Tofugu » Culture A Japanese Language & Culture Blog Wed, 21 Jan 2015 17:17:38 +0000 en-US hourly 1 How To Survive Japan’s Medical System Wed, 21 Jan 2015 17:00:00 +0000 While I was living in Japan, the scariest thing for me was the thought of getting sick. Having to deal with medical issues in a language I didn’t fully understand and in a system I wasn’t familiar with sent chills through me. I tried to live healthily and for two years and successfully avoided the […]

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While I was living in Japan, the scariest thing for me was the thought of getting sick. Having to deal with medical issues in a language I didn’t fully understand and in a system I wasn’t familiar with sent chills through me. I tried to live healthily and for two years and successfully avoided the hospital. But eventually my fears became reality, first with a bout of norovirus and then with a bus accident. Though a harrowing experience, it left me with a wealth of information on the Japanese medical system. Hopefully, by sharing my experience of the Japanese medical system as well as those of other people I know, it will help you understand and overcome a very difficult situation.

Clinics for This, Clinics for That


Photo by Roger Walch

If you get sick in Japan you need to get yourself to a hospital or clinic. These are two main types of medical facility in Japan: hospitals and clinics. There is not really a system of GPs or family doctors like there is in the UK or elsewhere. Usually the first port of call is a hospital. If it’s an emergency, you aren’t sure where to go, or all of you hurts, you go to hospital. This is the place to go, whether you’ve been injured or just have a really, really bad cold. You might then be referred to a more specialised clinic. Alternatively, you can just find a clinic yourself if you know what kind you need. Japanese hospitals are much like those in the west, with emergency rooms as well as facilities for operations. It felt odd going to a hospital for a minor problem that I would have usually gone to my GP for back home.

Clinics are the other kind of medical institution. They tend to be highly specialised. You go to a eye clinic for eye problems, a heart clinic for heart problems, a maternity clinic for pregnancy. In rural areas, hospitals tend to take care of a broader range of problems as there aren’t as many specialised clinics as in the cities. However, if you need long term treatment, you will probably end up in a clinic. Clinics are owned and run by doctors. Although they get their money mostly from the public insurance system, they are run as private businesses. Each one will have a different atmosphere and rules. One thing that is the same wherever you go: you’re going to have to pay for it.

Welcome to the Japanese Insurance System(s)


Photo by Nemo’s great uncle

Luckily, all Japanese citizens, permanent residents, and non-Japanese people living in Japan with more than a year-long visa are required to be enrolled in either National Health Insurance or Employees’ Health Insurance. Between these two plans, everyone living or working in Japan has access to healthcare with insurance that covers 70% of the bill and a cap on how much you have to pay on the other 30%.

If you move to Japan and are required to enroll in a health insurance plan, you must do so within two weeks. Signing up for National Health Insurance (国民健康保険, Kokumin-Kenkō-Hoken) is a case of visiting your local ward or city office. There you will be given your Health Insurance card. Once you get that card, don’t let it go. If you don’t have it with you when you go to a hospital, you’ll have to pay 100% of the cost upfront. You can claim it back later, but that will take some time.

Employees Health Insurance (健康保険 Kenkō-Hoken) is all taken care of by your employer. The cost is shared between you and your employer. For many foreigners working in Japan, this is the insurance system you will be using. I didn’t have to do anything to sign up for it as it was all set up by my employer. However, there are some exceptions, such as people employed by companies like Interac. This English Teacher supply company keeps its employees’ logged working hours (29.5 hours a week) just below the level they would need to get Employees’ Health Insurance (30 hours a week). In reality most work longer, up to 40 hours a week. These employees are responsible for joining the National Health Insurance plan by themselves and Interac makes no contribution. This is one of the ways private ALT companies cut costs, and it is important to be aware of this if you are thinking about teaching in Japan.

Whether you are covered under either plan, the benefits are the same. 70% of your health care costs are taken care of as soon as they arise. All you have to do is hand over your insurance card in a hospital or clinic. There are a range of options to cover the missing 30%. There is private health insurance, as well as insurance schemes run by employers directly. When I was in Japan I was covered by the JET insurance plan which took care of 30% of any medical costs.

Around the world, Japan’s healthcare system is admired for providing good service for a low price. The Japanese spend half of what Americans do on health care and have longer life expectancy. Still, the idea of it being provided for a price at all was a bit confusing to me. When I had to go to the hospital because of norovirus, I had to pay for the 30% of my treatment that wasn’t covered by my Employee’s Insurance. There was an ATM right there in the hospital lobby so people could pay in cash. I was given a receipt and was able to claim back the final 30% from my JET insurance later. It felt very strange handing over cash in exchange for medical treatment, even if I knew I was going to get it back later. Britain’s NHS spoiled me, I guess.

Alternatively, if you are simply visiting Japan, all you have to do is get travel insurance. It is usually pretty affordable. With it you can enjoy your trip without worrying about what will happen if you fall down some shrine steps or have a bad plate of fugu.

The doctor is in… control


Photo by Angelina Earley

The power dynamics of the doctor-patient relationship are different in Japan than in many Western countries. These days in the UK, there is a lot of focus on patients having choices on how and where they are treated. Doctors have authority, but are expected to work with the patient to help heal them, not dictate from on high.

In Japan, doctors, especially in hospitals, have a lot more say over your treatment than you do. This can extend from the medicine you are given to the food you are allowed to eat. One friend of mine who had broken her elbow, ended up checking out of the hospital early because of the discomfort she experienced with this power balance. She wasn’t allowed to take a shower. Her food was weighed before and after she ate and she was criticised for each gram she didn’t finish. She wasn’t informed about her own condition or what they planned to do with her. The final straw came when she was expected to stay in the hospital for two weeks, a far longer stay than she felt was necessary for a broken bone. Once she was plastered up, she checked herself out and went home where she could be comfortable.

The hospital likely wanted her to stay partly because it would bring in more money for them. The longer a patient stays, the more money the insurance pays. If you find yourself in a Japanese hospital, you have two options: 1.) Either get the treatment and get out against doctor’s orders, like my friend did, or 2.) surrender yourself to the medical system and endure its oddities and indignities. Be prepared to have your preconceptions challenged though.

As many clinics are owned and run by doctors, the sense of authority doctors feel can become inflated. You can see this in cases such as Japan’s maternity advice to expectant mothers. Japanese doctors tell pregnant women to “save their weight” meaning they shouldn’t gain more than 10 pounds during their pregnancy. Clinics will even refuse to treat expectant mothers who gain more than their guidelines. For many years, this orthodoxy in Japan has made it the only developed country where maternal weight is going down. The bad news is that low maternal weight contributes to low birth weight and low birth rate is associated with many health problems in adulthood including diabetes, obesity, and poor cardiac health. Japanese doctors have been informed about these problems in study after study, but most refuse to change their policies. Some Japanese doctors operate in an environment where everything they say goes. Changing the mind of someone used to that level of authority is no easy task.

Communication Is Only Half the Battle


Photo by Nina Helmer

For me, the biggest cause of my fear of the Japanese medical system was my lack of understanding of medical Japanese. Daily life Japanese and medical Japanese are completely different challenges. If you aren’t confident that you’ll be able to understand everything, having a friend or coworker with you to help translate will make the experience far better. Most doctors in Japan speak some English, however it can often be very limited. When I had to have a set of X-rays for my whiplash, the technician and I communicated in a mix of broken English and Japanese. It was not the most relaxing way to spend a day.

However, language isn’t the only barrier you can face when you seek medical care in Japan. Even if you are super ペラペラ (fluent) in Japanese, that doesn’t guarantee you’ll understand the things that happen to you in a Japanese clinic. A friend of mine who speaks excellent Japanese went to a gynaecologist. She was led to a room where one wall was just a curtain. A disembodied voice told her to take the clothes off her bottom half and sit in a chair. Since her feet were cold she kept her socks on. They were cute socks with mameshiba’s face on them. Mameshiba is a half dog, half bean who loves trivia. My friend sat down in the chair stripped to the waist apart from her cute socks and waited. The voice asked her if she was ready. She said yes, but she certainly wasn’t ready for what happened next. The voice said, “動きます!” (ugokimasu) which is usually said when buses depart. Suddenly the chair lifted up, spread her legs apart and swivelled round. Her feet swept the lower portion of the curtain aside, but the upper curtain still hung down, separating her from the doctors and nurses on the other side. One of the nurses exclaimed, “Ah! Mameshiba!” in great surprise, when she saw my friend’s socks.

When my friend told me all this I laughed, but behind the humour, it’s also terrifying. My friend sat on a piece of medical equipment that was not explained to her. You can see an illustration of the chair here. She was subjected to an invasive medical examination without even seeing who was performing it on her. Coming from a culture where we expect to be able to see our doctors, it can be quite shocking, even more shocking than her socks were to the nurse!

There are also problems that hospitals face when treating non-Japanese patients. Before my fiancé had an operation on his foot he had to tell the hospital where his family was registered, just in case anything went wrong. The problem was that being Canadian, he didn’t have a family register. All Japanese people are required to be registered on their household’s koseki (戸籍) or family registry. The hospital administrators couldn’t understand that there was no equivalent system in Canada. They explained it to him over and over again, while he explained that he couldn’t give them information that didn’t exist. In the end his whole surgery ended up being delayed by a day while the hospital tried to work out a solution. Trying to get these sorts of things straightened out while you’re dosed up on pain meds isn’t easy. Even people with good Japanese can struggle when they simply can’t tell the hospital what it needs to hear.

No Bad News Can Be Bad News


Photo by Yuya Tamai

Another aspect of communication that disturbed me about the Japanese medical system when I first learned about it, was the attitude toward the patients’ right to know.

I had a student who was applying to medical school. He had to write an essay about whether he would inform a terminally ill patient that they were terminally ill. I checked through his English, but what shocked me was his opinion. He said that he would not tell the terminally ill patient that they were going to die. His reasoning was that it would only upset them. To me this was horrifying. The idea of going to a doctor, someone I trusted, and not being told the truth about my own body, my own life, filled me with dread. We debated it for a while and were joined by another Japanese English teacher. She sided with the student and told me that it was perfectly normal in Japan not to tell patients they only have a short time to live. The thinking is that it is better to just continue living and working as before right up until the moment you die. In some cases, the family of the patient will be told, but not the patient themselves.

While I don’t imagine this is a problem that most foreigners living in Japan will face, it does illustrate that while many of the techniques and medicines may be the same, attitudes can be very different. Personally I think those attitudes are very important when it comes to something as fundamental as health. The Japanese Journal of Clinical Oncology laid out guidelines on the importance of telling patients the truth, but admits that change has been slow, as it is in many aspects of the Japanese medical system.

Navigating Japan’s Medical System like a Pro


Photo by strikeael

Maybe I’ve freaked you out a little with these horror stories, but don’t worry too much. The Japanese health care system, for all its quirks, is actually very good. If you are working in Japan, you are guaranteed to be treated for a very reasonable cost. It may be stressful, but getting sick always is. Also, there are many resources to help you navigate your way through Japan’s medical system and back to health.

Japan Health Care Info provides a service finding English speaking doctors and booking appointments for you if you need it. This can be a great help when you’re faced with the huge array of clinics and aren’t sure which one to choose. Their website also has lots of useful information about health care in Japan.

This website, has a list of clinics where English or other foreign languages are spoken. You can browse by type of clinic and see if there are any in your area. Of course, the closer you live to a major population centre, the more likely there will be an English speaking clinic nearby.

The Institute of Mental Healthcare Professionals is an organisation that provides mental health support to people of different nationalities living in Japan. Their website has a search function that can help you find a therapist to meet your needs.

This guide to purchasing over the counter medications is quite useful. Learning the kanji for dosage and frequency is a very good idea. I had a lot of success going to the pharmacy in my local supermarket for medicine. At first I always asked the pharmacist by pointing at whatever body part hurt and looking up the word for my problem, and I always walked away with the right kind of medication. Later, the technique I used was looking at the pictures on the packets. If it had a picture of a giant mosquito and a mosquito bite being soothed, I guessed that it would help with my painful mosquito bites. I wouldn’t recommend this technique for more serious problems though, and especially not for drugs like painkillers. If in doubt, ask. Mime and a dictionary can get you a long way.

There are some prescription drugs that you will find very difficult to come by in Japan. Many antidepressants and more modern hormonal contraceptions are not easily available. If you know that you will need medication for more than a month while you are in Japan, you’ll have to fill out a Yakkan Shoumei Certificate. This will allow you to import a year’s supply of your prescription medication. However, there are some drugs that you cannot bring to Japan at all. Many ADD and ADHD medications are completely illegal in Japan, as well as narcotics and even some nasal congestion relief drugs. If you are planning a trip or move, check that all of your medications are not controlled substances in Japan. If they are, consult with your doctor at home to see if there are any alternatives.

Finally, in case of a medical emergency, dial 119. This is Japan’s emergency number, equivalent to the USA’s 911 or the UK’s 999. If you need an ambulance say, “Kyukyusha onegai-shimasu.” Then give your name and location.

I hope that most of you will never need any of this information. But if you do, I’d urge you to keep in mind that your health should be your priority. Looking back, I probably let my fear of the health system keep me out of the hospital several times when I should have gone (like the time I ate Hell Ramen, but that’s a story for another day.) In the end, when I did end up in hospital, it wasn’t as bad as I’d anticipated, even if I wasn’t as comfortable as I would have been at home. Stay healthy and happy, in Japan or wherever you are!

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Ken Takakura and Bunta Sugawara: The Death of Yakuza Cinema Mon, 19 Jan 2015 17:00:00 +0000 2014 has proven a sad year for Japanese cinema with the passing of two legends: Ken Takakura and Bunta Sugawara. Although close in age, the two came to represent opposing eras of yakuza cinema – Ken Takakura’s honorable yakuza heroes of the 60’s gave way to Bunta Sugawara’s cutthroat yakuza criminals of the 70’s. The two actors symbolize the yakuza genre, making the […]

The post Ken Takakura and Bunta Sugawara: The Death of Yakuza Cinema appeared first on Tofugu.

2014 has proven a sad year for Japanese cinema with the passing of two legends: Ken Takakura and Bunta Sugawara. Although close in age, the two came to represent opposing eras of yakuza cinema – Ken Takakura’s honorable yakuza heroes of the 60’s gave way to Bunta Sugawara’s cutthroat yakuza criminals of the 70’s. The two actors symbolize the yakuza genre, making the close timing of their deaths somewhat apropo.

Yet simplifying their legacies would be a mistake as the two actors transcended the genre they grew famous for.  As the popularity of yakuza films faded, both men showed versatility by taking on new roles.  Ken Takakura acted in dramatic films and even got his feet wet in Hollywood while Bunta Sugawara kept closer to his tough-guy roots, starring in the Trucker Yarou comedy series.  Both stars worked well into old age, starring in sentimental dramas like Ken Takakura’s Dearest and Bunta Sugawara’s My Grandpa.

Join Tofugu in celebrating the legacies of these amazing, genre-transcending actors. Choosing only a handful of movies from the hundreds they appeared in proved a challenge and the following recommendations mix things up, featuring a variety of works spanning the actors’ careers. So grab some senbei and fire up the old projector, Betamax or whatever you’re using nowadays – on to the movies!

Ken Takakura

A Meiji University graduate, Ken Takakura “was in the process of applying for a lifelong ‘salaryman’ position at the Toei film company in Toyko when, on the lot, he entered an audition on impulse” (Roger Macy). Soon after, Takakura debuted in Denko Karate Uchi (1957) and never looked back, pumping out hundreds of movies through Toei Studios.

Described as “brooding, dignified, (and) hard hitting,” Takakura played heroic characters with a sense of justice  (Ben Beaumont-Thomas). And no term better describes Takakura’s performances than dignified. Even when playing a criminal, Takakura could radiate dignity with a single glance.

His characters aren’t perfect, but that makes their struggles easy to identify with.  In lowly roles, we root for him rise above his situation. When in positions of power we hope he can see justice through.

Takakura’s acting prowess and English ability helped him land roles in pictures abroad.  He made his western debut in the WWII film Too Late the Hero and went on to star in a handful of Hollywood films.

His empowering roles took on special significance in China where “Takakura’s 1976 hit Manhunt was among the first Japanese films to be screened in China after the Cultural Revolution” (AFP-JIJI).  His role in Chinese director Zhang Yimou’s Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles helped solidify his position as a cultural bridge between nations.

I compiled this list hoping to exemplify the variety of Ken Takakura’s roles, from dignified yakuza to struggling police officers to hard-nosed baseball managers.

Abashiri Prison (Abashiri Bangaichi – 1965)

Take a trip to Japan’s legendary Hokkaido prison, a detention center similar to the US’s Alcatraz in fame and reputation.  We all know Takakura’s good-guy character has a justified reason to be there, and part of the movie’s fun is waiting to find out why. All the while inmates try to pull Takakura into an escape plot he initially resists, but is given reason to consider. Will Takakura join the plan?

Hokkaido’s snowy landscapes provide a deep, beautiful black and white backdrop to this prison adventure. Despite some impromptu festival dances and scenic drives to labor areas, no one wants to end up in Abashiri Prison.

Abashiri Prison combines Takakura’s classic dignified persona with a strong cast and great plot. As a bonus for watching you’ll get a taste of Japanese prison life and learn why you don’t have to worry about dropping the soap in Abashiri Prison.

Demon Yasha (Yasha – 1985)

“A hyena with a conscious is no longer a hyena.” My favorite among Ken Takakura’s films, Demon Yasha tells the story of a yakuza who leaves a life of crime behind to move to Hokkaido. There he goes legit, becoming a fisherman, family man and respected member of his village.

Of course things don’t stay peaceful for long and trouble comes calling when a young, drug dealing “Beat” Takeshi arrives with his attractive girlfriend.  Will Yasha be able to protect the village and continue living his new life?  Or will his yakuza roots pull him back in?

Faced with deep temptation, Yasha becomes one of Takakura’s more troubled, complex characters. Demon Yasha kept me guessing on how it would all turn out. I enjoyed the film’s atmosphere and rhythmic, no-nonsense cinematography that gave it a “Beat” Takeshi-like movie feel.

Black Rain (1989)

East meets West in this police crime drama directed by Ridley Scott of Blade Runner fame.  And boy does it feel like a Ridley Scott movie with its dark, brooding, confined locations and (where does it all come from?) smoke and steam. The movie’s eerie depictions of Osaka creeped me out as a kid and continue to do so today.

Circumstances force American cops, played by Michael Douglas and Andy Garcia, to venture into Osaka in pursuit of a ruthless yakuza named Sato.  To do so they must cooperate with a Japanese cop (guess who!) who is caught between adhering to police protocol and helping the American cops apprehend Sato.

Ridley Scott makes sure Black Rain‘s pace never slows by striking a great balance between plot development and action.  The music, mood and style are pure eighties goodness, but my favorite aspect of the movie is Michael Douglas, Andy Garcia and Ken Takakura’s chemistry. I really enjoyed the interactions among the three, with Andy Garcia acting as the voice of reason in contrast to his strong-willed partners.

Black Rain is worth watching just to witness Takakura’s karaoke duet with Andy Garcia.  Yuusaku Matsuda’s brilliant performance as Sato is also worth note, as it was one of his last.

Mr. Baseball (1992)

In Mr. Baseball Ken Takakura plays second fiddle to Tom Selleck, but that does nothing to undermine his contribution to the film.  A struggling major-leaguer, Selleck’s stubborn character gets shipped to Japan where he struggles to adjust to his new life. Takakura plays the team’s equally stubborn manager whose job is on the line thanks in part to his new American import. The two bump heads, refusing to bend to cultural differences and the comedy-drama ensues.

All but forgotten in the annals of moviedom, Mr. Baseball shines at showing the difficulties a foreigner living in Japan faces. Although I had trouble relating to Selleck’s jerk of a character, his situations felt very familiar.  I couldn’t help but cringe at some of his faux pas, recalling my own.

Despite Takakura’s great performance, to those who never experienced Japan, Mr. Baseball may feel like a forgettable comedy. But those that share some of Selleck’s awkward experiences will appreciate its realistic depiction of culture shock, or more appropriately, culture clash.

Dearest (Ananta e – 2012)

Takakura’s final film has a “it’s not the destination, its the journey” theme. Dearest sees Takakura trekking across Japan to spread his late wife’s ashes in her hometown. During the trip he meets all sorts of people, takes in the beautiful scenery and grows even closer to his late wife.

Dearest features a cast of popular actors including “Beat” Takeshi (Outrage), Koichi Sato (Unforgiven), Tsuyoshi Kusanagi (of pop group SMAP) and Haruka Ayase (Happy Flight).  As a result, the film becomes more a celebration of Ken Takakura than a good movie in its own right.  Like Clint Eastwood’s recent work, Dearest has sentimental themes, but lacks Eastwood’s punch and purpose. Still, I’m glad I joined Takakura for his last ride.

Bunta Sugawara

The gritty, bloody and chaotic Modern Yakuza Outlaw Killer served as my unforgettable introduction to Bunta Sugawara and a new world of Japanese cinema.

In an era where Akira Kurosawa was the face of Japanese cinema (fans had to dig deep to find Golgo 13 and Shogun Assassin) in the West, one thing was clear – Kurosawa this was not.  Despite its descriptive title, the film’s violent, reckless style shocked me – and I’ve been a Bunta Sugawara fan ever since.

Perhaps Sugawara played badasses so well because he was, in fact, a certified badass. According to film reporter Mark Schilling,

Sugawara entered the Shintoho studio in 1958 after leading a scuffling existence on the fringes of Tokyo’s underworld that furnished material for his later roles. When the studio went bust in 1961, he left for rival Shochiku, but his career was treading water until former-gang-boss-turned actor Noboru Ando helped him join the Toei studio in 1967.

Sugawara’s resulting library of work steered the yakuza genre in a new direction. Audiences watched Takakura films, but they experienced Sugawara films – and occasionally showered afterward for spiritual cleansing (maybe that was just me).

Although best remembered for the groundbreaking Battles Without Honor and Humanity series, Sugawara went on to star in a variety of roles as a boxer, a trucker driver and even a police inspector.

Battles Without Honor and Humanity (Jingi Naki Tatakai – 1973)

The theme song strikes like a bolt of lightening and serves as a warning; this isn’t your usual yakuza film.  Director Kinji Fukasaku’s gritty directing style means Battles Without Honor and Humanity doesn’t just look different from previous yakuza movies, it feels different. Based on true accounts of crime in post WWII Hiroshima the shaky camera, gratuitous blood and haunting locations give the film a life of its own.

And Bunta Sugawara is at the helm.  A former soldier turned street hoodlum, Sugawara is sent to prison where his life becomes entangled with one of Hiroshima’s top yakuza families. The film and its sequels follow the ups and downs of Sugawara’s violence filled life of crime. Winner of the Kinema Junpo Awards for best actor and best screenplay in 1974 (IMDb), Battles Without Honor and Humanity is a Japanese film classic that shouldn’t be missed!

Truck Guys (Torakku Yarō – 1975)

Like Ken Takakura, Sugawara didn’t limit himself to the yakuza genre and Truck Guys provides a light, comedic alternative to his heavy, violence-laden yakuza films. Sugawara’s rough but lovable trucker character proved popular enough to spawn several sequels.  Cheesy and campy in all the right ways, Truck Guys‘s bar fights, races, CB radio karaoke sessions and heartbreaks make for an entrancing hour and a half.

The Boxer (Bokusa – 1977)

The Boxer finds Sugawara playing a former boxing champion who turned his back on the sport at his peak, though no one knows why. Fate brings a eager young boxer to the former champ’s doorstep. Sugawara reluctantly agrees to train the young man, who brings hope to Sagawara and a band of hopeless misfits that rally around the two.

I’m a sucker for boxing films and The Boxer’s gritty montages, music, and film style quickly won me over. Sugawara and Kentaro Shimizu’s performances propel the film past rocky attempts at symbolism and campy seventies trimmings. Sugawara’s dignified character provides a refreshing change from his usual riff-raff.

Why did Sugawara’s character quit the sport? Will his protégé win and bring him and his supporters redemption?  You’ll have to watch to find out!

The Man Who Stole the Sun (Taiyou wo Nusunda Okoto – 1979)

In The Man Who Stole the Sun, Sugawara jumps to the right side of the law, playing police inspector Yamashita. After stopping a gun-wielding maniac in a hostage crisis, detective Yamashita becomes a subject of fancy for Kido, a terrorist who just completed the construction of an atomic bomb.  The Man Who Stole the Sun becomes a game of cat and mouse, with Yamashita doing his best to catch the criminal and protect the city before it’s too late.

Like many Sugarawara films, The Man Who Stole the Sun has a kinetic style that’s over-the-top and fun to watch. I loved witnessing Kido’s plan unfold; we witness him study, plan, steal materials, build a bomb, and then terrorize Tokyo before battling it out with inspector Yamashita.

A stirring and memorable soundtrack accompanies the plot and puts today’s uninspired, synthesized soundtracks to shame. As a testament to the soundtrack’s awesomeness, Yamashita’s theme makes an appearance in Evangelion 2.0.

“Individuals don’t need atomic bombs, nations do!” one investigator shouts when he learns of Kido’s intent. Like Terror in Resonance (Zankyō no Teroru), the recent anime series this movie undoubtedly inspired, The Man Who Stole the Sun explores the meaning of extreme destructive power, touching upon important themes while maintaining its true goal of entertainment.

My Grandpa (Watashi no Guranpa – 2003)

Even the badass Sugawara can’t avoid a sentimental ride into the sunset. Still, Sugawara stays close to his roots, playing an old yakuza in My Grandpa.

Instead of retiring to a quiet life, Sugawara leaves prison prepared for a head-on confrontation with his past. This includes settling the score with a rival gang, atoning for his best friend’s death and coming to terms with his estranged granddaughter.

Although a criminal, Sugawara doesn’t play his typical wild, ignoble yakuza character. Instead My Grandfather has the class of a Takakura gangster – a dignified criminal with reason and remorse. Less sappy than Takakura’s Dearest, My Grandpa  transcends simple sentimentality by focusing on an empowered old man coming to terms with a haunting past and regret.


International Gangs of Kobe (Kobe Kokusai Gang – 1975)

I imagined that if Ken Takakura and Bunta Sugawara starred in a movie together it would have resembled something like a yakuza-themed The Odd Couple, with Ken Takakura’s dignified yakuza having to pacify Bunta Sugawara’s crazy side.

In International Gangs of Kobe the opposite occurs; it’s Sugawara’s presence that brings out Takakura’s ruthless side. Although the two start off as allied gang members, Kobe proves too small a town for the giants of yakuza cinema. The gang splits into rival factions and Takakura and Sugawara settle their differences with violence. Tons of action and a notable cast make the unexceptional International Gangs of Kobe a load of silly yakuza fun.

Antarctica (Nankyoku Monogatari – 1983)

Do you remember that 2006 Disney movie called Eight Below?  The one where Paul Walker leaves a bunch of sled dogs at a base in Antarctica during the harshest part of winter? Did you know the plot is stolen from – I mean based on the plot of Ken Takakura’s Antarctica? If you like dog movies then check Antarctica out, though calling it a Ken Takakura movie is a bit of a stretch considering it stars a bunch of dogs.

Spirited Away (Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi – 2001)

Although Ken Takakura appeared in enough English language movies to make him a familiar face in the West, Bunta Sugawara never gained notoriety overseas. His most recognizable role in the West consists of just his voice, as the multi-limbed boiler room operator Kamiji in Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. That’s right! If you watched the Studio Ghibli film in Japanese you’ve already experienced Bunta Sugawara!

The Projector Rolls On

black rain

Both Ken Takakura and Bunta Sugawara have been referred to Japan’s Clint Eastwood. However, Ken Takakura’s noble yakuza share more in common with the clean-cut cowboys of John Wayne’s old westerns. Clint Eastwood comparisons seem more appropriate for Bunta Sugawara, whose violent yakuza films changed a genre, just as Clint Eastwood’s violent spaghetti westerns did in the US.

But in the end the comparisons prove unnecessary. Ken Takakura and Bunta Sugawara were trailblazers of Japanese cinema and lynchpins of Japan’s domestic industry.  Both actors survived the studio system and overcame typecast roles to become lifelong artists whose influence can still be felt today. Bunta Sugawara helped pave the way to the ruthless and shocking gangsters of Takeshi Miike’s yakuza films while Ken Watanabe followed Ken Takakura’s blueprint to fame abroad.

If you haven’t experienced these legends for yourself, please take the time to see their works and experience Japanese film history!

Do you have a personal favorite that wasn’t mentioned?  If so, please recommend it in the comments section below.

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Japanese Horror Fiction: Emotions Unearthed Fri, 16 Jan 2015 17:00:26 +0000 The New Year is bright and shiny and new and you’re probably thinking about your resolution to study more kanji, while Halloween is far in the rear-view mirror. Well, I’m firmly of the belief that Halloween should be celebrated year-round with some good old-fashioned horror stories, so let’s dive into another discussion of horror fiction […]

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The New Year is bright and shiny and new and you’re probably thinking about your resolution to study more kanji, while Halloween is far in the rear-view mirror. Well, I’m firmly of the belief that Halloween should be celebrated year-round with some good old-fashioned horror stories, so let’s dive into another discussion of horror fiction in Japan. In the first installment of this series, we talked about the narrative skeleton of Japanese folktales and how these origins influenced the plot structure of Japanese horror. Well now it’s time to put some meat on those bones and talk about some of the emotional themes of Japanese horror tales.

Emotion and Horror


When asked about the need for horror films, David Cronenberg, in defense of his craft, once said,

For me horror films are films of confrontation, in a horror film [you] confront things that you really might not want to cope with in your real life, in a kind of safe dreamlike way. But you will meet these things eventually.

Horror fiction aims to allow the audience to confront things that they know are part of life, but are hoping to not have to face for as long as possible. Things like death, separation, deformity, madness, and disease. Many of these act as the antagonist in horror fiction, not in the same way as, say, Freddy Krueger, but because they represent the nameless, faceless, and quite painful realities of life that most people try to push out of their minds.

Horror fiction makes you face these things in relation to the strong emotions that they convey, and this is especially true in Japanese horror fiction where emotion and atmosphere are central to the storytelling experience. In this article, let’s look at some of the primary emotions Japanese horror explores and how they contribute to its distinctive sense of



Photo by: Timothy Takemoto

Okay, what is it that Yoda said about the path to the dark side? Anger leading to hate and hate leading somewhere and then something else? Oh, whatever, the point here is that, for the purposes of this article, fear is the dark side of the Forcebecause everything leads to fear. Pure primal fear is the emotion that horror fiction is trying to elicit from its audience and all of the other emotions we’re going to discuss are a means to that end.

Fear is typically defined as “an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat.” In horror fiction, the fear typically comes in two different flavors: slow-moving disorienting creepiness, and in-your-face fight-or-flight fright (say that five times fast). The former is like seeing a shadowy figure in the distance that disappears after you briefly turn away. You have no way of assessing if this is in fact a threat, but it puts you ill at ease anyway. What’s more, the fact that you don’t know if a stimulus is a threat makes you even more uneasy than if you just knew in the first place. The latter type of fear is more obvious. You know just what you are in for and it ain’t good, like having a chainsaw-wielding maniac run you down in a


emotions-unearthed-rage scroll

Photo by: Timothy Takemoto

Rage is an important component in the Japanese horror story as it is often a powerful vehicle for the plot. Rage is either treated as a very problematic character flaw that sets dark events into motion, or as a force so powerful and binding that it causes the spirits of the dead to linger on earth to carry about their revenge—sometimes both in the same story.

In “Ju-On: the Grudge” for example, Takeo Sayeki murders his wife Kayako, son Toshio, and cat Maru in a fit of jealous Rage after discovering Kayako’s love for another man. The indignant rage Kayako feels at her family’s brutal murder coalesces into a curse that binds their souls to this earth as vengeful ghosts.

Rage in the case of the jealous husband character is a used as a device that causes deviation from normalcy. Japan is often a very traditionalist country that values things being in routine to create harmony. Anything that deviates from the routine is represented in folklore to be a negative change and worthy of scorn. In this case, rage is used as a mechanism for a heinous crime to be enacted. In essence, it is a cautionary tale towards temperance and controlled emotion in order to avoid disastrous results. Very Buddhist.

As for Kayako, her rage is shown as both her tether to the world of the living and as the seed of a powerfully destructive curse. This makes her an onryō, a type of vengeful Japanese ghost whose origins date back to the 8th century. Again, it is a cautionary tale to:

  1. Treat others nicely and coexist in society—you don’t know what they’re capable of.
  2. Keep your emotions in check because there is nothing but chaos to be wrought.

Rage scares us as humans because it is the emotion that is the most likely to be violent or destructive. It’s also possible to be so blinded by rage that people can find themselves doing things that they wouldn’t otherwise do. Powerful emotions like this form the basis of horror because not only do they make villains scary, but they can also make you scary to yourself, leading to regret and



Sorrow has a similar role to rage in Japanese horror with quite a few Japanese ghosts being born of extreme sadness and not explicitly rage—such as the ubume. Ubume are ghosts of women who died during childbirth and they return sorrowfully either chanting that they wish they could give birth to their baby, or else swaddling a rock or jizo statue in effigy of the child they never got to hold. That is at least twenty kinds of sad.

Sorrow is employed in contemporary horror very similarly, having bad things happen to good people makes an audience sympathetic and loosens them up to be unsettled. Like the ubume, much of the sorrow in horror comes from characters with powerful feelings of



When thinking about the components of horror fiction, love probably doesn’t immediately come to mind—but it should. The feeling of love is another powerful emotion that instigates a lot of the events in horror and embodies most of its impact. Back to the first example, if Kayako didn’t fall in love (or at least appear to) with another man then the events likely would have been avoided. Similarly, if Takeo hadn’t been madly in love with his wife (albeit to a controlling and creepy extent) he never would have committed his awful crime.

For the audience, love is primarily the lens through which we interpret our connection with the characters. If a slasher murders a random victim, it’s perhaps scary or off-putting, but it’s different if a slasher murders their spouse.  Now there’s intrigue. Now there’s emotion. Not only that, but it gets us thinking about our own loved ones. Would they ever do this to us? Hopefully not, but that is a scary thought.

In Japan, the exploration of love as a motivator for scares dates as far back as the onryō, many of them found themselves in their incorporeal predicament because of love one way or another. In the 17th century one of the most popular tales of eerie affection came to light. In the story of “Botan Dōrō,” a widowed samurai falls for a woman who walks by his house at nights holding a peony lantern. They meet often (she visits at dusk and must leave before dawntypically that’s a red flag) and promise themselves to one another. The samurai’s neighbor becomes suspicious and sneaks in at night to check on him. She finds him sleeping with a skeleton. For his own protection, the neighbor locks him in the house and places a warding charm to prevent the ghost from gaining access. His ethereal lover is no longer able to enter, but she calls to him from outside. Eventually, the samurai decides that he loves the ghost too much to resist and leaves to be with her. The two lovers retire to the woman’s abode, a temple grave. The next morning the samurai’s dead body is found there embracing the woman’s skeleton.

For more modern explorations of love in Japanese horror fiction, turn your attention to who else but the horror manga godfather, Junji Ito. The film “Love Ghost,” based on one of his manga works, explores many of the ways that love can interact with, despite horrifying scenarios. His multi-part manga and movie series about an evil entity known as Tomie is another good exploration of the concept. The titular Tomie, a deathless monster in the guise of a gorgeous woman, has unearthly beauty that causes any man who beholds her to fall madly in love with her and deep into her manipulative grasp. If you get the chance to check any of those out, I’d encourage you to do so. It might make you think of love first when thinking of horror. After all, two of the biggest emotions that drive Japanese horror fiction are love and



Photo by: Patrick Makhoul

Despair coming from intense feelings of loneliness and isolation is one of the main vehicles for scares in Japanese horror. Nothing generates fear faster than being in a situation where you feel that you need help and there’s no one there to save you. We can’t help it, we’re social animals. This sense can be created by positioning your character in situations where he or she is alone and in harm’s way, but more often than not it’s also helped by the use of claustrophobic environments.

This is done in part by choice of settingsmall dilapidated houses or apartment buildings, empty hallways in abandoned buildings, dark corridors down Tokyo side streetsbut visual mediums have additional tricks to employ. In cinema, the use of low angle shots help create a sense of isolation by cutting off the peripheral views and making the subject look encased by the surroundings. Color palette can also be used. Saturating the frame with browns, greens, and blues creates a dark tone that is reminiscent of smog and urban sprawl making the characters seem alone in a larger, uncaring environment. Manga has its own set of tricks because panel size, panel spacing, and use of form and line can all make environments seem to shrink around their subjects.

This idea of isolation or exile can be particularly effective for ghost stories. Let’s take these two cases for example, because, yes, Japanese horror has at least two cases of women being thrown into a well: Sadako Yamamura from “Ringu” and Okiku from the classic ghost story “Banchō Sarayashiki.” These two, when they inevitably return as ghosts, are not only spiritually exiled from the world, but physically exiled due to having their bodies thrown into the confines of a well. This allows audiences to relate to the isolation and hatred they must have felt. However, it also makes the exiled women themselves things to be feared because of their separation from our world, creating a sense of anxiety and



Photo by: Xtream_i

The type of insecurity I am referring to here is not necessarily a lack of confidence in oneself (although that can be a trait of a horror character seeing as it can make protagonists sympathetic or give antagonists vile motivations) but of a driving desire for stability that horror tends to flip right on its head. People have a tendency to desire safety through stability and constancy. The very prospect of horror introduces a force that disrupts just that in the character’s lives. Forces beyond individual control change things and the people are in need of reassurance and security. In this way, insecurity represents a natural human fear of change.

The Japanese are often criticized as a highly xenophobic nation. The claims can be exaggerated, but they aren’t too far from the reality of the situation. Japan is a very homogenized society and is highly custom-based. Foreign things that enter into that culture without appropriation are often unsettling to people that are very much reliant on the status quo. It isn’t just strangers from other nationalities that are unsettling, it is the very idea of strangers and what they represent: that which is unknown. This is based on preconceived notions of a “village” social model where people that would interact on a daily basis would get to know each other. In modern times, Japan’s crowded cities don’t often let that be the case. As Timothy Iles, Assistant Professor of Pacific and Asian Studies at Victoria University, puts it:

Horror represents the inchoate fears of an urban citizenry who daily encounter strangers—countless scores of unknown people, whose motives, desires, and potential capacity for harm remain immeasurable. These unknown people are all potential opponents. They are all potentially in competition for the very things each individual wants, yet whose true desires, because they remain unknown, are potentially far more threatening than they were in the ‘traditional’ pre-modern ‘village’ social model

This insecurity is a big component of Japanese horror. This is the reason that most modern Japanese horror stories play up the urban environments and the difficulties of everyday life. The instability that change represents is also the reason why many turn of the 21st century Japanese horror films have a technological aspect: “Chakushin Ari” (2003)  deals with the proliferation of cellular phones, “Kairo” (2001) deals with computer technology, and “Ringu” (1998) with home video . The rapid advancement in technology changes the landscape and that unsettles people who are hoping that everything will be the same, and that everything will be okay.

If you take this emotion to its extreme you get a sense of paranoia and delusion that can also make for very effective horror characters—characters that become obsessively afraid and let that become their downfall. If you have the time to sink into a 13-episode anime series, I’d recommend “Paranoia Agent” for this understanding of how insecurity and anxiety, as well as the prevalence of information technology, can lead to a gripping paranoia with widespread consequences. Also, it’s a great show.

Delving Further into the Darkness


It’s important to look at how horror functions not just at the intellectual level but at the emotional level. Next time you are watching a Japanese horror movie or thumbing through a Junji Ito manga think about the ways the creators might be using these emotional themes to get under your skin and creep you out. Again, I think there’s more that I can say about Japanese horror (can you tell I’m a fan?), so join me next time when I go another step deeper and talk about motifs and iconography. Until then, I urge you to put aside some time in this new year to dive into some Japanese horror!

Bonus Wallpapers!

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  • Balmain, C, (2006) “Inside the Well of Loneliness: Towards a Definition of the Japanese Horror Film” Electronic Journal of Contemporary Japanese Studies
  • Benneville, J. S, (1919) “The Mechanics of Japanese Ghost Stories” Asia: Journal of the American Asiatic Association, Volume 19
  • Iles, T, (2005) “The Problem of Identity in Contemporary Japanese Horror Films” Electronic Journal of Contemporary Japanese Studies

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Michi No Eki: Japanese Stamp Rally in Hokkaido Mon, 12 Jan 2015 17:00:00 +0000 Stamp rallying is very popular in Japan. There are Pokémon stamp rallies, convenience store stamp rallies, curry stamp rallies, and many more! The concept is simple. You have a special book or sheet of paper. You take that book to interesting places, which have rubber stamps for you to use. You stamp the book. If […]

The post Michi No Eki: Japanese Stamp Rally in Hokkaido appeared first on Tofugu.

Stamp rallying is very popular in Japan. There are Pokémon stamp rallies, convenience store stamp rallies, curry stamp rallies, and many more! The concept is simple. You have a special book or sheet of paper. You take that book to interesting places, which have rubber stamps for you to use. You stamp the book. If you collect all the stamps you can win big prizes! Yay prizes!

This is not to be confused with the other colloquial use of “スタンプラリー” in Japan, which refers to paperwork caught in a bureaucratic tangle that has to be stamped by many departments before it can proceed. Today’s subject is a lot more fun than a bureaucratic stamp rally. I’m going to tell you about my favourite, the Hokkaido Michi no Eki Stamp Rally, and how you can do it too.

Station of the Road

michinoeki dragons

Photo by Tzuhsun Hsu

There are 1030 Michi no Eki in Japan. 114 of those are in Hokkaido! Hokkaido is big. Really big. And it’s full of treasures. It’s the only prefecture apart from Okinawa to have its own stamp rally. All the others have to combine into regions.

But what is a 道の駅 – Michi no Eki? Literally translated it means “Station of the Road”. Some might say that Michi no Eki are mere service stations. Those people are fools. Michi no Eki are wonderlands of fun, just waiting for you to visit and discover them!

OK, yes, they do share a lot of features with service stations. They have toilets, vending machines, parking areas. Some have cafes. But there is something special about Hokkaido’s Michi no Eki. And that something special is different in each one!

How about a Michi no Eki with a crane sanctuary where you can see Red Crowned Cranes? Or a Michi no Eki with an onsen right inside it? Perhaps you’d like to visit the Michi no Eki with a huge clock tower full of wooden gnomes playing musical instruments. Or the Michi no Eki that is towered over by dragons?

And I haven’t even started to tell you about the food. Betsukai’s Michi no Eki has local ice cream. When you’re in Furano, you know it’s all about the lavender – lavender flavoured everything! I had an epic baked curry in Kenbuchi in a restaurant that seemed to have been carved entirely from wood. Want melon soft cream ice cream? Head to the Yubari Michi no Eki. It’s cheaper than the Yubari melons themselves, the most expensive in the world. At Michi no Eki you can eat local delicacies from Hokkaido, land of delicacies!

Local Highlights

michinoeki delicacy

One of the best things about Michi no Eki is that they celebrate the local regions of Hokkaido. If you don’t have much time to visit an area, popping into the Michi no Eki will help you get a feel for what is special about it. If you do have time to visit longer, Michi no Eki also act as Tourist Information Offices to point you in the right direction.

Michi no Eki have three stated purposes. First, they are places for drivers to take a break. Tired drivers are not safe drivers. By being more attractive than simply pulling over in a layby for a nap, Michi no Eki are intended to encourage drivers to rest frequently. Secondly, they provide information for both people passing through and locals. This includes road condition information as well as tourist information – I once was treated to an explanation of of Hokkaido’s deer population at Akkeshi’s Michi no Eki. The third purpose is to promote regional cooperation. Michi no Eki serve as a hub for the community, as well as a place for visitors to interact with that community.

The local connection is the main reason I’m recommending Michi no Eki to you. If you want to find local souvenirs, Michi no Eki should be your destination. They are a great place to pick up interesting omiyage that aren’t just generally “Hokkaido” themed, but are specific to the area you visited. If you don’t have much time in Hokkaido, Michi no Eki are a fantastic way to get a taste (literally and figuratively) of this incredibly diverse prefecture. From the squid in the South-West to the onions of Kitami, you’ll be able to sample the best of Hokkaido.

Getting Started on Your First Japanese Stamp Rally!

onsen stamp

Photo by Verity Lane

OK, but what about the Stamp Rallying? First, you need something to stamp, a pokédex of stamps if you will. Alas, no Professors hand these out, but you can buy one for about the price of a soft drink from any Michi no Eki you visit. If you’re planning a stamp rally trip, you can pick one up at your first Michi no Eki.

Each page has space for two stamps. You have to put the stamp on the right page. Even if you don’t read Japanese, this is usually pretty easy as the place where the rubber stamp is kept often has a little sign telling you the page number. Don’t worry if you do make a mistake. There are a couple of blank pages at the back of the book.

If you collect all of the stamps, you’ll get a certificate of completion. You are also entered into a prize drawing to win things like an onsen trip for two, electronics, and many smaller prizes like bags and files. My heart burns with a desire to get that certificate of completion. Once I started stamp rallying it became a bit of an obsession, which led me once to spend more than one entire day doing nothing but drive from Michi no Eki to Michi no Eki. If you’re the kind of person who finds joy in completing things, stamp rallying is a good thing to get into because it is also fun to explore while collecting your stamps.

Stamp Rallying for Your Health and Sanity

stamp rally map

Photo by Verity Lane

Your stamp book also comes with a handy map and a heap of information. Each stamp space has the opening hours and other useful information about each Michi no Eki. The stamps are only available during opening hours, but if you visit when the Michi no Eki is closed you can take a picture of yourself in front of the sign board with your book. That counts towards your total if you are going for the challenge of getting all the stamps.

The map is very useful whether you are stamp rallying or not. Driving can be tiring, but Michi no Eki are spaced apart in just the right way to refresh you. If you have a long drive to do in Hokkaido, pull out your Michi no Eki map and plan your stops in advance. Michi no Eki always have toilets and drinks vending machines. At some you can have a sit down meal of local produce. At a few you can even visit an onsen, to really refresh yourself for your onward journey.

Road Tripping in Hokkaido

hokkaido view

Photo by Stuart

A lot of people think of Hokkaido as only a winter destination. While it is true that the powder snow is sweet up in the northlands, there is more to Hokkaido than just snow sports. For many Japanese tourists, Hokkaido’s summer provides a refreshing escape from the heat and humidity of the south. That’s not to say Hokkaido is cool in the summer, but it won’t make you sweat so much that you dehydrate and look like an umeboshi. Autumn is also very pleasant, especially with the changing leaves that turn the hillsides red and gold.

Hokkaido doesn’t yet have a Shinkansen to whisk you across its wide-open spaces. There is a train network, but it misses out a lot of the true gems of Hokkaido. In fact many Michi no Eki are built on the sites of old train stations that closed as the rail network shrank. So a car is really the best way to go in Hokkaido.

Aside from your stamp rally book, what do you need to have a successful road trip in Hokkaido? First up, if you are coming from outside Japan you’ll need your International Drivers Permit. You need to get this in your home country BEFORE you enter Japan. With that you should be able to rent a car and drive legally in Japan. Then, check out this essential driving in Hokkaido pamphlet. It includes useful information on car rental, local highlights and those wonderful Michi no Eki.

Next you have to consider the seasons. If you are visiting in the winter you will want a car with good winter tires and four-wheel drive. Those cute little kei cars with their yellow license plates might be a bit cheaper, but they are really only good for driving in towns. You can be blown off the roads in one of those wee little cars. No joke.

If you aren’t a confident winter driver, I would recommend saving your Hokkaido road trip for another time. The road conditions can get ugly. They don’t salt or grit the roads in Hokkaido like they do in many other countries. Roads are plowed, but they still have a thick layer of ice throughout most of the season, and you need to be careful of the high snow piles that can obscure your view. Also, ensure you have supplies in case you get stuck in the snow. A shovel, emergency rations and a blanket or sleeping bag are all must-carry items if you’re planning a long trip. Most of the Michi no Eki remain open in the winter, but a few of the more remote ones are closed because the roads leading to them are closed by snowfall, so you won’t be able to stamp them all in a single winter.

Summer is a completely different story. Summer is made for road tripping! You’ll get to see the lush mountainsides, fields of flowers stretching as far as the eye can see, adorable cows ambling around in green pastures. In summer, Hokkaido’s roads are at their best. There are some toll roads, which have a higher speed limit than the normal roads. Hokkaido has the same speed limits as the rest of Japan. Sometimes, when you’re on a clear straight road that stretches for miles, this can seem restrictive compared to other countries. However, don’t be tempted to speed. A ticket from a cop will ruin your trip and the countryside is beautiful enough to warrant taking it slow.

Stamp Rallies Elsewhere

michinoeki stamp

Photo by icoro

If you want to go rallying elsewhere in Japan, you can do that too. Most regions of Japan have a stamp rally system. Of particular note, in the Tohoku region (Aomori, Akita, Yamagata, Iwate, Miyagi, and Fukushima Prefectures) shares one stamp book and it has been rolled into the reconstruction efforts. If you reach all the Michi no Eki in Tohoku, you receive a letter of thanks for visiting Tohoku and supporting the region. However, some Michi no Eki in the worst affected areas have not reopened.

Completion Fever

hokkaido stamps

Photo by Verity Lane

For me it’s best if I don’t think too much about other stamp rallies. Trying to complete one is enough. Since I was the only one of my JET friends with a car in our town, I used to drag them to Michi no Eki whenever we went anywhere. While they had an ice cream or used the facilities, I headed straight for the stamping station. The feeling of slamming down a rubber stamp onto my book was fantastic! It was a mark that said, “I was here.” Also lots of the stamps have pretty cute pictures. As further swag, I would usually pick up one of the town sign magnets in the gift shop. Each town in Hokkaido has a unique sign, and you can see them as you drive along. The pictures represent what is special about that town. Sometimes they are beautiful, like Akkeshi town’s flowers. Other times they are pretty goofy, like Kitami’s rugby playing onion man. My fridge is covered in them, but sadly my collection is incomplete, even after three years. Hokkaido is really big after all.

I never managed to complete my stamp rally book either, a fact which still haunts me to this day. Stamp rallying is quite addictive. I shall return to Hokkaido. I shall complete my collection of town magnets. And I shall win the Hokkaido Michi no Eki Stamp Rally certificate of completion, or die trying*.

*This may be slightly over dramatic, but only very slightly. Stamp rallying is serious business.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Christians in Kyushu, Part 1: Guns and Rosaries Thu, 08 Jan 2015 17:00:00 +0000 In 1543 the first Europeans arrived in Japan. Two (maybe three) Portuguese merchants aboard a Chinese ship were blown off course and forced to land on the island of Tanegashima, just south of Kyushu. Only six years later, the first Christian missionary came to Japan. What followed was, what some historians call, Japan’s “Christian century.” […]

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In 1543 the first Europeans arrived in Japan. Two (maybe three) Portuguese merchants aboard a Chinese ship were blown off course and forced to land on the island of Tanegashima, just south of Kyushu. Only six years later, the first Christian missionary came to Japan. What followed was, what some historians call, Japan’s “Christian century.” Despite 100 years of Christian dominance, today only about 1% of the Japanese population is Christian. In this three-part series we’ll look at what happened in between. There will be a focus on Kyushu because many of the significant events of Japan’s Christian history were centered there. Those first Portuguese men to arrive at Tanegashima also brought the first guns to Japan. Today’s article will focus on the sixteenth century, during which time guns and Christianity were often entwined. Both had a heavy impact on Kyushu and Japan at large during this period, known as the Warring States period (sengoku jidai), a century where central authority in Japan had lost its sway and samurai clans vied for dominance.

The Apostle of the East

1-Francis-Xavier01 Francis Xavier (1506-1552), the first Christian missionary to Japan, was born to an aristocratic family in Spain. Xavier became a founding member of the Society of Jesus (better known as the Jesuits). They were the first order to specifically make missionary work their purpose. In the early 16th century the Portuguese had established colonies in India, including Goa. In 1541, Xavier sailed to Goa to take charge of the Jesuit mission there. After a few years of preaching to southern Indians and uncouth Portuguese sailors with little success, he moved on to another Portuguese colony, Malacca, Malaysia in 1545. It was at Malacca that Xavier met a young Japanese man named Anjiro (or Yajiro, according to other sources), who was curious about Christianity. Anjiro was from Satsuma (modern day Kagoshima prefecture), on the south end of Kyushu. After being implicated in a murder, Anjiro had fled to Malacca, where he picked up some Portuguese, and developed an interest in Christianity. That interest, combined with Anjiro’s stories of Japan, convinced Xavier that it might be prime territory for spreading the word. The two set sail on a Chinese ship, along with two Spanish Jesuits, an Indian and two more Japanese converts. On August 15, 1549 they disembarked at Kagoshima.

Making Good Impressions


Photo by Roke

The Shimazu family who ruled Satsuma also controlled Tanegashima, the island where the first Europeans had landed. The Shimazu had been impressed by European firearms and were quick to reproduce them. So, when Xavier arrived they respectfully welcomed him, curious to see what he might have brought along. They gave him permission to speak to their subjects and, through translators, they began to preach. Xavier and his Spanish colleagues began studying Japanese, and soon were attempting the occasional sermon in Japanese, transliterated into the Roman alphabet for them. For the most part, Xavier and European missionaries who followed were quite impressed with the Japanese people. The Jesuits, for their part, were unyielding on matters of faith, but otherwise tried to adapt to local customs. They limited their meat consumption to better fit into Japanese society. They couldn’t be persuaded to bathe daily as the Japanese did, but compromised by doing so once a week (or every fortnight in the winter). Although the Jesuits found many admirable qualities among the locals, there were generally hostile relationships between them and the Buddhist clergy. Though there were a few interfaith friendships, the Jesuits often accused Buddhist monks of being lazy and sodomites. The Buddhists thought the Europeans were spreading lies.

Mission Impossible


Photo by Uploadalt

Some of the most curious quirks of the Jesuits’ mission in Japan sprang from dealing with the language barrier. Xavier once described Japanese as “the devil’s own tongue.” Xavier and others were largely working through Japanese translators, but they were trying to convey something that had no precedent in Japan. An early mistake was when Anjiro translated God as Dainichi, a Buddhist deity. This led people to think the priests were from some new Buddhist sect, and Xavier didn’t discover the error for two years. They tried Deus (deusu), but decided it sounded to close to daiuso “big lie.” They settled on Tenshu “Lord of Heaven.” The missionaries found many translations carried Buddhist connotations, so they began to use the Latin or Portuguese words for new ideas. For example, they used the word bataren (from the Portuguese, padre) to refer to themselves, so they wouldn’t be confused for Buddhist priests.

Comings and Goings

4-Japanese-Christians-in-Portuguese-Dress02 Ten months after Xavier’s arrival, the Shimazu changed their stance towards the Christians, prohibiting proselytizing and further conversions. This was probably prompted by the landing of a Portuguese ship at Hirado, in northern Kyushu and outside of Shimazu territory, which dashed Shimazu hopes of securing European trade through the missionaries. Xavier left for Hirado, having only converted 100 people in Kagoshima. Xavier made another 100 converts in Hirado, but didn’t stay long, leaving Kyushu and striking out for Kyoto with hopes of meeting the shogun or perhaps the emperor, stopping briefly in Yamaguchi and Sakai along the way. When he reached the capital, Kyoto, he was disappointed by the effects of the civil wars. The shogun was in exile, the emperor powerless and nearly penniless, and the residents too worried about the next attack to care about his message. Xavier headed back the way he came. During his first stop in Yamaguchi, Xavier had made a poor impression on the local lord, Ouchi Yoshitaka (1507-1551), but on the return journey he decided to try again. This time he pulled out all the stops, dressing in a fine silk cassock and bringing gifts, including a clock, wine, textiles, cut glass, a pair of spectacles, a telescope, and a three-barrel musket. The lord was pleased and gave them both permission to preach and an abandoned temple, Daidoji, in which to stay. Xavier spent four months there before going to Bungo, in eastern Kyushu. Xavier had remained the head of the Jesuit mission in Goa, India during his entire adventure in Japan. When a Portuguese ship landed at Bungo, he hoped to receive word from his Indian mission. There was no word to be had, and Xavier felt he must return to Goa aboard the ship to see to his responsibilities. After two and a half years in Japan, sowing the seeds of the Christian mission, Xavier said farewell to the country that he once described as “the only country yet discovered in these regions where there is hope of Christianity permanently taking root.” The following year he died of illness on a small Chinese island.

Convenient Conversions


Photo by 大分帰省中

Before Xavier left Bungo for Goa, he was granted an audience with the local lord, Otomo Sorin (1530-1587). Sorin gave the Jesuits a building which became their headquarters. Many years later, Sorin converted to Christianity himself (more on that in part two), but this initial generosity was probably a political move to draw in Portuguese trade. Kyushu became the hotspot for lordly conversion. The first lord to convert was Omura Sumitada (1533-1587), with territory in northwestern Kyushu. In 1561, Jesuits approached him, saying that if he would “permit the law of God to be preached in his land, great spiritual and temporal profits would follow him therefrom.” Sumitada gave them the port of Yokose-ura, and converted to Christianity in 1563. Though “temporal profits” seem to have been a factor, Sumitada acted zealously on behalf of his new faith, burning down temples and shrines. His actions provoked a revolt led by a rival family member. Yokose-ura was burned by the rebels, so in 1570 Sumitada opened the port of Nagasaki to the Jesuits. At the time of its opening, Nagasaki was a small fishing village, but from then on it grew into a center of foreign activity.

The Enemy of My Enemy


Photo by 名古屋太郎

Around this time, the Jesuits made their most powerful ally, Oda Nobunaga (1534-1582). The first of Japan’s great unifiers began to patronize the Christians in 1568. Doing so helped him in trade with the Portuguese, getting guns and cannons to aid his conquest. Nobunaga appreciated the austerity of the Jesuits, and found hypocrisy in a Buddhist clergy who “preached about suffering while living in luxury.” Nobunaga never converted, and it doesn’t seem that he ever believed in the Christian message, but he certainly had no love for Buddhist institutions either. A number had been thorns in his side. He burned the great temple complex on Mt. Hiei, killing roughly 25,000, and spent eleven years fighting the ikko-ikki, a type of militant Buddhist group. In Nobunaga’s town shadowed by Nobunaga’s castle at Azuchi, the Jesuits set up a school for the children of the local elite, called the Seminario. There they taught Latin, the history of Christianity, music, and Japanese literature. Unfortunately, it lasted only three years, because in 1582 Nobunaga was betrayed by one of his generals, and chose to kill himself rather than be captured. The traitors then attacked Azuchi Castle, which burned down along with the Seminario. Nobunaga had been a source of hope for the Jesuits, and with his death there were even harder times ahead for the Christian mission in Japan.

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Amezaiku: Japanese Candy Creatures Born from Sugar and Fire Tue, 06 Jan 2015 17:00:00 +0000 In traditional Japanese cuisine, it’s not enough for something to taste good, it has to look good too. This is particularly true of sweets, which are often just as much a handicraft as a food. The most famous example of this is the seasonal wagashi sweets traditionally made for the tea ceremony, which look more […]

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In traditional Japanese cuisine, it’s not enough for something to taste good, it has to look good too. This is particularly true of sweets, which are often just as much a handicraft as a food. The most famous example of this is the seasonal wagashi sweets traditionally made for the tea ceremony, which look more like tiny sculptures of flowers, fruits, and other seasonal symbols than something to eat.

Amazingly, candy sculptures aren’t restricted to high society. Common people had them too. Even their children had amezaiku. This unique craft of making intricate sugar figures of animals and other creatures was once commonly practiced by street vendors, but recently it seemed at risk of dying out, restricted by new health regulations and losing the competition with more modern forms of fun. But now, new craftspeople are keeping it alive and adding their own personal take on the tradition.

Shaping Syrup

cropped critters

Amezaiku, unlike other candies, is edible entertainment, as much performance as sustenance. One place where you can watch the mesmerizing act of amezaiku creation today is Amezaiku Yoshihara in Sendagi, Tokyo. If you buy one of the already-made creatures (like the ones pictured above), you miss out on the best part.

To do watch the show, first make a choice from their catalog. Amezaiku artisans can make giraffes, dragons, snails, octopi, koalas, wild boar, owls, flamingos, different breeds of dogs, and many more. They also have seasonal specials, like their own rabbit mascot dressed up in Halloween outfits. When I was there, I wanted something quintessentially Japanese but, I have to confess I also thought, “what’s the point of watching him make something easy?” So I picked a Japanese rhinoceros beetle, the kind that’s kept as a pet.  With its thin legs and antenna, it looked like the most challenging of the lot.

The amezaiku artisan’s material is a boiling pot of mizuame, a sugar syrup made from rice or potato starch, similar to corn syrup. Grabbing a glob of the molten mixture and holding it above a small fan, he tosses and stretches it like taffy until it reaches the right temperature. The mizuame is white so, if the creature is meant to be a different color, the artisan adds a drop of coloring, which mixes in as he stretches and kneads.

When the material is the right consistency, he compresses it back into a glob and inserts a long wooden lollipop stick. Then, using only his fingers and a small pair of special scissors, he makes tiny cuts and pulls the candy into legs, ears, wings, or antenna, depending on the creation.

amezaiku artisan making beetle

You can see a video of him making a cute octopus here. He has only a few minutes to make the figure before the candy becomes too stiff to work with. When he’s done, he taps on it with his fingernail to show you that it’s hardened. He paints on details with a tiny brush, then wraps it carefully and you’re good to go.

finished amezaiku beetle

Don’t ask me how it tastes. It’s been over a month now and I haven’t had the heart to eat it. I’m not sure I ever will.

Evolution of Amezaiku


Some sources say that amezaiku goes all the way back to the eighth century, when a candy puller made an offering at the completion of the temple To-ji which was built when the capital was moved from Nara to Kyoto. But what’s recognizable as amezaiku today probably started in the Edo period, where it was known as “ame no tori” or “candy birds” since that was the usual shape that was made. The technique was actually different in the old days: the craftsman put the glob of candy on the end of a hollow reed and blew air into it, rather like glassblowing. The result was a hollow candy, less intricate than we see today.

Techniques grew more complicated over time, and the English flyer at Amezaiku Yoshihara gives a rather fanciful explanation for how this happened:

It is said that the ninja disguised themselves as candy workmen and wandered through the town, collecting information on the techniques that each candy puller used. The talents and secrets of the different pullers were collected, and more complicated technology and designs were collected, making the candy pulling ever more complicated and beautiful.

Amezaiku makers didn’t have shops. They were traveling vendors. The video below is a traditional call of a vendor entreating children to come and buy candy birds.

The fact that amezaiku vendors made their wares on the streets contributed to the decline of the craft in the late 20th century. In the 1970s, health laws prohibited candy from being made in street stands, and also outlawed the old technique of blowing hollow candies, because you’d have the craftsman’s germs on the inside of your candy. (It’s still done this way in China, as you can see in this photo.)

Making a living as a candy vendor on the street was always hit or miss, but eventually it became impossible. The remaining artisans hired themselves out for festivals and private events. In 1995, an amezaiku maker included in a book called “Vanishing Japan” was said to be the last experienced one in Tokyo. He said that his customers at that point were mostly young women, rather than children. Kids were too busy with scheduled activities, he said, but no doubt amezaiku faced stiff competition from the burgeoning world of TV and video games.

That vendor also said he had many apprentices during his thirty year long career but not a single one stuck with it. You can’t blame them when you hear current practitioners talk: suffering for your art is unavoidable when your material is sticky syrup at a temperature of 80 degrees Celsius (176 degrees Fahrenheit). One craftsman, when asked what was the trick to touching the hot molten sugar, told a reporter that, when he began learning, “I thought there should be a trick, but there was NOT.” Another recently explained on an NHK TV show, “your skin hardens and your nerves die, so you don’t feel the heat.”

Candy Creatures Change with the Times


Photo by Exploratorium

As is clear from the fact that there are current practitioners to quote, amezaiku hasn’t vanished completely, and new practitioners are taking the craft to new places.

The craftsman who made my beetle, Takahiro Yoshihara, was the first to open a permanent brick and mortar amezaiku shop. He’s been in business since 2008, and there are three other artisans who work for the shop as well. Yoshihara made an interesting observation about the development of the craft now that it’s being done in a shop. When I went, I got to see the show, but I also bought an already-made rabbit to take home to a friend. The latter sort of purchase puts pressure on the craftspeople to make their products more impressive:

“At festivals, you buy amezaiku for yourself, and the fun part is watching it being made. But in a shop like this one, people come to buy something to give to someone else, so the person who receives it doesn’t know how it was made. And if the thing they receive is not extremely well made, they won’t be happy to receive it. One thing I noticed since I opened the shop is that I think the shapes become more and more beautiful.”

The success of this shop was a good sign for the craft, but when there’s only one of something, it’s hard to have confidence that it’s not on the brink of disappeaing. However, there’s now a second shop. Opened in 2013 in Asakusa, Shinri Tezuka of Ameshin has his own style, using clear sugar and painting on translucent layers of color. To increase interest in the craft, both places offer workshops where you can try it yourself (although remember, you’ve still got nerve endings to burn off).

These are the only two shops, but they’re far from the only amezaiku makers left. Others still do it more or less the old way, travelling around and appearing at special events, although they’re modernizing the business in other ways. Some are on the internet, of course: You can read the blog (in Japanese) of a woman in Nagano who has her own company. And Takahiro Mizuki, another Tokyo amezaiku maker, has a website in three languages, Japanese, French and English. Mizuki makes traditional figures but is just as happy to make modern characters like Pikachu and Winnie the Pooh.

Amezaiku Abroad and Beyond!


There are also a handful of amezaiku makers outside Japan. In fact, if you’re an American and this all sounds vaguely familiar, it might be because for years there was a woman who did it at Epcot Center,  although sadly she’s no longer there. There are also a couple in Los Angeles and Hawaii,  both places with large Japanese-American communities. (The LA craftsperson is actually training his nephew, who came from Sapporo and plans to return to Japan to practice the trade.)
And those travelling amezaiku artists travel a lot farther now than they did in the old days. Takahiro Yoshihara of the Sendagi shop recently performed at a fair in New York City. And if you’ve got the big bucks to hire an international travelling amezaiku artist, try Takahiro Mizuki – he’s been to the US and Saudi Arabia and says on his website “Will fly anywhere on the planet!”

Amezaiku is still seen as something old-fashioned – Takahiro Mizuki writes that, much to his amusement, he’s even heard elementary school children call it “nostalgic.” But it looks like, while they might have had a close call there for a while, these candy creatures have been saved from extinction.

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  • Kiritani, Elizabeth. Vanishing Japan. Tuttle, 1995.

Uncredited images by Linda Lombardi

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Pay to Play: The Price of Local Multiplayer in Japan Fri, 12 Dec 2014 17:00:00 +0000 We’ve all heard the term “Galapagos syndrome” paired with Japan before. It’s the idea that something (usually technology) that is available globally grows into something different when it becomes isolated. Some things that work for Japan don’t always work out abroad, and not just with technology. Sure, ear cleaning salons might be a thing in Japan […]

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We’ve all heard the term “Galapagos syndrome” paired with Japan before. It’s the idea that something (usually technology) that is available globally grows into something different when it becomes isolated. Some things that work for Japan don’t always work out abroad, and not just with technology. Sure, ear cleaning salons might be a thing in Japan (as well as some other Asian countries), but goat cafes? Stuffed animal travel? They’ve made appearances outside of Japan, but rarely to much success.

Other times, ideas stick. As an adult gamer and a teacher, it can be hard for me to meet other gamers offline, so when I found out about game cafes hosting “real meets,” I was intrigued. These “real meets” are usually just people playing games at game cafes, which are pretty much just internet cafes for gaming purposes. There are also more highly organized meets, like the Monster Hunter group I found last year. I decided to try a spectrum of “real meets,” and they ranged from the highly organized group I experienced before to a much more casual “do what you want” style of cafe.

Mobile Gaming Takes Over


Photo by: Joseph Choi

Our own Nathaniel Edwards touched on this a bit when discussing the less than stellar performance of the Playstation 4’s ability to attract Japanese buyers, but consoles, especially home consoles, aren’t doing as well as they used to. A quick look at the weekly hardware sales charts for games in Japan shows the 3DS and PS Vita selling at nearly twice as many units as the best selling home console for this generation.

Source: VGChartz, October 23, 2014

This shouldn’t be surprising for anyone familiar with modern Japanese culture. We’ve all heard about the long commutes, longer work and study hours, and required work “parties,” all of which means less time for console gaming. With that in mind, it also shouldn’t be too surprising that as mobile gaming is able to make deeper and more complex games, people shift to them. Even in the states I know people who are playing PC and console games less and less as their adult lives get busier and busier.

A solid example of this movement in gaming culture is the Monster Hunter series. Kotaku has a great article on why the series is popular in Japan, but it makes several points:

  1. Population density. Japan may not be one of the top ten most densely populated countries, but it is still in the top 40 .
  2. Mass, affordable, convenient public transportation. I can’t play games if I’m driving, but when Shinjuku is conveniently only 2 hours away by train, it means I have 2 hours of Smash Bros for 3DS to play.
  3. It’s a form of social interaction. Many people get into MH because one or many friends play it. Kotaku even spoke to a guy who went on a trip with 15 other friends and was the only one not playing MH. Poor guy really felt left out.

The article also mentions how, in the west, gaming is still a bit more of a solitary hobby. While MH does provide a single player mode, it’s mostly there to prepare you (both in terms of practice and gaining items) for multiplayer. If you pick up the game and don’t play with other people, it can feel pretty hollow.

Now, admittedly, the west does have a lot of online games. World of Warcraft is often cited as having had 12 million worldwide players at one point, but I’ve met exactly zero students in Japan (from kindergarteners to college students) who have ever heard of it, including students who play other massively multiplayer online role playing games (MMORPGs). Aside from the fact that PC gaming in Japan is still associated with adult games (there’s a reason many PC game shops here are pink inside). Most people I talk to simply mention not having time for games outside of playing on their phones or 3DS on the train, or sometimes after work or school with friends. Gaming in Japan really does seem to be getting more mobile.

This can more clearly be seen through this year’s Tokyo Game Show. I must admit I’m just as guilty as other western game journalists on this, but portable games certainly dominated the show, and last year felt the same. The only portable game I even looked forward to was Monster Hunter 4G. There were plenty of other mobile titles, especially cell phone games, but I didn’t take them seriously. I admit it, I’m biased, but even I have to confess that I’m feeling the pinch when it comes to free time for PC/Console gaming.

I’m also a fairly social gamer, or at least I used to be. Most of my Japanese co-workers admit they’ve played games, but had to give it up when they got married. Others have only mentioned it in locker rooms, and they’re usually the guys who’ve been out of college for five years or less. Even female teachers who have children and play games often hesitate to mention it, even when I proudly show students that, yes, I’m a gamer and I know the character on their keychain.

Where I live now, most of my social gaming has to be online. Most “meat space” gaming takes place in Tokyo, and since most people don’t walk around with a TV and wall socket, that means mobile gaming.

Paying to Play


Before I get into this, let me be clear when I say that you don’t always have to pay to play with other people. Because mobile gaming is so big in Japan, sometimes you can organically meet other people to play with. Kind of. I have a feeling part of it has to do with certain communities. For example, with Pokemon, I was constantly being challenged to battles and receiving offers to trade during local play, which can happen any time you play Pokemon X/Y in public. In fact, I’m pretty sure I had one of my students regularly kicking my butt on my ride to work for awhile.

However, I’d never seen anyone on the train with open sessions for MH or Smash Bros for 3DS. While MH missions can take awhile, Smash sessions can be as short as one minute so I don’t think length of time was the problem. During Tokyo Game Show, I saw many open rooms (public, mind you, not “Friends Preferred”) and attempted to play with people, in both the standard battles and the “Smash Run” battles in Smash Bros. I chose to try out Smash Run because I thought it seemed closer to something like MH, in that you’re trying to earn gear together.

But even though the rooms were public, they were routinely shut on me. At first I thought it could be a Tokyo Game Show thing, but the same thing happened when I tried to play with people in various spots around Tokyo, including Akihabara. I was only able to find someone willing to give Smash Run a go once, and it was with someone from South America. He didn’t seem to enjoy me being his only option either. I needed to find a place where people actually wanted to try to play games together and were open to the idea of playing with strangers face-to-face.

The Highly Structured Real Meet


Photo by: Guilhem Vellut

As I mentioned, last year I tried a Monster Hunter “real meet” for the first time. The actual event said specifically what game we were playing, and there was a bit of a plan of attack, including seat arrangements. It cost me about $25 US for a night of gaming and free soft drinks. More expensive than a movie for 3 hours, but lasted twice as long. Unfortunately it was held at night and often disrupted my sleep schedule. However, the people were quite sociable. One downside was that they were constantly bringing up that fact that I was one of only two foreigners to ever attend. The host was moderately organized and kept a pretty pleasant atmosphere. But another downside was that it felt like paying to play with friends. This was partially because there was an unstated rule that you shouldn’t be playing online during these meets, and that you shouldn’t exchange contact information.

That last part still stands out to me. I recall two Japanese players who were caught discussing meeting up to play online and exchanging their information. The host reprimanded them for attending a “real meet” with the intentions of playing online instead. That was what ultimately lead me to stop attending, but overall, it was a pleasant experience. I’d certainly like to try again, though admittedly, I’d probably try to see what would happen if I attempted to exchange contact information with other people after the event.

The Unstructured Real Meet


If you aren’t afraid of the internet, there’s Game Cafe Junk. Unlike the other places I visited, this one was set up for laptops too, and offered free Wi-Fi. Then again, it seemed to be more of a hangout than a place for gaming. You don’t pay until you leave, and the host isn’t really strict about time. I stayed for about three hours and forty minutes but was only charged for three hours, without any hesitation from the host.

However, the host also doesn’t have any sort of pairing system. You just have to go in and hope that someone has the same game as you. Avoid going on holidays though, since it’s incredibly slow. I went for three hours as one of two customers and the other guy was either a friend or a regular who just wanted to chat. If it’s a holiday, finding anyone in general is difficult, so finding someone with the same game as you is an even bigger challenge. One time I went to a meeting set-up to play there, held by foreigners, and we tried to invite Japanese players to join us, but those who were at Game Junk either didn’t have the game or had no interest in it.

It’s certainly an intimate setting, in that the owner seemed to recognize me as well as other previous customers, and if I were alone in the gaming room, he’d bring his gaming laptop in and play. But he’s human, and has his own taste in games and will make them known quite bluntly (he’s not a Smash Bros fan). So because it’s so hands off, Game Junk is probably best when you bring a friend or two.

The Middle of the Road Real Meet


In the middle of these two extremes is Shukaijo. Their system seemed the oddest to me, but was effective enough. You indicate what game you are playing on a card and then other people can join you or you can be paired with someone else based on that information. My very first visit got me immediately paired with people for Smash Bros. However, as I indicated above, the local Smash community here seems a bit insulated, and despite my best attempts, the encounter ended when the pair decided to change games without inviting me to join.

However, the staff is pleasant enough, and the price, while slightly higher than Game Junk, includes free beverages, though mostly soft drinks and the kind of tea you get from soda dispensers. It also offers free Wi-Fi so that people can download game updates if needed or do game research on tablets.

Unlike Game Junk, it’s much more active. Weekends are the busiest, but weekdays pick up when there’s a new, popular game out. Make sure you don’t come to Shukaijo expecting a small, relaxing environment. People are pretty upbeat, and while I’ve never seen another foreigner there, I did see quite a few women and even a man dressed as a woman (without any harassment), so it felt pretty inviting, despite my first encounter. The only problem was that no one seemed to want to play Smash Bros.

Overall, I think the highly organized setting suited me best. Though I disliked not feeling like I could genuinely make friends with the people I played with, at least I got to game. Game Junk certainly put the burden on me to find people to play with, but I felt it was more welcoming in that aspect, especially since the host provided free snacks of (mostly) candy and senbei. If you want a calm environment or a place that has lots of space for an event, especially for laptop gaming, I recommend Game Junk. However, I enjoyed Shukaijo’s pairing service, even if it didn’t quite work out for me. I saw a lot of happy people there.

Gaming Culture: How and Why


Photo by: Guilhem Vellut

One thing that I’ve been trying to hint at throughout all this is that there is a gaming culture you’ll need to pick up on in order to get the most out of your experience. Most of my Japanese gaming experience comes from online interactions, and even that’s a bit limited, since most of the games I’ve tried are created abroad and localized for Japan. Despite Japan’s image of promoting a group mentality and a desire for peace, I feel like gamers here prefer games that pit players against each other, at least from foreign companies. For example: Japan loves the Final Fantasy online games, but doesn’t know World of Warcraft. Instead, games by smaller companies with hardcore PvP, like Eve Online and Darkfall, somehow end up getting published. Just the same, in terms of mainstream gaming, games with cooperative mode have the advantage. Smash is quite popular, but the more cooperative Monster Hunter 4G sold better it’s first week, almost selling as many units as Smash did in total after three weeks of release.

Naturally, being able to speak Japanese conversationally is going to greatly improve your experience, as well as the experiences of the people around you. Very few people wanted to speak English, though my MH host tried to lead the way and eventually paired me with another foreigner. But to be honest, I’m not sure that made things better for anyone, though I did appreciated the gesture.

If you aren’t confident with your language abilities, there are some key phrases that can help improve your overall experience. With some MMOs and Monster Hunter say, “onegaishimasu” before starting a mission, or while the map is loading if you’re on voice chat or face-to-face. This “onegai” is supposedly toward the dungeon, asking for good loot to drop, as well as asking your fellow players to “be kind” to you. At the end of a mission, “arigatou” or “otsukaresama desu” can be used, the latter being preferred, as a way of thanking your fellow players for their help.


Photo by: MIKI Yoshihito

However, as a non-Japanese and with limited Japanese proficiency, I decided to ask an expert at Shukaijo for some help. A big thanks to my wonderfully intelligent girlfriend and our very own Mami for acting as translators.

I was told Shukaijo only has a few foreigners visit each year, most likely due to the language barrier.

However, it was noted that there are plenty of female gamers. People either come alone or with groups, so their reasons for coming are a bit mixed, and people do supposedly make friends here. There’s solo players, but also 乱入プレイ, people who join games that are already in progress. Supposedly, the face-to-face interaction makes it easier to trust people and build bonds, and I can say that I had similar feelings when I had positive encounters.

The biggest language tip I was given was to simply point at the mission you want to do and ask, “このミッションいいですか?” Meaning, “Is this mission okay?” This isn’t just for newbies, but because games often have lots of missions or quests, people don’t always have them all memorized. It’s better to show them what you want to do than to say, “I need to finish the ‘Blood of a Tengu’ quest.” If there’s a certain monster you need to kill or an item you need to get, you can mention it, but especially for those who don’t speak Japanese, it’s often best to know the mission you want to play with someone. This was actually some practical advice I was given at my first MH meet, since people often simply asked to see my 3DS and pointed at what I needed, who to kill, or where I should go. It’s one of the strong advantages of real meets when playing portable games, since you can’t do that kind of thing when you’re chatting online.

Shukaijo in particular is a good place to find people playing MH, God Eater, and Freedom Wars, which, I was told, were the most popular games there. That’s probably why I didn’t find many Smash fans, since these games are more cooperative than competitive. In fact, as I’m writing this, about 90% of customers are coming in with the new MH4G.

So, for those looking to try something new, looking for fellow gamers, or (if your Japanese is good enough) possibly making some new friends, try visiting a real meet. Whether it’s highly structured, unstructured, or somewhat in the middle, real meets are a good way reason to get out of single player mode and experience some multi-player action abroad. They’re mostly aimed at Japanese, so you can have an authentic Japanese experience with gamers, and hopefully have fun playing the games you love.

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Spiders in Japan: The Tiniest Kaiju Wed, 10 Dec 2014 17:00:00 +0000 Arachnophobes be warned. Today’s article is all about our little eight-legged friends. Spiders, and monsters inspired by them, have held a place in Japanese culture for centuries. Japan is also currently dealing with the problem of a spider species from abroad. Meanwhile, a Japanese company has developed a spider-derived technology for the future.  Grab your […]

The post Spiders in Japan: The Tiniest Kaiju appeared first on Tofugu.

Arachnophobes be warned. Today’s article is all about our little eight-legged friends. Spiders, and monsters inspired by them, have held a place in Japanese culture for centuries. Japan is also currently dealing with the problem of a spider species from abroad. Meanwhile, a Japanese company has developed a spider-derived technology for the future.  Grab your flashlights, and let’s see what we can find in Japan’s nooks and crannies.

Tsuchigumo 土蜘蛛


Tsuchigumo means “earth spider,” and has been applied to both a yōkai and to certain people in ancient Japan. The creature tsuchigumo is basically a giant spider, though it is sometimes described as having the face of a demon and the body of a tiger. There are a couple of different stories about the warrior, Minamoto no Yorimitsu (948-1021) and his slaying of a tsuchigumo. In one of these stories Yorimitsu was bedridden with malaria, when a tall, strange monk appeared to him and tried to capture him with rope. Ill though he was, Yorimitsu drew his sword and cut the monk, who fled. The next day Yorimitsu and his four closest men followed the blood trail left by the monk to a mound behind Kitano Shrine, where they found a spider 1.2 meters wide. They caught it, pierced it with an iron skewer, and exposed it to a riverbed, whereupon Yorimitsu’s sickness was cured. That story became the basis of one of the earliest Noh plays, appropriately titled “Tsuchigumo.”


Tsuchigumo has also been used to refer to groups or individuals in ancient Japan, such as bandits, who used guerrilla tactics. This also applied to indigenous leaders or clans who resisted the Yamato court as it spread and consolidated its control over Japan. Many of these groups lived in hollow earthen mounds and may have used caves as hideouts. There is a lot of ambiguity in the sources and it’s unclear if tsuchigumo was first used to refer to people or the monster. There are no large, burrowing spiders native to Japan, but they may have known of such a species from the continent’s tales of the Chinese bird spider. Still, it’s not known if the behavior of the human tsuchigumo inspired the monster, or if the Yamato felt the name of the monster was fitting for those who defied their rule.

Jorōgumo 女郎蜘蛛


Photo by nesnad

In Japan, the name jorōgumo is commonly used to refer to various species of the genera Nephila and Agriope, but Japanese entomologists use the name to refer specifically to the species Nephila clavata. Jorōgumo means “whore spider,” which may seem like a strange name until you hear the stories that go with the name. Like the tsuchigumo, it seems the name jorōgumo was used for a yōkai before it was applied to a real animal.

There are a number of Edo period (1603-1867) stories about the jorōgumo. She usually appears as a beautiful woman, but in truth she is a giant spider. She will lure a young man to her secluded home and perhaps entertain him by playing the biwa. While he is distracted, she will bind him in her spider silk, and by the time the victim realizes what is happening it is already too late. His fate as her dinner is sealed.


Sometimes the origin of the jorōgumo is said to be a spider that gained magical powers when it turned 400 years old (not bad for a spider). Again, she will take the form of a woman, sometimes to seduce a handsome young samurai into marrying her. At other times, she will appear to be holding a baby, which upon looking closer turns out to be a spider egg sack.

Mizugumo 水蜘蛛


Photo by tetzl

Mizugumo literally means water spider, and that’s just what they are. Argyroneta aquatica (AKA the diving bell spider) is the only spider known to spend all of it’s time underwater. It does this by creating a “diving bell” web filled with air, in which it spends the vast majority of its time. The spiders live, mate, and lay eggs, all within their cozy air pocket. They hunt by darting out to catch prey that strays too close to the bubble.


Photo by Katie

The mizugumo also lent their name to some legendary ninja equipment. These mizugumo consisted of four rounded wooden pieces making a circle, loosely connected to each other and to a rectangle in the middle of the circle, which was strapped to the ninja’s foot. Perhaps the idea is best described as snowshoes for the water, with the same idea of using surface tension to keep the wearer on top of the walking surface. The Mythbusters actually tested them out once, and concluded that they wouldn’t work for traversing open water, but might have potential for crossing marshy territories or rice paddies.


There’s also a mizugumo for the Miyazaki fans out there, though you’ll probably have to travel a long way to find him. The Miyazaki directed, “Mizugumo Monmon,” is a fifteeen-minute animated short, released in 2006, that can be seen at the Ghibli Museum in Tokyo. It’s about a water spider that falls in love with a water strider.

Spider Battles


In Kagoshima Prefecture there is a town called Kajiki where they have an unusual pastime. For over four hundred years people in Kajiki have been raising spiders to fight in their annual kumo gassen (“spider battle”). The spiders in question are Agriope amoena, but are sometimes known to locals as Samurai Spiders. They are raised and trained in the homes of their owners, then compete around June.

The tournament consists of one-on-one, round robin matches until there is an ultimate victor. There are referees for each match who judge the winner on the following criteria: the first spider to bite, wrap the other in a web, or in cases where both spiders entered the fight on silk threads, who severed the other’s line first. The refs use their hands to separate the contestants if they get too aggressive, or goad them into action if they aren’t in the mood. In the sources I’ve seen, the locals claim the spiders don’t hurt each other, but I remain skeptical.

Redback Spiders


Until quite recently Japan had no spider species that could be deadly to humans (not counting the eight-legged monsters mentioned above). That changed around 1995, when the first redback spiders were found in Osaka. Native to Australia, redback spiders (Latrodectus hasseltii) are in the same family as black widows and their venom is similarly potent to humans: mostly survivable, but occasionally fatal.


It’s thought that the arachnids made the voyage to Japan stowed away in cargoes of wood chips. There may have been more than one point of entry. At any rate, the spiders have now been spotted in 22 of Japan’s 47 prefectures, mostly in western Japan. They have spread because of the warm climate and the relatively low number of natural predators. Around 2007 they were seen in Fukuoka for the first time. They were spotted in Tokyo for the first time in September of 2014. There have been a number of bites reported since the redbacks came to Japan, but no fatalities so far. Most big cities are equipped with the proper anti-venom, but smaller towns where the spiders have been seen are not so well prepared.

Another factor in the spiders’ spread has been the lack of a cohesive extermination effort from the authorities. Under Japan’s Invasive Alien Species Law, it should be the responsibility of the central government, but they have been concentrating their efforts on protecting areas like national parks from alien species that threaten biodiversity. Therefore, controlling the redback spiders has been mainly left to local authorities, who haven’t planned their extermination attempts very well.

Spider Tech


Photo retrieved from

Spider silk is a remarkable material. Scientists have been trying to find ways to mass produce it for years. Spider farming doesn’t work because the spiders would eat each other. People have been farming silkworms for centuries, but their silk is not nearly as strong as spiders’. Therefore, scientists (successfully) attempted to genetically alter silkworms to produce silk like that of spiders, but the silkworms were unable to produce enough of the stuff to make mass production feasible.

In 2013, the Japanese company, Spiber Inc., revealed a dress they had made from spider silk. They had managed to genetically alter bacteria to produce the proteins that make up spider silk, and also developed a way to weave those proteins into silk of strength comparable to the real deal. They dubbed the new fabric QMONOS, after the Japanese word for spider web, kumonosu 蜘蛛の巣. By 2015, Spiber is hoping to produce ten tons of QMONOS per year from a factory in Yamagata Prefecture.

If they are successful, the potential is astounding. Spider silk is five times stronger than steel, but six times lighter than steel of the same strength. It’s also as elastic as nylon and can withstand temperatures up to 300 degrees Celsius. Amongst many potential uses it could be used to make artificial blood vessels, bulletproof vests, and stronger, lighter airplane fuselages.

The Wrap Up

We’ve come to the end of our thread, one that stretches from the monsters of the past to some Spider-man-like tech. If synthetic silk becomes the technology of the future, perhaps spiders can overcome their bad reputation. I think it’s undeniable that spiders strike a powerful chord in the human psyche. For many they inspire fear, but hopefully we’ve come to a point in history where people will view spiders with a sense of wonder and respect.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inazo Nitobe


Photo by あばさー

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Playing Catch-Up: The Meji Restoration


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

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

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


Photo by World Imaging

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

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

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

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

Nitobe’s Ulterior Motives


Photo by Okinawa Soba

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

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

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

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

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

Christianity and the Taming of the Samurai


Photo by World Imaging

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

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

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

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

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

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

Giving Soul to Suicide and the Sword


Photo by WikiImages

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Soul of Japan‘s Reception in The West


Photo by Rob at Houghton

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

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

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

The Soul of Japan‘s Reception in Japan


Photo by Lx 121

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

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

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

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

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

Benesch supports Oshii’s argument:

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

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

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

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

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

Critique of Inazo Nitobe


Photo by  KoS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Give Me That New Old-Time Bushido?


Photo by  T0XiC0k82

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

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

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

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

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


Photo by Chris 73

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

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

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

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

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

The Honorable Samurai: Fact or Fiction?


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

Honorable Warriors?


Photo by Guidod

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

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

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


Photo by Lepidlizard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Honorable Lifestyles?


Photo by WTCA

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

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


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

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

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

Honorable Interpretations?


Photo by World Imaging

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

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

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

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


Photo by Diogo151

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

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

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

Fascism – Nitobe’s Unintended Consequence


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

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

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


Photo by:  PawełMM

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

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

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

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


Photo by PawełMM

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

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

Nitobe’s Legacy


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bonus Wallpapers!

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

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

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


Photo by: mout1234

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


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


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

Miyabi (雅 / みやび)


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

– Sources of Japanese Tradition: From Earliest Times to 1600

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


Photo by: s.yume

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


Photo by: Aurelio Asiain

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


Aware/Mono no Aware (哀れ・物の哀れ)


Photo by: Gideon Davidson

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

– The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

京にても 京なつかしや 時鳥

Kyou nitemo
kyou natsukashi ya

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

-Haiku By Matsuo Basho

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


Photo by: T.Kiya

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

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


Photo by: sunnywinds*

Yugen (幽玄)


Photo by: Roger Andrés

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

- Shotetsu monogatari in Zoku gunsho ruiju

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


Photo by: MIKI Yoshihito

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

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

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


Photo by: 55Laney69

Jo-ha-kyu (序破急)


Photo by: Wally Gobetz

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

-The Invisible Actor by Yoshi Oida


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

- Zeami: Performance Notes by Zeami

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


Photo by: Pinky-san

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

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


Photo by: Christian Kaden

Wabi-sabi (侘び寂び)

beauty is in the language temple

Photo by: Synn Wang

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

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

Hana mo momiji mo
Ura no tomaya no
Aki no yugure

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

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

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


Photo by: Snake Cats

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


Photo by: gullevek

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

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

Photo by: Christian Kaden

Shibui (渋い)


Photo by: Tzong-Lin Tsai

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

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

– The World of Shibui by Michiaki Kawakita

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


Photo by: Christian Kaden

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


Photo by: 挪威 企鵝

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


Photo by: Tony & Wayne

Iki (粋)


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

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


Photo by: Mami H.Gibbs

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

She is the 100% perfect girl for me.

He is the 100% perfect boy for me.

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

A sad story, don’t you think?

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

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

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


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

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


Photo by: Héctor García

Roses Are Dead, Violets Are Too


Photo by: Randy Woolsey

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


Photo by: Thomas

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


Photo by: Stuart Brown

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

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

Go Culture

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

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

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

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

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

The Rules

Photo via  Wikimedia Commons

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

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

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


Photo via Blue Ruin 1

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

Where do I play my first turns?

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

Go board


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

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

How do I take my opponent’s stones?

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

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

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

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

Go two Eyes configuration

 Image from Sensei’s Library

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

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

What Now?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bonus Wallpapers!

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

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

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

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

Necessities Of War

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

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

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

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

Pushing Technology

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


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

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

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

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

Technically Speaking

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

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

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

Bury Me Wearing Glasses

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

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

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

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

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Note: All photos taken by the author.

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