Tofugu » Culture A Japanese Language & Culture Blog Fri, 31 Jul 2015 18:06:45 +0000 en-US hourly 1 4 Foreigners in Traditional Japanese Roles Wed, 29 Jul 2015 13:00:00 +0000 When you think of Japan, certain traditionally日本的 (typically Japanese) things spring to mind. There are some things so ingrained in Japanese culture and history that you can’t help but picture a Japanese person in association with them. And this includes traditionally Japanese jobs. However, in modern Japanese society, there are certain foreigners who have found a way […]

The post 4 Foreigners in Traditional Japanese Roles appeared first on Tofugu.

When you think of Japan, certain traditionally日本的 (typically Japanese) things spring to mind. There are some things so ingrained in Japanese culture and history that you can’t help but picture a Japanese person in association with them. And this includes traditionally Japanese jobs.

However, in modern Japanese society, there are certain foreigners who have found a way to make a name for themselves even in traditional jobs in Japan. Despite the worldview that some areas are reserved for native-born Japanese people, these local celebrities have proven otherwise.


traditional jobs in japan for foreigners rakugo

Rakugo is a form of Japanese comedic storytelling dating back to the 9th century. It was originally called karukuchi (軽口), meaning “talkative.” But texts describing it have also called it otoshibanashi (落し噺), meaning “falling discourse.” The term rakugo (落語) literally means “fallen words,” and was first used during the Meiji Era.

During a rakugo performance, a lone performer sits onstage and tells a story. And it can last several hours. The only props allowed are a paper fan (扇子) and a small cloth (手拭). Rakugo performers, or Rakugoka, cannot leave the seiza position throughout the entire story. And since rakugo is performed solo, the rakugoka must do all the voices of the characters, including dialogue, with only slight changes in tone and pitch to show who’s speaking. Thus, rakugo has been described by Professor Noriko Watanabe as “a sitcom with one person playing all the parts.”

Rakugo was invented by Buddhist monks as early as the 9th century. Its written tradition can be traced back to the collection of stories Uji Shūi Monogatari. The monks used rakugo as a way to make their sermons seem more interesting and to better relate to their constituents. It eventually spread throughout Japan.

Modern rakugoka must be accepted as apprentices to rakugo masters before they can perform. And there are only two rakugo training centers in Japan. After observing their master and practicing the art, a rakugo apprentice can have their professional debut. They eventually finish their apprenticeship to become a full-fledged rakugoka.

In the history of rakugo, only three foreign rakugoka have been considered true professionals. The first was known as Kairakutei Black. Born Henry James Black in Australia in 1858, he lived in Japan from the time he was three years old. Black started out telling jokes and stories to people outside his father’s publishing company. He became the first foreign rakugoka after a master took a liking to him. Black became a rakugoka against his family’s wishes. He eventually severed all ties and was adopted by a Japanese family and took Japanese nationality. Black died on September 19th, 1923, and is buried in Yokohama Foreign Cemetery.

Bill Crowley is another foreigner who was able to become a professional rakugoka. He was assisted by Katsura Shijaku II, but never became an official apprentice. As a part of the HOE International performing troupe, Crowley worked alongside several other foreign aspiring rakugoka. Crowley was also a pioneer in the field of English-language rakugo, positing that the universality of the experiences described in rakugo stories bolsters its appeal across languages.

Besides Bill Crowley, the only foreign rakugoka currently performing is Katsura Sunshine. Born Gregory Robic in Toronto on April 6th, 1970, Sunshine originally studied classics at the University of Toronto. He came to Japan to study Noh and Kabuki, and worked as an English teacher at Daigakushorin International Language Academy. In 2008, he became an apprentice to Katsura Sanshi (now called Katsura Bunshi VI). Sunshine received his rakugo name in rakugo tradition, taking his master’s last name and a part of his first. He combined the “san” from “Sanshi” with the character for “shine,” pronouncing it “sunshine.” Sunshine debuted in Singapore in 2009, and completed his three-year apprenticeship in November of 2012. Sunshine is the first ever foreign professional rakugoka in the Osaka-based Kamigata tradition. Kairakutei Black was an Edo-style rakugoka.

Sunshine lives in Ise City, where he regularly performs at his own rakugo theater, Ise Kawasaki Kikitei. He also has performed in Singapore, the United States, Canada, England, Scotland, France, Australia, Sri Lanka, and Hong Kong. Sunshine appears often on Japanese television, and even performs rakugo in English in the West.

Sunshine has remarked that audiences often tell him that they are either amazed by how fluent and native-like his Japanese is, or that his Japanese isn’t nearly good enough for rakugo. So he says that reactions to his performances balance out in the middle.


traditional jobs in japan for foreigners the great sumo

We can’t talk about traditional Japan and not mention sumo. Sumo is one of the oldest Japanese sports, but its exact origins are not clear. One theory is that sumo is the result of influences from other Asian countries. Mongolian wrestling (Bökh), Chinese wrestling (Shuai jiao摔跤), and Korean wrestling (Ssireum씨름), are all similar to sumo, and none has a definitively known creator or creation date. So it is highly possible that one of these other forms of wrestling is the parent sport of sumo.

Another theory is that sumo is based on ancient Shinto rituals. Representatives would wrestle with kami. Defeating the spirit meant a successful harvest was assured. The salt used to purify the ring before a match also has roots in Shintoism. The ring came from the 16th century, when Oda Nobunaga organized a nationwide sumo tournament, requiring an official ring and stands for spectators. Matches were held on the grounds of a shrine or temple until sumo become a professional sport during the Tokugawa period.

The first professional sumo rikishi were actually rōnin, masterless samurai who needed a new form of income. Professional tournaments began in 1684, taking place primarily in Tokyo during the Edo era. But Kansai had its own sumo, with Osaka functioning as Japan’s original sumo capital. In 1926, Osaka sumo merged with Tokyo sumo, and the Ryōgoku Kokugikan stadium in Tokyo became the new exclusive venue for sumo matches.

Sumo is still a celebrated sport of Japan, though a series of controversies and scandals concerning hazing, match-fixing, and even murder, have shaken the public’s faith in recent years.

Despite traditional roots, many foreigners have had great success in sumo. Akebono Tarō, born Chad Haaheo Rowan in 1969 in Hawaii, became the first non-Japanese-born wrestler ever to become the yokozuna, the highest rank in sumo. Since then, five other foreigners have become yokozuna, chief among them Hakuhō Shō. Hakuhō was originally known as Mönkhbatyn Dayaajargal, born March 11th, 1985 in Ulan Bator, Mongolia. Hakuhō’s father was a darkhan (the equivalent of a yokozuna) in Mongolian wrestling, and even won the silver medal in freestyle wrestling at the 1968 Summer Olympics.

Despite this, Hakuhō’s father discouraged him from wrestling because he considered his son too small. When he was 15, Hakuhō was invited to come to Japan by Kyokushūzan, another Mongolian sumo. But Hakuhō was only 137 lbs, far too light to be an effective rikishi. Thus, no stable was willing to accept him until Kyokushūzan intervened and convinced the Miyagino stable to take him in. In 2001, Hakuhō made his professional debut in Osaka. Though he lacked real wrestling experience, Hakuhō climbed the ranks and grew bigger and bigger. He eventually reached 6’4” and 346 lbs.

Hakuhō was promoted to ōzeki, the rank just below yokozuna, in March 2006 a few weeks after turning 21. He was the fourth-youngest wrestler to reach ōzeki in modern sumo history. In 2007, Hakuhō became the third ever foreign-born yokozuna after winning two consecutive tournaments, one with a perfect 15-0 record.

Hakuhō is still an active yokozuna. He holds records for the most wins in a calendar year, the most undefeated tournament championships, the second longest winning streak in sumo history, and the second most wins of all time in the top division.

Sumo Association chairman Kitanoumi, a former yokozuna himself, has commented that “Nobody can touch Hakuhō… I’d like to see him go for 40 titles. If he keeps going the way he is, that’s a possibility.”


traditional jobs in japan for foreigners enka

Photo by Shinya ICHINOHE

Before AKB-48 and Arashi, there was a different kind of music that defined Japan; enka.

The term “enka” was first used to describe a series of “songs” from the Meiji era. These songs were actually political speeches in protest of the Meiji government. But strict laws against political dissent meant that people could not deliver speeches. So they found a loophole by singing their thoughts instead. Thus, enka was born.

As time went on, enka evolved, incorporating both traditional instruments like shakuhachi and shamisen, as well as more modern instruments like violins, guitars, and other percussion.

During the 1940s, jazz became popular in postwar Japan, which helped start the careers of many enka singers. Kasuga Hachirō is considered the first modern enka singer. His 1954 hit “Otomi-san” sold 500,000 copies in six months, and eventually went on to sell over one million copies. Enka’s popularity continued well into the 1990s, even beating out Elvis Presley in Japan. However, with Kasuga’s death in 1991, enka began losing out to more modern music like J-pop.

Younger Japanese people were not impressed by enka, and preferred more Western style music. But during the early 2000s, a new form of “hybrid enka” emerged. This new form is a cross between traditional enka and hip-hop, rap, and rock. Enka suddenly saw a resurgence in popularity.

The first non-Japanese enka singer was Sarbjit Singh Chadha, an Indian man. He released an enka album in 1975 that sold over 150,000 copies. In 2002, Yolanda Tasico became the first enka singer from the Philippines who released several singles in Japan.

In recent years, the most popular foreign enka singer has been Jero, an American. Born Jerome Charles White, Jr. in Pittsburg, PA in 1981, his maternal grandfather was an African-American who met his Japanese wife during his time as a serviceman during WWII. They had a daughter, Harumi, and eventually moved back to his hometown of Pittsburgh. Since Jero’s parents divorced when he was young, his grandmother helped raise him. This instilled in him a strong sense of Japanese culture and identity. She was the one who introduced him to enka. He began singing at the age of six, and by the time he was ten he could sing hits by great enka artists.

Jero studied Japanese all throughout high school and college. He moved to Japan after graduating with a degree in information technology from the University of Pittsburgh. He worked as an English teacher and computer engineer, but still wanted to become a professional enka singer. He’d promised his grandmother that he would one day perform at the annual Kōhaku Uta Gassen song show. Unfortunately, she died in 2005, just three years before his single “Umiyuki” was released. It entered the Japanese charts at number 4, cementing Jero as an enka professional, as well as the first black enka singer ever. He won the Best New Artist Award in the 50th Japan Record Awards on December 30th, 2008. He finally fulfilled the promise he made to his grandmother when he performed at the 59th Kōhaku Uta Gassen.

Although his lyrics are those of traditional enka, Jero’s performances are influenced by hip-hop. He wears jerseys, sneakers, and baseball caps instead of the kimono that enka singers usually wear. His traditional lyrics appeal to the nostalgia of older fans, while his modern image appeals to younger fans. Jero tours both in Japan and in the US, bringing enka across the Pacific.


traditional jobs in japan for foreigners the great wave

Ukiyo-e (浮世絵) is a genre of Japanese woodblock prints and paintings. Their production began in the Edo era, when Japan began urbanization. They primarily depict beautiful women, famous theater actors, sumo wrestlers, and traditional Japanese folk tales. Rather than have a single artist create their own carvings and prints, production of ukiyo-e was often divided into three parts.

  1. A carver who would create the woodblock.
  2. A printer would ink the woodblock and press the image onto paper.
  3. A publisher would finance the operation and distribute the finished products.

Modern ukiyo-e are usually not produced in the traditional woodblock and carving method. Rather they incorporate modern techniques like screen printing, etching, mezzotint, and other multimedia platforms.

Despite the evolution of ukiyo-e production, there is an artist in Japan who continues to use the traditional carving and printing methods. Originally from Toronto, David Bull first became interested in ukiyo-e when he visited a local gallery featuring woodblock prints. He became intrigued with the production process, and moved to Japan in 1986 with his Japanese wife. Bull is self-taught, and learned by studying the works of great ukiyo-e artists from the Edo era.

“My teachers were the long-gone workers from 100 years ago,” Bull said, “and I had to learn everything from scratch.”

Although ukiyo-e production is traditionally done by three people, Bull does everything. He designs, carves, prints, and publishes his own works. His works are made in series, often taking years to complete. His first series, Hyakunin Isshu (one hundred poems from one hundred poets), consists of 100 prints depicting classical Japanese poets, and took him ten years to complete, producing ten prints per year. In recent years, Bull has begun teaching young aspiring artists his techniques in addition to his solo craftsmanship, and operates with others as the Ukiyo-e Heroes production team.

Traditional Jobs in Japan Aren’t Only for the Japanese

traditional jobs in japan for foreigners sumida river hiroshige

Japan has a reputation for being a very insular country, one where a foreigner can never quite feel like they fit in. Some people say that only a native-born Japanese can adequately understand the nuances of Japanese traditions. However, history has proven that you don’t have to be born Japanese to appreciate, and even master, some of Japan’s most ancient and treasured cultural phenomena. Foreigners from other Asian countries and even Westerners who spent the bulk of their lives ignorant of Japanese culture have found their way into Japanese society, and continue to flourish today. Something that is traditionally Japanese doesn’t require a Japanese person to keep it authentic.

Bonus Wallpapers!

[Desktop ∙ 5120×2880 / 1280×720] ∙ [Mobile]


The post 4 Foreigners in Traditional Japanese Roles appeared first on Tofugu.

]]> 16
Badass Chicks in Japanese History: Queen Himiko Mon, 06 Jul 2015 13:00:00 +0000 When you were a wee one, did you dream of being a doctor or a lawyer when you grew up? Or maybe something even more ambitious like an astronaut? How about a shamaness-queen? Almost 2000 years ago, Queen Himiko of Yamatai raised the bar for women everywhere when she was crowned high priestess and supreme […]

The post Badass Chicks in Japanese History: Queen Himiko appeared first on Tofugu.

When you were a wee one, did you dream of being a doctor or a lawyer when you grew up? Or maybe something even more ambitious like an astronaut? How about a shamaness-queen? Almost 2000 years ago, Queen Himiko of Yamatai raised the bar for women everywhere when she was crowned high priestess and supreme ruler of her kingdom. As the political and religious leader of the proto-Japanese federation of Yamatai, she was beloved at home for her peaceful rule and respected abroad for her diplomatic savvy.

Himiko (also known as Pimiko) is not just any old badass chick in Japanese history. She holds the distinct honor of being the first badass chick in Japanese history. In fact, she’s the first named and confirmed (male or female) figure in Japanese history, period. Most people on earth who lived and died during the 3rd century have been rendered anonymous by temporal and cultural distance. But not Himiko. According to a recent survey by the Ministry of Education and Sciences, 99% of Japanese schoolchildren recognize and can identify her. Like Oprah or Madonna, Himiko’s on a first name basis with the Japanese general public. Meanwhile, she continues to fuel intense debate among amateurs and scholars alike concerning the exact location of her kingdom, a debate that more or less hinges on the location of her grave.

Before Japan Was Japan


Photo by Saigen Jiro

Himiko’s reign roughly spanned the first half of the 3rd century, long before the Japanese islands were the single political entity that we now call Japan. Rather, the archipelago was scattered with hundreds of “countries” or clan-nations linked into regional confederations. Agricultural communes had started giving way to diversified kingdoms. Political power became increasingly consolidated and social status increasingly stratified. Historians and archeologists often refer to these decades as a “transitional era” between the Yayoi (300BC-300AD) and Kofun (250-538AD) periods—hence the overlap in dates.

What qualified someone to rule one of these emerging kingdoms? Well, it helped if you were on speaking terms with the gods, or at least could convince other people that you were. As in many other ancient (and not so ancient) societies, religious authority was linked to spiritual authority in 3rd century Japan. Luckily for Himiko, female shamans were highly regarded in the folk religion and proto-Shintoism of the time, considered to be capable of banishing pesky malignant spirits on the one hand and speaking on behalf of divine spirits on the other. Since women had equal access to the spiritual realm, they also had access to the political realm. So far from being the shamaness-queen, Himiko was likely one of many shamaness-queens.


Another quirky characteristic of the times lent its name to the Kofun Period. At their most basic, kofun are big piles of dirt. Impressively big piles of dirt shaped like keyholes. First constructed in the mid-3rd century, these large earthen mounds served as mausoleums for deceased rulers. They began to appear in the Kyoto-Osaka-Nara region and then spread throughout the archipelago in tandem with the increasing dominance of the Yamato clan. Over 5,200 have been identified so far in a variety of standardized shapes and uniformly staggering sizes. Himiko may have received one of the first such burials. Stay tuned for more about that.

“Queen of Wa Friendly to Wei”


The little we know about the life and times of Himiko has been gleaned from a combination of written Chinese (and Korean) histories along with archeological verification. Before the Japanese began to record their own history, the Chinese did everyone the favor of writing some of it for them. The History of the Kingdom of Wei (297 AD) stands alone as the first written source about Japan. However, at that time Chinese historians relegated information about the “Land of Wa” (their name for Japan) and its peoples to the flattering “Accounts of the Eastern Barbarians” section of their histories, almost as an afterthought. At any rate, it’s got lots of juicy information about Himiko and her kingdom. Later Chinese dynastic histories reiterated and confirmed the information included in this first history, and the oldest surviving Korean text (Historical Records of the Three Kingdoms, 1145 AD) briefly describes Himiko’s relationship with the Korean peninsula. Collectively, this is what they can tell us:

During the second half of the 2nd century (ca. 147-190 AD), the lack of a capable leader plunged the Land of Wa into political turmoil and violent upheaval. Finally, in 190 AD the unmarried shamaness Himiko was chosen by the people to rule. Installed in a palace with armed guards and watch towers, she was served by “1,000” female attendants while her “brother” acted as a medium of communication, transmitting her instructions and pronouncements to the outside world. After ascending to the throne, Himiko went on to restore order and maintain peace like a boss for the next 50 or 60 years.

In addition to upholding her religious duties, Himiko presided over more than 100 “countries” that acknowledged her as their ruler. But she didn’t just stay in her own backyard. On behalf of the entire federation of Yamatai, Himiko dispatched diplomatic missions to China at least four times during her reign. In recognition of her legitimacy, the Chinese Wei Dynasty bestowed upon her the title “Queen of Wa Friendly to Wei” along with a nifty golden seal and over 100 ceremonial bronze mirrors. I know that might not seem very exciting now, but back then mirrors were THE ULTIMATE status symbol. A decent stash of mirrors could turn you into the coolest kid on the block.

Unfortunately, the party couldn’t last forever. In 248, Queen Himiko died. Some uppity dude reportedly attempted to succeed the throne in the wake of Himiko’s death, but his reign was heavily resisted and short-lived. According to Chinese sources, order was restored again only once the 13-year-old Queen Iyo took the throne—who just so happened to be a relative of Himiko. I guess badassery ran in the family.

But that’s not all. In Himiko’s honor “a great mound was raised, more than a hundred paces in diameter” and 100 of her attendants, um, euphemistically “followed her to the grave.” The aforementioned “great mound” was almost certainly one of the first kofun ever erected. Just a few years ago in 2009, a group of Japanese archeologists claimed that they had identified Himiko’s tomb as the Hashihaka Kofun in Sakurai City near Nara. Radiocarbon-dated artifacts found on the periphery of the Hashihaka Kofun date to between 240 and 260 AD. In other words, the time of Himiko’s death. Unfortunately, the Imperial Household Agency has designated Hashihaka a royal tomb and thereby forbids further excavation, so we may never know with certainty.

Himiko’s Legacy: From Hero to Zero and Back


Truth be told, Himiko didn’t have much of a legacy until the late Edo period (1600-1868). How did such badassery go unrecognized for so long? Well, in large part this is because she was conspicuously snubbed in the first Japanese texts, the mythic Kojiki (712) and the mytho-history Nihongi (720). Neither Himiko nor her kingdom are mentioned in either, despite the fact that the writers of the Nihongi clearly reference and cite the Chinese histories where she appears. Did they just skip those pages or something? Scholars attribute this blindness to the fact that the 8th century Japanese ruling house was consciously emulating patriarchal Chinese ideals and institutions. And this ideological framework didn’t leave much room for the existence of shamaness-queens. Meanwhile, the Japanese adoption of Buddhism and Confucianism didn’t do much to elevate the status of women, either. So in the interest of looking cool by Chinese standards, the Japanese court just decided to pretend Himiko and her ilk hadn’t existed.

Luckily, she wasn’t permanently erased. Queen Himiko and her kingdom of Yamatai resurfaced during the Edo period with the work of philosopher-statesman Arai Hakuseki and scholar Motoori Norinaga. Between the two of them, they started one of the oldest and most heated controversies in Japanese scholarship: where was Himiko’s kingdom of Yamatai? Hakuseki rejected the Japanese histories as inaccurate, threw his weight behind the veracity of the Chinese records, and claimed that Himiko’s country of Yamatai had been in the heart of Japan—the Kyoto-Osaka-Nara region known as the Kinai Plain. Norinaga, on the other hand, rejected the Chinese histories as inaccurate, upheld the veracity of the Japanese histories, and went so far as to claim that Himiko’s kingdom of Yamatai had merely fooled the Chinese government into thinking that they were the ruling clan.

Norinaga’s view became dominant throughout the ensuing decades from the Meiji era through the end of World War II. During this time questions about Himiko’s kingdom became tangled with the nationalist-imperialist politics of the day. With the emperor enshrined as divine, rejecting the ancient Japanese histories could be viewed as an attack on the imperial system in general—and some historians who refused to conform lost everything at the hands of censorship laws. One such professor was Naka Michiyo, who from 1878 until the end of his life continually criticized the chronology of the ancient histories and disproved Norinaga’s claims about Yamatai.

In the post-war era, historians and archeologists picked up where Naka Michiyo left off, digging into the ancient texts as well as various archeological sites. Between 1955 and 1964, a series of archeological discoveries ignited the debate about the location of Yamatai—including the excavation of a tomb near Kyoto with numerous bronze mirrors possibly dating from the 3rd century. The 1960s through the early 1970s witnessed what the media proclaimed as a “Yamatai boom” as the debate became a national obsession ping-ponging between claims for Kyushu and the Kinai. Suddenly everyone was clamoring to claim Himiko.

Himiko Today: Town Mascot, Role Model, X-Rated Fantasy?


Photo by geraldford

In life Himiko was a religious and political leader. In death she’s become just about everything else. As a historical figure, she’s turned out to be remarkably pliable, probably because so little is known about her and the little that is known about her creates such fertile soil for the imagination. As a result, she’s been repurposed and repackaged in all sorts of ways. For example…

Thanks to the debate over the location of Yamatai, several cities in Japan claim her as a sort of town mascot. In Kyushu, there are statues of her outside Kanzaki Station, near Miyazaki Takachiho Gorge, and on the grounds of the Himiko Shrine in Hayato.

The city of Yoshinogari holds an annual bonfire festival that climaxes with the appearance of a costumed “Himiko” and a Kyushu brewery released “Himiko Fantasia” shochu.

Over in the Kinai region, Sakurai City (where Hashihaka Kofun is located) features Himiko on signs, online, and in person (well, at least a person in a mascot costume). City leaders have created online Himiko-themed anime shorts, and there’s a municipal webpage devoted to her called “Himiko-chan’s Page.”

As a role model Himiko can symbolize female power, innate occult abilities, national origins, and even good eating habits. No kidding, she’s the poster girl for a school campaign that urges students “to chew your food as thoroughly Queen Himiko did” in order to improve digestion and tooth health.

You can even be crowned “Queen Himiko” by participating in one of a number of Queen Himiko Contests, which are more or less beauty pageants. Women 18 and older are eligible to compete for a substantial cash prize on the basis of their charm and appearance—which is a bit depressing when you consider Queen Himiko’s historical worth probably had nothing to do with her ability to put on eyeliner.

Sakurai City Mascot

Himiko has also served as the inspiration for characters in numerous films, novels, manga, anime, and video games. A powerful and dignified Himiko rules with authority and grace in the 1967 bestseller “Maboroshi no Yamatotaikoku.” The 2008 film version of the book starred a venerated Japanese actress as Himiko, and her image in the role was selected for a set of commemorative stamps by the Japanese government.

And then for something entirely different, an irresponsibly promiscuous, Himiko meets her downfall in the 1974 film drama “Himiko” directed by Masahiro Shinoda.

In addition to a symbol of female power (whether for good or ill), Himiko has also been used as a tool for political critique. The first book of manga maven Osamu Tezuka’s acclaimed Phoenix series depicts a vain, power-hungry Himiko as the first of many vain, power-hungry rulers throughout Japanese, and world history—“power leads to corruption” being the main theme that Tezuka pursues throughout the rest of the series. And one of Kobayashi Yoshinori’s political cartoons features Himiko in order to argue for changing the imperial succession laws to allow for the throning of an empress.

Himiko pops up all over the place. A Himiko clone appears in the manga Afterschool Charisma and in the anime Shangri-la. The 2013 Tomb Raider video game reboot features a menacing Himiko as its primary antagonist. The Legend of Himiko encompasses an anime, manga, and video game series that appeals to pre-teen girl power sensibilities. And for the 18+ set, Taniguchi Chika’s erotic manga series aimed at women stars none other than Queen Himiko in various X-rated adventures. So whether you’re looking for a despotic villain, a role model, a symbol of national or local identity, a naïve shrine attendant, or a sexual fantasy, there’s a Himiko out there for you.

What’s So Great About Queen Himiko?


Photo by 皇なつき

Himiko ruled a kingdom 2000 years ago, fuels a bunch of debate about said kingdom, and continues to get a lot of face time in modern Japan in the form of statues and stamps and just about everything else. As impressive as all that is, what makes Himiko noteworthy is that she wasn’t unique in her time. In the earliest periods of Japanese history, women more generally had public authority, economic power, and spiritual prestige. The historical figure Himiko is merely representative of the heights of the political and religious leadership that women in Japan held prior to the importation of Chinese, Buddhist, and Confucian ideology. And even after these patriarchal influences first took root, it was many decades (centuries, even) before ideology and practice fully merged (if indeed they ever did).

In other words, Himiko was not an anomaly. She was merely the first notable ancestor of a strong tradition of female religious leaders (a la miko priestesses in Shinto) and political leaders (a la empresses) in Japanese history. Over time women’s roles may have devolved from active initiators to assistants in both spiritual and secular realms. But Himiko serves as a shining example that symbolically reflects the many other (now anonymous) women who were also leaders in their communities.

Bonus Wallpapers!

[Desktop ・ 5120×2880 / 1280×720] ・ [Mobile]


  • “History of the Kingdom of Wei (Wei zhi) ca. 297 C.E.” Translated by Tsunoda Ryusaku (Sources of Japanese Tradition: From Earliest Times to 1600; 2001)
  • “Gendered Interpretations of Female Rule: The Case of Himiko, Ruler of Yamatai” by Akiko Yoshie, Hitomi Tonomura, and Azumi Ann Takata (U.S.-Japan Women’s Journal; 2013)
  • Japan Emerging: Premodern History to 1850 by Karl Friday (2012)
  • “In Pursuit of Himiko: Postwar Archaeology and the Location of Yamatai” by Walter Edwards (Monumenta Nipponica; Spring 1996)
  • “Rebranding Himiko, the Shaman Queen of Ancient History” by Laura Miller (Mechademia; 2014)

The post Badass Chicks in Japanese History: Queen Himiko appeared first on Tofugu.

]]> 12
A Japanese Citizen Studying “Abroad” in Her Own Country Fri, 03 Jul 2015 13:00:00 +0000 Just a couple weeks ago, I graduated college. I’ve been going through a whirlwind of emotions, good-byes and transitions into the “real world.” At the same time, I’ve been reflecting on my past 4 years as an undergrad. There are a lot of things that college grads easily remember. The friends we made, the countless all-nighters, silly (and perhaps stupid) shenanigans. But for […]

The post A Japanese Citizen Studying “Abroad” in Her Own Country appeared first on Tofugu.

Just a couple weeks ago, I graduated college. I’ve been going through a whirlwind of emotions, good-byes and transitions into the “real world.” At the same time, I’ve been reflecting on my past 4 years as an undergrad.

There are a lot of things that college grads easily remember. The friends we made, the countless all-nighters, silly (and perhaps stupid) shenanigans. But for some, study abroad tends to be the most memorable and most life-changing experience. I’m included in this. I studied abroad in Tokyo, Japan. Or as my friends call it, I “studied at home.”

I am Japanese. I was born in Japan and raised there for part of my life. I speak the language fluently and visited my home country countless times. So why did I decide to study “abroad” there?

Why Study Abroad in Japan?


I originally planned to study abroad in China. I wanted to continue working on my Chinese and take classes related to international affairs. A visit to Tokyo during my spring break in 2013 changed this.

My family often visits Japan during the summer or winter. So it was the first time in 12 years that I was going to see Japan in its springtime glory.

And boy, was it amazing.

It was probably the weather– scratch that, it was the weather. There was something so memorable about the sunny days with cherry blossoms in full bloom. The locals hosted ohanami (cherry blossom viewing parties) everywhere. Everyone looked happy, basking in the sun, drinking and enjoying themselves under the pink-petaled flowers so iconic to my country. Everything looked and felt so different. This wasn’t the “hot, humid and sticky summer” Japan or the “cold, icy winter storm” Japan that I was familiar with.

Springtime Japan gave me the idea, “why not study here?” My writing and reading skills definitely needed intensive work. I rarely wrote Japanese, aside from the text messages I exchanged with my parents. Aside from occasional glances at the Japanese news, I rarely read Japanese in college. I had also received approval to pursue my thesis research on immigration in Japan. Why not conduct field studies during my time abroad?

Last and most importantly, I had the strong desire to explore and see Japan beyond the concrete, busy metropolis of Tokyo.

Enamored with spring and filled academic goals, I decided to change my study abroad destination to Tokyo. My parents were pleased to have their daughter back in her birthplace and studying her own language and culture. As the day of departure approached, my head was filled with all sorts of dreams about exploring Tokyo, and going beyond the city to other regions of Japan.

But things didn’t go as planned.

Homesick During Study Abroad in Japan


Photo by Tracy Lee

Most study abroad programs (if they’re anything like my university’s) are full of orientations. Each session consists of discussion on everything and anything we might need to know before we leave. Once we get to our destination, they orient us even more. Much of it is very necessary, like understanding the school system, knowing what to do if you get sick, etc. Our Tokyo study abroad group had an extensive session on the psychological aspects of study abroad. Specifically, the struggles of adapting to a new environment and the homesickness that often comes along with it.

I’ll be completely honest here: I was naive when it came to these homesickness orientations. I am Japanese. I speak the language fluently, and had visited Japan many times. Homesickness was the last thing on my mind. “Why would I feel homesick in my own country?” I thought to myself. “There’s no way I could feel confused.”

Looking back, I want to slap that clueless girl in the face and tell her to straighten up. In reality, I felt like a total foreigner in my own country, for at least the first month of my study abroad.

Lifestyle changes hit me hard, both physically and mentally. As I commuted an hour and a half to get to school, shifting through the crowded streets of Tokyo, I began to question the mass media harping on about Japan’s population decline. I was physically and mentally exhausted by the hustle and bustle. How did locals manage to live with this every day? After a few weeks of post-arrival euphoria, I was sick of being in the concrete jungle.

Communication Struggle


I never imagined communication would be an issue. I understood what everyone was saying, and I was able to ask for help whenever I needed it. But for the first couple weeks, I couldn’t communicate “smoothly,” for a lack of better term.

Conversations felt strained and misunderstandings were common, especially with other Japanese students my age. Perhaps this was because I was unaware of how Japanese young adults talked with each another. For much of my life, my parents were the only Japanese people I spoke the language to.

There was a particular time when I was speaking with another Japanese girl in a club I had joined. I was speaking formally with everyone, ending all my sentences with “~desu” and “~masu.” Finally, the girl looked a bit offended and asked, “Why are you talking like that?”

I didn’t know that speaking formally is weird when the other person isn’t your sempai. She and I were in the same grade, and I created a weird “wall” between us. All because I didn’t know how to converse with people my age.

Because I was raised in the American education system, the concept of sempai-kouhai was hard for me to grasp. How do you determine if someone’s a sempai? Is it physical age, or is it grade? Is it the amount of experience they have on a particular activity? Or is it the position within a specific organization (i.e. clubs)?

Can’t I just talk formally to everyone? Oh wait, that builds an “invisible wall” around you. So why can’t we just talk informally to everyone, then?  Right, because it’s disrespectful.

Identity Issues


Identity issue was a little more complex for me to dissect and understand. It bothered me for weeks. Whenever I interacted with other Japanese students my age, they were confused.

“So you’re American?”
“No, I’m Japanese. I was born here, but raised there.”
“So you’re Jun-Japa?! (純ジャパ) Why are you studying here then?!”

At various school functions where local and international students interacted, many of them regarded me as an “American student.” But once we began to converse in Japanese (as any study abroad student should), they began to question my real identity. To them I was what they call a Jun-Japa (純ジャパ)– pure Japanese. But this Jun-Japa was NOT speaking and acting Japanese.

At times, I think this dual identity strained conversations and relationship-building. There I was, a Japanese national, who spoke and understood Japanese. But I didn’t look or act the part.

I spoke English better than Japanese, and donned the typical American college kid attire of T-shirt and jeans. I looked so different from the local Japanese girls and their impeccable appearance.

Maybe the “American side” of me was coming out a little strong in Japan, confusing both me and everyone else.

I also had trouble communicating with Japanese people outside school. Should I act American or Japanese? How do Japanese people my age act anyway? What does it even mean to be American?

Figuring It Out


I didn’t think it was be possible. But there I was, completely lost like a stranger in my own country. As exaggerated as it sounds, I began questioning my identity. Was I too Americanized to be considered as a “Japanese girl?”

Looking back, I realize that I was comparing Japan to the country that I visited when I was younger. Visiting Japan for just a month is far different from actually living and studying there for 4 months.

Perhaps it was because I didn’t take the thought of homesickness seriously. Maybe it was because I was reading Murakami’s Norwegian Wood (the most depressing sh*t ever). Nothing made sense and I became sad at the most random moments. Within weeks of starting my study abroad, I was missing the comforts of California, my university, and my friends and family. I quickly became frustrated, sad, and angry.

Shaking It All Off


Photo by きこう

For me, the first step to overcoming this sense of frustration was admitting I was naive. Yes, Japan was my birthplace. But for a girl who’s lived over half of her life abroad with little contact to a large Japanese community, Japan was a brand-new country. I had to take it in little by little, and stop comparing it to the country I had visited so often in the past.

I had to think about why I was struggling to live in Tokyo. I had to consider different approaches. I was tired of the concrete jungle, yes. But I hadn’t considered Tokyo to be more than it’s famous locations. Shibuya, Shinjuku, and Ikebukuro can be fun, but I hadn’t given other neighborhoods a chance. I ended up exploring the less-crowded spots, like quiet residential neighborhoods and the homely shitamachi (下町) areas. I often found solace just walking around these areas and finding little new things here and there.

I found great relief in talking about my issues with other study abroad students. It turns out most of us had felt pretty “out of place” at certain times during our time in Tokyo. We shared about times we felt bad, times when we felt good, and how we adjusted to the society. Just talking with others and learning that I wasn’t the only one feeling like total crap was reassuring.

I decided to go beyond my school’s campus and meet Japanese people doing interesting things. I took an internship at a journal publisher. I learned a lot from the editor-in-chief and other Japanese interns. I got a sense of what it was like to work along other Japanese people.

I even managed to catch up with some old friends– including ones I haven’t seen in 14 years! I also got to meet with students from other universities doing some really interesting projects.

Besides these, time and a whole lot of napping helped. There would be days I felt super energetic and ready to go explore. And then there were days when I felt too frustrated and just wanted to go home and nap.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what made it go away. But little by little the feeling of being “lost” dissipated. It took time to come to terms with all the different people, sites, and ideas that I was seeing every day. But eventually I felt pretty situated in the country I once called “home.”

Rewards from the Journey

Me at the highest point in Japan, Mt. Fuji

Everything got better after the initial “slump.” And looking back, there’s a whole lot I have to thank Japan for.

My writing and reading definitely improved. I was surrounded by the language wherever I went. Not only was I speaking Japanese on a daily basis, but I was writing and reading a lot in class. I read Japanese newspapers daily. I was surrounded by Japanese ads on the trains and came home to a share house where Japanese was the common language. The effects of daily language engagement are still with me. It’s overstated, but being completely immersed in the language kicks up your skills.

I think the people I met and befriended, whether they were Japanese or from other countries, my time abroad special. I encountered people of all ages, employment, and personal backgrounds. It was always interesting to see how they viewed Japan, how they viewed America, and exchange thoughts on all kinds of topics, silly and serious.

I got to travel and explore Tokyo and beyond. I think I had somehow always tied “Tokyo=busy” and “Japan=Tokyo” to my psyche. But Japan can’t be defined by its capital alone. In a sense, I got a better view of the country in its entirety, not limiting myself to certain ideas or images that I grew up with.

But most importantly, I learned how the “familiar” can feel “foreign.” I realized my identity was not something that could be clearly defined. I was Japanese by citizenship and ethnicity. But because of my upbringing, I can’t completely associate myself with Japanese culture. All in all, I got comfortable living in this “gray” zone, mixing languages and cultures of the two countries that are a part of my identity.

In a sense, my time abroad gave me an idea of what it really means to be “open-minded.” We all claim to be welcoming of new ideas, people and values. But it’s not until we’re placed in a foreign situation that we realize how capable we are of embracing “foreignness.” For me personally, it turned out I was a little more stubborn than I thought. It took a little more time and thought for me to accept the ways my own country.

This summer, I’ll return to Tokyo, this time for an indefinite period and to work as a shakai-jin (社会人, “Member of society”). Hopefully I’ll be a little wiser this time around. Though I’ll expect to feel like a “stranger” sometimes, perhaps I’ll learn to move better with the pushes and pulls and find my place in this crazy but amazing country.

Bonus Wallpapers!

[Desktop ∙ 5120×2880 / 1280×720] ∙ [Mobile]

The post A Japanese Citizen Studying “Abroad” in Her Own Country appeared first on Tofugu.

]]> 35
Anime’s Great Deception – The Difference Between Anime and Cartoons Wed, 01 Jul 2015 13:00:00 +0000 Even as a child, I sensed something different about cartoons like Robotech and Voltron. Compared to other shows, they struck me as serious, dramatic and stylish. Each episode contributed to a longer narrative and when something changed, it remained that way for the rest of the series. The straight-lined art affected me me in a way other cartoons’ softer, rounded styles never did. Something […]

The post Anime’s Great Deception – The Difference Between Anime and Cartoons appeared first on Tofugu.

Even as a child, I sensed something different about cartoons like Robotech and Voltron. Compared to other shows, they struck me as serious, dramatic and stylish. Each episode contributed to a longer narrative and when something changed, it remained that way for the rest of the series. The straight-lined art affected me me in a way other cartoons’ softer, rounded styles never did.

Something was different, though I couldn’t put my finger on it.

At the time I didn’t know these cartoons came from Japan, where they had different titles, and occasionally different narratives. I didn’t know that one day I’d become a fan of the medium, a style of cartoon called anime.

Anime differed from standard Western cartoons. Back then anime fans would tell you, Japanese anime is better. Cartoons are “kids’ stuff.” With complicated stories, deep character development and themes fit for adults, anime eschews the label of cartoon and makes claims on being a higher art-form.

Of course anime’s visuals fuel its purported pedigree. Fans laud anime for its detailed art, style and fluid animation. Wait… fluid animation?!

嘘つき! (Uso tsuki! Liar!)

In reality, what set anime apart from other styles is its deliberate lack of fluidity and use of limited-animation. By ignoring the era’s animation standards, animation studio Mushi Pro revolutionized the medium.

And by taking advantage of two factors – television’s access to Japanese households and the popular manga series Astro Boy – Mushi Pro created both Japan’s first anime as well as its first anime boom. Mushi Pro’s ingenuity created a controversial style of animation that lacked animation and this deceptive style and marketing tradition continues today.

Anime’s Success Ingredient 1: Television

Image from Always Sanchōme no Yūhi

Television’s proliferation in Japanese households provided the access anime needed to reach its audience.

Japan’s post-war era saw furious physical reconstruction and economic growth. Mass and personal transportation made commuting possible and helped cities grow. With a rebuilt infrastructure, Japan’s economic boom hit full swing.

After prices leveled out and necessities became readily available, households had more spending money than ever before. Affordable commodities like refrigerators, rice cookers and washing machines made life more comfortable. The economic growth continued.

For the first time, average people could afford the extravagant. Television ownership boomed. “In 1960, 55 percent of households owned a TV set, by 1964, TV ownership had grown to 95 percent, owing… to the crown prince’s televised wedding in 1959 and the 1964 Olympics” (Steinberg). Widespread TV ownership gave broadcasters access to nearly every household and allowed the country’s first anime series to take Japan by storm.

Anime’s Success Ingredient 2: Astro Boy

Difference Between Anime and Cartoons

Image from Astro Boy

As we learned in Michael Richey’s Anime Before It Was ‘Anime’, Japanese animation dates back to the early 1900’s. But pre-war productions are best described as cartoons, not anime. Richey explains, “Anime, as we all know it now, began with Osamu Tezuka’s style and production methods and everyone in Japan following his lead.”

Prior to Osamu’s Astro Boy (鉄腕アトム, Tetsuwan Atomu), animation occupied a marginal position in Japan’s cultural consciousness. Japanese studios faced limitations that made competition with foreign studios impossible. Meager budgets meant Japanese studios faced an uphill battle against foreign features’ financing, sound and color (Hu).

Although the need for wartime propaganda fueled the production of pro-war cartoons like Momotaro’s Divine Sea Warriors (1945), the war effort, government censorship and widespread destruction stifled Japan’s manga and animation industries.

After the war, Japan’s movie studios looked to beautiful animation from abroad for inspiration. Fully-animated features from China and the US provided the blueprint. Instead of forging their own path, Toei, Toho and other Japanese studios sought to imitate their foreign rivals.

As a result, Japan’s studios produced theatrical features. Despite Japan’s intense post-war recovery, animation remained too time consuming and too cost prohibitive for television. But Astro Boy‘s 1963 debut changed everything.

“Manga god” Tezuka Osamu aimed to do the impossible and conquer the television market. His animation company Mushi Pro ignored the era’s animation philosophies, goals and influences. When all was said and done, Mushi Pro’s Astro Boy anime rocketed to popularity and sparked a paradigm shift in Japan’s animation industry.

Forging a New Path

Difference Between Anime and Cartoons

Image from Sakigake! Cromartie High School

In the West “anime” means “animation from Japan.”, a Western anime and manga databasing site, refuses to list a series unless it’s Japanese (to the chagrin of Avatar: the Last Airbender fans).

However, the average Japanese person considers all forms of animation to be “anime,” regardless of style or country of origin. I’ve even heard live action series like Kamen Rider, Metal Heroes and Super Sentai referred to as “anime” in conversation.

But industry insiders and purists (Hayao Miyazaki for example) define “anime” as a “limited-animation” style popularized by Japanese studios. Envisioned by Tezuka Osamu, limited-animation techniques lowered production costs while speeding up the production process, making animation feasible for television broadcast.

Difference Between Anime and Cartoons

The full animation made famous by Disney and embraced by Japan’s studios used too many cels (the transparent sheets artists drew and painted images onto, then layered and photographed to make a frame of animation), required too large a staff and took too much time to make its production suitable or even possible for TV.

However, Osamu realized animation need not be fluid or fully animated to be enjoyed by audiences. After all, by flashing still images in rapid succession, even live action films create a flase illusion of motion.

Film theorist Christian Metz explains,

Motion… is always perceived as real. Since motion is never a tangible thing… there is no difference between the perception of motion in everyday life and the perception of motion onscreen. (Steinberg)

Mushi Pro, Osamu’s studio, developed a style of “moving manga” noted for its “limited” animation. Associate animation professor at Kyoto Seika University Nobuyuki Tsugata writes, “From the start Tezuka… intentionally created anime, not animation.” (Steinberg)

As the first television anime, Astro Boy reused cels, relied on visual and audio tricks and used fewer frames of animation to create an illusion of full motion.

Mushi Pro’s Yamamoto Eiichi explained, “In the end we completely did away with the techniques of full-animation. Then we adopted the completely new technique of making the manga frame the basis for the shot, moving only a section of this frame.” (Steinberg)

Audiences loved the result. Astro Boy became the first official “anime” and gave birth to the popular, marketable style than continued through the likes of Tetsujin-28Neon Genesis Evangelion, and onward.

The Difference Between Anime and Cartoons

Difference Between Anime and Cartoons

Photo from Giovanni’s Island

Through Astro Boy, Mushi Pro created a style of animation that relied on stillness, giving their anime a specific style and nuanced definition. Nobuyuki Tsugata explains the result,

Anime is an animation form that 1) is cel based 2) uses various time and labor saving devices that give it a lower cel count… and 3) has a strong tendency toward the development of complex human relationships, stories and worlds. (Steinberg)

Marc Steinberg adds three tenets to the list, 4) anime is organized around distribution outlets (like TV and DVD) 5) it is character-centric 6) it is inherently transmedial.”

Miyazaki Hayao’s Studio Ghlibli, rejects anime’s style and techniques. In The Anime Machine, Thomas LaMarre recalls how Studio Ghibli documentaries and exhibitions

almost completely exclude those forms of Japanese animation that commonly fall under the rubric anime. Clearly the goal… is to shore up a lineage of Japanese animation (called manga film) that stands in contrast to anime.

By refusing to call his films “anime,” Miyazaki draws a definitive line between anime and other forms of animation (Steinberg).

Limited-Animation’s Definitive Techniques

making naruto

What techniques made Astro Boy, the first televised anime possible, and why? Some sped up production. Others cut costs. Although each technique served a convenient purpose, the following techniques created anime’s appealing and striking style.

1) Three Frame Shooting

Full-animation features twelve to eighteen unique images per second. The result is smooth, fluid, “life-like” motion. Limited-animation uses significantly fewer frames. On average, anime studios employ eight images per second, but fewer frames can be used (Steinberg).

Mushi Production staff “got away with only fifteen hundred to eighteen hundred drawings per twenty-five minute episode… The same program length done in full-animation would require around ten times that, or eighteen thousand drawings.” (Steinberg)

Although less fluid, anime maintained the illusion of motion. Three-frame shooting cut production costs and time and became an anime standard.

2) Stop-Images

In cases of location and crowd shots or facial close-ups, Mushi Pro employed a single, still image.By blocking or obscuring a character’s mouth, animators even utilize stop-images in scenes where characters speak. When cast among the rhythm of other shots, accompanied by music, sound-effects or narration, the image’s stillness goes unnoticed.

3) Pull cels

When a character or object crosses the frame at a fixed distance, animators found redrawing or fully-animating the image redundant.

Instead, animators move the single animation cel across the background. One cel does the work of many, saving time and money. Although the character or object appears to move, it is a still image. Once again animators create motion despite a lack of true, fluid animation.

4) Repetition

The technique of repetition relies on the reuse of cels or animated sequences within a single sequence. For example, a running character maybe reuse the same “running” cels several times while the background scrolls to create the illusion.

5) Sectioning

In sectioning, parts of a shot are animated while others are stop-images. In the picture above, Astro Boy’s body is a single, fixed cel. His arm is a separate image that the animators manipulate to create motion.

6) Cel Banking

Cel banking involves reusing the same animation cels and therefore same animated sequence (Steinberg). For example, a single Astro Boy flying sequence might be reused throughout the series’ production. When cel banked sequences are viewed in succession, the trick becomes obvious. But disguising their reuse with rhythm or different backgrounds creates the illusion of original movement despite repeated viewings.

6) Lip-Synching

Through lip-synching, mouth cels are animated over a static face. Audiences focus on the mouth and dialogue while ignoring the still image. Short shot length and rhythm hide the fact that only the mouth moves. Just as face cels could be banked and reused, animators used these mouth animations again and again.

8) Short Shot Length

Short shots and editing rhythm don’t give audiences time to realize images lack animation. Quick cuts create rhythm and hide static images, creating the illusion of animation.

9) Special Effects Layers

Special effects layers are cels placed over a still image to create onscreen effects without full-animation. Beads of sweat dripping down a character’s face, tears, rain, the sparkle of an eye, and the pulse of a vein all create the illusion of animation. Effects appear and move as a pull cel (sweat rolling down a face) or in repetition (falling rain).

10) Camera Movement

Camera techniques also help fake movement. Pulling away, zooming in, panning across a shot, or fading in or out creates a sensation of movement without actual animation. Animators couple the shots with narrative or other sounds to further distract viewers and complete the illusion.

Mushi Pro did not invent these techniques. The studio’s influences include animated television commercials, Hanna Barbera cartoons, and Japanese traditional theater. But Mushi Pro mixed old techniques with the new and created a stylized form of animation fit for television production.

The Virtues of Limited-Animation


Limited-animation succeeded by decreasing production time and costs – two factors vital for television broadcasting. Here’s how.

The reuse of animation cels lowered costs by decreasing the need for supplies like blank cels and paint. Animators spent less time drawing and coloring since limited-animation used fewer unique images. These factors allowed studios to meet television’s high paced production.

Studios based anime series off of preexisting manga which meant staff spent less time and effort on development since plots, story boards and dialogue had already been planned out. Basing anime on manga also provided pre-established exposure and fan-bases that original series lacked.

For a full-animation production, high level artists spent countless hours drawing and redrawing characters frame by frame. The costly process consumed time and resources. By utilizing techniques that saved time and money, limited-animation streamlined the animation process with industrial efficiency.

Limited-animation removed some of the artistry from the production process. Studios outsourced episodes and in-between animation cels to other studios or unskilled labor. The strategy allowed for faster, cheaper production. Although the practice has come under fire, outsourcing has been a common practice since the dawn of anime. In fact, Mushi Pro outsourced production of the original Astro Boy series, relying on Studio Zero and P Production to produce some episodes (Brubaker).

By ignoring the animation industry’s original goals, Mushi Pro’s Astro Boy proved animation could be produced for television. From its reuse of animation cels to its reliance on manga and outsourcing, limited-animation makes production faster, cheaper, and more efficient.

Limited-Animation’s Unlimited Style

Image from The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya

Limited-animation’s time and cost cutting techniques lead, whether intentional or not, to anime’s definitive style. Marc Steinberg explains,

Unlike the full-animation of Disney, limited-animation relies on the minimization of movement, the extensive use of still images and unique rhythms of movement and immobility… We must think of limited-animation not in terms of immobility but rather in terms of the very mobility of the still image… a different kind of movement or dynamism.

Limited-animation’s lack of movement empowered static images; anime’s style struck audiences in ways full-animation never did:

Instead of (creating) fluid cinematic movement across the screen or within a world, limited-animation allows bodies to leap from field to field, from image to image, and even from medium to medium. (Lamarre)

In other words, limited-animation’s deliberate cuts and rhythm of images creates sensations absent from traditional fluid animation. While full-animation can be beautiful and breathtaking, limited-animation trills viewers with stylized editing, bold still-shots, cool poses and dramatic effects.

Image from Dragon Ball Z

Moreover, static images make characters recognizable by their silhouette or trademark poses. Limited-animation favors character and graphic design over actual animation.Thomas LaMarre explains,

As limited-animation deemphasized full-animation of characters, it increasingly stressed character design, and the degree of detail and the density of information became as important as line, implied depth, and implied mass… Limited-animation tends toward the production of “soulful bodies,” that is, bodies where spiritual, emotional, or psychological qualities appear inscribed on the surface.

Character details, like hair styles, outfits, and accessories, allow viewers to draw conclusions about characters with just a glance. The trend of character design and reliance on superficial imagery like cat ears and eye patches has fueled the moe (萌え, pronounced [mo.e]) boom.

Image from Astro Boy (live action)

Anime reproduces manga in ways live action cannot. Animation studios recreate a manga’s style, angles and at times exact panels for their animated versions. Marc Steinberg writes, “The same character, in the same drawing style and in the same poses, now inhabited manga and anime alike – not to mention the other media forms to which the character image migrated.”

Image from Bakemonogatari

Limited-animation’s inherent style created striking, recognizable and stylized imagery. Anime series recreated manga in ways live action and fully-animated productions did not. And so limited-animation’s limits became the style’s greatest strength!

Synergy: A Marketing Dream Come True

Image from Gintama

Limited-animation lends itself to “synergy” or a “product mix” between media and consumerism (Lomash). Television anime reaches a wide audience and creates new fan-bases for pre-established manga and characters. Fans take pride in supporting their beloved series through consumption. Anime’s market synergy crosses mediums including film, games, music, figures and accessories.

Anime’s still images offer potent marketing synergy. Character silhouettes warrant instant recognition and cheap reproduction (Harvey). Character poses, logos (like One Piece‘s logos) and other trademark characteristics (official straw hats) lend themselves to brand recognition. Steinberg states,

The dynamic immobility of the image and centrality of the character are also what have allowed anime to forge connections with toys, stickers, chocolates and other media-commodities, developing the media mix and its modes of consumption that are so essential to anime’s own commercial success – and survival.

Anime-inspired products allow characters to inhabit fans’ everyday lives. Steinberg recalled the success of Astro Boy sticker campaigns, “The Atomu image was suddenly able to accompany young fans in all areas of their lives, always there to remind them of their favorite character and his narrative world.”

By purchasing merchandise, fans gained ownership and grew closer to a series. Character goods gave added value to everyday objects. With the addition of a character image or logo, boring commodities like notebooks, pencils and toothbrushes become special. Applicable items like stickers and patches mean fans can customize and synergize anything (Steinberg)

Fans’ love for marketable characters proved more profitable than the love for intangible narratives and stories. Since the Astro Boy boom, popular anime characters have come to saturate Japan, inundating all facets of life.

Would “Anime” By Any Other Name Look as Sweet?

To some, anime’s popularity and marketing synergy pale in the face of “low quality” animation. Full-animation purists, like the old Toei Studios and Miyazaki, resisted the new wave of Japanese animation. Their features feature the full movement of characters. These studios took honor and pride in smooth, fluid animation. They sought to “produce the ‘illusion of life.” (Steinberg)

Astro Boy‘s popularity shocked them all. Astro Boy and its successors flaunted their lack of realism. Animation critic Joji Hayashi contends, “limited-animation does not try to hide from the spectator the fact that it is an unreal image.” (Steinberg) Although anime’s techniques create an illusion of motion, it does not try to emulate reality as full-animation does.

The debate continues today. Miyazaki and other full-animation purists connect animation to reality. In a recent interview Miyazaki bemoaned the current state of anime. Otaku are ruining the industry, he said, by creating stylized and therefore unrealistic character driven works.

But animation expert Roger Noake counters,

There is a danger in confusing full-animation with good animation. At its best it can be excellent. But if full-animation is used as the norm by which all other animation is judged, this can promote a cruel and narrow attitude (Hu).

Not all full-animation is “good.” At times full-animation looks so real it becomes surreal, even unnatural and awkward. In extreme cases like rotoscoping, a technique of tracing live film footage, the resulting movement is so fluid that it can actually be distracting.

Beauty Lies in the Perception of the Beholder

Image from Astro Boy

Although limited-animation may not better represent reality, it may better represent our perception of reality: the way humans observe, process and remember information.

Do we notice and process every detail in everyday life? Selective attention theorists say no. “Individuals have a tendency to orient themselves toward, or process information from only one part of the environment with the exclusion of other parts. “(Beneli)

In fact, human perception didn’t develop to create photographic representations of the surrounding world. Daniel Simmon explains,

The goal of vision isn’t to build a photograph…of the world in your mind… The goal of vision is to make sense of the meaning of the world around you.”

This quote suggests limited-animation’s lack of motion and details eases our understanding of characters, narratives, and themes. Although full-animation mimics reality in detail and fluidity, limited-animation tunes into human perception by focusing on the raw, concentrated meaning of the world around us; albeit fictitious, animated worlds.

The Grand Illusion

But does that even matter? Dismissing any animation does a disservice to the medium. Who says animation has to be fluid? Or realistic? Or entertaining? (Oh right, Miyazaki does.) Animation’s greatest strength lies in its lack of rules, versatility and in its ability to tackle an endless variety of subject matter.

When live-action faced technological limits, animation broke the shackles of filming reality. Unlike those films, animation made anything imaginable possible. And when full-animation’s limits hindered television production, Tezuka Osamu and Mushi Pro had the insight to create animation by eliminating animation. Their methods for producing cheaper anime at a fast pace became the industry standard and the striking style has gained a fanbase around the world.

Researching this article has proven a double-edged sword. Although I loved learning about the animation process, I will never view anime the same way again. The knowledge has highlighted moments of pull-cels, sectioning and reuse have received highlights. Instead of enjoying the illusion, I notice techniques.

Yet my newfound sensitivity makes little difference; anime’s striking style, great characters and cool narratives overcome all. Despite acknowledging the deception, I can’t help but enjoy and appreciate it. As Marc Steinberg says, a book, comic or DVD has almost no value as an object: “Value is in the consumption, the enjoyment.”

Bonus Wallpapers!

[Desktop ∙ 5120×2880 / 1280×720] ∙ [Mobile]


  • Allain, Paul. The Art of Stillness: The Theatre Practice of Tadashi Suzuki.
  • Beneli, Iris. Selective Attention and Arousal
  • Brubaker, Charles. The Lost Astro Boy Episode.
  • Harvey, Chris. Silhouette 64 Success Secrets
  • Hollingworth, Andrew. “Visual Memory for Natural Scenes: Evidence from Change Detection and Visual Search.” Visual Cognition 14.4-8 (2006): 781-807.
  • Hu, Tze-yue G. Frames of Anime: Culture and Image-Building.
  • LaMarre, Thomas. The Anime Machine: A Media Theory of Animation.
  • Lomash, Sukul, and P. K. Mishra. Business Policy and Strategic Management.
  • Richie, Donald, and Paul Schrader. A Hundred Years of Japanese Film A Concise History, with a Selective Guide to DVDs and Videos.
  • Say, Allen. Kamishibai Man.
  • Steinberg, Marc. Anime’s Media Mix: Franchising Toys and Characters in Japan.
  • Wikipedians. Anime and Manga.

The post Anime’s Great Deception – The Difference Between Anime and Cartoons appeared first on Tofugu.

]]> 11
Ashigaru – Japan’s Overlooked And Underappreciated Warriors Mon, 29 Jun 2015 13:00:00 +0000 Samurai get too much credit. Japan’s foot soldiers, the ashigaru, started as nothing more than farmers pulled from the fields to swell a daimyo’s army. Yet as time passed they became a professional fighting force included in the samurai caste. Stories like to depict Japanese wars filled with samurai sword duels. But the truth is that […]

The post Ashigaru – Japan’s Overlooked And Underappreciated Warriors appeared first on Tofugu.

Samurai get too much credit. Japan’s foot soldiers, the ashigaru, started as nothing more than farmers pulled from the fields to swell a daimyo’s army. Yet as time passed they became a professional fighting force included in the samurai caste. Stories like to depict Japanese wars filled with samurai sword duels. But the truth is that samurai themselves lamented the rise of “ashigaru warfare” as the humble foot soldier stole their thunder.

The Origins of Ashigaru


Ashigaru were foot soldiers that made up an extremely large but historically silent part of ancient Japan’s armies. Understanding them, though, first requires a look into the origins of samurai. The image most of the world has actually comes from the final, dying days of the warrior class. It was only after Japan was unified and its civil wars ended that samurai became master swordsman. In the earliest days of Japanese warfare, samurai served primarily as mounted archers. The earliest accounts don’t even mention swords, but instead judge samurai by how well they could use a bow.

War on foot was primarily carried out by conscripted farmers. They were an untrained bunch, though, and the weapons they used were either farming tools or those looted off dead samurai. Not considered soldiers so much as fodder, they were neither outfitted nor paid. Compensation came in the form of loot, which turned out to be substantial. Being an ashigaru proved far more lucrative than being a simple farmer. This led to large numbers of vagabond fighters tagging along with samurai armies.

The Shady Years


Peasants quickly realized that fighting wars could make them wealthier than working the land, and many simply give up farming to become full time fighters. Another kind of ashigaru was born, one who prowled the edges of the battlefield joining whichever side seemed more likely to win. They were mercenaries, unreliable and unruly. Their rate of enlistment was as high as their rate of desertion. Many of them didn’t even know where they were or which side they were on. As long as it was the winning side and there was money to be made, it didn’t matter.

This unscrupulous brawler gave the ashigaru a shady image, which was cemented when they burned down the area that was to become Kyoto during the Onin War. They were branded as a dangerous, almost criminal element. Samurai tolerated them only because they were necessary for war. This is why we never hear about them except in the background of tales about samurai. Japanese writers were more interested in writing about the noble warrior class than peasant mercenaries.

But Japanese warfare was heating up and ashigaru had become proto-soldiers. The samurai were always a well-trained fighting force, but once large numbers of ashigaru mercenaries entered the fray, warfare intensified. The ashigaru were now semi-professional, and somewhat competent in a variety of weapons. One of which, the uchigatana, would help forge samurai into what they later became.

Early accounts had samurai battles being private duels that moved through a series of weapons and ended in hand to hand brawling. While these stories were certainly exaggerated, what we can clearly see was that they didn’t have any special preference for swords. Katana actually evolved from an ashigaru weapon called an uchigatana. It was essentially a cheap, disposable katana. Uchigatana were worn like the typical katana we know today, at the hip. So they could be both drawn and used to strike in the same motion.

Samurai, meanwhile, had been using a different type of sword called a tachi, which was worn on the back. Drawing and striking required two separate motions. As Japanese warfare began to become more fierce, samurai needed a faster sword. They quickly adopted the ashigaru uchigatana, which later evolved into “the soul of the samurai.”

An Upwardly Mobile Class


As daimyo’s campaigns became increasingly lengthy, victory didn’t favor the bold, but the rich. Wealthier rulers grew even more powerful because they had enough resources to keep men both at war and at home tilling the fields. The transformation of ashigaru from vagabond to professional soldier began when rulers started preferring full-time soldiers to seasonal ones..

As daimyo relied more and more on ashigaru, they began outfitting them with better weapons. Most notably, they were trained in the use of bows so they could meet an enemy’s calvary charge with a volley of fire. But now that bows were in the hands of commoners, the image of samurai as elite archers disappeared. It was much to the dismay of many samurai philosophers, who called the change of tactics “ashigaru warfare.”

Another weapon ashigaru had in common with the samurai was the spear. Samurai actually fought with spears long before they even touched their swords. They were actually told not to have a favored weapon, since they would have to rely on many throughout a battle. There is evidence that at times even the upper ranks of samurai fell to a skilled ashigaru spearman, who likely received a promotion to samurai upon presenting his master with their head. Ashigaru spear units were particularly prevalent due to the cheapness and effectiveness of the weapon.

Since ashigaru were using the same weapons as samurai, they started receiving some of the same extensive training. The fighting prowess of some ashigaru became so well regarded that the more elite members even served on daimyos’ personal guard. Their skills rapidly closed in on and at times even surpassed the samurai. One famed general boasted that he could make 10 ashigaru fight like 100 samurai. These ashigaru commanders were called “ashigaru taicho.” Despite having command over mere commoners, they were listed among the elite of Japan’s generals. Ashigaru came not only to be recognized as valuable assets of war, but the first step for commoners wanting to become full-fledged samurai.

Ashigaru and Guns


Photo by PHGCOM

The samurai hated guns. The rifles Japan had received from abroad offended Japan’s warrior class. The idea that anyone, even a lowly peasant, could kill a fully-trained samurai with only the twitch of a finger was an insult. Even the bow was preferred to guns since it took years of training to master. Guns, on the other hand, took only a few days to learn.

But daimyo saw the potential of guns, and were more concerned with securing victories then cultivating their servants’ honor. They quickly absorbed firearms into their armies. Given the samurai’s hatred of the “crude” weapon, when guns were introduced to Japan they were deemed peasant fare, and largely placed in the hands of the ashigaru.

To say firearms were the deciding factor in ending Japan’s seemingly endless civil wars would be an overstatement. But without them it isn’t likely Oda Nobunaga would have been able to put down his rivals to succeed in unifying Japan. They played a key role in his battle against rival daimyo Takeda Shingen’s feared calvary force. Their battle was a turning point for the ambitious, young Nobunaga’s quest for power. He had incorporated firearm-equipped ashigaru into his front lines, who met the mounted charge of Takeda’s samurai with a volley of rifle fire. It broke the Takeda charge, allowing Nobunaga’s forces to eventually win the battle, but also making rifle-wielding ashigaru a critical part of the fighting.

The Ashigaru Who Became Master of Japan


Photo by Victor Lee

The most notable ashigaru was Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who rose from humble peasantry to become the undisputed master of Japan. Hideyoshi was the adopted son of an ashigaru under Oda Nobunaga, the unifier of Japan. Though it’s somewhat disputed, it’s said that Hideyoshi was Nobunaga’s sandal bearer. Regardless of his exact position, though, he rose to become one of Nobunaga’s generals after a series of successes.

After his master’s death, Hideyoshi supported his grandson’s succession, though he was actually only grabbing power for himself. After a series of conflicts he eventually succeeded in putting down his rivals, and assumed Nobunaga’s place as the master of Japan. Although the system wasn’t designed to allow peasantry to climb to the very height of political and military power, it happened. Being an ashigaru was the one avenue that the son of a farmer could become the most powerful man in Japan. All it took was talent, a lot of ambition, and a little political scheming.

At this point, though, things changed for the ashigaru. Hideyoshi feared another commoner rising to take his place one day, so he kicked the ladder out from under any potential usurpers by freezing Japan’s class system. The result, though, was that any fighting man was now considered a samurai. Under Hideyoshi, ashigaru had officially joined the warrior class. Though there were different ranks that determined benefits like like pay and land ownership, as time elapsed, there was no distinguishing between ashigaru and higher ranks of samurai. The line separating them had grown too thin.

The Rise to Samurai


While samurai get all the glory, the ashigaru were fighting alongside them from the very beginning. Centuries of battle had transformed them from conscripted farmers into fighters of, at times, equal skill. Eventually, it came to the point it is now. When we say the word “samurai,” we don’t realize that we’re also saying “ashigaru.”

Bonus Wallpapers!

[Desktop ∙ 5120×2880 / 1280×720] ∙ [Mobile]


The post Ashigaru – Japan’s Overlooked And Underappreciated Warriors appeared first on Tofugu.

]]> 4
The Epic Diplomacy of Winter Sonata in Japan Fri, 26 Jun 2015 13:00:00 +0000 It’s no secret that Japan and Korea have a strained relationship. It wasn’t even 20 years ago that Korea lifted their ban on Japanese media (it was partially lifted in 1998, and fully lifted in 2004). While they aren’t the best of friends at present, they have definitely warmed up to each other. Kind of. Politically, […]

The post The Epic Diplomacy of Winter Sonata in Japan appeared first on Tofugu.

It’s no secret that Japan and Korea have a strained relationship. It wasn’t even 20 years ago that Korea lifted their ban on Japanese media (it was partially lifted in 1998, and fully lifted in 2004). While they aren’t the best of friends at present, they have definitely warmed up to each other. Kind of.

Politically, Japan and Korea are still at a stand-off, disputing island territories, bemoaning past colonization, and inflating their nationalistic tendencies. The recent China-Japan-Korea talks are attempting to put bandages on historical wounds. Many were surprised that the meeting was planned at all.

Yet, culture-wise, Korea is making waves all over Asia, especially Japan. Where traditional politics failed, Korean pop culture has succeeded. K-dramas have persuaded Japanese people to take an interest in Korean history and culture. This “Korean Wave” all started with a love story and an actor named Bae Yon Joon.

The Beginnings of the Korean Wave in Japan

Winter Sonata in Japan

After a devastating civil war and rough transition into democracy, South Korea wanted to boost its economy . Through various government-aided plans, Korea began developing its soft power in the forms of technology and pop culture. The country was very successful, exploding in popularity in all of Asia and even as far as Iran and France. Yet, Japan still wasn’t on board. There were two reasons for this:

  1. The aforementioned frostiness between the two.
  2. Japan was not interested in Asian pop culture. They aligned themselves more with Western pop culture and found their fix with American, French, and Italian imports. They just weren’t interested in the rest of Asia.

Japan didn’t want what Korea was selling and, conversely, Korea wasn’t selling. Winter Sonata, in particular, was actually aimed at the Filipino audience.

On top of this, Korea’s grudge against Japan gave them no incentive to market to them. Their wartime past led to Korea banning all forms of Japanese pop culture until 1998. They wouldn’t even allow children to use Japanese mechanical pencils.

Despite all this, Winter Sonata was released in Japan. And it took off big time. Yoon Suk Ho, director of the drama, was stunned. Japan had a nationwide crush on the male lead. Japanese women were suddenly convinced that Korean men make good boyfriends. Interest in Korean culture and history spiked.

It was so popular that it even got adapted into an anime, manga, and two separate musicals. The anime was voiced by the original cast (in Korean) with Japanese subtitles. Later a Japanese version voiced with Japanese actors was made. A musical adaptation toured throughout Japan in cities like Tokyo, Sapporo, and Osaka before heading to Korea. For the 10th year anniversary, a new musical was created by prominent Korean musical theatre stars and composers, renewing the Winter Sonata fervor.

Bae Yon Joon, the male lead and superhunk from Winter Sonata, created a $2.3 billion rise in business between Japan and South Korea. Tourism from Japan to Korea rose 40 percent. Even the Japanese Prime Minister, Junichiro Koizumi said, “I will make great efforts so that I will be as popular as Yon-sama.”  You know you’re popular when a PM wants to be like you.

The Winter Sonata Breakdown


To understand why Winter Sonata was a success in Japan, you have to know the plot. Japan took an interest in Korean culture and Korean family politics because of how vital family structure is to the Korean household. Japan has a similar family structure, a familiarity which helped the show succeed. Seeing Koreans place importance on values that Japanese people also hold dear highlighted the similarities between the two cultures.

Furthermore, the romance in Winter Sonata is chaste, with only 2 kisses (closed-mouth!) in the whole series. The drama centers around the idea of a first love. Many claim that Winter Sonata’s nostalgia factor led to its popularity with middle-aged Japanese housewives.

The Bae Yon Joon character was also pivotal for the show’s success. He was seen as manly, yet sensitive and caring. He had deep affection for his love interest and respect for his mother, but was also intelligent and successful in his career.

Below is a spoiler-laden synopsis for those who want to better understand the story’s effect on Japan without sitting through 20+ hours of show:

Jun-Sang (played by Bae Yon Joon), the main character, moves to a rural city in South Korea. He is a talented, introverted student and is welcomed by his classmates. His mother refuses to tell him about his biological father and he begins to to have an identity crisis.

Jun-Sang develops a friendship with his classmate Yu-Jin. The friendship soon turns into…romance! Suddenly, Jun-Sang gets into a terrible accident, suffering brain-damage and memory loss. His mother, upset by the pain her son has suffered, takes him to a psychologist who erases the memories of his painful childhood. She renames him Lee Min-Hyeong, telling everyone that Jun-Sang passed away. They move to the United States and Min-Hyeong becomes a successful architect.

Min-Hyeong’s work takes him back to Korea where Yu-Jin sees him on the street, thus igniting the feelings of her first love. Min-Hyeong has no memory of his life in Korea and therefore doesn’t recognize Yu-Jin. This sets up the rest of the drama and suspense, as Min-Hyeong recovers his childhood memories and falls back in love with Yu-Jin.

Japan, Post-Sonata


Photo by Peter Kaminski

After Winter Sonata, the Korean Wave, which was already going strong in the rest of Asia, finally took off in Japan. Interest in Korean restaurants boomed. Travel to Korea from Japan increased. Winter Sonata’s filming locations enjoyed special attention, of course. Korean language schools received record numbers of members. There was an estimated $4 billion increase in trade between Japan and Korea. More and more Korean celebrities became famous in Japan, a market that is usually off-limits to foreign talent.

Kpop groups like Big Band and 2NE1 gained superstar status. Dramas like Coffee Prince, Brilliant Legacy, and You’re Beautiful followed Winter Sonata’s legacy and became hit TV shows.

However, after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, nationalism took root in Japan. Korean pop culture began disappearing from the mainstream. Although the programs and hype had fallen to a whisper, fans remained.  The Korean Wave became a niche interest amidst the nationalist movement. The Dokdo/Takeshima island dispute only further riled up the nationalism within Japan and Korea, thrusting politics upon celebrities and placing Korean idols in an awkward position. Either they distance themselves from the dispute and anger their Korean fans (and “betray” their roots) or side with Korea and Dokdo and no longer be marketable in Japan. Seriously, no win-win situation. World War II disputes (especially the heated topic of comfort women) flared up again, raising tempers and reigniting decades-old tension. Anti-Korean protests took place outside Fuji TV station and there was a decrease in the availability of Korean programming. The Korean wave seemed to slow to a mere trickle.

But after a few years lying low, the wave began to surge anew. In 2014, a Korean drama went primetime in Japan for the first time. Iris broke out of K-drama’s daytime TV status, and competed with primetime Japanese shows.

Just a few months ago on April 22, 2015, KCON The Korean Wave Fest was held in Japan with over 15,000 in attendance. This is the first time such a large celebration of Korean culture was held in Japan. The audience, primarily young people, celebrated Korean food, cosmetics, fashion, tech, and industry. Fans took part in mini dance competitions, copying idols’ iconic dance videos. Attendees learned Hangeul (the Korean writing system) to make signs for their favorite stars. Fans were even allowed to leave letters and notes in boxes for performers.

The Winter Sonata in Japan Continues


The cultural exchange between Japan and Korea has done wonders for the relationship between the two. A decade ago, Korea had just fully lifted the import of Japanese products. Now they are hosting a Korean culture convention in Japan with thousands of attendees. Healthy tourism, business, and entertainment trade continues to strengthen the soft power of their relationship.

The Korean Wave is not just about pop culture and trading fandoms. It influenced the politics and attitudes of entire countries. Most importantly it improved the relationship of two nations whose animosity seemed too deep to overcome. Such wonderfully positive things springing from middle-aged Japanese women and their crush on a hunky actor.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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


The post The Epic Diplomacy of Winter Sonata in Japan appeared first on Tofugu.

]]> 4
What Is a Butsudan? And Why Are People Paying $630,000 for Them? Wed, 24 Jun 2015 13:00:00 +0000 Have you ever been to a temple in Japan and thought, “I wish I had some of this amazingness in my house?” Then the Japanese butsudan (仏壇) is for you. A butsudan is a small, household Buddhist shrine. Its exterior often resembles a simple cabinet, with two outward opening doors. Of course, they can also exhibit more […]

The post What Is a Butsudan? And Why Are People Paying $630,000 for Them? appeared first on Tofugu.

Have you ever been to a temple in Japan and thought, “I wish I had some of this amazingness in my house?” Then the Japanese butsudan (仏壇) is for you.

A butsudan is a small, household Buddhist shrine. Its exterior often resembles a simple cabinet, with two outward opening doors. Of course, they can also exhibit more elaborate and elegant, designs.

The inside is what makes the butsudan so special. It houses a religious icon, namely a Buddhist statue or image. The name-tablets of one’s ancestors are harmoniously positioned alongside it. A plethora of religious items called butsugu are also arranged inside.

The butsudan is actually unique to Japan. No other Buddhist countries partake in this practice (except some Mongolians). Because there are so many temples in other Asian countries, people don’t need to make altars in their homes.

Wait a minute. There are a lot temples in Japan too! Why do Japanese people need an altar in their own homes? When did this custom start? Let’s uncover the mystery of the Japanese butsudan.

What Is a Butsudan?


The butsudan actually has its origins in ancient India. Practitioners of early Buddhism made a platforms of mud and venerated gods there. It wasn’t long before roofs were added to shelter the platforms from rain and wind. It’s said that this is the origin of temples.

Buddhism eventually made its way to Japan via China, where it took off.

On March 27, 685, the Japanese Emperor Tenmu issued an edict. It stated that each family in every country (pretty presumptious of him, eh?) must make a Buddhist altar that holds a statue of Buddha and the Buddhist scriptures and conduct prayer and memorial services in front of it.

The 27th day of each month was designated as “Butsudan Day” by the Zen-Nihon-Shuukyou-Yougu-Kyoudoukumiai (全日本宗教用具協同組合), which literally means “Japan’s Religious Utensil Dealer Cooperative.”

And that’s where butsudan came from. Right?


The current butsudan is not directly descended from the above-mentioned imperial edict. So how did the current butsudan come to be? There are actually two theories.

#1: The Nobility’s Private Buddha Statue Hall


Photo by 663Highland

Some of the nobility had their own 持仏堂 (jubitsudou). This a private place where a Buddha statue and ancestor tablets were kept. During the Nara period, the arrangement of items was set up in a small building outside of the house. However, it only began to be placed inside the house during the Heian period.

For example, Fujiwara-no-Yorimichi (藤原頼通, 992 – 1074) had Byoudouin-Hououdou (平等院鳳凰堂, Phoenix Hall of Byodoin temple). Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (足利義満, 1368-1394) had Rokuonji (鹿苑寺, Kinkakuji temple). These massive complexes acted as their own personal jibutsudou.

According to famed historian Takeda Choshu (竹田聴洲, 1916 – 1980), the above mentioned jibutsudou was  eventually made into the smaller butsuma (仏間), which means “a room for Buddha.” It was further reduced into what we now know to be a butsudan, so that it could be put indoors.

#2: Soul Shelf


Photo by kani kani

Tamadana (魂棚) literally means a soul shelf. In practice, it is an altar to greet spirits of ancestors and the recently deceased during Obon. While its shape varies by region and period, one example is a board affixed to four upright corner pillars made of bamboo or wood. With this image in mind, it’s not surprising to learn that people often used tea tables instead.

The father of native Japanese folklorists, Yanagida Kunio (柳田國男, 1875 – 1962), claims that the tamadana birthed the modern bustudan. It transitioned from its temporary Bon festival usage to a place of permanent installation and eventually became the butsudan.

Although there are two theories, the first theory is regarded as the more likely of the two.

The Spread of Butsudan


Photo by Joe Jones

In the Muromachi period (1336 – 1537), the eighth head of Hongan-ji temple was named Rennyo (蓮如).  He restored the Jodo Shinshu sect and gave his followers scrolls with the script namuamidabutsu (南無阿弥陀仏), which is an homage to the Buddha of infinite light and life. He encouraged them to enshrine the scrolls in their own butsudan.

When they made their own butsudan, they imitated what was found in the head temple of their respective sect and made it out of gold. This paved the way for the current kin-butsudan, which literally means golden butsudan.

The Jodo Shinshu sect set many standard rules regarding the butsudan. Even now, the sect says the principal image of a butsudan should be a hanging scroll acquired from the head temple of a family’s ancestral temple.

Eventually, butsudan spread outside the Jodo Shinshu sect as family mortuary tablets became common.

In the Edo period, the Shogunate created a system called terauke-seido (寺請制度 ) in which a Buddhist temples certified people as members of their temple. This new system forced individuals to choose a specific temple for their family and support it. To demonstrate membership to the temple, each family had to install a household butsudan for morning and evening worship. Additionally, they were asked to invite a family temple priest to hold memorial services to commemorate the anniversaries of their ancestors’ deaths.

This custom became widespread among commoners and the butsudan became an integral part of Japanese family life.

What Goes in a Butsudan


The arrangement and types of items in and around the butsudan vary depending on sect and the size of butsudan.

A butsudan usually has doors with an embellishment of a temple gate and three stairs. The highest stair is called shumidan (須弥壇) and is reserved for the most important butsudan item, specifically a Buddha statue. The area above shumidan is called kyuuden (宮殿) and is considered the holy place. It is the area within the butsudan that must be occupied by the Buddha statue, which tipically rests on the shumidan. Alternatively there could be an image of Buddha placed on the back wall of the butsudan, occupying the holy place.

An accompanying statue or image of Buddha is placed on one side of the butsudan and the founder of the respective sect is placed on the other side. There is a vast array of items (butsugu) that could be placed in the butsudan. But it would take up a lot of space in this article, so I’ll skip those today.

What Doesn’t Go in a Butsudan


While there are many things inside a butsudan, there are also some things that don’t belong.

“Officially,” photographs should not be placed inside. Neither should certificates, trophies, or lottery tickets because a butsudan is not a place to expect benefits. Despite this, many people put these things in their butsudan. In fact, my family in Japan places stuff like this in their butsudan all the time.

I once asked my mom why we place things like that in our butsudan, and she said it was to let our ancestors know how we are doing. Although I’m not sure if my ancestors can actually see that stuff, I guess it can’t be completely wrong since the butsudan is used to pray to your ancestors anyway.

How Much Does a Butsudan Cost?


Photo by Gnsin

According to research conducted by いい仏壇.com in June, 2011, most people pay between 100,000 to 500,000 yen for their butsudan (about US $1,000 – $5,000). While not the majority, a staggering 20% people paid over 500,000 yen for theirs. Even more impressive is that 1.2% of the people paid over 2,000,000 yen.

Niconico Douga’s Butsudan Incident


Considering only one percent of people pay more than 2 million yen for a butsudan, 63 million yen seems completely ludicrous!

Someone on Niconico Douga, a Japanese video sharing website, bought a butsudan for 63,000,000 yen (about $630,000)!

This incident occurred on August 7, 2008. It went for a price never before seen. Before this, the product which made the most money on the Niconico Douga online market was Hatsune Miku vocaloid software which sold for 28,900,000 yen. Of course, this is an aggregated price of everyone who ever bought that product, so naturally it would be that high.

The butsudan not only broke the record and doubled that number, it did it with one sale. Everyone thought that the overpriced butsudan was a joke. More surprisingly, the exact same butsudan was sold again the next day for the same price!  This, of course, became huge news.

Niconico market only counted it as a sale after the product was shipped. This was to make sure it wasn’t a fake order. Letting the time lapse on the site’s cancelation/shipping agreement makes this a possibility.

Once it was shipped, the sale of those two butsudans was finalized.

On August 11, one more was sold, as well as a 62,000,000 yen butsudan. On August 15, another one was sold. The world never ceases to amaze.

However, on August 18, the butsudan shop which originally posted the butsudan in question, announced they filed a police report about fake orders. They wanted to identify the criminal and demand compensation. The following day, two more 63,000,000 yen butsudan were sold. The butsudan posting was deleted on August, 24th. It seems likely that they could have all been fake orders, but nobody knows if every single one was. It’s possible that some of them were jokes and others, likely fewer, were real. At any rate, even if one was real, buying such an expensive item online is pretty ridiculous.

Best Place to Buy Butsudan?


No matter the price of the butsudan, buying one online is pretty crazy. We’re talking artisan craftsmanship here. These things are gorgeous and ornate. Not something you really want shipped in a box.

There are lots of places to buy butsudan in Japan. But probably the most unique is in Kanagawa. You can buy butsudan in a drive-thru. No, マクド didn’t start selling butsudan. This is a real place where you can shop for butsudan from your car.

I went there to explore this unique butsudanery (not a real word, but it sounds nice). Check out the travel post later this week. Until then…

Bonus Wallpapers!

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


  • 国史大辞典編集委員会 『国史大辞典』第7巻、吉川弘文館、1986年
  • 日本歴史大辞典編集委員会 『日本歴史大辞典』第5巻、河出書房新社、1985年
  • 「お仏壇とは」(鎌倉新書サイト)
  • いい仏壇.com
  • ニコニコ大百科
  • Niconico Market Listings


The post What Is a Butsudan? And Why Are People Paying $630,000 for Them? appeared first on Tofugu.

]]> 11
Jet Program Culture Shock Part 1: Defining Culture Shock Tue, 23 Jun 2015 13:00:00 +0000 As you get ready to depart for JET, you’ll be researching a lot of things. Preparing for a new life takes a lot of work. In articles, handouts, guidebooks, and seminars you’ll come across a scary term: culture shock. You’ll definitely be told that it’s unavoidable and not very fun. Let me tell you two things: It’s […]

The post Jet Program Culture Shock Part 1: Defining Culture Shock appeared first on Tofugu.

As you get ready to depart for JET, you’ll be researching a lot of things. Preparing for a new life takes a lot of work. In articles, handouts, guidebooks, and seminars you’ll come across a scary term: culture shock.

You’ll definitely be told that it’s unavoidable and not very fun. Let me tell you two things:

  • It’s unavoidable
  • It’s not very fun

Now let me tell you a third thing:

  • It’s manageable and beneficial

Educating yourself about what culture shock is, preparing for it, and coping with it makes the situation a lot easier. Today we’ll start with defining culture shock.

What is Culture Shock?


Culture shock is often described as a “personal disorientation” that accompanies transition into a new culture. This is technically accurate, but it makes the experience sound like something felt after getting off a carnival ride. Disorientation implies a feeling you can identify, whereas culture shock usually arises unnoticed and fades over time.

Put simply, it’s the stress of transition. But the transition is taking place in nearly all areas of a person’s life at the same time.

Symptoms of Culture Shock


Photo by Tim Dawson

Recognizing culture shock is one its major challenges. Even self-aware people can have trouble. Symptoms are a major clue. These are things like:

  • Anger
  • Boredom
  • Irritability
  • Anxiety
  • Intense homesickness
  • Panic attacks
  • Loss of motivation
  • Excessive amounts of time spent on insular activities such as sleeping or watching TV
  • Loss of self-confidence
  • Feelings of helplessness or hopelessness
  • Associating only with other JETs or foreigners
  • Withdrawal
  • Compulsive behavior
  • Suicidal thoughts

Though this may look like a nightmare list from a pharmaceutical commercial, don’t fret. Few JETs will experience all or the most severe of these symptoms. Though the majority experience several symptoms at one time.

Symptoms can happen gradually, increasing in intensity. Also, you’ll experience cultural frustrations. These may feel the same as culture shock, but the feeling dissipates when the cause of the frustration is resolved. Because of this, culture shock is hard to self-diagnose.

The Two Components of Culture Shock


Photo by mrhayata

Dr. Bruce La Brack has an excellent explanation as to why culture shock occurs:

Culture shock arises as a result of cumulative, largely puzzling encounters resulting in equally negative perceptions. For that reason, the “shock” is deceptively gradual. Those who enter another country with an attitude of what anthropologists call “naive realism” the view that everyone sees the world essentially as they do are susceptible to being quickly disabused of that idea as reality sets in. If the naive realist also holds an ethnocentric belief that his or her cultural ways are preferable and superior to all others, the likelihood of some kind of conflict escalates enormously.

From this description, we can break down culture shock into two ingredients:

  1. The cultural values of the JET, which they use to assess communicative acts.
  2. The cultural values of the host nation which are used in all communicative acts, including those received by the JET.

We all use our own cultural values, preconceived notions, personal attitudes, and other ideas to determine how to react in a given situation. The majority of the time, this is easy in our home countries. The messages we receive from people, media, and even the physical landscape at home tend to agree with our cultural values.

Sometimes though, we encounter a situation that doesn’t agree with our cultural values, and we have to choose how to react. These are misunderstandings.

Consider how often misunderstandings happen between people of the same culture. How much more will they happen between people of different cultures? The low number of matching cultural values causes the likelihood of misunderstanding to increase.

Recognize, however, that misunderstandings come in all shapes and sizes. They range from severe to benign. Many JETs spend years in Japan and only encounter a few severe misunderstandings. So the shock doesn’t come from a few horrible catastrophes. The awesome KumamotoJET website posits that it’s more like a continuous drip. A JET encounters the same benign, but possibly annoying or inconvenient cultural differences over and over. The shocks accumulate. This is why negative culture shock doesn’t happen right away. The amount of shocks needs time to build before entering the second phase.

Phases of Culture Shock


Photo by elston

Culture shock is usually broken down into phases. Depending on the source, it can be between 3 and 5. The most commonly used breakdown has four:

  • Honeymoon: This is the phase experienced when you first arrive in Japan. Everything is new and exciting. Even the smallest things seem fascinating. Those who have been to Japan before still feel excitement about their new life and job.
  • Frustration and Hostility: This stage is what people call “culture shock.” Though in reality it’s the low point of the culture shock cycle. Eventually the newness of exciting things runs out. You are left with the newness of different things, but no excitement. The situation may not necessarily be good or bad, but its differentness presents a challenge as you try to adjust. This adjustment naturally includes miscommunications, mistakes, roadblocks, and frustrations. These events tend to highlight the difference between Japan’s way of thinking and doing things and your own. All these differences and transitions introduce the symptoms listed above.
  • Adjustment: Gradually you adjust to the differentness of Japan. After passing through a lot of new and difficult situations, you learn how to navigate them better the second and third time around. This forms routines like those you had in your home country. Soon, many of the negative symptoms of culture shock disappear.
  • Accommodation and/or Biculturalism: This is an ambiguous and debatable stage. It’s a stage beyond adjustment in which you feel at home in Japan. When it happens is hard to say, because the four stages of culture shock tend to repeat. The term “biculturalism” seems to suggest a personal achievement of balance between integration into Japanese culture and retention of your personal identity.

Since culture shock is different for everyone, it’s hard to know when you’ll experience what stage. Many factors are involved, like how much you prepared beforehand, your personal values, your preconceived ideas about Japan, the negative experiences you face in Japan, and much more.

These four stages are actually a cycle. Many who have lived in Japan (or elsewhere) for 10 to 20 years report experiencing stage 2 symptoms of culture shock from time to time. Is it always as severe as the first time around? That depends on the person, but more than likely not.

The reason for culture shock’s cyclical nature has a lot to do with the foreign experience. A visiting person has many things to learn when integrating into a new culture. At the same time, it’s necessary to retain parts of their identity. Adjusting to a host culture means becoming as like the host people as possible. The immigrant has to craft a new self. But the old self is still an important part of them. It would be unhealthy to deny or suppress where you came from.

Thus, living in Japan for many years can still present frustrations. Even though your new bilcultural self accepts the new home, there will always be your old self that clashes with certain aspects of it. There’s nothing wrong with this. It’s just the nature of being a bicultural person.

You’ve Experienced Culture Shock Before


Photo by The Muuj

Hopefully all this hasn’t gotten you apprehensive about your new life in Japan. Culture shock is nothing to be afraid of. In fact, you’ve probably experienced it before. Maybe you just didn’t have a name for it.

Culture shock is actually a subset of a larger idea called transition shock. It has the same stages and symptoms as culture shock, but it’s felt in varying degrees depending on the transition. Because of this, I think it’s fair to call any transition a “culture” shock. Most transitions involve lifestyle changes and new groups of people with which to integrate.

  • If you’ve ever moved to a new place, you’ve experienced culture shock.
  • If you’ve ever changed schools or gone off to college, you’ve experienced culture shock.
  • If you’ve ever started a new job, you’ve experienced culture shock.
  • If you’ve ever met a group of people you didn’t know before, even that is a type of miniature culture shock.

Though you may not have noticed or don’t remember, you probably experienced a brief period loneliness, nervousness, self-consciousness, or even depression during a transition. These times might have been easier to deal with than moving to a new country because your language and cultural structure didn’t change.

But even with a new language and culture to learn, the basic idea is still the same. You need to adjust and adjusting takes time. In Japan it will take more time than it did during other transitions, but it will happen. You’ve done it before. You can do it again.

JET Program Culture Shock Defined. Now What?


Photo by Montaplex

As you get ready to leave for JET, prepare for culture shock but don’t fear it. Treat it the way you would (should!) treat failure. Not something to loathe, dread, or hate. But rather something to learn from. Steer into it. This may seem scary, but it ultimately offers a lot more control. Like losing control of your car on ice, steer into the slide rather than away. Instead of losing control of the vehicle, you get it back. It may not be the kind of control you’d prefer, but it’s a better and more resilient control than you would have otherwise.

Bonus Wallpapers!

[Desktop ∙ 5120×2880 / 1280×720] ∙ [Mobile]


The post Jet Program Culture Shock Part 1: Defining Culture Shock appeared first on Tofugu.

]]> 6
The Books Behind Your Favorite Studio Ghibli Films Mon, 22 Jun 2015 13:00:00 +0000 While there can be no doubt that Studio Ghibli draws strongly on Japanese material, such as the folk tales of the tanuki in Pom Poko or Shinto gods in Spirited Away, Ghibli is by no means culturally isolated. We may be dazzled by the Japanese elements, the gods, spirits, monsters and settings, but for Japanese […]

The post The Books Behind Your Favorite Studio Ghibli Films appeared first on Tofugu.

While there can be no doubt that Studio Ghibli draws strongly on Japanese material, such as the folk tales of the tanuki in Pom Poko or Shinto gods in Spirited Away, Ghibli is by no means culturally isolated. We may be dazzled by the Japanese elements, the gods, spirits, monsters and settings, but for Japanese audiences some of the movies have elements foreign to them as well. Though stories set explicitly in real foreign countries are often moved to Japan, fantastical mix-ups of European culture remain untouched. In fact, the source material is often not by Japanese authors. If we look at this list of the 50 children’s books recommended by Studio Ghibli’s acclaimed director Miyazaki, we can see that 48 are by non-Japanese authors from across the world. Several of these books have also been adapted by Studio Ghibli.

There are some really wonderful books behind the Ghibli films, and reading them can give insight into the underpinnings of some of your favourite movies. I will try to keep this article as spoiler free as possible. However, if you haven’t seen any of the movies, then I suggest you rush out and do so. After that (or before if that’s more your taste), rush out and read the books!

Grave of the Fireflies

studio ghibli films based on books grave of the fireflies covers
火垂るの墓 Hotaru no Haka, or Grave of the Fireflies is based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Akiyuki Nosaka (野坂昭如). The story is about a brother and sister struggling to survive on their own during World War Two. The book was published in 1967, a time when Japan was experiencing great economic growth. Nosaka was inspired to write the book partly by the contrast he saw with the world he saw around him and the Japan of his childhood, and partly as an apology to his adoptive sister Keiko who had died of malnutrition during the war.

After its publication Nosaka received many offers to turn the book into a movie. He declined them all, claiming that it would be impossible to recreate the blasted landscape of Japan during the war and that he doubted child actors would be able to portray the necessary emotions convincingly. However, when an anime was suggested and Nosaka was shown provisional storyboards, he agreed to it, saying that it was not possible to film the novel any other way. [Source]

Isao Takahata was the director of Studio Ghibli’s Grave of the Fireflies. Unlike most animation directors, he had not been an animator before becoming a director. His works are among Ghibli’s least known films outside of Japan, including Only Yesterday, Pom Poko, and My Neighbors the Yamadas. Within Japan, though, the movie of Grave of the Fireflies was associated with fan favourite Totoro, as they were originally released together as a double feature.

Grave of the Fireflies was Nosaka’s third book. His earlier works include アメリカひじき American Hijiki and エロ事師たち The Pornographers, both of which were highly acclaimed. He has also written many stories about the war for children. But writing is just one string to Nosaka’s bow. The same year he published Grave of the Fireflies, he also debuted as a singer and has made many albums since. He has appeared in commercials, directed a movie, been a drunken TV talent, and in 1983 was elected to the Japanese Diet. In 2003 he had a stroke, which he is still recovering from.

Nosaka’s Grave of the Fireflies is overshadowed by its animated counterpart outside of Japan. While it is easy to find copies of the movies, getting hold of the original novel is more difficult. An English translation by James R. Abrams was published in Japan Quarterly, Volume 25 in 1978. However, I haven’t been able to find any other English translations that are widely available. It is still in print in Japanese , as are his other books. This is the only book on the list that I have not read in either English or Japanese. Hopefully one day I’ll be able to read it, though it’s hard to track down.

Kiki’s Delivery Service

studio ghibli films based on books kiki delivery covers

Majo no Takkyūbin 魔女の宅急便 (Kiki’s Delivery Service) was written by Eiko Kadono in 1985. She has written a wide range of children’s books, including stories about a bear who is a doctor, a bed which becomes a tiger, and tales of an old sea captain. However, her interest in witches and other spooky things is shown by the many books she has written about them. There is even an enigmatic sentence on her website which, says “I travelled to Germany and Romania to meet a witch,” with no further explanation.

Kiki’s Delivery Service won the 23rd Noma Award for Juvenile Literature, the 34th Shogakukan Award for Children’s Literature, and holds a place on the IBBY Honour List for 1986. It is also certainly Eiko Kadono’s best well known book outside of Japan, thanks to the film adaptation.

The movie was originally scripted by Nobuyuki Isshiki and Sunao Katabuchi was meant to direct it. However, Miyazaki, who was the producer on the project, was unhappy with the script. He rewrote it and finally ended up directing it too. While Kiki is based on a book by a Japanese author, the setting draws on European cities. Miyazaki and his team travelled to Sweden to do research and included elements from Lisbon, Paris, San Francisco, and Milan to create the city of Koriko.

The book and the movie diverge at the point Kiki arrives in her new town. While the movie gives Kiki a strong character arc, the book is more of a series of vignettes about each of Kiki’s deliveries. Miyazaki commented on the changes saying,

“As movies always create a more realistic feeling, Kiki will suffer stronger setbacks and loneliness than in the original.”

These changes initially made Eiko Kadono unhappy with the project, and it was almost shelved until Miyazaki and the producer Suzuki visited Kadono at her house and invited her to the studio to convince her to let it go ahead. Luckily for all of us she did.

After the film’s release Kadono seemed pleased with the result. She wrote the sequels after its release. She has even themed her personal website with her most famous characters, Kiki and Jiji.

If you finished watching the film and you wanted to see more of Kiki’s (mis)adventures delivering things then the book would be perfect for you. There are some really fun ones, involving clocks and love letters. If what resonated with you about the movie was Kiki’s struggles, then the book might feel a little flat. The book is certainly written for children, and it is perhaps the Ghibli genius that makes the movie so accessible for a wider audience.

If you are studying Japanese, I would really recommend trying to read Kiki. Having a rough idea of the story from the movie will help you move through it faster, even if like me your Japanese reading skills aren’t the best. As the movie and the book differ, there will still be plenty of surprises to keep you hooked. Since it is a kids’ book there are furigana to help you out. It’s still a very popular book in Japan and you should be able to find a copy in book stores or libraries.

Also, if you master that challenge, maybe you’d like to try the sequels. Eiko Kadono has written 5 more books in the Kiki series. These are Kiki to Atarashii Mahō キキと新しい魔法 (Kiki and Her New Magic), Kiki to mō Hitori no Majo キキともうひとりの魔女 (Kiki and the Other Witch), Kiki no Koi キキの恋 (Kiki’s Love), Mahō no Tomarigi 魔法の止まり木 (Perch of Magic), and Sorezore no Tabidachi それぞれの旅立ち (Each and Every Departure). The most recent was published in 2009 and it appears to be the last in the Kiki series.

However, if you’d rather read Kiki’s Delivery Service in English, you are in luck! A translation was published in 2003. Ignore the terrible cover art. What is inside is great fun!

Howl’s Moving Castle

studio ghibli films based on books howls moving castle covers
This is the book that inspired me to write this article. It is pretty much my favourite book and definitely my most read one. I have four copies, one signed, one that fell apart because I read it so many times, one to replace that one, and one that I bought in Japan because I regretted not taking a copy with me. When I found out that the movie studio that had made Spirited Away – which had recently blown my then 13 year old mind – was making an adaptation of Howl’s Moving Castle, I went into a new world of excitement. To say that I love this book is something of an understatement.

I’m not sure if I would recommend the movie or the book first. For me the book will always come first, but I still appreciate the film (I saw it four times at the theatre after all.) If nothing else the book will help to explain a little the sudden and slightly bewildering transformation of a minor character at the end of the movie. It makes a lot more sense in the book.

Keep in mind, again, this is a children’s book. I encountered it at exactly the right age. Older readers coming to it might not get as much out of it as I did, but I still think it holds up and has a lot of interesting things to say about age and self confidence.

The movie adaption is perhaps the one with the most drastic changes on this list. Some characters who were good become evil. Some who were evil become good. Some who were men become women. Howl’s main motivation is completely different. However, the author Diana Wynne Jones had a positive reaction to the film, which was specially screened for her before release. Speaking to the Telegraph, she said, “It was wonderful. “I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone before who thinks like I do. He saw my books from the inside out.” Despite the changes, she believed that Miyazaki shared her vision. At the premier screening in the UK she said,

Miyazaki and I think alike, so when his offer came in I was overjoyed, because I had admired him for years. The characters are the same as I wrote them, but other things are different. Making something visual is so different from making something to read. It takes more time to make something that you see, so he had to cut things out. Howl is less of a drama queen in the film, and more of a hero. It didn’t spoil the essence of Howl.

I’m inclined to agree. My 13 year old self is pretty darned happy that both the book and the film exist.

Tales from Earthsea

studio ghibli films based on books earthsea covers
Tales from Earthsea was the first feature film directed by Gorō Miyazaki, son of animator Hayao Miyazaki. It was loosly based on the Earthsea series by Ursula K. Le Guin. The English name of the adaptation shares the name of a short story collection by Le Guin, but the movie actually draws on plot elements from many different books in the series. In Japanese the film is called ゲド戦記, literally Ged’s War Chronicles.

Ursula K. LeGuin has had bad luck with adaptations of her works. In each case, accuracy has been lacking. Sadly, the Ghibli movie is no exception (though nowhere near as bad as the SciFi Channel’s adaptation of A Wizard of Earthsea that led LeGuin to write this cutting article.) Her response to Tales from Earthsea was more favourable, but still expressed a measure of dissatisfaction. She told Gorō, “It is not my book. It is your movie. It is a good movie.”

While the movie had its troubles, winning the Bunshun Raspberry Award (文春きいちご賞, Bunshun Kiichigo Shou) for worst movie of 2006 and driving a wedge between father and son during its production, the books are truly wonderful, often cited by other authors as their favourite books. If you would like to enter the world of Earthsea, I would recommend starting with The Wizard of Earthsea. It has been enchanting readers since 1968 with its tale of young wizard Sparrowhawk and how he must face down the evils his own ambition for power calls up. If you only read one of the books in this article, read this one. Then you can go on and read the rest of the Cycle. You can begin to see some of the elements that the movie drew on. Honestly, you could probably skip the movie and just get on with enjoying these wonderful books as well as the other works of Ursula K. Le Guin.


studio ghibli films based on books borrowers arietty covers

Arrietty, or The Secret World of Arrietty, or 借りぐらしのアリエッティ (depending on whether you’re in the UK, US, or Japan) was released in 2010. It was the debut movie of Hiromasa Yonebayashi and was scripted by Hayao Miyazaki and Keiko Niwa. Although the film was first announced in 2008, Ghibli founders Miyazaki and Isao Takahata had considered an adaptation for 40 years.

The source material is Mary Norton’s 1952 book The Borrowers. This is the first animated version, but the classic story of tiny people surviving in the world of comparatively massive humans by “borrowing” things from them has been adapted for television multiple times.
The movie stays fairly close to the plot of the first book, although it does draw in a character from the second book in the series. The biggest change is certainly the setting, moving the action from 1950s England to modern Tokyo. The change only has one downside in my opinion. The names of the Borrowers are also borrowed from English words, such as Pod and Homily. In a Japanese setting, these names make little sense. However, looking past that, I think this is a fine adaptation that captures the spirit of the book. I was particularly impressed by the sound design, which gave a wonderful feeling of being small in a huge world.

The Borrowers series has a well deserved reputation as a classic of children’s literature. The first book won the 1952 Carnegie Medal. Mary Norton was born Kathleen Mary Pearson in 1903. She grew up in a house in Leighton Buzzard, which is reportedly the setting for The Borrowers. Her first two books The Magic Bed Knob; or, How to Become a Witch in Ten Easy Lessons (1943) and Bonfires and Broomsticks (1945) were the basis for the Disney musical Bedknobs and Broomsticks.

If you want to know what happens to Arrietty and her family after the dramatic end of the film, the four sequel books will satisfy your curiosity. They are The Borrowers Afield, The Borrowers Afloat, The Borrowers Aloft, and The Borrowers Avenged. All the stories have also been published in a collected edition.

When Marnie Was There

studio ghibli films based on books when marnie was there covers
When Marnie Was There, or 思い出のマーニー is Studio Ghibli’s most recent film. It had its English language release starting from May 22nd. When Marnie Was There shares two things with Arrietty: both were directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi and both were based on children’s books set in England. Also like Arrietty, When Marnie Was There is relocated to Japan, specifically eastern Hokkaido. East Hokkaido is a good equivalent for the original Norfolk setting, with its mysterious fog and beautiful countryside. I should know, as I lived close to both. In fact, the train the main character catches at the start is my train (I might have squeaked a little in the cinema.)

The change in setting also brings some additional depth to one of the characters. I won’t go into detail, but by the end of the movie you can see one of the characters faced a challenge which was not present in the original. Personally, I thought this was a good change from the book as it did give her character arc a new dimension. Otherwise, the core story is largely unchanged, with much of the book’s dialogue making it directly into the film. The story is about Anna, a young girl who struggles socially. When she is sent away for the summer she meets a mysterious girl named Marnie. The mystery of Marnie unfolds as they grow closer. I won’t say any more for those of you who haven’t seen it, but by the end I was sobbing. I left the cinema and immediately downloaded the ebook of When Marnie Was There.

The novel was written by Joan G. Robinson in 1967. She had previously written books for young children, but Marnie was the first she wrote for young adults. You can find used copies of the book on, but the ebook and new copies are only available through the store. There is also a Japanese translation that was rereleased in a special edition conjunction with the movie. The Japanese version is on my list of study materials to try. Perhaps I’m just a sucker for a bittersweet story, but I love Marnie and Anna, no matter if they are in books or movies, English or Japanese.

What Are Your Favorite Studio Ghibli Films Based on Books?

I hope that this article has given you some ideas for your reading (or watching) list. The people at Studio Ghibli clearly have good taste in books. What is your favourite Ghibli movie or favourite book behind one?

Bonus Wallpapers!

[Desktop ・ 5120×2880 / 1280×720] ∙ [Mobile]

The post The Books Behind Your Favorite Studio Ghibli Films appeared first on Tofugu.

]]> 21
Emoji – Japan’s Talking Pictures Thu, 18 Jun 2015 13:00:00 +0000 Confession: I am an emoji hipster. Before your mom was sending you grinning emoji or that cute boy was texting you heart-eyes emoji, my study abroad friends and I were using our 2009-era SoftBank phones to send each other long, complicated rows of emoji, most of which involved the poop emoji. (As one does.) But […]

The post Emoji – Japan’s Talking Pictures appeared first on Tofugu.

Confession: I am an emoji hipster. Before your mom was sending you grinning emoji or that cute boy was texting you heart-eyes emoji, my study abroad friends and I were using our 2009-era SoftBank phones to send each other long, complicated rows of emoji, most of which involved the poop emoji. (As one does.)

But emoji aren’t just for anyone with a smartphone these days. Moby Dick has been translated into emoji. The March 2015 issue of Wired featured emoji on the cover. Coca-Cola has put emoji in their URLs as part of an advertising campaign. Emoji are even being presented in court cases as evidence. Earlier this year, a man was charged with running an online black-market. During the trial, his lawyer argued that the emoji in his client’s text messages were legitimate pieces of evidence. The judge agreed.

Obviously, emoji have arrived and people like me get to be dreadful snoots about it. Though emoji have come from Japan visually intact, the cultural meanings behind them have been lost or given new, Western meanings. So before I begin writing this entire article using emoji alone (don’t tempt me), let’s look back to find patient zero. Let’s see if we can shine a spotlight on the sorta secret history of emoji. (And explain why Drake’s “praying hands/high-five” emoji tattoo doesn’t mean what he thinks it means.)

Pre-Emoji Emoji

smiley emoji koamoji emoticon

I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume you’re familiar with kaomoji (顔文字), which literally means “face letters.” (Like how emoji or 絵文字 can be translated as “picture letters.”)

Kaomoji and the West’s emoticons primarily sprung out of a need to more clearly communicate emotional intent on early web forums and message boards. As any denizen of the internet knows, a winky face can mean the difference between a sarcastic quip and a straight-faced insult.

Emoticons first hit the scene on Sept. 19, 1982 thanks to Scott E. Fahlman, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University. He suggested using :-) as a “joke marker” after someone posted a fake mercury spill message and other message board users mistakenly thought it was serious. The rest is, as they say, history. ;)

The origin of kaomoji is much murkier, though the general consensus seems to be that the first kaomoji (^_^) appeared a few years later in 1986 on a Japanese forum. Unlike emoticons, kaomoji can be seen as an extension of Japan’s kawaii or cute culture, and are heavily influenced by manga and anime, focusing more on the eyes than the mouth and incorporating things like apostrophized sweat drops and slash-marked blushing.

(Psst – And if you want to bone up on your kaomoji and impress or irritate your friends, Tofugu has a disturbingly comprehensive kaomoji guide!)

Made in Japan


Photo by Mytho88

Although Japan’s big cellphone companies, like Docomo and SoftBank, are currently facing some stiff competition from Apple and other Western companies, back in the ’90s, business was booming and Japan was at the forefront of cellphone technology. Internet access and large color screens were already standard features long before Apple got into the mobile phone game. As cellphone usage exploded in Japan, kaomoji naturally made the jump, too. Just like on message boards in days of old, kaomoji were used to garnish conversation and make emotional intent more obvious and clear. This is, of course, is especially important in a language like Japanese, where so much meaning is gleaned from context rather than exactly what’s being said.

In 1998, Shigetaka Kurita was part of the Docomo team working on i-mode. i-mode would become Japan’s most widespread mobile Internet platform and push the nation’s cell phone tech ahead of the rest of the world. Docomo had previously introduced the idea of emoji – sort of.

In the mid-90s, Docomo had added a heart symbol to its pagers. The favorable reaction from high school-aged customers didn’t go unnoticed. Sure, people could text each other kaomoji with their cellphones. But Kurita figured there had to be a simpler, more straightforward way to express emotion via text message.

Not being a designer (yet being told to design the emoji anyway), Kurita looked to manga for inspiration. Manga artists use sweat drops, waterfalls of tears, and heart eyes to make their characters’ emotions larger than life. Kurita used these same cues when creating the first set of emoji (176 12×12-pixel characters). Kurita thought Docomo’s various cellphone manufacturers might polish up his emoji designs. Instead they ended up using his work as-is, which Kurita admits isn’t the most sveltely designed. But it didn’t matter. Emoji took off. 

Gaining a Foothold


Photo by wackystuff

There was just one problem (for Docomo, at least). They couldn’t copyright Kurita’s emoji set, because each emoji was such a small amount of pixels. Competitors like J-Phone (which later became SoftBank) took the concept of emoji and ran with it, adding more and more emoji to their products. But Docomo emojis only worked on Docomo phones and J-Phone emojis only worked on J-Phone… phones. If a Docomo user tried to send a smiling cat emoji to a J-Phone user, that user would only see a hot mess.

Still, emoji were incredibly popular, unseating their more complex kaomoji cousins. It didn’t take long for emoji to start sneaking into other text spaces, like MySpace and AOL Instant Messenger (remember those?). As Apple turned to the Japanese market, they wisely gave the people what they wanted with their iOS 2.2 update in 2008: emoji.

The Journey West


Photo by TaylorHerring

Japanese iPhone users finally had their emoji. But if you were anywhere else in the world or weren’t sure how to mess around with your iPhone settings, no emoji for you. Still, the floodgates had already opened and there was no going back. Especially once emoji were incorporated into the Unicode Consortium in 2010.

Unicode is an international encoding standard for displaying characters on phones and computers. It’s basically the Esperanto of computing languages and scripts. By bringing emoji into the fold, Docomo and J-Phone users could start exchanging emoji. Even better, once emoji were added to Unicode, Apple introduced emoji as a standard international keyboard option a year later, giving emoji its true international debut.

There’s only one person who wasn’t a fan: Scott Fahlman, the guy who invented emoticons. He stands by his opinion that emoji are ugly and undermine using one’s own creativity to express themselves online. (Personally, I think he’s just jealous there’s no poop emoticon.)

Decoding Emoji 


Even though emoji’s code has been universalized, so that they can be unleashed indiscriminately across platforms, the meaning behind each emoji doesn’t always make the jump as successfully. Because the emoji we all know and love were intended for a Japanese audience, things can get a little lost in translation.

There are a ton of Japanese food emoji, like:

  • 🍡 Dango

  • 🍱 Bento

Their meanings are fairly obvious, but some are a tad subtler.

  • 🙆 Like the girl holding her hands above her head? Typically, it’s used to denote excitement or awe (or ballet, I suppose). But in Japan, making a circle with your arms means “OK” or “correct.”

Then there are the emoji whose slightly more scandalous meanings have been lost entirely.

  • 👯 Those dancing girls in black leotards that are usually used as a shorthand for “best friends” are actually Japan’s version of Playboy bunnies.

  • 🏩 I nearly choked the first time someone sent me the love hotel emoji. They must have thought it was just another emoji for hospital or “get well soon.”

Where we don’t see meaning, we inevitably make our own.

  • 💁 The girl holding her palm up can mean, “how may I help you?” in one culture. In another it’s a sassy hair flip.

  • 🙏 Two palms pressed together can mean a prayer to the Almighty or begging someone’s forgiveness. (Though an argument could be made that those two interpretations are oddly similar.) Some even see it as a high-five.

Emoji’s original purpose may have been to clear up miscommunication. But culture is its own language and it’s not always a universal one.

Making Faces


Photo by Fred Benenson

Emoji clearly aren’t going away any time soon. More have been recently added to the iPhone catalogue, mostly to give users more racial options when it comes to their “girl getting haircut” and “old lady” emoji. But in the same way that message board users in Japan adapted the West’s emoticons into more culturally relevant (and let’s face it, way cuter) kaomoji, Western smartphone users have taken emoji and grafted on their own cultural meanings.

Shigetaka Kurita probably never imagined or intended emoji to be used in a mosaic-style New Yorker cover. Or for the word “emoji” to enter the Oxford Dictionary. Or for Twitter users to reimagine famous works of art as lines of emoji. But people are always going to bring their own culture and creativity to the table, making emoji more than the sum of their pixels. And that’s pretty 👍.

Bonus Wallpapers!

[Desktop ∙ 5120×2880 / 1280×720] ∙ [Mobile]


The post Emoji – Japan’s Talking Pictures appeared first on Tofugu.

]]> 3
Go to (Japanese) Hells! Wed, 17 Jun 2015 13:00:00 +0000 If someone tells you to go to hell, book your flight to Japan. There are plenty of hells to chose from! Different religious and folklore traditions combined with Japan’s natural volcanic activity have created some fascinating, if terrifying, visions of the afterlife. Let’s take a look, if you’re brave enough. Shinto Hell Photo by Scott […]

The post Go to (Japanese) Hells! appeared first on Tofugu.

If someone tells you to go to hell, book your flight to Japan. There are plenty of hells to chose from! Different religious and folklore traditions combined with Japan’s natural volcanic activity have created some fascinating, if terrifying, visions of the afterlife. Let’s take a look, if you’re brave enough.

Shinto Hell


Photo by Scott Lin

Let’s start our tour of Japanese hells with the hell of Japan’s native Shinto religion. 黄泉の国 Yomi-no-Kuni is the Shinto underworld as described in the Kojiki, Japan’s oldest chronicle and source for many Shinto beliefs across the centuries. Yomi-no-Kuni, sometimes called simply Yomi, is a place that has more in common with the Ancient Greek or Roman ideas of the afterlife than Christian or Buddhist hells. Early translations of the Kojiki in English used the word “Hades” for Yomi-no-Kuni. 黄泉 Yomi literally means ‘yellow springs’ and the characters are also used in China to describe Huángquán, the Chinese realm of the dead. The characters 黄泉 are also used in some Japanese Christian texts to refer to Christian hell.

Shinto hell isn’t a very hellish hell. There’s no fire, or torture. Yomi is not very well defined beyond being a shadowy land of the dead, but it is thought to be under the ground as it is the third in a triad of realms described in the Kojiki. Takamahara 高天原 was a heavenly realm, located in the sky and Ashihara-no-Nakatsukuni 葦原の中つ国 was located on earth. Yomi-no-Kuni was ruled over by Izanami, one of the creator gods of Japanese mythology.

The main tale involving Yomi in the Kojiki is about Izanagi, the other creator god trying to rescue Izanami after her death. Izanagi went to Yomi to find his counterpart goddess Izanami, who had died. At first she hid from him, telling him that she could not leave because she had eaten the food of the underworld (anyone with familiar with Greek mythology will see the parallels with Persephone here.) Izanagi persisted and wouldn’t leave Izanami. She told him she would ask to leave, but that he must not look at her.

Izanagi promised not to, but quickly broke his promise while she was sleeping. He set his comb on fire (as one does) to see through the shadows of Yomi. When he saw Izanami’s rotting, maggot-infested flesh he flipped out and ran away from Izanami and Yomi. Izanami woke up and was not impressed by her consort’s reaction and broken promise. She sent Yomotsu-shikome 黄泉醜女, the hags of the underworld, to chase him. When Izanagi escaped the hags, Izanami also sent Raijin, Shinto gods of thunder after him before joining in the chase herself.

Despite her efforts, Izanagi escaped from Yomi-no-Kuni and sealed up the entrance with a boulder. Izanami was pretty ticked off to say the least and she shouted from behind the boulder that she would end the life of 1000 people every day as long as Izanagi stayed away from her. Izanagi replied that he would give life to 150,000 people everyday. He then declared Yomi-no-Kuni a defiled and unpure land. This fits in with the general Shinto belief that anything connected with death is unclean and impure – for instance, many people have Shinto weddings, but Buddhist funerals. Shinto prefers to deal with life. Buddishm on the other hand…

Buddhist Hell


Photo by Andrew

地獄 Jigoku, Buddhist hell, is a lot more hellish than Shinto hell. It’s got your demons and your fire and all the punishment you might expect. When I first came across the idea of Buddhist hell, I was surprised. I had always thought of Buddhism as a peaceful religion that believed in reincarnation after death. We have to keep in mind that there are a lot of different Buddhist sects in Japan and across the world. Some of them teach that there is a sliding scale of reincarnation. If you live a good life, you will be reincarnated into a better life until you reach Nirvana. However, there’s the other end of the scale too: If you live a life that is not worthy of reincarnation, you might find yourself in one of the Buddhist hells.

Buddhist hells are depicted in jigoku-zōshi 地獄草紙, hell scrolls. If you want to see some examples, you can find them in the Tokyo National Museum and the Nara National Museum. These scrolls were made in the 12th Century, towards the end of the Heian period. They depict through pictures and writing the inventively unpleasant hells awaiting you after death if you don’t live a good Buddhist life. On the Nara scroll, apart from the eight main hells, there are also sixteen lesser hells; The Black Sand Cloud, Excrement, The Five Prongs, Starvation, Searing Thirst, Pus and Blood, The Single Bronze Cauldron, Many Bronze Cauldrons, The Iron Mortar, Measures, The Flaming Cock, The River of Ashes, The Grinder, Sword Leaves, Foxes and Wolves, and Freezing Ice. The names tell you exactly what you are getting. For example, the hell of The Flaming Cock has a giant fire breathing chicken. Very straightforward, if terrifying.

flaming hell cock

So although Jigoku is considered one location, it is subdivided into many different hells. It’s hard to pin down exactly how many hells there are, with some counts putting the number at 64,000 and others at eight. The scrolls seem to generally agree on eight (sometimes sixteen – eight hot, eight cold) major hells, but these can be subdivided into more specific hells. The Tokyo scroll, for example, depicts four subdivisions of the major Hell of Cloud, Fire, and Mist. In Pure Land Buddhism the eight main hells are:

1. Toukatsu Jigoku – The Reviving Hell
2. Kokujou Jigoku – The Hell of Black Rope
3. Shugou Jigoku – The Crushing Hell
4. Kyoukan Jigoku – The Screaming Hell
5. Dai-kyoukan Jigoku – The Hell of Great Screaming (and you thought the screaming hell was bad.)
6. Jounetsu Jigoku – The Burning Hell
7. Dai-jounetsu Jigoku – The Great Burning Hell
8. Mugen Jigoku – The Hell of Unending Suffering

Different hells are reserved for different crimes. So if you commit murder (including the murder of animals) then you’ll end up in the Reviving Hell where Oni will beat you to death, only for you to be revived and killed all over again. (And you though the reviving hell sounded like a good one.) But if you are a murderer and a lecher and an alcoholic, you’ll be sent to the Screaming Hell to be roasted and boiled.

By this point you’re probably losing track of all the hells. And I haven’t even touched on Meido, the afterlife stage that comes before hell, that will have to wait for another time. Don’t worry though, the hells have a well organised bureaucracy to make sure you end up exactly where you belong.

Hellish bureaucracy


Photo by Stuart Rankin

Let’s start at the top with the King of Hell. King Enma 閻魔王 rules over the Buddhist hells. He is the Japanese counterpart of Yama, the King of Hell found in sects of Buddhism across East Asia, including China. He was originally an import from Hindu beliefs. Enma is ingrained in Japanese culture, with parents even telling their children 嘘をつけばと閻魔さまに舌を抜かれる。(If you lie, Lord Enma will pull out your tongue.)

King Enma doesn’t have time to look after all those hells personally, so he delegates. This belief was heavily influenced by Chinese Buddhism’s tradition of the Ten Courts of Hell, where each court was presided over by a different King. As I mentioned before, ending up in Jigoku was not an eternal damnation. These courts are how you can escape hell and return to the cycle of reincarnation.

The trials are held after a certain length of time has passed after death and are each presided over by a different king. After 100 days, you are tried by King Byoudou. If you fail this trail, your next chance comes one year after you died, in the court of King Toshi. If you fail again, then you have to wait until the two year mark, then again for the six year anniversary of your death, and then the twelfth anniversary if you fail that trial. The final trial occurs 32 years after you died.

At this point you might be asking what you can do to speed your exit from hell. Well, it depends on a combination of your own conduct and repentance and the prayers of your family. Memorial services are sometimes held on each of these anniversary dates to help a deceased family member in their trails. You can read more about these memorial services in Tofugu’s recent interview with a Buddhist monk.



Photo by Kinden Kuo

With all the kings busy in court, those sinners won’t torture themselves. That’s where Oni 鬼 come in to do the dirty work.

Oni is often translated as demon, and the word is a pretty good fit. Oni do the hands-on jobs in hell, whether it’s tearing people with their claws, filling a sinner’s stomach with metal balls, or roasting people over pits of fire. Despite these rather terrible actions, oni have a more ambiguous place in Japanese culture than you might imagine. They also appear in folklore, in stories such as Momotaro, where they are less hellish and more like ogres or trolls. They are easily recognisable by their horns, spiked clubs, and wild hair, and while they come in all different colours, the most common are red and blue, often in a pair. While these oni are almost always cast as the bad guys, they aren’t the terrifying demons from Buddhist hells scrolls. Oni appear in lots of media meant for children. They also lend their name to the Japanese version of hide-and-seek, 隠れ鬼 kakure oni.


One of the most common traditions that features oni is mamemaki at Setsubun. Setsubun 節分 is the festival of the changing seasons in Spring and mamemaki began in the Muromachi period (1337 to 1573). Originally it was the job of the toshiotoko 年男, a male member of the family born in the corresponding zodiac year, to throw roasted soybeans, called 福豆 fukumame (lucky beans) outside the house. These days the tradition continues with kids throwing soybeans (or sometimes chocolates) and shouting “鬼は外! 福は内!” Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi! “Demons get out! Luck come in!” The tradition often involves an adult dressing up in an oni mask and lots of screaming kindergarteners. The masks are usually pretty cute and the Setsubun oni are far from the Jigoku oni in terms of terror.

Hell on Earth


Photo by Alkun(岸蓮)

Hells have been a fertile ground for Japanese art for a long time and they are certainly not restricted only to religious works. The Hell Scrolls themselves are beautiful if disturbing pieces of art. Author Ryūnosuke Akutagawa wrote a story called Hell Screen 地獄変 about a painter who tortures his apprentices so that he can complete a masterful depiction of hell based on their suffering.

The 1960 movie Jigoku (English Title: The Sinners in Hell) was unique among horror films of its time due to its graphic and gory depictions of hell. Tales of murder, adultery, revenge and deceit are all twisted together and pretty much the whole cast gets their comeuppance. The film was the last one made by Shintoho Studio and critics of the time joked that the movie killed the studio and took it to hell.

Buddhist hell continues to influence Japanese art, albeit often in a lighter mood these days. Hōzuki no Reitetsu 鬼灯の冷徹 is a manga and anime about a demon working for Enma the King of Hell. It’s a comedy that plays on many specific Japanese tropes, such as the story of Momotaro. Central to the plot is the different levels of hell and the bureaucracy required to keep them all running smoothly. The focus is firmly on the demons, not the sinners. After reading this article you might not think hell is much of a laughing matter, but if you can get through the thick Japanese cultural references, Hōzuki no Reitetsu is pretty funny.

You can find references to Shinto hell in pop-culture too. The gateway between Yomi and our world, yomotsu hirasaka, gives its name to a location in the video game Persona 4 and a ninja technique in Naruto. The manga Kamisama Hajimemashita uses Yomi-No-Kuni as a setting in a way that is closer to its traditional depiction as an underworld.

Go to Hell(s)

hell yes

If you want to visit hells in Japan, you’re in luck! You have a quite a few choices. It might seem strange to think of hell as a tourist destinations, but they are very popular. Most are centred around volcanic activity, and when you see boiling mud, geysers and the extraordinary colours of the rocks, it’s easy to see why people think these places are hellish.



One of the most famous hell sights is Beppu in Ōita Prefecture on the southern island of Kyushu. While the Beppu hells are mostly a tourist attraction, complete with Japanese stamp rally and rather depressing small zoos, they do have religious significance for some visitors.

Human beings need to experience hell in this life at least once, to empty themselves of superfluous accumulations, to reflect on their past conduct, and to contemplate the path ahead. For this important purpose, I highly recommend a visit to Beppu to witness the many aspects of hell. Only those who have been through hell and lived to recount the experience, are worthy to be called real human beings. –Writer and Buddhist priest Kon Toukou

If you see Beppu as hell on earth, then a visit there would make you think twice about your conduct in this life. The hot springs of the Beppu hells are far hotter than most hot springs you can visit in Japan. If you mistook them for onsen hot springs and tried to take a bath, you would have a very bad time.

I can’t really recommend the hells at Beppu to visitors, not because of the hells themselves, but because of the industry surrounding them. If you don’t like seeing sad animals in cages, give Beppu’s hells a miss, or at least the ones with animals.



Photo by I’m J.C

I can however, recommend another hell – Noboribetsu 登別. Noboribetsu is located in Hokkaido, about an hour from Sapporo by train. It’s claim to hellishness lies in the Jigokudani, or Hell Valley. This area of blasted volcanic activity, with steam and sulphurous smells rising from the rock, certainly looks hellish. It is one of the Japanese Ministry of Environment’s top 100 fragrant landscapes, even though the fragrance isn’t all that pleasant! The real attraction is the town of Noboribetsu-onsen, 登別温泉. It is one of Japan’s top hot spring resorts and the largest one in Hokkaido. You can safely skip the bear park which is located someway out of town. As well as having numerous onsen and hotels, Noboribetsu is also relentlessly hell and oni themed. There are 11 oni statues in Noboribetsu, including the Business Demon, the Romance Demon, and the Train Station Welcome Demon.

train station demon

Photo by 蔡阿喵

The shops in Noboribetsu sell oni in every imaginable form. The town even has a unique way of celebrating Setsubun and mamemaki. Instead of chanting, “Oni wa soto!” (Demon’s get out!) the residents chant “Oni wa uchi!” (Demons come in!) because it is thanks to oni and their hellish association that the town prospers. Another highlight is the shrine to King Enma. Depending on what time you visit, he will either show you his kindly or his angry face.

If you want the full hell experience, go for the Jigoku Matsuri, or Hell Festival, which is held in late August. All the fun of a Japanese festival, but with added oni! The festival celebrates the opening of the door to hell, which is supposedly located in Noboribetsu. You might not think this would be a cause for celebration, but it’s no stranger than many of Japan’s other festivals!

Animatronic Hell


Photo by Verity Lane

The town of Kurume in Kyushu is largely unremarkable, apart from the fact it has a giant 62 meter tall statue of Kanon towering over it. The Jibo Kanon statue is inside the Naritasan temple grounds. It is a place of pilgrimage for women who have lost or aborted babies. It’s not just impressive to look at, but you can also go inside. If you climb up inside the white concrete statue you will find images depicting Buddha interceding on the behalf of unborn children until at the top there is a shrine showing them in heaven. However, if you go down into the basement, you’ll find animatronic hell. Here is the entrance:

entrance to hell

Photo by Verity Lane

You can get an idea of what’s coming from the charming skull and bones decor. Punishments described in the hell scrolls are recreated in moving models of demons torturing people. As you walk through they are activated and begin their grisly actions. Photography is not allowed inside, but I’m not sure I’d want to share the images with you anyway. When I visited, a family was there at the same time. At first the little boy was excited to go in, but by the end he was crying and screaming that he wanted to leave.

After your walk through animatronic hell, you emerge into a scene of Buddha surrounded by peaceful animals in a garden. The message is clear: be a good Buddhist or you’ll end up in hell. This experience changed my view of Buddhism in Japan and made me want to investigate the ideas behind Buddhist hell. If you are in the area, I think it’s worth a visit, but it’s not for those who are easily creeped out by demonic mannequins.

Yomotsu hirasaka


If you want to visit Shinto hell, Yomi-No-Kuni, you’ll have to take a trip to what used be called Izumo Province, but is now the eastern part of Shimane Prefecture. The entrance, known as Yomotsu hirasaka 黄泉津平坂, is found there, but you won’t be able to get in. Remember how Izanagi sealed it with a huge boulder? Well that pretty much cut off Yomi-no-Kuni as a pre-deceased tourist destination. You can still visit the Shinto Shrine there though. It is a gloomy place, but that seems appropriate.

In Japan you can find hells to suit all kinds of tastes, from comedies and cute oni to geological and artistic marvels that make you reconsider your life. I think Japanese hell is worth a visit, though hopefully just as a day trip.

Bonus Wallpapers!

[Desktop ∙ 5120×2880 / 1280×720] ∙ [Mobile]

The post Go to (Japanese) Hells! appeared first on Tofugu.

]]> 13
Kappa: Japan’s Aquatic, Cucumber-Loving, Booty-Obsessed Yokai Tue, 16 Jun 2015 13:00:00 +0000 The kappa is one of the most famous traditional yokai in modern day Japan. Even if you think you’ve never heard of it, you’ve probably encountered a reference at your local sushi bar. Ever wonder why cucumber roll is kappa maki when the word for cucumber is きゅうり? Come with us on a journey through […]

The post Kappa: Japan’s Aquatic, Cucumber-Loving, Booty-Obsessed Yokai appeared first on Tofugu.

The kappa is one of the most famous traditional yokai in modern day Japan. Even if you think you’ve never heard of it, you’ve probably encountered a reference at your local sushi bar. Ever wonder why cucumber roll is kappa maki when the word for cucumber is きゅうり? Come with us on a journey through the legend of the kappa. You may never look at that particular menu item the same way again.

Know Your Kappa


As with many creatures both mythical and real, the kappa doesn’t always look exactly the same. But if you encounter a vaguely reptilian creature walking upright or hanging around in a body of water, you may be dealing with a kappa. They’re the size of a small child or large monkey, with humanoid arms and legs. Otherwise they have mostly reptile or amphibian-like qualities. They have webbed digits for swimming and may be scaly or slimy. They’re reminiscent of a giant frog or turtle. Usually they have something like a turtle shell on their back and a beaky sort of snout. Kappa are said to smell fishy, and they’re often a bluish or greenish color.

What will always be distinctive despite these variations is the top of their head. You may momentarily wonder why this creature has the haircut of a European monk, with a frill around its bald spot. Look closer and you’ll see that the “bald spot” is actually a small dish of water. Keep an eye on this, because it will be critical to your upcoming lesson on Defense Against Kappa.

The other most consistent feature of the kappa is its favorite food. They have a fondness for eggplant and for several plants of the cucurbit family: melons, squash, and most especially cucumber. So that cucumber sushi roll isn’t named for its ingredients, but for its most famous devotee.

Where the Kappa Came From


The name “kappa” means “river child,” and it’s often called a “water sprite” in English explanations. Both of these give a much cuter impression than is good for your safety. The regional variations went by many different names, including gawappa, kawatarō, suiko, kawappa, kawako, kawaso… There seems to have been a basic east-west difference at one time. The turtle-shell-bearing kappa came from the east and the kawatarō in the west, which is more hairy and monkeylike. By the nineteenth century the reptilian eastern kappa seems to have edged out his western counterpart. Modern depictions of kappa are usually along those lines. We can be glad for this, because somehow the hair on top of everything else is just too creepy.

Some of the other names for the kappa suggest the animals it might have been partly based on: monkeys, turtles, and the now-extinct Japanese river otter. The river otter was about two feet long and nocturnal, so a glimpse of it standing on its hind legs in the middle of the night, combined in your mind with the features of other creatures that you know frequent the dark watery depths, could indeed make a fearsome monster. The otter certainly seems like a plausible origin for the hairy-but-aquatic kawatarō.

Another suggestion is that the kappa is based on the Japanese giant salamander. As far as I can tell that theory only goes back as far as a 2012 TV show. But having personally seen how aggressively this otherwise slow-moving, globby aquatic creature goes after its food, I find it pretty plausible.

Or maybe the simpler theory is that what people were seeing…. was actually a kappa. You’ll have to decide that one for yourself.

Danger: Kappa


Photo by Matt Alt

I think it’s fair to say that the yokai Big Three are kitsune, tanuki and kappa. The first two are basically real animals, and their powers of mayhem are largely based on their shape-shifting abilities. Kitsune and tanuki can pretend to be something or someone else and cause supernatural trouble. Kappa, though, are an entirely different kettle of fish. They don’t correspond precisely to any non-magical animal, and they don’t have to pretend to be something else. They’re dangerous just the way they are.

Kappa live in water and we don’t. Thus gives them an advantage and a weapon, since we can’t breathe the stuff. They’re strong for their size, and can drag people into the water and hold them till they drown. In the old days they would even try to drown horses and cattle despite their difference in size (although they were often less successful than with humans). Children were warned about the kappa to keep them from swimming in dangerous places, and you’ll still see kappa in signs like the one above. The skeptical might even think they were made up for this purpose. In some ways they seem to be an embodiment of the dangerous and dark aspects of water.

Kappa Kink


Kappa are not just strange and dangerous. They’re kind of kinky. They don’t want to drown you just for the hell of it. They go after people because they want your shirikodama (尻子玉). This is a ball that supposedly is found inside the human anus. (The origin of the shirikodama story is said to be from the open anuses of drowning victims. Although this loosening of the sphincter isn’t exclusive to that manner of death.) The kappa supposedly reaches into your butthole with its hand to get this precious item or else – ick – sucks it out. And if that doesn’t kill you, the drowning will.

What is this thing exactly? Some says it’s the human soul. I have to say that if there is such a thing as a soul, that isn’t where I’d choose to keep it. Another idea is that it’s the Buddhist hojo, a sort of onion-shaped jewel that grants wishes (likewise on the the storage location choice for that one). Yet another is that the ball is either actually the liver, or it’s just in the way of getting at the liver, which the kappa is really after.

The kappa’s obsession with our heinies also leads them to hide in toilets and try to stroke women’s buttocks. But if that’s all that happens, you’re getting off easy: there are also tales of them raping women and leaving them pregnant with grotesque children. Most of these are killed at birth, although this tale from The Legends of Tono tells of someone who had a better idea just a bit too late:

A child looking something like a kappa was born into a certain family in Kamigo village. There was no definite proof that it was a kappa’s, but it had bright red skin and a large mouth. It was indeed a disgusting child. Loathing the child and wanting to get rid of it, someone took it to a fork in the road and sat it down. After having walked only a short distance, he realized that he could make money by showing it. He went back, but it was already hiding and was nowhere to be seen.

Defense Against Kappa


The kappa has a couple of weaknesses you can use against it: one, it loses its power if the water bowl on its head is dry, and two, it’s very polite. So if you bow to it, it is compelled to bow back, and there’s the trick. For instance, kappa like to challenge people to sumo matches, and are very strong on land, so it’s bound to be a losing battle. But of course you have to bow before a sumo match, and there you go: the kappa has to bow back, and is rendered powerless when the water in its head dish spills out.

If you want to try to catch a kappa and kill it, your best bet is to use its worst desires against it. In the print above, the guy who’s mooning the river is actually the bait: the idea is to lure the kappa in and catch it when it goes after the guy’s shirikodama. If you’ve got a really brave and/or foolish friend who’s willing to play that role, let us know how it goes.

A few more helpful facts are that kappas dislike gourds, sesame, ginger, and iron. In some places eating a cucumber and then swimming is said to attract kappas to attack, but in others, it’s said to be protective. Check with the locals, I guess, before you try it.

Masters of Gasses


The jewel in our butthole is not the only buttocks-related aspect of the kappa legend. They’re also renowned for something they do with their own behinds: farting. Experts that I consulted had no explanation for why kappa are supposedly so good at farting, so I can only assume it has something to do with their cucumber-heavy diet.

Despite their fondness for their own gas, they don’t care for anyone else’s (more or less how most of us feel, I guess.) You can see this from the print above, where it’s clear that the kappa can toot it out but they can’t take it.

Matt Alt explained to me that this print is an ad for a professional fart entertainer, sometimes called a fartiste (and we are not making this up, there was really such a thing). Apparently if you’re in Japan and you want to convince people you have a talent for flatulence, this is the obvious comparison.

“I think the idea is that this guy’s so good at what he does that he can even beat kappa at their own game,” Alt says. “There’s a famous saying in Japanese, “he no kappa” (“like a kappa farting”) which is kind of used like our “piece of cake!” when someone does something easily.”

You probably won’t have such expert aim as a professional fartiste. But if you’ve got kappa trouble and all else fails: try farting at them.

Getting Along with Kappa


Kappa are said to be helpful to humans sometimes, although I suspect only when there’s something in it for them. At least it’s possible to make a deal with one in certain circumstances. One odd feature of the kappa is that it supposedly is talented in health care, making salves and medicines and setting broken bones. If you yank off a kappa’s arm (like when it’s sticking it up out of the toilet to fondle you) it knows how to reattach it, if it gets it back in time. They’ve been known to teach someone their medical secrets in return for getting their arm back.

There are shrines to kappa where you can leave cucumbers to appease them. Some are even devoted to kappa who have been helpful to people (probably because once they’ve been nice to us, we better stay on their good side). At Sogenji Temple in Asakusa, Tokyo, also known as Kappa-dera, the story is that the area was subject to repeated floods till a bunch of kappa helped build flood-control structures. So now they are venerated there. For you skeptics, Sogenji even has a relic to prove it: the mummified hand of an actual kappa. (Check out this video at about 19:25 to see Matt Alt visiting it.)

Talking Kappa


Along with “he no kappa,” there are other sayings and proverbs that involve the kappa. “Kappa no kawanagare” means “even a kappa can drown,” a warning that it’s possible to screw up even the thing you know best. A kappa-hage is a man with bald spot on top of his head. Amagappa (雨合羽 rain-kappa) means raincoat, referring to another weird feature of the kappa: they need to take off their skin to sleep. Without it, they are defenseless and can’t go back into the water.

There’s another story about kappa and raincoats that connects to another familiar reference to the kappa: the famous Kappabashi bridge in Tokyo. Apparently the first Kappabashi bridge was constructed by a raincoat merchant who hired kappa to labor on it. No word if they were the same kappa who built the floodworks honored by Sogenji Temple, but it’s in the same place as that original bridge, so who knows?

Modern Kappa


Like a lot of other yokai, such as the tanuki, kappa are often more cute than scary nowadays. Once a frightening “other,” in the 20th century, stories about the kappa began to use them metaphorically, as stand-ins for humans. By the 1960s, Mizuki Shigeru drew the kappa in Sanpei the Kappa as perfectly adorable, with basically the same face as his (mostly) human friend, and wrote stories where they are mistaken for one another.

Kappa are now used in advertising and as logos in a way that wouldn’t make sense if people still mainly pictured them as a fearsome anus-attacking drowner of humans and livestock. There are cute character goods and local specialties like these buns:


Ironically, now they can even be used to invite you into the onsen, which would have been the worst possible idea in the old days:


Photo by Hector Garcia

In the 1970s, rural revitalization projects and festivals started using the kawaii-ized kappa as a symbol, playing on its association with nature and the disappearing country lifestyle. While it’s still used in signs to warn against swimming, some look more like friendly advice than a threat. They’re also used in posters asking people not to litter and in campaigns to protect the environment, including clean water.


Photo by Hikikomori

Nowadays, it seems like there’s a sense in which the kappa is as much at risk from us as vice versa: once a personification of the dangers of nature, now it’s often used as a symbol of the natural world we need to protect. As Michael Dylan Foster puts it, “A yokai that used to represent the violence and unpredictability of the natural world, and especially water, has now literally become a poster child for the effort to stop the sacrifice of nature.”

Like that quote implies though, nature has a lot to be mad at us for… so if you do run into a kappa, it’s still best to take care, because it might be angry.

Bonus Wallpapers!

[Desktop ∙ 5120×2880 / 1280×720] ∙ [Mobile]


The post Kappa: Japan’s Aquatic, Cucumber-Loving, Booty-Obsessed Yokai appeared first on Tofugu.

]]> 13