a “true” story, something that actually happened to you, was much more exciting. That’s still true. No one sits around the campfire and swaps movie synopses. You want personal encounters to really freak people out.

And the stories were often short. After I translate them, there is sometimes no more than a paragraph or two, with little plot and lots of variations on the same stories. Like just this weekend, my wife and I were in the woods and we saw a strange flash in the sky. We would tell that at a local gathering, and then the story would pass from mouth-to-mouth and game-to-game, with details getting altered, locations changed, etc… Like modern urban legends.

Q. You say in your book that it’s important to know about Japanese ghosts if you’re interested in Japanese popular culture. Why is that?


It’s an important aspect of Japanese culture and history—more important than most people realize. After all, Japan is the most haunted country on earth. Yūrei are deeply bound into the country’s customs, religion, and entertainment. There is almost no aspect of Japanese culture not touched in some way by ghosts.

Even if you just want to watch some cool horror flicks or anime, or play some games—everything makes more sense when you understand yūrei; when you know the backstory behind the movie monster costume of white kimono, white face, and black hair.

After all, imagine watching a vampire flick without knowing what a vampire was. You wouldn’t have the slightest idea why these dead people sprouted pointed teeth and bit people, or why the heroes kept stabbing wood into them. You need context.

Q. When and how did the consistent description of yūrei begin? You say in your book that it was created as recently as the Edo period, during a renaissance of spooky tales.

In Japan’s prehistory, yūrei were invisible, more like forces of nature without personification. Things changed during the Heian period and contact with China. Yūrei became indistinguishable from human beings.  They could even get married and bear children after death. You can tell stories from the Heian period because they usually have a twist ending of someone being revealed as a yūrei. Probably the most famous of this kind is Botan Dōrō, where a man takes a woman to bed, and finds out later he was sleeping with a corpse.

Then came the Warring States period, which didn’t produce a lot of yūrei tales—people were too busy worrying about being killed for real to bother about ghost stories and horror.  But they made up for it in the Edo period.

During the peace of the Edo period, Japan rediscovered its love for ghosts and the weird. There was a kaidan renaissance, and the first of Japan’s yokai booms where the country became obsessed with the supernatural. That classic look of the yūrei—the white kimono, white face, and black hair, comes from the Edo period kaidan renaissance. It relates directly back to a painting from1750 by the artist Maruyama Okyo, who had a vision one day of his dead love Oyuki. He painted her picture—called The Ghost of Oyuki—which became the template for yūrei that you still see today.

Q. If people have seen even one J-horror flick, they’ve seen the ghost with long hair. What the heck is the deal with the long hair?


Hair—especially woman’s hair—was always thought to possess supernatural powers. Lafcadio Hearn wrote about it in his first Japan book Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan. But Kabuki theater is really behind the craziness of hair.  Kabuki loves extravagant, wild special effects, and would do all sorts of things with hair. Stage hands would hide under the floor boards and push up hair through the bottom to make it look like yūrei characters were swimming in oceans of hair. Movies are visual, like kabuki, so they picked up that effect and ran with it.

Q. One thing I was surprised to learn from your book was the role of kabuki, where ghost stories were big, and more gore was a plus. To be honest, I always thought of kabuki as one of those tedious classical Japanese entertainments that are only of interest to specialists. But you say it was actually theater for the masses. Tell us a little about ghosts in kabuki.


Oh yeah, Kabuki was completely lowbrow mass entertainment.  During the Edo period, kabuki would have been the equivalent of Saw and Friday the 13th slasher flicks, full of blood and guts and cheap thrills. Kabuki also took those snippets of tales from hyakumonogatari kaidankai and sewed them together into legitimate stories. Kabuki writers introduced plot lines and structure and relationships. But it was always with an eye for thrills. The plays kept getting gorier and gorier until eventually the government had to step in and establish some limits.

It’s weird how that works. In his time, Shakespeare was lowbrow mass entertainment too. The theater was a place for laborers to let off some steam. Now both kabuki and Shakespeare are considered high art, something to be studied and mastered. It makes me wonder what people will think about slasher flicks five hundred years from now. Will we have Jason scholars debating the finer points of the Friday the 13th franchise?

Q. In your book you mention one significant difference between Japanese and western ghost lore: In the west it takes a lot to become a ghost – you need a really good reason to haunt. But in Japan, it’s harder to cross over into death, so even just forgetting to feed the cat is enough. Why?

Well, forgetting to feed the cat might have been artistic license on my part, but the rest is true. Humans aren’t born easily; we need some assistance coming into the world. In Japan, they believe you equally need some assistance getting out. Dying is not easy.

This belief has manifested in several different ways across Japanese history. From the Heian to the Edo periods, it sometimes involved professional “death midwives” called zenchishiki that helped people pass over to death. The belief was that whatever was your last thought at your moment of death, that is what you would become.  So the zenchishiki tried to get people to concentrate on Buddha, and to free their minds of attachments to life. In modern Japan, the belief involves a complicated funeral system of ritual and death anniversaries that can last up to a hundred years before a soul is well and truly settled in the afterlife.

Ritual plays a huge part in things. Anytime there is a series of mass deaths someone will perform a ritual to help ease their passage. At the end of WWII, Nambara Shigeru led The Ceremony to Console the Souls of the Battle Dead and Those Who Died at their Posts in an attempt to pacify the souls of those who died during the war. He was worried that, with Japan’s surrender, the yūrei would feel angry that they had died for nothing.

Q. This book is definitely not all about old fairy tales. You say the dead are very powerful in Japan – and very present, even now. Talk a little about the present effects of these beliefs, which might be seen when visiting Japan or in the popular culture, but are easy to miss.


This was right in my face when I landed in Japan. I arrived right when the country was gearing up for Obon—the Festival of the Dead. That is one of Japan’s most important holidays, with many people taking the entire week off to care for the dead. They go to family gravesites and wash them, they set out food and light candles for the dead so they can find their way home.  It’s something completely confusing if you don’t understand Japan’s relationship with yūrei.

Aside from the big production of Obon, the dead are present in a million little ways. Many homes have a butsudan in the living room, where the recently dead are said to reside. If you see the little Jizo statues all over the place those are usually prayers for dead children. Houses and apartments that are known to be haunted must be officially listed as such. And yūrei who have not been properly tended to is a constant worry. After the 2011 tsunami, you heard all sorts of stories of yūrei. Buddhist priests in the area set up little pop-up exorcism huts to pacify the souls of those killed. It is taken very seriously.

The deeper you get into Japanese culture, the more powerful and personal the connection to yūrei becomes. As an example, when I became serious about my girlfriend in Japan (now my wife), she said I would have to make a formal presentation to her father, and ask for permission to marry her. It didn’t matter that her father was long dead. I paid a formal visit to his grave to express my intentions about his daughter, and asked his blessing.

Q. I have a few questions about details of language, since we are into that here at Tofugu -

Ohhh … that’s going to be tricky! But I’ll do my best!

Q.  Obake or yūrei?

This is the tough one. Basically, obake means changing thing and yūrei translates as dim spirit. But that doesn’t really tell you anything. Over the years the nuances of the words have changed, and ask a hundred people and you’ll get a hundred answers about what constitutes an obake and what is a yūrei. For example, in the Meiji period, folklorist Yanagita Kunio said that obake haunt places, while yūrei haunt people. Other folklorists say that obake is more synonymous with yokai and can mean monsters and other phenomenon, while yūrei are specifically the souls of dead humans.

In practice, most Japanese people don’t split hairs over definitions. Freak them out with a ghost, and they are just as likely to shout “obake!” as “yūrei!” Either word does the trick.

Q. Kaidan?


This is my favorite, and a famously tricky word to translate. The most literal possible interpretation of kaidan would be something like “a discussion or passing down of tales of the weird, strange or mysterious”. Personally, I prefer to either use the word as it stands, kaidan, or if I must put it into English I take a page from Irish author Sheridan Le Fanu who called his stories of the supernatural and sublime “weird tales”.

“Weird Tales” invokes both the nostalgia and the nuance of the type of story a reader can expect from kaidan.

Q. The stories in your book often end with “So they say.” Is that just a kaidan thing or a general folktale ending?

That is specific to the 12th century book Konjaku Monogatarishū, which was one of the first important collections of kaidan storytelling. Basically it was a little tagline at the end of each story assuring the reader that it was a true tale, and not something made up.

People translate it in various ways, like “So I heard it said, and so I am relating it to you.”  I prefer the simpler “So they say” version, which makes a nice little punctuation to the story.

Q. Last question about the book: Is it appearing in Japanese? I’d like to think that from now on the booksellers will now be recommending both Lafcadio Hearn and you.


That would be cool! I honestly don’t know about translating the book into other languages. It really depends on how successful the English version is first. And I would love someone to recommend my book and Hearn’s the same breath. I deeply admire Lafcadio Hearn, and am a dedicated fan of his work!

Q. Okay, enough with the ghosts, let’s talk about you: How did you get interested in Japan and in yūrei?

My Japan interest started when I was a little kid—I think about 9 years old—and my mother took me to see Akira Kurosawa’s flick Seven Samurai at the local art theater. I thought it was the most amazing thing I had ever seen. It’s a little embarrassing, but in my 4th grade class photo I’m wearing a shirt that says “Japan” written in kanji. That was in 1981, I think.

My interest in yūrei comes from the same time. I’ve always loved the supernatural and fairy tales. My mother bought me this book series from TimeLife called Enchanted Worlds that was all about world folklore and monsters. The book on ghosts had a story called “The Wife’s Revenge” which was the story of Oiwa from Yotsuya Kaidan.

It wasn’t until I moved to Japan that my yūrei interest became full-blown. The more I learned, the more I wanted to know.

Q. You’re translating Mizuki Shigeru’s huge Showa: A History of Japan, published by Drawn and Quarterly, two of which have appeared and the next one is coming out in November. How did this project come about?


There’s actually four volumes in the series. The last volume, Showa 1953-1989: A History of Japan, is scheduled to come out April 2015.

And I don’t know the details about how the project came about, other than how I got involved. I LOVE Mizuki Shigeru’s comics. My wife introduced me to them in Japan, and I quickly became his number one fan and English-language apostle. I had been trying for years to do English translations of his comics. I contacted several publishers, but most either thought Mizuki was too weird for an American audience, or they were interested but couldn’t get the rights.

When I saw Drawn & Quarterly had the license to his works, I basically just wrote them a letter talking about my passion for Mizuki’s work and how much I wanted to translate his comics. I offered to do a test translation to prove I was up for it, and they agreed to that and then hired me based on that.

Q. I’m curious why, of all his work, they chose to publish this – especially because, to be honest, I skip all the battle scenes looking for the next appearance of Nezumi Otoko, which is the sort of stuff he is more known for.

Again, I don’t honestly know. I can guess. Partly, I imagine it is because of the lack of familiarity with Mizuki’s work in the US.  Inside of Japan he is a god—he is Walt Disney-level famous, better known even than Hayao Miyazaki. Internationally, he is incredibly famous as well. His complete works have been translated into Spanish, French, Italian, German, and most of the Asian languages. But in English .. nothing. Even people obsessed with Japanese culture have this dead spot where Mizuki is concerned.

So I think from that standpoint his WWII comics, like Onwards Towards Our Noble Deaths and Showa: A History of Japan, were safer bets. Comics about WWII have a built in recognition factor, especially when you have the human element where they are created by someone who actually fought in the war.

After all, it is much easier to pitch “Comic book autobiography about WWII by a Japanese soldier who fought in the South Pacific and lost his arm” than “Weird stories about Japanese monsters you have never heard of written and drawn by some old dude you have never heard of.”

At the time I thought it was a strange way to go, but now I see it was for the best. Onward to Our Noble Deaths raised Mizuki’s profile in the West and opened the doors for his other works.

Also, Mizuki is actively involved in what books he allows to be translated or not. He cares very much about his reputation as a scholar and an artist, and wants to be sure that a variety of his work is being showcased. He doesn’t want people to just cherry pick the fun stuff and overlook the things that he is really proud of, the things that might be a little more difficult to grasp.

Personally, I would love to translate his adaptation of Tono Monogatari. That is one of his most brilliant works. And his adaptation of Lovecraft’s The Dunwich Horror, which would just be a hell of a lot of fun. But while I can make suggestions, it isn’t really my call.

Q. You also contributed the yokai glossary to the translation of Kitaro that Drawn and Quarterly published, and I understand you also did some editing and made some important contributions regarding the yokai names and sound effects?


Yep. Kitaro was already translated by the time I came on board, but I did some pick-up work, mainly the sound effects and such. Those are actually some of the most difficult things to translate. Japanese and English useonomatopoeia very differently, and there is no easy way to switch one for the other. Fortunately, I have a lifetime background in reading American comics so I have a mental library that I can pull from. The best part was coming up with the monster’s roar. I wanted something distinctive, so I wrote out a bunch of monster roars to see which one looked the best.

And I did have a hand in the names. The translation gave the yokai English names, so things like “Rat Man” instead of Nezumi Otoko, and “Sand-Throwing Hag” instead of “Sunakake Baba.” I was adamant that the yokai names should be kept in Japanese. I used the argument that no one calls Pikachu “Flash Mouse.” Even small kids deal with Japanese names just fine.

In the end that’s how the Yokai Glossary came about. I won my argument, and wrote up the glossary at the end to explain all the different monsters. That piece of Kitaro isn’t a translation, it’s all me. And it was SO fun to do!

Q. Of course the big crucial question about Kitaro: Do you know if there is going to be more? Or more of his other work that isn’t war related? D&Q also published his Onward Toward Our Noble Deaths – they seem to be obsessed with war stories. I want to see yokai!

The next book up is Hitler, so more war stories. And give the war stories a chance! They are actually very cool! I learned a lot translating Showa: A History of Japan—it’s important history that shouldn’t be forgotten. I’ll never forget what my wife said when she was reading it while I was working on it: “I finally understand why China hates Japan … “

But after Hitler … I can’t really spill the beans yet, but I will say that sometimes we all get exactly what we wanted. Look forward to that.

Q. Probably your most unexpected translation project: Mizuki is actually on Twitter and you translate some of his tweets. How did this get started? Have you ever communicated with him directly?


I just do that for fun—it isn’t an official thing. I think Mizuki is such a fascinating individual, so I like to share him with the English-speaking world. His twitter account is great. It’s almost entirely about what Mizuki is eating. Here you have one of the most famous and respected men in the entire country, and he shares Twitter pics of himself stuffing his face with a McDonald’s hamburger. How could you not want to share that?

And I have met Mizuki only once, at the World Yokai Conference in Kyoto. And that was very brief. No one really speaks to him directly, you usually go through his son, or with a contact at Mizuki Productions. I wrote him a letter when I started work on Showa about how honored I was to be translating his work. He didn’t answer, but I didn’t expect him to. He is 92 years old, after all!

Q. What else are you working on that our readers would be excited about?

Oh, lots! I just finished translating two comics by Satoshi Kon for Dark Horse, OPUS and Seraphim, which he worked on with Mamoru Oshii. Then the comic Wayward just came out from Image, which has met with a phenomenal response. I’m seriously blown away by how excited everyone is. I work on Wayward with Jim Zub, Steve Cummings, John Rauch, and Marshall Dillon, writing back-up essays for Wayward and doing in-depth Yokai Files for the monsters. If you are looking for yokai, that’s something you can’t miss. The pitch is “Buffy the Vampire Slayer in Japan” but that’s just the surface.

Then I have Hitler to get started on, and after that a few more secret things I can’t talk about yet, both in comics and books. I have a Lafcadio Hearn project I am working on, and something cool with an artist friend that we have been rolling around together. And maybe something with monster cats. But we’ll see.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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The Island Inbetween: Tsushima and the Sō Family Mon, 15 Sep 2014 16:00:55 +0000 You may have never heard of the island of Tsushima, but for hundreds of years it was the door between Japan and Korea. Tsushima’s location was ideal for international trade, situated roughly fifty kilometers from the Korean peninsula and one-hundred and forty-seven kilometers from the Kyushu port of Hakata (today’s Fukuoka). For over four centuries, that trade was controlled by the ruling samurai family of Tsushima, the 宗.


Beginning in 1392, the Sō acted as intermediaries between the Korean court and Japan’s Ashikaga shogunate. In much the same way that Japan at some times in history sent missions to China, exchanging gifts and engaging in trade, so too did the Sō send missions to Korea. From the Korean point of view this made Tsushima a tributary of their court, just as Korea was a tributary of China. Whether or not the Sō viewed the relationship in that way is unclear, but they were at least content to let Korea continue to think so. Typical items imported from Korea included skins, ginseng, honey, and cotton cloth.

Pirates and Peace


During the feudal period piracy was a problem. Though many pirates that plagued Korea and China did not come from Japan, some did, and they were called wakō 倭寇 (“Japanese pirates”) by their victims. In 1419, Korea sent a force of 17,285 men to Tsushima to eliminate a pirate base there. The Sō convinced them to leave when their mission was over, and restored relations with Korea. From that time, Korea left the responsibility for controlling such piracy in the hands of the Japanese. The Koreans also realized that while protocol might force them to deal with the Ashikaga shogunate, the piracy problem was better directed to the Sō. This is indicative of just how little authority the Ashikaga had left. By 1467 Japan had fallen into samurai civil war that would last for a century.


The Koreans managed to reduce piracy by legitimizing trade with not only the Sō and other Japanese daimyo, but with pirate leaders as well. In fact, the line between larger pirate fleets and those of lords was often quite blurred. On the Chinese tributary model, the Koreans endowed these leaders with titles and copper seals, and made trade agreements. The Sō benefited greatly from this system, becoming the channel through which all official Korean-Japanese trade passed. All ships on their way to Korea were required to stop at checkpoints on Tsushima, and any ship caught without the proper paperwork from the Sō were considered pirates. The Sō themselves were usually allowed to send fifty ships per year, received a large stipend from the Korean court, and were able to levy duties and fees on the ships and goods that came through Tsushima’s ports. This went on uninhibited until the 1580s when the unifier and leader of Japan, Toyotomi Hideyoshi (c. 1536-1598) planned to invade the mainland. It’s easy to see why the Sō were unhappy with this.

Sō Much for Diplomacy


The reasoning behind Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s decision to invade the mainland remains unclear. His ultimate goal was China, but the “easiest” way to China was through Korea. To begin with, Hideyoshi tried a diplomatic approach, hoping that Korea would join him in his conquest of China. However, Hideyoshi’s attempts were not particularly tactful, beginning with a letter sent in 1587 requiring Korea’s submission and the dispatch of a “tribute mission” to Japan. This message was sent via Tsushima daimyo, Sō Yoshishige (1532-1588), who softened the tone of the message as much as possible into a request for a “goodwill mission.” Knowing that the message was still likely to incense the Koreans and wishing to distance his family from it, Yoshihige did not deliver the message personally.

Instead, it was delivered by a retainer of the Sō, Yutani Yasuhiro, whose diplomatic skills were lacking. As he made his way up the Korean peninsula to the court in Seoul Yasuhiro loudly demanded the best room in every inn. Furthermore, when some men assembled with their spears along the roadside, a long-standing custom meant to display Korea’s military power, Yasuhiro laughed at the shortness of their weapons. Finally, while dining at Sangju, “Yasuhiro commented on his host’s gray hair, wondering why a man who had never seen battle, but whiled away the hours with music and dancing girls, would ever turn gray.”

Needless to say, the mission was a complete diplomatic failure. Hideyoshi was so angered that he ordered the execution of Yasuhiro and his family. Unfortunately, Sō Yoshishige was also unable to escape Hideyoshi’s wrath. He was relieved of his position as lord of Tsushima, which was then bestowed upon his adopted son, Sō Yoshitoshi (1568-1615). Yoshitoshi was also the son-in-law of one of Hideyoshi’s top generals, and thus deemed more trustworthy.

A Fresh Approach


Sō Yoshitoshi was only twenty when he was sent to deliver a letter from Hideyoshi to the Korean court and request that they send envoys to Japan. He was described by Yu Sŏngnyong (1542-1607), Korean prime minister, as “young, sharp, and ruthless.” Because of this “the Japanese who accompanied him were very afraid of him.” The Koreans requested the extradition of some of their countrymen who had traitorously helped pirates before fleeing the country and getting captured by the Japanese. Yoshitoshi did not object, and had a dozen captives delivered. The king was pleased with this response, and rewarded Yoshitoshi with a horse from the royal stables and a large banquet, and eventually envoys left with Yoshitoshi in April of 1590.

Before departing, Yoshitoshi presented the Korean court with the parting gifts of two peacocks, a spear, a sword, and the first musket to come into Korean possession. Why the Koreans chose not to attempt to replicate the musket was unclear. It was unfortunate; as such firearms would come to be vital assets to the Japanese forces during the war to come. As Yoshitoshi and the Korean envoys made their way to Hideyoshi’s court they stopped at Tsushima, Yoshitoshi’s home.


Yoshitoshi insulted his guests by arriving late to a banquet, and by riding his palanquin all the way to the steps of the hall, rather than getting out at the gate. Yoshitoshi apologized by decapitating his palanquin bearers and presenting their heads to his guests. It was unclear whether Yoshitoshi committed this faux pas intentionally or accidentally. Most likely this was a cultural difference and Yoshitoshi had unknowingly made a mistake. Whatever the cause of the incident, Yoshitoshi was quick to rectify it. The episode shows how seriously Yoshitoshi took his family’s relations with the Korean court. He was probably even more careful considering that he was bringing the envoys to Hideyoshi, himself a man not above ordering the execution of those who failed him.

The Final Straw


Photo by soul_flow

Unfortunately, Hideyoshi was not the most diplomatic individual, and the meeting that followed reflected this. The envoys were impressed with neither the simple meal they were given, nor the lack of decorum. They were even less impressed when Hideyoshi left the room and returned carrying his infant son, who proceeded to urinate on Hideyoshi. With that unceremonious ending, the audience which the Korean envoys had crossed the straits and then waited a further five months for, concluded. They did not even receive the letter from Hideyoshi they had been sent to acquire. For this, the envoys were forced to wait for some time. When Hideyoshi’s letter did arrive, the envoys were disturbed by its content.

“My object is to enter China, to spread the customs of our country to the four hundred and more provinces of that nation, and to establish there the government of our imperial city even unto all the ages. As your country has taken the lead and visited Japan, thus displaying deference, you need have no anxiety…On the day I enter China, I shall be leading my soldiers and shall review my military headquarters; then we shall renew our alliance. My wish is nothing other than that my name be known throughout the three countries [of Japan, China, and India].”

Though the envoys wanted a revised and rewritten letter, eventually they were convinced to return to Korea with the one they had been given. At the time there were two major political factions within the Korean court, each of the two envoys belonged to a different one, and unfortunately they let their alliances dictate their reports to the court. One advised that Hideyoshi was a serious threat, the other that he was not to be feared. The latter opinion was favored, and as a result little was done to build up Korea’s defenses. King Sonjo sent a reply to Hideyoshi declining to help any invasion of China and chastising him for such a reckless plan.
Sō Yoshitoshi tried three more times to convince Korea to allow the Japanese passage to China, but was unsuccessful. Soon the invasion of Korea was underway.

Next time! Invasion, reconciliation, peace, and an end to the role of the Sō as gatekeepers.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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The Cicadas’ Song: Japan’s Summer Soundtrack Fri, 12 Sep 2014 16:00:54 +0000

Japan’s summers ring in to an annual soundtrack.  The melody rides the humid summer breeze from the mountains, down through the forests and along the rivers and roads.  Although the musicians prefer the trees, their performance is nearly inescapable.  And it’s long. The symphony starts slow in the spring and builds to a crescendo midsummer before fading into autumn.

The best way to soak in the concert is sprawled out, uchiwa in one hand and a cold beverage in the other.  A stroll through a park or wooded area is another great way to listen, but the sound can be enjoyed (or loathed) almost anywhere.  In fact, I’m discovering that it goes surprisingly well with writing – I’m being serenaded right now, as I type this article.

The song is so synonymous with summer in Japan, hearing it on a TV program instantly reveals the story’s season.  If you’ve experienced summer in Japan you know what I’m talking about – semi (蝉) or cicadas.

It’s a Hard-Knock Lifecycle


Photo by Pengo

If you’re from the United States you might be wondering, “How can cicadas symbolize summer in Japan?  Don’t they come around every seventeen years or so?”  And that’s true – some species of cicada spend seventeen years underground as nymphs.  The cicada of these seventeen year broods, or birth groups, are common in the US and surface together in population explosions over limited areas.

But with over one hundred cicada species worldwide, gestation periods vary.  Some, like many Japanese species, take as little as a year to emerge from the soil.

Whether it’s one year or seventeen, cicadas spend the majority of their lives underground.  What do they do there?  I always assumed they hibernated, but it’s quite the opposite.  Once cicada nymphs emerge from their eggs, they stay busy, digging and feasting on tree roots, sap, and xylem.  And cicada nymphs must eat well while underground because their time on the surface is limited.  Adult cicadas only live for a few weeks, forcing them to focus on adult pursuits – like cicada love-making.

The Cicada’s Song


Photo by Toshihiro Gamo Soundbite by Σ64

Japan’s summer soundtrack is actually an insect love song – the cicada booty call.  Adult cicadas can’t waste a moment searching for mates, hence their deafening cries for attention.  And it is loud. Cicadas can reach over 100 decibels or as Clint Rainey of New York Magazine explains, “the decibel levels of a jackhammer.” 

How can such small insects produce such an extraordinary sound?   John Marris explains,

“Male cicadas use their tymbals to produce sound. These are ribbed membranes on each side of the base of the abdomen. Each tymbal is attached by a tendon to a powerful muscle. As the muscle contracts it buckles the shape of the tymbal, much as when the domed lid of a jar is first unsealed, causing a burst of sound called a pulse. When the muscle is relaxed the tymbal pops back into shape. Rapid and repeated muscle contraction produces the distinctive cicada call.”

After successfully mating a female will lay her eggs into the bark of a tree.  The eggs hatch and the nymphs burrow underground where they feed.  Depending on the gestation period, the nymphs emerge from the ground when they are ready to molt – leaving behind hard brown shells when they emerge as adult cicada.

Cloudy With a Chance of Cicada


Photo by Greg5030

Why do cicada gestation periods vary?  In a survival strategy known as predator satiation, cicada population booms guarantee enough members of the species survive to mate.  Julie Geiser of elaborates:

“By emerging in great numbers over a short period of time, the cicada population succeeds by overwhelming predators with its numbers — ensuring that there is a breeding population to carry on the circle of cicada life.”

And when it comes to defenses, sheer numbers represents the cicadas greatest weapon.  Other than camouflage, cicadas have no other defense – they can’t bite or sting.  Carl Zimmer of the New York Times writes:

“This strategy (predator satiation) has worked so well, that cicadas have lost their other defenses. They even fly sluggishly.  When errant cicadas emerge in the wrong year, they are quickly eradicated by birds — along with their errant genes.”

While cicada booms vary by region in the United States, the insects overwhelm Japan every summer, satisfying predators like birds, dogs, and human children while successfully breeding to guarantee the next generation.

Getting To Know Your Cicada


Numerous species of cicada call Japan home, each with its own distinctive size, colors, and song.  Cicada education starts during childhood, when catching the insect is a popular summer activity.   As a result, many Japanese people can identify a species by song alone.


Photo by KENPEI

Kuma-zemi:  (song: shaa, shaa)  One of the larger species is appropriately named kuma-zemi or bear-cicada.  Although its body is mostly black, it’s most distinguishing feature is the bright green tint of the colored parts of its wings.


Photo by Σ64

Abura-zemi:  (song: jii, jiri, jiri)  Unlike the clear wings of most cicadas, abura-zemi are noted for their camouflage wings.


Photo by Alpsdake

Higurashi:  (song: kana, kana, kana)  A medium sized cicada, Higurashi has a black, brown and green back with a mostly brown abdomen.


Photo by Takahashi

Tsukutsukuboushi:  (song: oushii, tsuku ,tsuku)  One of the smaller cicada species in Japan (but longer named), tsukutsukuboushi has a golden head and dark body.


Photo by  Rotatebot

Minmin-zemi:  (song: miin, minminmin)  A cicada of the midrange variety, minmin-zemi have fat, short black bodies with bright green tribal tattoo-like designs on their backs.


Photo by Namazu-tron

Niinii-zemi:  (song: chii, chii)  One of the smaller cicada, the niinii-zemi can be identified by its light color, and its black and white, sometimes spotted looking wings.

Did You Thank a Cicada Today?


Thanks to an unfortunate case of mistaken identity, cicadas have earned a bad rap in the United States.  Perhaps it’s due to their explosive birth numbers, but cicadas are often confused with locusts.  And that’s bad news for the cicada as locusts are synonymous with death and destruction.  Perhaps it all stems back to the Bible which warns of swarming, creepinggnawing locusts devouring crops and bringing starvation.

Penn State Department of Entomology writes:

“Early American colonists had never seen periodical cicadas. They were familiar with the biblical story of locust plagues in Egypt and Palestine, but were not sure what kind of insect was being described. When the cicadas appeared by the millions, some of these early colonists thought a ‘locust plague’ had come upon them. Some American Indians thought their periodic appearance had an evil significance. The confusion between cicadas and locusts exists today.”

But cicadas are not locusts or grasshoppers.  And even the largest cicada brood seems to cause a negligible amount of damage. “Periodical cicada nymphs feed underground on tree roots,” says Debbie Hadley of, “but will not cause significant damage to your landscape trees.

Penn State’s Entomology Department found some damaging effects, but they seem inconsequential.  Penn State writes, “The most obvious damage is done during the egg-laying process. The slits made by the female in small branches severely weaken them; often the weakened branches snap off in the wind…  Feeding by hundreds or even thousands of these insects on a tree root system for 17 years probably affects the tree productivity, although this has never been fully documented.”

Cicada may actually benefit trees, forming a symbiotic relationship.  Burrowing cicada nymphs aerate the ground and help water soak into the roots.  In The Bizarre Life Cycle of a Cicada, Greg Roza explains how dead cicadas break down providing nutrients directly to to roots.  Centuries of cicada and tree coexistence should calm any worries over the “probable effects on tree productivity.”

Cicadas’ most menacing features are their appearance and noise – which population booms only serve to exacerbate. But unlike in the United States where cicada have earned a bad reputation, Japan takes the insect’s annual arrival in stride, earning cicadas a special place in Japanese culture.

Cultural Significance


Cicadas bear deep meaning and a rich cultural history in Japan where they symbolize reincarnation and the cycles of nature.  Avi Landau of the Tsuku Blog explains, “Along with the cherry blossom, these creatures, who spend but a few above-ground days living their lives at full throttle before quickly falling away, represent that most quintessential Japanese concept, Mujo (無常), the passing nature of all things.”

Long before the cicada’s summer song became a mainstay in anime, drama, and movies, it frequented the written arts.  Avi Landau continues, “Japan’s greatest poets have used these fast-living, short (above-ground)-lived summer icons to evoke the season, as well as sadness or loneliness.”

Oishi no Minomaro’s poem invokes what summer in Nara, Japan’s former capital, must have sounded like in the summer.

Listening to the cicadas’ voices
roaring like a rock-rushing waterfall
I’m compelled to think of the Capital.

Another, by Baijaku, describes power of the cicadas’ symphony and makes Clint Rainey’s jackhammer comparison feel like an understatement.

All shrilling together,
the multitudinous semi make,
with their ceaseless clamor,
even the mountain move.

Who knew the cicada’s song could invoke summer imagery even before the advent of sound recording technology?

Here’s a poem by Matsuo Basho that evokes a feeling of sadness to the fleetingness of life.

A cicada shell;
it sang itself
utterly away.

This one, by Yayuu has a tinge of irony.

Methinks that semi sits and sings
by his former body,

chanting the funeral service
over his own dead self.

Our noisy friend even appears in one of the world’s oldest novels.  In Murasaki Shikibu’s novel The Tale of Genji, the main character composes a poem comparing his love-interest’s cast off robe to a cicada shell while evoking some lonely, sad feelings of his own,

Where the cicada casts her shell
In the shadows of the tree,
There is one whom I love well,
Though her heart is cold to me.

The sheer number of cicada references in ancient Japanese literature illustrates the insect’s deep rooted importance to Japanese culture that continues today.

Enjoying Cicada Today


Photo by Jeff Kubina

For many children (and some adults, including your child-at-heart author) cicada hunting is a popular way to pass the long summer days.  As a result, many Japanese children become cicada experts, learning to differentiate species by sight or sound.  School guide books make the knowledge commonplace and further solidify the cicada’s longstanding role in Japanese culture.

But children aren’t alone in enjoying the seasonal insect.  Japan is a land of minor fandoms and cicada haven’t gone unnoticed.  Most cicada enthusiasts snap photographs, take video or record cicada songs.  Just do an internet search or peruse YouTube and you’ll see for yourself – there are plenty of passionate cicada lovers out there!

A New Appreciation


Photo by Franek N

When I’m not outside catching the little buggers with my students, I enjoy taking in the cicadas’ summer symphony at sunset.  Just as the day wanes, so will this generation of cicada and the summer they inhabit.   Their waning songs mean shorter days and cold weather are not far behind.  As the trees grow dark and bear, the cicadas and their shells fade away and I find myself looking forward to the songs of next summer, glad I don’t have to wait seventeen years to hear it again.

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Tracing the History of Japan’s Mythical Lion Dogs Thu, 11 Sep 2014 16:00:46 +0000 If you’ve ever been to a shrine in Japan, odds are you’ve seen a pair of dog-like lions flanking the entrance. If you’ve been to Okinawa you’ve seen them just about everywhere. In fact you can see some variation on these creatures in China, Korea, Myanmar, Tibet, and other East Asian countries, or even at Chinese restaurants in the West. They are variously known in English as lions, dogs, lion dogs, Fu dogs or Foo dogs. In Japan they are called koma-inu, and in Okinawa they are shīsā. All these different names beg the question, “What exactly are they?”

Canine or Feline?


Photo by jpellgen

I’ll refrain from thrashing about the shrubbery and say right away that these animals are in fact lions. How then, did they come to be called dogs by some? We’ll come to that momentarily, but first we must look to India. There are also ancient lion statues in Middle Eastern countries, but India is the surest place to begin the lion statues’ path to Japan, for it seems to have moved along with the Buddhist faith.


Photo by Yann

Lions appeared in Indian temple art and, as early as the third century, showed up in Chinese Buddhist art. In those times, the lion was a symbolic protector of the dharma (the teachings of Buddha). “If it’s good enough for Buddha, it’s good enough for the emperor,” may have been the line of thought, for, over time, they also became protectors of imperial gates.

Here the history seems to become a bit unclear. The Chinese word for lion (statues included) is shi 獅 or shishi 獅子, but there was another creature that appeared in China at around the same time called the xiezhi 獬豸. At some point between the third and seventh centuries, paired stone xiezhi also made their way to Korea, where the name was pronounced haetae or haechi. The haechi appears very lion-like, but often has a scaly body, a small horn on its head, and sometimes small wings.


By the Nara period (710-794), lion guardians had come to Japan as well. I found nothing to indicate whether the original source of their introduction was China or Korea. Early on, they were usually made of wood and only used indoors. In the ninth century, a change occurred, and the pair came to consist of one open-mouthed lion (shishi 獅子) and one close-mouthed, horn-bearing, dog-like koma-inu狛犬. The name koma-inu itself means “Korean dog.” Given the name and its horn, it would seem that the koma-inu, at least, came from the Korean haechi. By the fourteenth century the horn disappeared, and both animals of the pair came to be known as koma-inu. At the same time, people started making them in stone and using them outdoors.


Photo by 663highland

Again, the history seems to be vague, and I found no sources to solidly confirm how koma-inu came to be ubiquitous at shrine entrances. This is only me theorizing, but I think it likely that lion guardians may have initially been associated with Buddhist temples. I say this because of the lions’ Buddhist associations in China, and the early Korean influences on Japanese lions (Buddhism having been introduced to Japan from Korea in 552 CE). If this was the case, the shift from temples to shrines could be explained by the fact that they often shared grounds and, in trying to spread the faith, Buddhists often drew parallels between characters and symbols of their religion and those found in Japan’s native beliefs.

You may be wondering if anyone in pre-modern Japan had ever seen a real lion. It’s a long way from the savannah, but there are Asiatic lions as well. Although their range is quite small today, prior to the nineteenth century they could be found throughout Persia, Palestine, Mesopotamia, and much of India. Captive lions were also known in China. I was unable to find any sources confirming or denying the presence of captive lions in Japan. However, during the Tokugawa periods, exotic animals were sometimes featured as part of festivals, so there is a possibility. Still, I think it’s safe to say that the vast, vast majority of Japanese people had never seen a real lion prior to the modern age.

Open Wide and Say あ


When seen in pairs, both in Japan and Okinawa, one lion usually has its mouth open while the other’s is shut. It’s no coincidence, but rather Buddhist symbolism. The open mouth is meant to be forming the sound “a” あ, while the closed mouth is forming the sound “un” うん. Combined, they form the word a-un, the Japanese rendition of the Indian word om ॐ. Originating in Hinduism and adopted by Buddhism, om’s meaning seems somewhat vague at times, but is sometimes described as the name of God or the sound of the vibration of the universe. At least in Japan, “a” and “un” are also symbolic of beginnings and endings, in the same way that Western countries use alpha and omega.  It’s also sometimes said that the open-mouthed animal is male, while the other is female.

Popular Protector


Photo by Shigeru-a24

In Japan lion statues are a fixture on shrine grounds, but seldom seen elsewhere. On the other hand, anyone who has been to Okinawa will know you can’t swing a cat without hitting a lion, though you probably wouldn’t want to do that. I’m sure the cat wouldn’t appreciate it, and the lion might take offense at your mistreatment of his cousin. That said, lion statues are omnipresent in Okinawa.

In Okinawa lion statues are known as shīsā, meaning lion. They are made of a variety of materials, though the signature regional choice is red clay. They can be found not only at areas of special spiritual significance, but on the roofs or at the entrances of homes and businesses. It’s also easy to acquire your own shīsā, as statues of all sizes are nearly ubiquitous among souvenir shops.

Living Legend


Is it a bird? A plane? No . . . It’s Shisa-man! They may not be faster than a speeding bullet, in fact they’re usually quite stationary, but a shīsā’s powers are nothing to be trifled with. Here are two legends of shīsā heroism:

A Chinese envoy brought a gift for the king, a necklace decorated with a figurine of a shisa. Meanwhile, at Naha bay, the village of Madanbashi was being terrorized by a sea dragon that ate the villagers and destroyed their property. One day, the king was visiting the village, when suddenly the dragon attacked. All the people ran and hid. The local priestess had been told in a dream to instruct the king when he visited to stand on the beach and lift up his figurine towards the dragon; she sent a boy to tell him. The king faced the monster with the figurine held high, and immediately a giant roar sounded throughout the village, a roar so deep and powerful that it even shook the dragon. A massive boulder then fell from heaven and crushed the dragon’s tail. He couldn’t move, and eventually died.

At Tomimori Village in the far southern part of Okinawa, there were often many fires. The people of the area sought out a Feng Shui master, to ask him why there were so many fires. He believed they were because of the power of the nearby Mt. Yaese, and suggested that the townspeople build a stone shisa to face the mountain. They did so, and thus have protected their village from fire ever since.

Clashing Kaiju


Shīsā also feature in some much more modern stories. King Shīsāキングシーサー, a giant monster based on a shīsā, first appeared in Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla in 1974, and again in 2004’s Godzilla: Final Wars. In the English dub his name was changed to King Caesar, which seems a bit redundant. In his first appearance, King Shīsā was a benevolent protector of humanity, but had been sleeping inside a mountain in Okinawa for a long time. When Godzilla alone cannot defeat his robotic doppleganger, the human heroes of the film awaken the ancient King Shīsā with a very non-ancient sounding song. Then King Shīsā and Godzilla team up to pound Mechagodzilla. In Godzilla: Final Wars, King Shīsā fights against Godzilla, but since he was being controlled by aliens we won’t hold it against him.  In these movies, King Shīsā favors close combat, although he does have the ability to redirect an opponent’s energy attacks.

King of the Beasts


Photo by Wall Gobetz

Though a lot of their past remains unclear, guardian lions are fascinating. Although there are tons of koma-inu to be seen at shrines across Japan I’m sad to say that I haven’t seen them utilized much in modern pop culture. Maybe some of you out there know of some examples of which I’m unaware. On the other hand, the Okinawan shīsā is very much a living symbol, so at least this overlooked legend has a happy home in Ryukyu.


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A Long History Of Japanese Names, Part I Wed, 10 Sep 2014 16:00:00 +0000 In modern times, there are 4 ways to write/say family names in Japanese:

  1. 氏 (shi)
  2. 姓 (sei)
  3. 名字 (myouji)
  4. 苗字 (myouji)

But why are there so many and what are the differences? In order to get the answer, you simply have to learn its history.

Actually, I wrote a very brief history of this in an earlier “names” article: The History Of How “Cow Poop” Became A Real-Life Japanese Family Name. But, considering that many Tofugu readers are very studious, I thought you might want to learn more of the details. Even to me, someone from Japan, the history was quite surprising. It’s a long history, so I hope that this won’t quench all of your daily thirst to learn.

Japanese Family Names In Ancient Times – Uji


Photo by Shig ISO

In ancient times, perhaps around the Yayoi Period (300BC-300AD), Japan had a system of clans (氏族/shizoku). Each clan was made up of people that were related to each other by blood, marriage, or a common ancestor. At that time, people used their clan names as a family name, which was called 氏 (uji). This stemmed from occupations or natural features of their region.

In this clan system, the head of the clan was called 氏の上 (Ujinokami) and he lead the main constituents of the clan called the 氏人 (Ujibito). The Ujibito ruled over a subordinate class called the 部民 (Benotami) or the 奴婢 (Nuhi).

There has been a lot of research effort put forth in finding Japan’s oldest family name and there are various opinions as to which one it is. However, definitive proof of a specific name and when it started being used is yet to be uncovered.

So, we move on.

Yamato Kingdom and Ujikabane system



During the Kofun period (AD 250 to 538), powerful clan leaders and their families (called 豪族/gouzoku) started to emerge. Small kingdoms, each ruled by a different clan, were established. One of the most powerful, the Yamato, ended up developing a union between each state following many years of warfare.

As Yamato’s sphere of influence expanded, more clans pledged themselves to the Yamato. This resulted in more people working for the Imperial Court. Since there were so many people doing imperial things hanging around, we see the increasing need for the Yamato king to distinguish the status of each clan. Not all clans were created equal, you see. Some clans, for example, supported the Yamato from early on, while others jumped on the bandwagon later. To show the difference between the clans, they created a system known as the 氏姓制度 (Ujikabane-seido/ Shisei-seido).

Under this system, the Yamato Kingdom would choose a clan name (氏/uji) for each clan, as well as a 姓 (kabane), which is understood to be an inherited aristocratic title attached to an uji name. These were given to nobles living in the capital and to the most powerful clans subordinate to the Yamato rule. Thus, the 氏姓 (Uji-kabane/Shi-sei), which combines the uji and the kabane, became the means to classify different groups in the Yamato kingdom.

As a side note, the emperor was the one who designated the Uji-Kabane for each clan, so the Emperor’s family did not require one. The Imperial family in Japan didn’t have a family name back then, and it is a custom that remains even today.

Examples Of Ancient Uji-Kabane

The three most common 姓 (kabane) were

  1. 臣 (Omi)
  2. 連 (Muraji)
  3. 伴造 (Tomonomiyatsuko)

(Just to give you an idea of how this would work, if I were given the kabane “Omi”, I would then be known as Mami Suzuki-Omi.)

臣 (omi) and 連 (muraji) were the titles given to those of the highest status. Both were reserved for the most powerful clans, but there existed a fundamental difference between omi and muraji. Omi was given to the long time supporters of the Yamato clan, such as the 葛城 (Katsuragi), 春日 (Kasuga), 蘇我 (Soga), 巨勢  (Kose), 紀 (Ki), 平群 (Heguri), 波多 (Hata), 阿部 (Abe) and 穂積 (Hozumi) clans. Muraji, on the other hand, were given to the clans associated with particular occupations, such as the 大伴 (Ootomo), 物部 (Mononobe), 中臣 (Nakatomi), 土師 (Haji), 弓削 (Yuge) and the 尾張 (Owari). The most powerful clans with 臣 (Omi) were called 大臣 (Oomi). The same holds true for muraji as well. 連 (Muraji) would become 大連 (Oomuraji), but only for the top in their class.

The step below 連 (Muraji) was 伴造 (Tomonomiyatsuko), and this kabane was given to clans that were 司 (Tsukasa), aka the administration in governmental offices. Families such as 秦 (Hata), 東漢 (Yamatonoaya), 西文 (Kawachinofumi), 服部 (Hattori), 矢集 (Yazume), 犬養 (Inukai), 舂米 (Tsukishine), or 倭文 (Shitori) are included in this list. Of these clans, the first three were 帰化氏族 (Kika-shizoku), which means clans from other countries that had been naturalized as Japanese citizens.

Some of the above 氏 (uji) are not used anymore, but some do remain as family names today. Did you recognize any? However, it is still possible to encounter someone with one that is no longer used because somebody in their family at some point decided to change their name to one of those ancient uji names. So be aware that just because they have that name doesn’t mean that they share the long family roots of that ancient family.

Transition In The Uji-Kabane System


As some of you may have already realized, there was a major defect in this system. Just think about for a moment. What if a lot more people started working for the Imperial Court and each person worked at a different position? They would need assign some marker of identification not just to each clan, but to each individual, right? In order to solve the problem, Shotoku Taishi established 冠位十二階 (Kani-Juuni-Kai), which means the twelve level cap and rank system, in 604 AD. Despite having already given a kabane to each clan, titles in the new system were given to individuals depending on their political position within the Imperial Court.

Since the new system didn’t end the Uji-kabane system, the introduction of it just further complicated matters because now they had more titles to deal with. After the Taika Reformation in 646 AD, Japan united as a nation under the Ritsuryo codes, and soon afterward the Imperial Edict “甲子の宣” (Katsushi no Sen) was issued. This edict reduced the 12 ranks down to just 3, which were 大氏 (Oouji), 小氏 (Kouji), and 伴造 (Tomonomiytatsuko). The purpose of those ranks was to clarify which clan (Uji) belonged to which rank. It was a combination of the new and old systems. It additionally decreed a ban on having multiple uji. For example, there was a person whose uji was 蘇我石川 (Soga+Ishikawa), so at this time they were forced to decide to become either 蘇我 (Soga) or 石川(Ishikawa). It may have simplified the system a little bit, but complications still persisted.

The Royals And Nobles Raise Their Heads


In the meantime, the Jinshin Revolt broke out in 672 AD following the death of Emperor Tenji who had originally designated his brother Prince Oama as his successor, only to later have second thoughts in favor of his son Prince Otomo. In the process of the violence caused by fractional rivalries, Otomo killed himself less than one year after acquiring reign. His uncle Oama then succeeded the throne as Emperor Tenmu.

Tenmu wanted to set the nobles apart from the powerful local clans, as well as organize the Uji-Kabane system, so in 684 AD he reformed the Uji-Kabane system into a system of eight 姓 (Kabane) called 八色の姓 (Yakusa-no-Kabane). At the time, he added 4 new 姓 (Kabane) , which were 真人 (Mahito) for the royals and 朝臣 (Ason/Asomi), 宿禰 (Sukune), and 忌寸 (Imiki) for the nobles. He then kept only three of the originals: 臣 (Omi), 連 (Muraji), and 稲置 (Inagi) for the local clans. As you can see, the powerful臣 (Omi) and 連 (Muraji) of the time were kicked off of their pedestal, so to speak. They found themselves demoted under this new system of royals and nobles. In 701 AD, it was even decided that those first four Kabane were to be granted certain privileges under the Taiho Code and the power of the clans became even weaker.

What About Family Names Of Common People?


While the system regarding those of higher status was being restructured, so too was the system for the common people of Yamato Kingdom. These people were known as the 部民 (Bemin). A family registration system called the 庚午年籍 (Kougonenjaku) was introduced in 670 AD followed by another family registration system called the 庚寅年籍 (Kouinnenjaku) in 690 AD. Everyone was successfully registered and clan names and ancestral titles were given to the people. In other words, the Uji-Kabane system had expanded to the general public and uji and kabane became a way to reveal one’s social standing in the hierarchy of the state.

However, it was later realized by examining the existing registration book in 702 AD, there were still many people without Uji-Kabane. The Nara period started in 710 AD, and it took 47 years for the government to finally decide to never register people without given them an Uji-Kabane. But by 757 AD all citizens were officially registered with an Uji-Kabane of their own. Hooray! Sadly, this joy was short-lived. As the clans began to devolve into individual households, family lineage and status became more important than the social status of the clan as a whole. This caused the Uji-Kabane system to gradually fade from use.

Collapse Of The Uji-Kabane System


In the 9th Century, during the Heian period, 藤原朝臣 (Fujiwara-Ason) became the strongest clan under the regency. Furthermore, some emperors started giving Uji-Kabane to family members who were leaving the Imperial family. For example, Emperor Kanmu (737-806 AD) gave them the name 平朝臣 (Taira-Ason) to some family and the Emperor Seiwa gave his family members the name 源朝臣 (Minamoto-Ason). For these reasons, the Uji-Kabane system under the Ritsuryo code started to fall apart as a system of appointing particular names to individuals with certain skills emerged. Kabane became decidedly useless, and the family registry system under the Ritsuryo Code began to fade as well.

In the 10th century, some powerful local clans even became vassals of the influential nobles and changed their names. By doing so, they brought dishonor to the original clan names and ancestral titles. This act became quite commonplace and was called 冒名仮蔭 (Boumei-kain), which means “misrepresentation of one’s clan name and ancestral title”. On top of that, specific family lineages became fixed due to their type of business or trade. This brought about the movement towards changing uji after marriage and what one’s newly acquired name would be dependent on the new family’s business. (Before then, a person’s Uji was passed on to blood relatives and marriage didn’t change that.)

At that point, the variety of clan names in Japan began to dwindle and certain names became much more common, such as 源 (Minamoto), 平 (Taira), 藤原 (Fujiwara), 橘 (Tachibana), 紀 (Ki), 菅原 (Sugawara), 大江 (Ooe), 中原 (Nakahara), 坂上 (Sakanoue), 賀茂 (Kamo), 小野 (Ono), 惟宗 (Koremune), 清原 (Kiyohara), and so on. Because of that, there was an incredible upsurge in the number of families that shared the same name, especially the powerful 藤原 Fujiwara family. This occurred so often for such a time that they soon needed yet ANOTHER NAME to distinguish one family from the next. Hence, the nobles continued using uji names and Samurai families started using new names called 名字 (Azana/Myouji). As for the kabane, it continued on merely, perhaps, because it existed before. In regards to its actual function, well, it was barely upheld as a public naming system until its demise in the beginning of the Meiji Period when the government created a law called 姓尸不称令 (seishifushourei).

Fortunately for you, the fascinating history of Japanese family names is incredibly long and continues passed this point, but unfortunately it will have to wait until the next article. Just so you know, the above names may seem to be very old, but most of those in the last paragraph are still used in Japan today, so familiarizing yourself with them might be useful. Anyways, you are all so studious that I’m sure that you will come back next week to learn more about the history of Japanese family names. Until next time! Mata ne!

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Kitsune: The Real and Fantastic Japanese Fox Tue, 09 Sep 2014 16:00:45 +0000 In every culture there are beliefs about animals that are so basic, we don’t even quite realize that they are folklore. In English we talk about the lazy pig and the wise owl, even though most of us have never met one personally, and have no way of knowing whether swine are really shiftless or owls actually have a lick of common sense. It just seems to go without saying that that’s the way they are.

But then you encounter animals in another culture and it’s not so obvious. You don’t have to be interested in Japan for very long before you stop and wonder: What’s up with all the foxes? Are they good, are they bad, why are they so important, and why are they in my udon?

The fox (kitsune) plays a role in Japanese culture that’s unusually rich and complicated. Beliefs that developed when people lived much closer to nature persist in stories, festivals, and language. Even in these rational times, the fox has a magical aura that still lingers.

Fox of the Gods


Photo by St Stev

All foxes have supernatural power. There are good and bad foxes. The Inari-fox is good, and the bad foxes are afraid of the Inari-fox. – Lafcadio Hearn, Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan, 1894

If you’ve ever been a tourist in Japan you’ve seen statues of foxes at Shinto shrines. It’s a little odd from an American perspective, where animals are not much involved in religion, except maybe those cows and camels admiring Baby Jesus in nativity scenes. Surely the Japanese don’t worship foxes?

No, not exactly, although it kind of depends on who you ask, as we’ll get to later. When you see those foxes, you’re at a shrine dedicated to the god Inari, who’s worshipped everywhere from tiny roadside shrines to major tourist destinations like the famed Fushimi Inari in Kyoto. More than a third of the recorded shrines in Japan are Inari shrines and, aside from the fox statues, the obvious symbol that indicates “Inari shrine” is red torii gates.


Entire books have been written on the varied meaning and significance of Inari, but the one thing everyone agrees on is that this god is connected to rice. Given the importance of rice in Japan, Inari is obviously a big deal. Often people pray to this god for business prosperity – perhaps, as the early Western Japanologist Lafcadio Hearn observed, because all wealth in the old days was counted in measures of rice.


OK, but what’s the fox got to do with it? The fox is associated with Inari as a symbol, a messenger, a servant, or maybe more. Whatever it is, now it’s impossible to tease the two apart, although no one’s quite sure how this connection arose – the earliest historical records of Inari worship, before the tenth or eleventh century, don’t mention anything about foxes.

The simplest explanation seems to be that rodents eat rice, foxes eat rodents, so foxes could have been seen as protectors of rice. But some of the associated beliefs have no such rational explanation. Take the fact that worshippers at an Inari shrine will commonly make an offering of abura-age, those thin slices of fried tofu with sweet soy sauce flavoring.  It’s supposedly the favorite food of foxes. That’s why udon with fried tofu topping is called kitsune udon, and fried tofu pockets stuffed with sushi rice is inari-zushi.


Photo by Jeremy Keith

Foxes are naturally carnivores, so this is pretty odd. There’s no agreed-upon explanation for this belief, and again, no clear historical record of how the tradition developed. Animals do sometimes like foods they’d never get in nature – dogs are crazy about peanut butter, for example, and cats love tuna despite the fact that they hate to get near the water. But this one doesn’t stand up to empirical testing: one author writing a book about Inari was told by a priest that he saw a TV program where a fox was offered meat, fish, and fried tofu, and – no surprise, really – tofu was the animal’s last choice.

The Goblin Fox


But only aged and wise foxes have power to act as people for a prolonged time; incidentally, age and wisdom do not imply benevolence.
-U. A. Casal, The Goblin Fox and Badger, 1959

Though foxes are associated with a powerful deity, they’re also believed to have less benevolent counterparts. Yokai is a class of strange beings that has no real translation into English, and includes everything from household objects that come alive to, evil children offering you tofu, to long-nosed winged humanoid demons. And the kitsune fox demon is part of the yokai. The stories about their powers are strange and varied, involving everything from odd human behavior to unusual weather.

Fox Illusions


Kitsune can make themselves appear to be humans, usually with mischief – or worse – in mind. A fox might pose as a distressed woman traveller or a monk on a pilgrimage and, after a kindly villager is convinced to take it in, the next morning the villager finds that all his food and valuables have been stolen. To add insult to injury, the kitsune may shave his head bald. Much nastier, though, foxes were said to use these abilities to tempt people to go places where they were likely to get killed.

The fox isn’t the only animal yokai that can shape-shift, but they have a special predilection for appearing as a beautiful woman in order to deceive human men. Oddly, in this case they don’t always have bad intentions. As Lafcadio Hearn tells it:

The fox does not always appear in the guise of a woman for evil purposes. There are several stories, and one really pretty play, about a fox who took the shape of a beautiful woman, and married a man, and bore him children—all out of gratitude for some favour received—the happiness of the family being only disturbed by some odd carnivorous propensities on the part of the offspring.

Looking like something else is only half of it, though. Kitsune can orchestrate full virtual-reality experiences, making people think they’re in houses that don’t exist or experiencing an earthquake that isn’t really happening. As they kept up with modern technology, foxes were said to make phantom trains run on the earliest railroads, disguise themselves as cars, and deliver fake telegrams. Belief in this ability was so strong that Hearn tells of peasants who would assume that a truly strange experience was a fox-illusion rather than trusting their own eyes:

The most interesting and valuable witness of the stupendous eruption of Bandai-San in 1888—which blew the huge volcano to pieces and devastated an area of twenty-seven square miles, levelling forests, turning rivers from their courses, and burying numbers of villages with all their inhabitants—was an old peasant who had watched the whole cataclysm from a neighbouring peak as unconcernedly as if he had been looking at a drama. He saw a black column of ashes and steam rise to the height of twenty thousand feet and spread out at its summit in the shape of an umbrella, blotting out the sun. Then he felt a strange rain pouring upon him, hotter than the water of a bath. Then all became black; and he felt the mountain beneath him shaking to its roots, and heard a crash of thunders that seemed like the sound of the breaking of a world. But he remained quite still until everything was over. He had made up his mind not to be afraid—deeming that all he saw and heard was delusion wrought by the witchcraft of a fox.

Putting the two abilities for illusions together, a fox may pose as a beautiful woman and lure a man to her remote, luxurious home for a night of passion. But when he wakes up the next morning alone, he is lying in a graveyard, with the leftovers of his sumptuous meal revealed to be a pile of rotting leaves and worse.



Being deceived by a fox is bad enough, but being possessed by one sounds far more unpleasant. Foxes were said to possess people for a variety of reasons. They might want revenge for some offense, ranging from killing its cub to disturbing its afternoon nap. They might want something done for them that requires manipulation, like having a little shrine built to it, or getting one of its favorite foods like fried tofu or red rice.

The effects could be quite nasty – pain, madness, hysteria, running naked through the streets, collapsing, and frothing at the mouth. But in other cases, the result was simply behavior that was inappropriate or odd: using bad language, throwing money around like a millionaire, barking or yipping, behaving violently, or spitting.  One scholar described a particular sort of fox that would cause the possessed person to barge into houses and annoy sick people, blurt out secrets, and mess up silkworm colonies.

Many of those are things that people would probably not do voluntarily, and today the victims would likely be sent for mental health treatment rather than exorcism. But in other cases, you have to wonder if fox-possession was sometimes a handy excuse: there were alleged victims who ate a whole lot of fried tofu and other favorite foods and insisted it was the fox that was the glutton.

Fire and Water


The marriages of foxes (to each other, rather than unsuspecting humans) are said to account for two odd natural phenomena. One is kitsune-bi (狐火,  meaning “fox-fire”). This is what’s called will o’ the wisp in English – mysterious flickering lights seen at night in natural areas like forests and especially wet places like bogs and marshes.

Sometimes a large outbreak of this phenomenon would look a like long procession of flickering lanterns. These reminded people of a traditional wedding ceremony where the bride was escorted to her new home by an entourage carrying lamps, so were said to be the wedding celebrations of foxes. There’s never been any accepted scientific explanation of the will o’ the wisp, and the processions always disappeared when people tried to get near and find out for sure, so who’s to say they weren’t?


Foxfire is only rarely seen today, maybe because natural areas aren’t what they used to be, maybe because foxes were tired of the paparazzi trying to get close to them. So nowadays “fox’s wedding” more commonly has another meaning: They’re thought to be holding their weddings on days when it’s raining out of a clear blue sky, what we much more boringly call in English a sunshower.

How Not to be Fooled


For one thing, a spook-fox will always emit a certain luminosity, and even on the darkest night his human shape will stand out so clearly that the colour of the hair and the pattern of the kimono is plainly discernible at the distance of some six feet. Hair and pattern show up as if a fire were glowing beneath them! Usually, also, the face of the human apparition is unnaturally long.
-The Goblin Fox and Badger

Fortunately, there are ways to tell that a person is really a fox in disguise. The tail is a weak point – reflections in a mirror or pool of water may show a tail, and young foxes who are less experienced at the illusions may have trouble concealing their tails. Shadows may also reveal their true nature – a shadow falling on water shows the true shape of the fox.

Another trouble foxes have – which is maybe the only thing here that makes perfect logical sense  – is speaking convincingly like a human. Hearn writes:

A fox cannot pronounce a whole word, but a part only—as “Nish . . . Sa. . .” for “Nishida-San”; “degoz . . .” for “degozarimasu, or “uch . . . de . .?” for “uchi desuka?”

Supposedly “moshi-moshi” was a particularly difficult tongue-twister for them, so unless you want to be mistaken for a fox, make sure you never say “moshi” just once.

But the best defense against foxes is to have a dog. Foxes are said to be terrified of dogs because dogs aren’t fooled by illusions. They will bark and let everyone know what’s up, sometimes even causing the fox to lose its human form. Dogs were also even used in cures for possession: Smear fish paste all over the victim and have a dog lick it off. The fox will be so repulsed that it will leave the person’s body. (And who could blame it?)  Less disgusting approaches include protecting against possession by carrying a dog tooth or writing the kanji for “dog” on a child’s forehead.

It’s not a bad idea to be nice to foxes if you can, because they can be grateful (and given everything they are capable of, you probably would rather have them on your side). They’ll even bring little gifts, as best they can. Lafcadio Hearn tells of a man who saw a fox being chased by dogs, and chased the dogs away with his umbrella:

On the following evening he heard some one knock at his door, and on opening the to saw a very pretty girl standing there, who said to him: “Last night I should have died but for your august kindness. I know not how to thank you enough: this is only a pitiable little present. And she laid a small bundle at his feet and went away. He opened the bundle and found two beautiful ducks and two pieces of silver money—those long, heavy, leaf-shaped pieces of money—each worth ten or twelve dollars— such as are now eagerly sought for by collectors of antique things. After a little while, one of the coins changed before his eyes into a piece of grass; the other was always good.

If you see a pure white fox, that’s the good Inari fox, so you don’t need to worry. (Except… if a yokai fox can make itself look like a human woman, wouldn’t it be even easier to simply change color? That hasn’t happened in any of the stories I’ve read, but now I’ve gone and given them the idea, so proceed with caution.)

Foxes in the Family


Being nice to foxes is one thing, but having too close a relationship with them is definitely not worth the price. It was once believed that certain families owned foxes, and in return for being fed, the foxes would use their supernatural powers to the owner’s benefit. That sounds like a great deal, but apparently not so much. For some reason they usually came in large numbers – seventy-five was typical –  so feeding them was a huge expense. And, being foxes, they weren’t particularly trustworthy servants, so they’d often do things that got their owners in trouble, like stealing.

The real problem, though, was that reputed fox-owners were ostracized by the rest of society. Hearn wrote of the effects in the late nineteenth century:

Intermarriage with a fox-possessing family is out of the question; and many a beautiful and accomplished girl in Izumo cannot secure a husband because of the popular belief that her family harbours foxes.It affects the value of real estate in Izumo to the amount of hundreds of thousands. The land of a family supposed to have foxes cannot be sold at a fair price. People are afraid to buy it; for it is believed the foxes may ruin the new proprietor.

Amazingly, as late as the 1950s there was a case in Shimane, where fox belief was particularly strong, of a couple committing double suicide when they were forbidden to marry because girl came from a fox-owning family.

The Fox in Real Life


The fox has played such a big role in the imaginative life of Japanese people, one has to wonder why. What relationship did people have with this animal long ago? The fox isn’t a predator that we needed to fear, we didn’t eat it, and it didn’t compete with us for food. Perhaps it played a role keeping down pests in rice fields, but could that have developed into such a complex and sort of contradictory body of beliefs?

Maybe it’s a mistake to assume the reasons have to be practical ones. The fox is an unusual canine, more like a cat in many ways – solitary rather than social, a solo stealth hunter of prey much smaller than itself. Other similarities to cats include claws that partially retract, eyes that reflect light at night, and behaviors when stalking prey and in response to threats. There’s also the oddity that it has such a bright-colored coat rather than the inconspicuous coloring more useful for a predator.

People who lived closer to wildlife, who had more of a chance to observe this animal, would surely have noticed these features. Perhaps it’s not going too far to imagine that this double catlike-doglike nature influenced the legends of the fox’s shapeshifting and trickster nature.


Photo by e_monk

The red fox is found in more places than any other wild canine, living all over the Northern Hemisphere from the Arctic circle and the steppes of Asia to Central America and the north of Africa, and Japan isn’t the only place where it became part of the language and folklore, with similar connotations. Where Japan has shapeshifting fox wives, we have “foxy” as a term for a seductive woman, and “vixen” (which means female fox) has been used since medieval times to refer to a woman who’s attractive but not very nice.  The fox is a trickster figure in the folklore of some Native American peoples, and also associated with fire in some. In English “outfox” means to trick or outwit. All over the world, it seems, people read the same sorts of meanings into the behavior of this animal.

Another reason the fox is associated with cunning and trickiness may be its ability to live among us without being seen. In Hokkaido, where they’ve got their own subspecies of red fox, it’s used as a symbol of unspoiled nature. Which of course means tons of awesome souvenirs:


But in a world where there’s so little unspoiled nature that tourist boards use it as a selling point, foxes know better than to stick to the wild. They’ve always thrived where humans are committing agriculture – after all, that’s the whole association between Inari, rice, and foxes. And their natural preference for edge environments – places where woodland and more open space meet – means that by building suburbs where there were once dense forests, we’ve actually created fox habitats.


Photo by Tats Shibata

So there may be foxes closer to you than you think, but magical or not, better to keep away as best you can, especially from those Hokkaido foxes. They carry a nasty parasite, a kind of tapeworm called echinococcus that can actually be fatal to humans. That’s another kind of possession you really don’t want to mess with.

Good Fox/Bad Fox/Real Fox


Photo by Stefan

So far we’ve mostly looked at the relationship of the different sort of foxes, real and less real, to humans. But how do they relate to one another? As some of your Facebook friends say, it’s complicated.

There are other gods to whom a particular animal is sacred and symbolic, but for some reason the Inari/fox connection is different. Hearn noticed this in the nineteenth century, and didn’t much care for it:

Indeed, the old conception of the Deity of Rice-fields has been overshadowed and almost effaced among the lowest classes by a weird cult totally foreign to the spirit of pure Shinto—the Fox-cult. The worship of the retainer has almost replaced the worship of the god.

Did people really think they were worshipping a fox? Do they still believe this today? The scholar Karen Smyers, while writing a book about the worship of Inari, tried to figure this out, and the answer she came up with seems to be “it depends on who you ask.”

On the one hand, the priests that she interviewed all said basically, “heck no, no way!” The party line was that the fox was a messenger of the god only. But the mere fact that there has to be a party line, and that priests have to put effort into discouraging the alternative, has to mean something.


Smyers thinks that the official view is probably pretty recent, going back to the Meiji period, when there was an attempt to purge Shinto of its animistic elements, as part of the push to make Japan a Westernized nation. This attempt clearly didn’t take as far as the average worshipper went.  Talking to devotees, she discovered that some did see Inari as a fox, although they differed on whether the god was benevolent or terrifying. The priests had to deal with this belief all the time, and in some stories, seem resigned to it:

One day a man brought two dusty old fox statues to an Inari shrine to be burned with other retired sacred paraphernalia and rather loudly announced that he had been worshiping them as Inari. The priest grimaced, explain in a rather curt fashion that Inari was not a fox, but said that he should have a prayer service anyway.

The yokai foxes get mixed up with the religious side as well. In the old days, cases of fox-possession were brought to Inari shrines to be cured, although the priests insisted Inari had nothing to do with it. The connection between yokai foxes and fire also rears its head: Oji Shrine is associated with fire prevention, and a fox saved Daitsuji Temple in Nagahama from a fire and people still offer her fried tofu in thanks.

Real foxes were also seen to have a connection to Inari shrines. Shrines were sometimes built over a fox den, or where a wild fox had done something odd or useful. Police worshipped at one built in 1923 in Kobe, where a fox had unearthed the weapon in a murder case. Live foxes were fed offerings of fried tofu at shrines, and in some places, they still are.

And Inari was sometimes considered responsible for the behavior of real foxes: one Edo-period story tells of a boy who went to an Inari shine and beat on it with sticks and yelled at it because a fox had stolen his chicken. The fox reportedly returned the chicken, and although it seems doubtful it would have been in a useful condition, sometimes it’s the principle of the thing, you know?

The Fox Today


Photo by Mariko Kato

As the real fox has adapted to modern life, so do the folkloric ones. Authors of fiction and manga and anime put their own spin on kitsune, and some of these can even make their way into tradition. Multiple tails are traditionally a sign of great magical power, but a blogger who researched the now-common idea that the number of tails increases with age and rank concluded that it probably originated in a modern fantasy series.

Festivals persist, such as one at Oji in Kita, Tokyo, once supposedly a site where kitsune-bi was often seen, and where tradition said that foxes from all over the region gathered on New Year’s Eve. Now, people from all over gather in fox masks for a parade.

At the end of the nineteenth century, Lafcadio Hearn predicted that western education would eradicate belief in the supernatural qualities of foxes. That hadn’t happened by the 1950s, when one folklorist had no trouble finding believers, although even in those days it was often one of those things that happened to the friend of a friend:

They openly admit their fear of being bewitched. Nobody is ashamed of it, and if an uncomprehending foreigner laughs at the superstition, examples are immediately forthcoming of “well-authenticated” cases, or at least of people who knew people whose friend was once fooled by a fox.


Photo by Mariko Kato

By the 1990s when Karen Smyers was doing her research, people would tell her about things that happened to their grandparents, or that happened to them as children, not contemporary stories. She wondered sometimes if their answers were basically edited for her as a foreigner, though, and found that people seemed to be uncomfortable with the notion that she was hanging out with so much fox stuff:

Japanese people regard this kind of talk as old fashioned and superstitious. But the figure of the fox still retains some of its sacred and dangerous aura- at least to judge by the comments I heard when I talked to people about my research or showed them my extensive collection of fox statues. The idea that I was in such close touch with all those foxes seemed to make otherwise rational people rather nervous.

Whether you’re a believer or not, it’s probably best to be careful, as she found from her own experience when writing the part of her book about how foxes have modernized their methods over history:

I never heard of any computer-related mischief of foxes, but surely they are working on it.*

*While working on the final revisions of this text, I deleted this sentence as somewhat gratuitous – and soon thereafter lost the entire chapter and the backups as well.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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  • Lafcadio Hearn, Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan. 1894.  Fox-related sections of this book available at this link:
  • U. A. Casal, The Goblin Fox and Badger and Other Witch Animals of Japan, Folklore Studies, Vol. 18 (1959), l959%29l8%3Cl%3ATGFABA%3E2.0.CO%3B2-M
  • Nozaki, Kiyoshi. Kitsune: Japan’s fox of mystery, romance and humor. Hokuseido Press, Japan. 1961.
  • Carmen Blacker, The Catalpa Bow: A Study of Shamanistic Practices in Japan (Japan Library Classics) Routledge, 1999
  • The Fox and the Jewel: Shared and Private Meanings in Contemporary Japanese Inari Workship. December 1, University of Hawaii Press, 1998
  • J David Henry, Red fox: The Catlike Canine (Smithsonian Nature Book) 1996
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The Delicious Road: a Japanese Dessert Journey Mon, 08 Sep 2014 16:00:25 +0000 When it comes to cross-cultural experiences, some things are more universal than others. For instance, outsiders might find it difficult to understand the Japanese phenomena of deliberately crooked teeth, refrigerated underwear, or butt-attacking fingers. These cultural features are unlikely to be exported anytime soon.

Desserts, on the other hand, are one of the best ways to bring cultures together. Who doesn’t enjoy sampling treats from around the world? Japan has its fair share of fine confectioneries, and most of them won’t even induce that wide-eyed “seriously, Japan!?” look.

Eight Steps to Deliciousness

We’re going to travel through Japan from north to south, looking at a dessert associated with each of the country’s eight major regions. But first, a few broad observations.


Japanese desserts, referred to broadly as wagashi, feature four principal recurring components: mochi (rice flour cake), bean paste (especially “red bean paste”, made from azuki beans), fruit, and gelatin (especially agar, derived from algae). These components are also found in many regular, non-dessert foods. When used in desserts, however, they’re generally sweetened with the addition of honey or sugar.

Not too sweet though. If there’s one major barrier to Westerners enjoying Japanese goodies, it’s an expectation of overwhelming sweetness. As is often the case, Japan’s approach is more subtle. Well, except when they do things like deep-frying ice cream hot dogs…but we’ll get to that later.

It’s time to take a tasty trip through Japan, from top to bottom. Let’s-a-go!

Hokkaido: Japanese Cheesecake


Photo by yoppy

Hokkaido is the most northern, and least populated, of Japan’s main islands. Here we find our first dessert: cheesecake.

That might not sound like a very Japanese choice to start with, but we’re talking a different sort of cheesecake here. Japanese cheesecake is light, fluffy, and smooth. It’s less rich and sweet than most American or European cheesecakes.

Why Hokkaido? Well, this island happens to be the agricultural heart of Japan, particularly renowned for its dairy products. It’s only natural to try making cheesecake when local producers supply the wheat, egg, sugar (often made from beets), milk, and cheese. Naturally, Hokkaido cuisine in general is heavily influenced by these ingredients.

Example recipe: Japanese Cheesecake

Tohoku: Edamame Mochi


Tohoku is the northernmost part of Honshu (the main island of Japan), with relatively harsh weather and low population. Here we’re going to sample a much more Japanese-sounding dessert: edamame mochi. This dish originates from Sendai, the principal city of Tohoku.

Mochi is simply cake made from powdered rice (known as rice flour or rice starch) that cooks to a soft, somewhat gummy consistency. It can serve as a meal or dessert, and is often stuffed with filling, such as bean paste or fruit. Bits of mochi can be mixed into soup or ice cream.

Edamame (also known as zunda) refers to immature soybeans, which make an excellent paste (unlike mature soybeans, which are too hard to mash). Immature soybeans are often eaten on their own, sometimes as an appetizer. Edamame paste, like bean paste generally, can be used either for meals (e.g. soup, dumplings) or desserts (e.g. cakes, jellied candies).

Example recipe: Zunda Mochi

Kanto: Coffee Jelly


Alrighty, time for a dessert that might sound kinda weird. Do you like coffee? Really really like it? So much that you’d even consume it in jelly form?

Kanto is the easternmost region of Honshu, containing about a third of Japan’s population, mostly in the metro area of Tokyo. Coffee jelly was invented, likely in this region, during the nineteenth century. Under the influence of European culinary traditions and café culture, moulded jelly dishes were merged with coffee in a stroke of Japanese genius.

This will be the simplest recipe on our journey, consisting merely of coffee, sugar, and gelatin. Once again, sugar is added in moderate amounts, avoiding excessive sweetness. The coffee, however, is often quite strong, making coffee jelly a capable pick-me-up.

This isn’t some niche product, either; coffee jelly is commonly available in restaurants and convenience stores across the country. The jelly may be eaten on its own, or added to ice cream, milkshakes, coffee (!), or tea. When eaten alone, coffee jelly may be garnished with bean paste, whipped cream, or condensed milk.

Example recipe: Kohi Zeri – Japanese Coffee Jelly

Chubu: Uirou


Photo by t-mizo

Chubu is basically the middle of Japan. Here we find uirou, a derivative of mochi. Uirou is associated particularly with Nagoya, the largest city of the Chubu region.

Like mochi, uirou is a mildly sweet cake made from rice flour. But while mochi uses glutinous rice (aka sticky rice), uirou uses non-glutinous rice, resulting in a chewier texture. Uirou are traditionally flavoured with azuki bean or green tea, and are typically brightly coloured, in such hues as green, brown, orange, and pink.

Suggested recipe: Matcha Green Tea Uiro Steamed Cake

Kansai: Ice Hot Dog


Photo by W236

We now move to Kansai, the southern-central region of Japan. The primary city of this region is Osaka, the second-largest city in the country. Here you’ll find Amerikamura (“American Village”), an American-style retail/entertainment district. Within this district, you’ll find a glorious union of American gluttony joie de vivre and Japanese weirdness: the ice hot dog!

Instead of a regular hot dog bun, you have a sweetened “candy bun”. And instead of a hot dog, you have ice cream (made from Hokkaido milk, natch). And it’s deep fried.

Need I say more? This invention alone proves the importance of cultural fusion.

Suggested recipe: Hot Dog Ice Cream Sandwich

Chugoku: Maple Leaf Manju


Photo by jam_232

The southernmost region of Honshu, Chugoku, is famous for its spectacular autumn leaves. Not surprisingly, this inspired the creation of at least one local dessert: maple leaf-shaped manju cakes, known as momiji manju. (Manju is a minor variation of mochi, in which the dough is well-kneaded before cooking.) Momiji manju are sometimes fried, resulting in age momiji.


Photo by Travis

Traditionally filled with red bean paste, momiji manju (like wagashi generally) today feature a wide range of fillings, including fruit, chocolate, and custard. Momiji manju cakes date to the early twentieth century, when they were created in Miyajima. Incidentally, Miyajima is also home of the world’s largest spatula! Presumably, this is much less of a tourist draw than the leaves.


Photo by Karl Baron

Don’t leave your manju unattended. Miyajima features a healthy population of deer, which have apparently developed a taste for momiji manju. They might sneak a bite if you aren’t careful!

Suggested recipe: Japanese Manju Steamed Cake with Anko filling

Shikoku: Sudachi


Photo by Zengame

Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s four main islands, is the home and main producer of sudachi, a citrus fruit similar to lemon or lime. The sour juice of the sudachi is used as a condiment with many meals, including fish, noodles, and vegetables. It’s also a standard flavouring in mass-produced foods, including soda and alcohol.

Just like lemon and lime, sudachi is an extremely versatile dessert flavouring. You can find sudachi-flavoured mochi, bean paste, gelatin, mousse, and ice cream.

Suggested recipe: Dessert Ball

Kyushu: Sweet Potato


Photo by Charles Kim

Our final stop is Kyushu, the island that forms the southern tip of mainland Japan. Kyushu is renowned for its Japanese sweet potatoes. Enjoyed baked or fried, alone or as part of a larger dish (e.g. salads, stews), Japanese sweet potatoes have a relatively dry consistency and chestnutty flavour. Roasted sweet potatoes (yaki imo) are popular street vendor fare.

But where does the sweet potato fit in, dessert-wise? That would be ikinari dango (pictured above), a dish associated primarily with Kumamoto, the capital city of Kumamoto Prefecture. Ikinari dango are dumplings, each containing a chunk of sweet potato covered in red bean paste.


Not in the mood for fancy schmancy? Well, you could just take chunks of sweet potato, coat ‘em in sugar or honey, and deep fry ‘em. The scrumptious result, pictured above, is known as daigaku imo.

Suggested recipes: Japanese Sweets: Ikinari Dango, Daigaku imo

Such Sweet Sorrow


Photo by tiarescott

One might say that Japanese dessert cuisine embodies a curious duality. On the one hand, half of the recipes explored by this article are based on mochi (or something derivative of mochi), often with a filling of bean paste. This reflects a strong current of restraint and conservatism.

On the other hand, Japanese desserts also venture in unusual directions, including coffee gelatin, sugary sweet potatoes, and deep fried ice cream hot dogs. Clearly, even as tradition is staunchly maintained, Japanese chefs enjoy developing novel recipes.

Altogether, the Japanese dessert world yields a lively mixture of conservative and radical. And it’s delicious.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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