Tofugu » Culture A Japanese Language & Culture Blog Mon, 04 May 2015 15:50:54 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Interview with Sarah Feinerman from Design Festa Mon, 04 May 2015 13:00:00 +0000 International Art Event Design Festa is an explosion of creativity that happens twice a year at Japan’s largest convention center, Tokyo Big Sight. It’s the largest art event of its kind in Asia, so big that it recently spawned a sister event, GAKUTEN, to give extra space an attention to student artists who participated in the […]

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International Art Event Design Festa is an explosion of creativity that happens twice a year at Japan’s largest convention center, Tokyo Big Sight. It’s the largest art event of its kind in Asia, so big that it recently spawned a sister event, GAKUTEN, to give extra space an attention to student artists who participated in the original Design Festa event. On top of this, Design Festa owns and runs a gallery year round, at their headquarters. And all this is organized by 18 people.

One of those 18 is California native, Sarah Feinerman, the overseas public relations coordinator who has been helping people find art and helping art find people since 2013.  Tofugu was fortunate to get some of her time and learn about inner workings of Japan’s largest and most vibrant art organization.

Becoming Part of the Team


Q. How did you get to Japan initially?

I graduated from college and then came straight to Japan at 20 years old. At the time I was the only person I knew who had never traveled abroad. I had never studied Japanese, opening my first textbook on the plane from San Francisco to Tokyo.

I was brought over as an ALT, and on my first day into work I found out the contract my company had with a Board of Education in Miaygi had actually been cancelled. This is not a rare situation, as independent dispatch companies like mine play a high-stakes game of supply vs. demand every spring and there are always people who arrive for work from overseas only to find they don’t have a job anymore, due to no fault of their own. Under normal circumstances I would have been put back on my plane and flown home to San Diego, but there just so happened to be a small town in Tochigi that was too poor to keep their status as a town (they would be transformed into Moka City 18 months after I arrived) or to keep their expensive, government-issued non-Japanese English teacher. I had five elementary schools and three middle schools to teach simultaneously, but I had a job, and came to adore Ninomiya Town.

Q. What were you doing before Design Festa?

I was convinced that the only job for a non-Japanese person with no special skills in Japan was English teaching, so that’s what I did and that’s what got me out here. I spent 3 and a half years working at kindergartens, elementary schools and middle schools in Tochigi, Fukushima and Ibaraki, then an additional two years at an English conversation school in Chiba. I moved every year for my first six years in the country, but it never really felt like I was working at my job–I was tolerating it. My students were great, but I was no teacher. I was finally in talks to be transferred from the classroom to the head office at the conversation school that employed me when along came Design Festa.


Q. How did you get your job with Design Festa?

When I first moved to Chiba for the English conversation school job, the company had a system where new potential teachers were all put together in a guest house. You went through training and test classes and if you showed potential you were officially hired.

My neighbor in the guest house was a social type who would intentionally look up events and happenings in the area, and he invited me to Design Festa. I am not a social type. I had very little interest in going anywhere with someone I didn’t know and I have no idea why I went, but I did.

My first Design Festa was in May of 2011 at vol.33, which I attended as a visitor. I had attended several anime conventions in California (again: nerd), and I absolutely love, love, love the atmosphere of a convention hall. Thousands of people all passionate about the same thing all together in a place where you don’t have to feel embarrassed to say what you like, to express what you like, because everyone else feels the same way and wants to meet you. They’re glad you’re there with them. I felt like I’d come home–or, as I’d later say in my interview with the Director of Design Festa, I felt the emotion of “tadaima.”

I have no artistic abilities whatsoever, but my best friend in the world is an illustrator in San Francisco. I harassed her into sending me posters, postcards, prints, keychains, pin badges–anything we could come up with–and in November of 2011 I was an official Design Festa vol.34 exhibitor.

I exhibited and sold her work at volumes 34, 35 and 36, making me more than familiar with the Design Festa website, the application process and the documentation sent out to English-speaking exhibitors.

Being the English nerd that I am, all of the…interesting grammar in the official documentation kind of depressed me. I am quite a fan of Japanese-English, spoken, written or otherwise, but I loved Design Festa and I wanted it to put its best foot forward. I wanted it to impress other people as much as it impressed me, and I felt that the unusual application of English that its organizers used was selling it short.

I was also kind of confused–I knew that Comic Market, the giant anime, manga, and doujinshi fair also held at Tokyo Big Sight was organized entirely by volunteers, and assumed Design Festa operated in the same way. If I’d known it was an actual company I never would have done what I did: emailing them in June of 2012 offering to correct their English-language website purely on a volunteer basis. It was an offer I’d made before to one or two lolita fashion export shops, but no one ever took me up on the offer. So I wasn’t surprised when I didn’t hear back.

It wasn’t until September that I came across the response from the Director of Design Festa in my spam folder–and he was offering me a job. I thought I’d ruined everything by ignoring his email for three months, but I responded anyway in a flurry of apologies, and he assured me the position was still open. From January 2013 to March I worked two jobs, five days a week teaching English conversation in Chiba and twice a week at Design Festa in Harajuku, and I was a full time employee by April.

My first event as a staff member was Design Festa vol.37.


Q. What are the responsibilities of your job?

I’m officially the overseas media public relations coordinator, but like most people in the company I do a little of everything. Translation for the websites and official documents for exhibitors is a big part of what I do, in addition to arranging TV spots, magazine features, and other collaborations with English-language media. Thanks to my graphic design background I’ve been able to take on the responsibilities of all our foreign-language advertising materials from copywriting to photography to design. I’ve also been learning video editing on the fly, interviewing exhibitors during Design Festa and GAKUTEN events and then creating event report videos, artist interview compilations and, from this year, monthly features of artists and exhibitions at Design Festa Gallery. We also have relationships with several foreign embassies to whom I represent the company. Everyone assists with the day-to-day running of the art gallery that the Design Festa office is located in.


Q. How many people do you work with?

International Art Event Design Festa, the largest art and performance convention in all of Asia, if not the world, welcomes nearly 60,000 visitors and 12,000 artists to each of its biannual events. This monster of an art and music festival has no comparison anywhere inside or outside of Japan, and it is run entirely by 18 people.

International Art Event Design Festa


Q. How does your job change when Festa time rolls around? With 60,000 visitors you must be pretty busy.

The very electricity in the air changes as Design Festa draws near. I personally shift to helping prepare paperwork, checking, re-checking and re-re-checking English language signage and documentation, taking phone and email inquiries from English-speaking exhibitors and visitors, sending out invitations to foreign embassies and the media and other exciting things. The Friday before Design Festa weekend is always the most fantastically hectic, where we pack up computers, signs, equipment, flyers and a million other things to transfer to Tokyo Big Sight. I’m not sure how much I can give away, but by the end of the first day of Design Festa, a good portion of the staff members you’ll see won’t have slept for over 24 hours.


Q. That all sounds so exciting and, as you said, “electric.” Are there any unexpected roadblocks or funny stories that come out of this frantic time?

I ended up with an orphaned school desk once, but that was a lot funnier at the time than it is in retrospect. We can’t leave Tokyo Big Sight until almost midnight on the Sunday of the event (with everyone back at work at 10am on Monday), and everyone has been dead on their feet for hours by then. There was a school desk we’d brought from the gallery that we’d forgotten to load onto the moving truck.

For some reason it was hilarious.

I go to and from the venue with my car stuffed with as many people who are too exhausted to take the train as it can hold, and that night one of my senpai made the trip back home with an upside down school desk in his lap. Then it sat in my parking spot for a few weeks. One of my neighbors asked if they could have it, but I eventually got it back to the gallery in one piece. Poor little desk.


Q. How many different countries are represented at Design Festa on average?

We have a pretty steady average of over 20 different countries represented at every Design Festa event, but we’re always trying to attract talent from outside of Japan. We offer exhibitor support in English, Korean, and Chinese in addition to Japanese, and I started studying French last year in hopes that we might one day be able to help non-Japanese artists in a fifth language as well. This year is particularly exciting as we have the normal mixture of overseas exhibitors in the 3,500 booths of the Booth Area, but also non-Japanese live bands in our Live Music Area and non-Japanese performers in both the Theater Space and on the Show Stage.


Q. What kind of art is exhibited at Design Festa?

Design Festa is a fantastically abstract affair, so this is going to be a terribly vague answer, but literally anything is welcome at the Design Festa event. We perform no screenings and we have no process for artists to submit their work for any sort of approval. As organizers we know as much about what will arise at Design Festa as our visitors, and the only thing to expect really is the unexpected. Our one and only rule is that an exhibitor’s work be entirely original, so fan art, cosplay of copyrighted characters and the like can’t be displayed. If you want to go somewhere where the only rule is “You must have something no one has ever done before,” Design Festa is that place.

Fashion design, music, live painting, dance, illustration, swordplay, photography, bondage, film, taxidermy, installations, body painting, graphic design, accessory design, figurine design–if it is a thing that exists, there is a good chance you will find it at Design Festa.


Q. Since anything that is a thing can show up at Design Festa, do you ever find yourself saying, “Wow. I didn’t know that was a thing!”

Every time. One of my favorites was a girl who drew pictures in ketchup on top of omurice. Her exhibition was 200 pictures of 200 different omurice ketchup pictures. She had people vote on their favorites to later announce the “Best Om” on her website.

I also really liked a lady who made silver accessories based on Japanese mythological creatures. There was another girl who took rulers, video game controllers and other generic things and turned them into adorable bracelets, necklaces and earrings. The “sushi lover” illustrator had work unlike anything I’d ever seen before, too–and these were all exhibitors just from vol.40.

Q. What kinds of things do exhibitors at Design Festa go on to do? Is it a good place to get your art noticed?

Exhibitors often launch their own brands and online shops and/or go on to become successful bands and geinoujin. The Design Festa event is a fantastic opportunity in that its potential is only limited by how you use it. Some independent artists have no other place they can meet and greet with their fans in person, while newer artists have an audience of thousands to whom they can introduce themselves while simultaneously making connections with others in their field.

I interviewed a Taiwanese artist last year who was displaying work they created for a job they got when they were approached by a company at the previous Design Festa event. I heard secondhand of an American artist who paid for their flight to and from Japan and hotel fees with profits made from selling their work at Design Festa.

Design Festa is a fantastic place to get your art noticed, not only by the general public but also by your fellow artists, performers, photographers, cinematographers, fashion designers and more, who can be just as (if not more) important to an artist’s success than their audience. A significant percentage of our Design Festa Gallery exhibition groups consists of artists who met one another at Design Festa and joined forces to support each another in other independent exhibitions.


Q. Can you buy some of the art at Design Festa?

My personal favorite thing about Design Festa: we charge no commission fees. Visitors are welcome and encouraged to purchase the art and designs they find, as 100% of all profits goes directly to the creator. There will always be work that is display-only, but beginning a conversation with an exhibitor about what they have for sale is a perfect opportunity to discover a new favorite artist and make a new friend.


Q. What are your favorite things to see at Design Festa?

I am a huge fan of designs described as “yurui” in Japanese, a word for which I haven’t yet found a suitable English translation. They’re very simple, often strange…they could almost be described as generic if there wasn’t something bizarre about them that makes them anything but.

One of my absolute favorite designers is the creator of Nyanco & Mico, who participates at every Design Festa event as well as exhibiting at Design Festa Gallery. I buy something every single time, not because I feel obligated as a repeat customer, but because she always has something that she’s never had before and that I can’t get enough of. She is one of our growing Design Festa success stories, and a great example of the “yurui” design aesthetic that I can’t help but love.

I also have a wall in my apartment almost completely covered in postcards. It seems like a bland sort of item to indulge in, but 100 yen postcards can be found all over Design Festa and exhibitions at Design Festa Gallery. They’re a great way to affordably support local and overseas artists you love. I suppose there are probably people who send them to friends, but I prefer wallpapering my personal spaces in a mix of the fantastic illustrations and photographs that can be found nowhere else but Design Festa.



Q. Why was GAKUTEN started?

After twenty years of wildly successful Design Festa events, we managed to outgrow our venue. Unfortunately Tokyo Big Sight is the largest convention center in Japan, leaving us with very few options to continue growing. We decided to focus our efforts on our exhibitors in need of the greatest amount of support: student artists.

GAKUTEN exhibitors are not limited to college students though: to the contrary they vary in age from 8 years old to age 64 and include adults pursuing the study of an instrument, language, or craft in their free time, retirees attending classes at community centers, elementary school, middle school, high school students and more.


Q. What separates GAKUTEN from Design Festa?

Design Festa is for amateurs and professionals, individuals and companies, the general public and established artists to buy, sell and perform. GAKUTEN is for networking: an opportunity for technical schools to reach out to the community alongside universities and students to step outside their classrooms for the first time to get real, unfiltered feedback from an audience.

GAKUTEN is an opportunity I would have done anything for when I was a student, and we are doing our best to meet all the needs of up and coming student artists who need more personalization and support than what can be offered at Design Festa due to its sheer size. Buying, selling, and performances still happen, but fashion designers have the increased visibility of the GAKUTEN Fashion Avenue. Impromptu performance groups, performance artists and sculptors have the more personalized option of the Installation Area. Universities and technical schools have the entirely unique Campus Area. GAKUTEN, like its student artists, is growing and evolving all the time.


Q. Because GAKUTEN is newer, what dreams to you have for it personally?

Personally, I want GAKUTEN to be the place non-Japanese students go when they’re thinking about attending school in Japan and want to know what kind of options are available to them. I want it to be where students of all levels of schooling go because the experience and feedback they get working with the public at GAKUTEN is something they can get nowhere else. I want it to be where large companies and small business owners go to find talent for their future ventures and where, therefore, students go to get job offers. I very strongly believe that GAKUTEN’s potential is endless, simply because it has never been tried before, just like things were when Design Festa was founded over twenty years ago.

Advice and an Ever Changing Gallery


Q. What advice do you have for our readers who may want to get a job in Japan one day?

You have to adapt. You don’t have to agree with everything or even anything, but you have to be flexible. It sounds like common sense that everyone applies in any workplace in any country, but everything that can be different is different in Japan, and everything from the good to the bad can feel like it’s being magnified threefold. It can feel like you’re the only one who sees a problem that should be glaringly obvious, that you’re the only one that can’t understand something that shouldn’t make any sense and that you’re the only one laughing at something that should be hilarious. That last one in particular–I’m the only one who thinks I’m funny.

But it’s not impossible, and it’s not even necessarily harder just because it’s Japan. It’s just different.

It’s not you being in Japan that makes getting and holding a job hard or easy, it’s being you in Japan and what you do with it.

Q. What advice do you have for young artists who may want to come to Japan to exhibit their art or get an art career started?

Talk to anyone–everyone. When exhibiting on my friend’s behalf at Design Festa I constantly had other artists coming up to introduce themselves, to try and discuss the art with me and give me business cards. After each event my friend would get a surge of emails from people looking to form a group for an exhibition at some gallery and asking where her next event would be so they could meet up again. A Japanese friend of mine brought her silver accessories to Design Festa, met up with an American glass accessory designer and now, years later, he’s the reason she’s fluent in English and she’s doing English to Japanese translation for a huge company. Accessory design was always a hobby for her, but there is no telling where the people you meet will take you whether you’re a hobbyist or a professional.


Q. Any advice to those applying to exhibit at Design Festa?

Be ready to talk! That is another one of the things I love about the event. When I was an exhibitor, it suddenly didn’t matter that I was a confused blonde girl surrounded by people who didn’t speak my language. The staff, my fellow exhibitors and the visitors all acted like me being there was the most natural thing in the world. People would “koe kakeru”–reach out, I guess, you could say in English–without the slightest hesitation, and that doesn’t always happen when you’re an obviously-non-Japanese-person in Japan. I was there with them, I was a part of them. I exchanged candies with my booth neighbors along with “yoroshiku onegaishimasu” in the morning, we watched each other’s spaces when we stepped out for lunch in the afternoon and we helped each other clean up our spaces at night.

Design Festa is two days of belonging, and that is amazing no matter who you are.

But yes: talking.

Before Design Festa I was working at an English conversation school, as I’ve mentioned, and one of the tasks assigned to teachers from time to time was handing out flyers for the school at the train station during down time. My first time with those flyers went horribly, as I tend to be crippled by shyness when thrust in front of strangers. Then there was Design Festa. I only exhibited for one of the two event days, but it was eight hours of greeting, explaining things to and befriending people I’d never seen before.

When I was back on the street with my conversation school flyers the next week, I gave out every last one. It was a skill I’d never known I needed and had no idea how to gain even if I did, and Design Festa made it possible.


Q. What do you like to do when you’re not shaping the future of Japan’s greatest artistic organization?

Study French! An unusually large percentage of the non-Japanese visitors that come to Design Festa Gallery are from French-speaking countries, and I dream of being able to one day guide them through our exhibition rooms in French. I went to a language school in Montpellier (my first time to a country that isn’t Japan or the U.S.) earlier this year. I study with a teacher via Skype once a week and independently whenever I can. It would probably be easier if I lived in a French-speaking country, but I’m too much in love with Design Festa to imagine myself ever being anywhere else.

Q. What’s the most magical Japanese food?

Katsudon is love. Tempura-don and oyakodon are similarly made of magic. The invention of “meat and vegetables on rice” is the greatest in the history of man.


Q. What’s the one question you wish people would ask you, but never do? (then answer it!)

So if Design Festa is continuing to grow as the largest art and performance festival in Asia and GAKUTEN is aiming to become one of the single greatest support systems for student artists, what even is Design Festa Gallery?

Design Festa Gallery is a collaboration of Design Festa artists, GAKUTEN artists and an increasingly large variety of students, teachers, amateurs, professionals, individuals and companies. It is a constantly evolving art village, a hotbed of originality and creative expression but, above all, a community. It is one of the largest galleries of its kind and brings people from all over the world together on a daily basis, with creators and fans, tourists and local artists, contemporary and traditional mediums all coming together into one of the most diverse melting pots on earth.

The Design Festa event is like my home and Design Festa Gallery is like the neighborhood where I grew up. Every day I walk into work to find 20 different exhibition rooms of people and things I’ve never seen before, and it’s completely amazing, every single time.


Q. Anything you want to say to the Tofugu friends and readers?

This has been an awful lot of words trying to put across something that really can’t be explained. I’m a shamelessly biased source, but I truly believe that Design Festa is something everyone should experience at least once. Words, pictures, and video can help you get a general idea of what goes on, but you’ve really got to be immersed–surrounded, caught up and swept away–to really understand what Design Festa is about and what can be accomplished by the tens of thousands of people there.

Create & Participate

Big thanks to Sarah for her time and informative answers. Be sure to check out the incomparable Design Festa and GAKUTEN event experiences at Tokyo Big Sight. The next event dates are:

Design Festa


Design Festa Gallery Access

If you can’t make it to a Design Festa organized event, the Design Festa Gallery is open year round in Harajuku.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Exploring Shueisha (and an Interview with a Manga Editor!) Mon, 27 Apr 2015 13:00:00 +0000 Recently, I interviewed a manga scriptwriter named Araki Joh, the author of several best selling manga series published by Shueisha, the publishing house behind the Jump line of manga. If you’re not familiar with Jump manga, you may be familiar with some of their titles like Dragon Ball, Naruto, and One Piece (the top 3 bestselling […]

The post Exploring Shueisha (and an Interview with a Manga Editor!) appeared first on Tofugu.

Recently, I interviewed a manga scriptwriter named Araki Joh, the author of several best selling manga series published by Shueisha, the publishing house behind the Jump line of manga. If you’re not familiar with Jump manga, you may be familiar with some of their titles like Dragon Ball, Naruto, and One Piece (the top 3 bestselling manga of all time).

After answering all my questions, Araki Joh extended his generosity even further by inviting me to the Shueisha building in Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo to see the editors’ room. Not only did I get a tour of part of the building and the editors’ room, I also got an interview with Araki Joh’s editor and learned a lot about how manga gets published.

Buckle up for a part-travel, part-interview hybrid adventure. Let’s go see some manga magic!


This is the Shueisha building located in Jinbocho, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo. Its modern design suits the progressive city. The white and blue in the glass exterior both mimics the sky and helps reflect it.


There is actually a gallery on the first floor, which is open to everyone during the week from 9:30a.m. to 5:30p.m. Sadly, I didn’t really have much time to check it out, because I was on official business. But if you’re a manga fan visiting the Tokyo area, be sure to pop in for a visit.



I only got to take a couple pictures of the gallery from the street side window. As you can see, there are a few framed manga drawings and awesome character statues. Too bad that rope is keeping us from posing next to JoJo and Chopper.


Okay, it’s time to go inside! There is a reception area past this door and you need an appointment to go upstairs. But because I was with Araki Joh, I didn’t need to check in and, thus, there are no pictures of it. Did you really want to see pictures of a desk?


I was given access to two floors of the building. I was immediately impressed with how thick the walls were with familiar faces.




Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure…


And Haikyuu! were some of the highlights. They were all fun to look at and gave the offices a unique energy. You could feel that Japan’s greatest manga flows through this place.

Finally, it was time to enter the editors’ room.


Ta-Da! As you might notice, the majority of the employees here are male. I only saw one woman, who was in a part time position, working on this floor.


While most everyone diligently attended to their duties, I found this guy reading manga with his legs up.

“Really?” I jealously, but quietly, exclaimed. This surprised me at first, but I was soon told that it’s all part of being an editor. What a nice perk!


Adding to the flavor of the office was a gallery of former Grand Jump covers.


All the covers on the gallery wall started out this way. The cover artist must first prepare a few ideas to choose from.

Do you think you have what it takes to be a manga editor? Take a minute to look over the sketches, then see which one was selected here.


If editors get any rare and valuable down time, they can choose from a huge library of manga to kick back and relax with. While this may seem like a lot manga to you and me, there’s actually a whole ton more in another room.


Because most mangaka (manga artists) work from home, I felt fortunate to come across a mangaka working on his storyboards. (A wild mangaka appeared!)


When mangaka are finished with their pages, they bring them into the office for publication. The completed pieces look like this. They are much more extraordinary and expressive than the printed versions, don’t you think?


After the pages are submitted, designers put finishing touches on the manga drawings. These guys decide where to place dialogue and which colors and fonts to use.


Check out the before and after. The designers added a lot of information and style to the finished product. Once the designers are done with the drawings, the files are sent to a print shop.

Interview Time!

After the tour, I got an exclusive interview with a manga editor at Shueisha who worked with Araki Joh. He asked to remain anonymous, so imagine him as a mysterious hero of the manga editing world. I hope you enjoy it!

Q. What does a manga editor do?

First, we conduct meetings with manga writers. Once a script is completed, we take it to a manga artist. When the manga drawings are finished, we take it to a print shop and they make a sample for us to proofread. If we are happy with the final product, we give the go ahead to start printing the magazine.

I’m an editor for Grand Jump, which is published every two weeks, so we have really fast turnaround and it can be very hectic. Just imagine what it must be like for editors doing weekly publications.

And, of course, we attend company meetings as well.

Q. Could you tell me how to become a manga editor?

There are three big steps involved in getting a desk inside a manga company.

First, you fill out an “entry sheet” and send it to us. So many people want to join Shueisha and this is our first method of screening. If your entry sheet is accepted, you can move on to the next step, which is an exam. The exam is pretty long (about four hours) and it contains current topics, common knowledge, Japanese literature, English, Kanji, and an essay. After passing this exam, you will have to make your way through a couple interviews.

Once past this entire process, only a select few will be asked to join our company. Even if you make it that far, management decides which department you’ll work for, so you’ll need a bit of luck to become a manga editor.

Anyway, that’s the process, but you shouldn’t think of how to get into the company you want to work for. Instead, you should think of what you would want to work on if you were actually employed there. That helps you relax, and helps you figure out what you really want to do and why you want to become a manga editor.

Q. What is the best part of being a manga editor?

We share a sense of achievement and joy when a manga becomes a hit. The feeling is stronger for a manga that has both a scriptwriter and a manga artist, because those make me feel as if I played a larger role in creating the story. It would be truly wonderful to help lift a writer and/or manga artist up from obscurity, like what happened with the manga “Bakuman.” But I haven’t experienced that yet.

Q. What is the worst part about being a manga editor?

We have to wait for scripts and manga to arrive on our desks and sometimes they don’t come on time. I have to wait and wait and wait and wait, and if it still hasn’t come, it feels almost as if I’ve been betrayed.

Since I’ve grown up a little bit and come to respect the creative process, I understand that it’s just the way things are in this job, but it can still be a bit frustrating at times.

Q. What are the some of the manga you’ve worked on?

I worked as an editor for girls’ manga before moving to Grand Jump, but I haven’t worked on any famous manga other than Bartender.

Q. Which was your favorite?

Sorry, I don’t have a lot of choices to pick from. As you’ve probably guessed, it’s Bartender. Although it became a hit, it was not an easy journey. We worked so hard together, though that’s not to say I haven’t worked hard on other manga.

After Bartender, I worked on a manga called “Hotaru – Yuigon Bengoshi Masaki Jimusho” and it didn’t do as well, so it ended pretty quickly. I still think it would have become much more popular and the story would have developed quite nicely if it lasted a little longer.

Q. Since you’re an editor, I imagine that sometimes you have to tell an author that you need to cut something or add something. Is this difficult to do?

It depends on the author, but it’s difficult in terms of word choice and timing. When the authors don’t have much confidence, they ask for advice from us. If I have known an author for a long time, I figure out what they want, what they are trying to say, or what they are asking of me a lot quicker, so it’s easier than working with authors that are less familiar with me.

Q. If somebody wanted to be come a manga editor, what should they do?

Read a lot of manga. As you can see in the pictures above, reading is a pivotal part of the job. You should read it as if you were the creator and think about how you would make the story better. You should also know of a lot of manga writers and artists and think about if one of them would make a better fit for the specific manga you’re reading.

We need as much information as possible about a manga when we ask writers and artists to write and draw for our magazine. Famous people don’t usually just write for a magazine out of nowhere, but getting a great piece of work out of them is also part of our job. At the very least, we read every major manga magazine currently published when it’s released.

In addition, you should also try to reflect on the reasons why a manga inspired or moved you a great deal. Especially try to remember the ones that drew you in and affected you when you were a child. The most useful skill when working in the manga industry is your sensitivity to recognizing why particular thoughts and emotions were cultivated from those books. Hence, what you read today becomes tomorrow’s ink.


If you want to go to the Shueisha Gallery on the first floor of the Shueisha building, you can visit it on weekdays from 9:30a to 5:30p.

Address: 3-13, Jinbo cho, Kanda, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo, Japan
Hours: 9:30a to 5:30p, Monday-Friday
Access: 2 minute walk from Toei Shinjuku Line, Tokyo Metro Hanzomon Line “Jinbo cho” station

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

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

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

Conclusion: The Japanese are responsible.

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

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

This is where the Japanese come a bit short.

Good at Following Rules

To the left, to the left.

Photo by Dom Pates

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

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

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

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

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

A Cultural Grounding?

Photo by Jun Seita

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

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

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

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

The Other Side of the Coin

Photo by Moyan Brenn

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

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

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

Responsible – but to Whom?

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

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

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

What About Rotten Rules?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Oh, and the infamous “Penis” Festival.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

The History of Kanamara, the Penis Festival


Emperor Nintoku

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


Photo by mrmayat

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

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


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


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


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

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



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


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


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


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


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


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


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

Oh, the Irony


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

Hokkaido-ben Highlights

めんこい menkoi


Photo by Dai Wat

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

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

道産子 Dosanko


Photo by tomosuke214

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

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

しばれる shibareru


Photo by Chris Lewis

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

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

ごみを投げる gomi wo nageru


Photo by Odyssey

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

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

内地 naichi


Photo by @yb_woodstock

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

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

はっちゃきこく hacchakikoku


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

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

ばんきり bankiri


Photo by Nick Mustoe

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

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

How to Sound like an Old Hokkaido Man


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

なまら namara


Photo by Verity Lane

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

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

こわい kowai


Photo by katsuu 44

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

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

いずい izui


Photo by Ashley Grant

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

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

Dialects Within a Dialect


Photo by Verity Lane

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

じり jiri

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

ガス gasu

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

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

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

I Lived in a Root Room


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

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

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

More Resources


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

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

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

Here is a Hokkaido-ben grammar primer.

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

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

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

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

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

Araki Joh. Occupation: Manga Writer


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

Q. How did you become a manga writer?

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Q. What was your first story about?

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

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

The Life of a Manga Writer


Q. What does a manga writer do?

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

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


Q. What is it like being a manga writer?

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

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

Q. What is the best part of your job?

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

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

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


Q. What do you think is the worst part?

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

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



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

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

Q. How did you get started working on Bartender?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Ins and Outs of a Manga Career


Q. Why do you have so many pen names?

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Q. Any funny stories about your job?

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God of War, Dragon of Echigo

uesugi kenshin

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


Photo by Wally Gobetz

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

ceiling dragon

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

The Tiger of Kai

takeda shingen

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

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

The Monkey, The Bald Rat


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

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

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

The One-Eyed Dragon

date masamune

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

The Dog Shogun

tokugawa tsunayoshi

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

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

The Demon Lieutenant

demon battle

Photo by Stuart Rankin

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

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

A Samurai By Any Other Name


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

Bonus Wallpapers!

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

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


Photo by Andy King50

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

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

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

Start with A Fish


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

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

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

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

Now What?


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

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

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

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

Why So Good?


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

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

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

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

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

4. The coating of mold keeps off other microorganisms.

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

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

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

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

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

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


Photo by tokyofoodcast

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

Modern Cheats


Photo by Julie Frost

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

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

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

Not Dead Yet


Photo by Sophie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Photo by Craig Sunter

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

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

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



Photo by Racchio

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

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

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

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

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



Photo by Mingo Hagen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Push that button,” she orders me.

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

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

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



Photo by JeffS

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

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

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

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

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

“Is my wife okay?”

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

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

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

“You okay?”

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

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

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

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

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

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


Photo by DGlodowska

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

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

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

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

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

Get to the List Already!

impatient tv watching cat

Photo by Carbon Arc

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

Anpanman (アンパンマン)

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

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

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

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

Chirubii (チルビー)

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

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

Nihon Mukashibanashi (日本昔話)

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

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

Ganbare! Oden-kun (がんばれ!おでんくん)

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

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

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

Nintama Rantarou (忍たま乱太郎)

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

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

Sazae-san (サザエさん)

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

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

Chibi Maruko-chan (ちびまる子ちゃん)

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

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

Crayon Shin-chan (クレヨンしんちゃん)

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

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

 Dragon Ball (ドラゴンボール)

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

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

Doraemon (ドラえもん)

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

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

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

Jarinko Chie (じゃりン子チエ)

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

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

SpongeBob Squarepants (スポンジョボブ)

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

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


video store

Photo by Andy Nystrom

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

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

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

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

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

Doin’ Time

Photo by Unsplash

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

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

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

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

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

First, let’s characterize J-pop


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

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

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

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

The Stars of the Moment

Japan the One Direction

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

Or this one:

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

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

Branding in Japan

Japan the One Direction

The header image from

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 1D Café?

Japan the One Direction

Photo by Victor Lee

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

The Story of Their Lives?

Japan the One Direction

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

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Is Japan Really Hardworking? Wed, 25 Mar 2015 13:00:00 +0000 “Hardworking Japanese people” … How many of you have heard that phrase before? How many of you were tripped up by that phrase? And more importantly, for how many of you were the above three words as natural as, for example, “cultured French people”? I too brought that stereotype to Japan. But like other stereotypes, […]

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“Hardworking Japanese people”

… How many of you have heard that phrase before? How many of you were tripped up by that phrase? And more importantly, for how many of you were the above three words as natural as, for example, “cultured French people”?

I too brought that stereotype to Japan. But like other stereotypes, well, there’s true bits and false bits to it. You see all the salarymen half-asleep on the last trains departing from Shibuya and imagine what a hard day they must have had. But then you see the same thing in your university classroom and think – ehh, these people could at least drink some coffee before coming to class.

So this article is me trying to make sense of how hardworking the Japanese people are and putting my point of view out there. Perhaps this will be useful for those of you who are planning to work in Japan in the future too!

The Hardworking Side

Otsukaresama-deshita! Photo by Janne Moren

If there’s one thing the Japanese are known for, it’s their long hours at the office. But what do the statistics tell us? Let’s see what the OECD says for the year 2013:

Average Number of Hours Worked per Worker:

  • Japan: 1735 hours per year
  • South Korea: 2163 hours per year (result for 2012)
  • UK: 1669 hours per year
  • USA: 1788 hours per year
  • France: 1489 hours per year
  • OECD Average: 1770 hours per year

So it looks like the Japanese actually don’t work so hard compared to other countries. They work less than the US and even less than the average. That makes them not so hardworking, right?

Not quite. This is an example of misleading statistics because for two reasons:

Higher incidence of part-time work in Japan

Multiple sources suggest that Japan’s workforce has a higher proportion of part-time work compared to other countries. Some of this is because Japanese women tend to quit full-time work when they have a child only to return as part-time labor after a while. Some of this is due to workers only being offered part-time jobs despite wanting a full time job.

This part-time work depresses the average more than in other countries. Full time work in Japan, however, generally involves longer hours than those in other countries.

Inaccurate Reporting

Some of you may have come across the term saabisu zangyo. Basically, this refers to overtime which is kept off the official books with the full consent of the employee.

Officially, the working week in Japan is largely 40 working hours with additional limits for overtime work. But these limits don’t have any effect if a worker doesn’t clock those hours in – which is de facto what happens in many Japanese workplaces. This goes for both full-time and part-time work – an example being being paid as a waiter for a kaiten zushi restaurant but having to do the clean-up after the restaurant closes without pay.

The 1735 hours you see above is therefore a highly distorted number because of the under-reporting of working hours.

Education for Long Hours

Photo by Angie Harms

Before people even get into the workplace, the Japanese education system seems to demand long hours of them as well. This is particularly with reference to the amounts of cramming students have to do in the lead up to their university exam (See the “Exam Hell” section here for some anecdotes). There are even reports of primary school entrance exams at some selective institutions.

However, do note that the fiercest competition is only reserved for those who want to enter schools on the higher end of the education system – The Japan Times reports that with the decrease in the Japanese youth population, the competition found during the 1980s has died down. It is not hard to get into a university in Japan right now (putting quality aside) if one wants to.

The Exceptions?

Photo by Jason Wharam

There are a few possible exceptions to the stereotype of long working hours. As I’ve written about before, the first thing that comes to mind is the university lives of the Japanese students. Since I wrote that, I’ve come across this additional article on Toyokeizai (in Japanese). The writer basically compares American and Japanese universities, and concludes that Japanese students do put fewer hours into studying at the university level than Americans do.

But otherwise I really had to rack my brain to think of exceptions – even the university example has to be qualified by how some people sacrifice their studies not for slacking off but to put time into something else, such as a sports clubs. Perhaps we can talk about the housewives? But they do labour at home. Or maybe parasite singles? But that’s only a small slice of the Japanese population?

So the Japanese are hardworking then! Not so fast…

Hardworking ≠ Being Worked Hard

Which does this count as? Photo by Amir Jina

This is the main point which I think people misunderstand about Japan. When people characterize the Japanese people as hardworking, it usually implies that a Jiro-Dreams-of-Sushi-esque image of the conscientious, motivated, eager-to-serve Japanese worker willing to put his best into his job.

This image is overplayed and exaggerated on two points.


There is a difference in being motivated enough to work twelve hours a day at something and working twelve hours because your boss still hasn’t left the office, or because of the general social pressure to not do so. Rocketnews has an article that looks at how much actual work is getting done in those long hours (the conclusion: not as much as you might think). And let’s look at some statistics that relate to feelings of motivation:

Which in turn can be explained by the following:

  • This article suggests that base pay is a very important factor for Japanese workers – stagnant pay over the past two decades wouldn’t have helped motivation.
  • After the collapse of the bubble economy, job security has decreased and as stated above, many can’t even get full-time jobs in the first place. Job anxiety may make you work hard (or at least make you appear to do so), but that does not equate with being happy or motivated while doing so.
  • Japanese HR practices as listed here that have the effect of decreasing engagement.


Another thing that we can question is, if the Japanese were so hardworking, surely they would be very productive as well! But this again isn’t supported by the data. Here’s what the OECD says about productivity in 2013 (ie. GDP per hour worked in USD terms deflated for purchasing power):

  • Australia: $48.50/hr
  • France: $50.90/hr
  • Japan: $36.10/hr
  • Korea: $29.90/hr
  • Spain: $40.40/hr
  • UK: $44.50/hr
  • US: $56.90/hr
  • OECD Total: $40.50/hr

This means that hour for hour, Japan produces less than the OECD average and at only around 3/5 of the average productivity of the US. Even when doing a per-industry analysis, this report notes that Japan is still behind in terms of productivity when compared to Europe and the US (though not for all industries). And note that these statistics are calculated based on output per hour, so given that hours are likely to be under-reported, actual productivity is likely to be even lower.

There are two ways of interpreting this low productivity: either the Japanese are only pretending to work, or they are actually putting in a lot of effort, but on the wrong things. Both are probably true – this link, and quite a few of the links I’ve included above refer to Japanese offices being full of people rushing around and acting busy, but not actually accomplishing much. There’s also many comments about people sleeping in poorly conducted meetings and people just staying in the office because their boss is there, and so on, with nothing actually getting done.

On the other hand, there are also some examples in which Japanese people are putting in earnest hours but just in rather unproductive ways. Examples include the endless paperwork that the Japanese both produce and process diligently but which could be streamlined with better use of technology. This article also points out another thing – how many people do you really need to direct the traffic in Japan anyway? Sure they’re all very hardworking in giving the traffic signals, but sometimes living in Tokyo you wonder if so many are really needed.

Quantity vs Quality

Photo by Tokyoform

The conclusion seems to be yes, Japanese people put in many hours, but in the end much of this is due to peer pressure and job-security fears and not much actual work gets done. In fact, something I’ve heard while living here in Japan is that, since the people know that they’re going to have to do overtime anyway, why bother to work hard and be efficient? You might as well lounge around and do things slowly since you’ll pretty much be forced to have a 10-12 hour workday anyway.

I have to say the obligatory disclaimer that not all Japanese conform to this – and it’s not just the individual but the sector and company too. Behind the great Japanese customer service lies the hard and earnest work of Japanese service staff. However, a different story applies to big Japanese conservative “dinosaur” corporations.

In short, the Japanese (at least those with full time employment) do tend to put in more hours than the average in many countries. However, don’t expect them to be particularly content nor efficient while doing so. Working long doesn’t necessarily mean working hard. And being worked hard can be different from being hardworking.

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