Tofugu » Culture A Japanese Language & Culture Blog Fri, 22 May 2015 14:21:43 +0000 en-US hourly 1 The Taming of the Shroom: The Umamitastic World of Japanese Mushrooms Fri, 22 May 2015 13:00:00 +0000 Mushrooms are an essential ingredient in Japanese cuisine, and there are so many varieties to choose from.  Hopefully this guide will make things a bit easier on you.  It will tell you what a mushroom is, their types and uses, as well as what makes them so darn delicious.  I couldn’t cover every mushroom that […]

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Mushrooms are an essential ingredient in Japanese cuisine, and there are so many varieties to choose from.  Hopefully this guide will make things a bit easier on you.  It will tell you what a mushroom is, their types and uses, as well as what makes them so darn delicious.  I couldn’t cover every mushroom that grows in Japan, but I tried to cover the types you can usually find for sale.  But before we start:

Warning: Do not go foraging for mushrooms unless you know what you’re doing.  That means you have lots of experience learning first-hand from another expert.  There are lots of tasty mushrooms out there, but there are also many that could give you a stomach ache or worse.  The vast majority of us should content ourselves with what’s available in stores.

What are Mushrooms and Why are They So Yummy?


A mushroom is, of course, a fungus.  More specifically, it is the fleshy, fruiting body of a fungus.  All mushroom are fungi, but not all fungi are mushrooms.  Mushrooms sometimes usually have stems and caps, and typically have gills.  Those are the little frills you see on the underside of a mushroom’s cap.  Those gills produce spores that, in turn, produce more fungi.  The mushroom is connected to more fungal structure embedded in its food source, whether that be the soil, a tree, or something else.

A big factor in the flavor of many mushrooms is their umami.  Umami basically means “deliciousness,” but was applied by scientist, Ikeda Kikunae, to mean a sort of rich, savory flavor.  Ikeda was studying the science behind the flavor, and discovered that glutamate was the cause.  Ikeda mainly used kombu dashi for his studies, and subsequent studies also looked at dried bonito flakes.  However, in 1957, Kuninaka Akira discovered that the ribonucleotide GMP found in shiitake mushrooms also gave an umami flavor.  Based on that research he later discovered that when ingredients rich in glutamate are combined with those with ribonucleotides, the resulting umami is stronger than each individual part.

Buna-shimeji (Hypsizygus tessellatus)


Photo by Andy

Buna-shimeji are fairly small mushrooms with white, long, often-curved stems and tan caps.  They taste bitter when raw, but this is replaced with a nutty flavor when cooked.  They have a firm, slightly crunchy texture.  They are good for most recipes.

Enokitake (Flammulina velutipes)


Photo by Wendell Smith

Enoki mushrooms are named after the tree on which they grow, which is known as the Chinese hackberry in English.  However, they also grow on other trees, like mulberry and persimmon trees.  In the supermarket, they are easily recognizable as dense clumps of small, white mushrooms with long, slender stems.  Cultivated enoki are grown in a dark, carbon dioxide-rich environment to keep them white and encourage long stem growth, respectively.  Wild enoki tend to be dark brown, with shorter, thicker stems.

Enoki don’t have a strong flavor, so they probably aren’t the best mushroom to take center stage in a dish.  They do have a relative crispness to them.  For these reasons, plus their small size, they are often used in soups and stews.  They could also be used in some side dishes or salads.

Eringi (Pleurotus eryngii)


Photo by David Loong

Eringi have many names in the West, perhaps most common being the King Oyster Mushroom.  Unlike most of the fungi in this article, it is not native to Japan. It was mass cultivated there in the early 1990s and has become quite popular since.  Eringi are rather large, with long, thick, meaty white stems, and relatively small tan caps.  They don’t have a lot of flavor raw, but when cooked the umami comes forward.  I find them particularly good when grilled.  Keep it simple and cook them over flame or in a pan with a bit of salt and pepper.

Magic Mushrooms


Photo by Scott Darbey

Some mushrooms can have psychedelic effects on those who consume them.  There are a number of such mushrooms, but the most popular by far are from the genus Psilocybe.  They cause hallucinations due to two different chemicals: psilocybin and psilocin.

Japan is a country that tends to take drugs quite seriously (apart from alcohol and tobacco), so it’s surprising that before 2002 magic mushrooms were legal.  You could buy them in head shops, and apparently even in vending machines.  In 2002 they were made illegal, perhaps because of the World Cup that was played in Japan that year.  It’s thought that Japanese leaders changed the law in anticipation of an influx of foreign fans getting high and causing trouble.

Maitake (Grifola frondosa)


Photo by Brain Lioila

Maitake translates to “dancing mushroom.”  They don’t look like your stereotypical mushrooms.  They grow in a dense cluster and the stems flow into the frond-like caps, giving the whole cluster an appearance something like a head of cabbage.  The clusters can get quite large: over 40 kilograms (100 pounds)!  They have a woody, smoky flavor, but it isn’t as meaty as some other mushrooms.  They can be used in stir frying, simmering, roasting and other applications.

Matsutake (Tricholoma mastutake)


Photo by 挪威 企鵝

Matsutake form a symbiotic relationship with the roots of certain tree species, most notably the Japanese Red Pine, hence the name matsutake (“pine mushroom”).  Matustake have long, thick stems and knob-like brown caps.  Due to the difficulty in finding them, they are quite expensive.  The average price is about $90 per kilogram, but matsutake found in Japan at the beginning of the season can go for up to $2,000 per kilogram!  Matsutake grown in the U.S. can be had for a much lower price sometimes.  If you get the chance to try them, one of the best ways to show off their flavor is in a simple rice bowl dish (matsutake gohan).

Nameko (Pholiota nameko)


Nameko are small and amber-brown.  They have a nutty flavor and a thin layer of gelatin on their caps, which forms a sort of glaze when cooking with them.  They are often used in miso soup, nabemono, and stir-fries.


Photo by Akiko Ogata

Long popular in Japanese cuisine, nameko have recently gained notoriety in another field.  A trilogy of smart phone games called “Nameko Saibai Kit,” has become quite popular.  The goal of the game is to raise various types of anthropomorphic cartoon nameko.  Of course, with popularity comes merchandise, and you can find plenty of stuff featuring these cute little mushrooms.

Shiitake (Lentinula edodes)


Photo by tup wanders

Shiitake are named after the tree on whose dead logs they commonly grow, the Castanopsis cuspidate.  Shiitake is probably the most popular Japanese mushroom, both at home and abroad.  Who knows how long people have been collecting them in Japan, but somewhere along the line they discovered a method for cultivating them.  A shiitake bearing log would be placed next to freshly cut logs, allowing the fungus to spread to all of them.  They even found that damaging the bark of the new logs would improve the efficiency of mushroom multiplication.


Photo by Brian Liloia

It’s easy to see why shiitake are so popular, as they are both flavorsome and versatile.  When cooked, they are aromatic and have a nice rich, woody flavor.  Due to this and their chewy, dense texture they make a great meat substitute.  Shiitake can also be bought dried, which actually intensifies their flavor and adds a bit of smokiness.  The applications of shiitake are many and varied, from stir fries to grilling, from simmering to soups and nabemono (and that’s just in Japanese cuisine).  I love making a shiitake nimono: simmering the mushrooms in dashi and soy sauce until the liquid reduces to almost nothing.  You’ll have a bowl full of concentrated umami.

Kinoko no Yama


Photo by Robyn Lee

Okay, so obviously these aren’t real mushrooms.  However, they have been a popular snack ever since Meiji launched them in 1975.  Their part milk, part dark chocolate caps sit atop crunchy biscuit stems, and make for an excellent combo.  No list of Japanese mushrooms is complete without them.

Mushroom Medicine


Photo by dbaronoss

Some mushrooms have been used in traditional medicine for centuries.  For example, the fungus from maitake has long been used in China and Japan for enhancing the immune system.  Modern research has indicated that the entire maitake may be useful in this regard.  In addition, a 2009 study by Sloan-Kettering showed it to have anti-tumor effects.  It may also have hypoglycemic effects.

Shiitake mushrooms have also shown some promise in the fighting both cancer and viruses, but studies have not been conclusive.  Still, as long as you’re enjoying some mushroom cooking, it’s nice to think they might be helping you too.

How to Choose and Store Your Mushrooms


Photo by Chiot’s Run

When selecting mushrooms at the store they should be dry, but not withered.  If they come plastic-wrapped, look out for condensation.  When storing them, sealing them in a paper bag is a good way to keep them from getting too wet or dry.  If you keep them in a plastic-wrapped tub, poking a few holes in the plastic is a good idea.  At any rate, you should use them within a few days.

You shouldn’t wash them until you’re about to use them.  Some say they shouldn’t be washed at all for fear of waterlogging them. Brush them instead.  A brush is fine, but time consuming, so a light wash should be fine.  If you don’t see any dirt on them, there shouldn’t be a need for either.

Let’s Put a Cap On This


Photo by Wendell Smith

What more is there to say?  Mushrooms are some tasty and versatile fungi.  Go forth and try as many kinds, in as many ways as possible!

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A Day in the Life of a Japanese Monk Thu, 21 May 2015 13:00:00 +0000 Last year I wrote an article called “The Real Japanese Monk’s Guide To Buddhism In Japan.” At the end of it I said that we would one day explore a real Japanese monk’s day-to-day life. It took a while, but that day has finally arrived. We are finally diving into the intricacies of a the monk life in […]

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Last year I wrote an article called “The Real Japanese Monk’s Guide To Buddhism In Japan.” At the end of it I said that we would one day explore a real Japanese monk’s day-to-day life. It took a while, but that day has finally arrived. We are finally diving into the intricacies of a the monk life in Japan.

I interviewed the same helpful monk from my article last year, Yugaku Ikawa of Daihisen Tatsunoji Temple in Yagyu, Nara. He belongs to a Japanese group of Shingon Buddhists from the Koyasan Shingon-shu sect. The lives of monks from different sects will differ. Even monks from within the same sect are likely to take slightly different paths because each region often has different habits, and monks who have different ranks and/or titles have different responsibilities. Even so, this interview is a great way begin understanding the lives of Japanese monks. I hope you enjoy it!

A Note from Yugaku Ikawa

There are three different types of temples: 観光寺 (かんこうでら/kankou-dera), temples for sightseeing, 御祈祷寺 (ごきとうでら/gokitou-dera), temples for praying, and 檀家寺 (だんかでら/danka-dera), temples for supporters. My temple is a danka-dera. To wrap your head around the idea of danka-dera, imagine Twitter. My temple is a twitter account. I have some followers who like my temple. They are called 檀家 (だんか/danka) or 檀家さん (だんかさん/danka-san) and they provide support to maintain my temple. In return, I assist with their worship for their Buddha and ancestors’ souls.

With this in mind, I’ll walk you through my life as the monk of a danka-dera.

An Ordinary Day



Photo by kumazoo_jp


Good morning! I get up around 5 am, then worship. I read sutra to the Buddha statue in my temple and pray for the peace of the day. It’s like a greeting to Buddhist Gods.


I clean my house and altar room.


I offer rice and tea to the Buddha statue.


I eat breakfast and prepare for the day. My breakfast is usually a banana and yogurt, since my stomach is not that strong. But in principal it should be shojin ryori (monk’s vegetarian diet). Although it’s vegetarian, there are five vegetables called 五辛 (ごしん/goshin) or 五葷 (ごくん/gokun) that are prohibited for monks to eat: green onions, garlic, Chinese chives, scallions, and hajikami, which means both ginger and Japanese sansho pepper. Why? Because they act as aphrodisiacs and are too good for building energy. We are supposed to be calm all the time.



Photo by S.R.I.M.I.N.

If there are no funerals that day, I visit the homes of my danka-san (supporters) for worship. There are two types of worship. One is called 月参り (つきまいり/tsukimairi), which is a monthly worship on monthly anniversaries of each family member’s death. I usually visit five to ten places for tsukimairi in a given day. Each tsukimairi usually takes about 10 minutes. The other is called 法事 (ほうじ/houji), which is a Buddhist memorial service which almost all family members attend. These is conducted on the first, third, seventh, thirteenth, seventeenth, twenty-third, twenty-seventh, thirty-third and fiftieth anniversary of a family member’s death. Each houji memorial service takes about an hour.

At a houji memorial service, I not only do worship but also preach a Buddhist sermon. Then I visit the grave and worship there too. When I offer houji memorial services, I usually eat lunch with the family while remembering the deceased and sharing stories about them. At these times, I eat meat and drink alcohol if they are offered because it is rude to refuse.



At whatever time I return from my day’s activities, I start the evening worship. The length of the worship is about a half hour to an hour. Afterward I clean for about twenty minutes. When all the work is done, I have something tasty for dinner though originally monks are supposed to fast during this meal.

Overall, I do 法務 (ほうむ/houmu), which are Buddhist clerical duties, early morning and evening. Later on I do 檀務(だんむ/danmu), which are worship services for the temple’s supporters, during the day time.

Wakes and Funerals


Photo by Tod McQuillin

When somebody passes away, I get a phone call. It can be midnight or early morning. When I get the phone call, I visit the home of the deceased to offer Makura-kyo (also referred to as makura-gyo), which is one of the services held immediately after a person’s death. This is done to offer the first sutra chanting for the first time after death in order to keep the soul of the deceased from wandering before the funeral ceremony starts. Even if I already have other plans for the day, the funeral takes priority, so I ask those involved with my predetermined plans to kindly reschedule. If there are two funerals happening at the same time or some other unavoidable circumstance comes up, I will ask another monk from a different temple to help. Private plans are of course cancelled.

After finishing the makura-kyo ceremony, I have a meeting with the family about how they wish to conduct the wake (viewing) and the funeral and what kind of worship they would like to be performed. The wake is sometimes held the night a person passes, but it can be the next night too. Before the ceremony, I have to write 塔婆 (とうば/touba), which is a wooden grave tablet, and 墓標 (ぼひょう/bohyou), which is a grave-postmark. After the funeral, the family cremates the body and I go with them for a memorial service there, but I leave before they collect the bones. Finally, the family buries the remains on a later date, usually on the forty-ninth day after the person’s death, which is when the Buddhist services for the repose of soul are held.

Obon And Ohigan


Photo by Matthew Hine

Obon is the Japanese ritual ceremony that welcomes the souls of ancestors from heaven and to sends them off again. Ohigan is a equinoctial week in which Buddhist services are performed. There are ohigan in both spring and autumn.

I always do the early morning and evening worship and cleaning, but the daytime shift is very different and much busier during these seasons. At these times, all of the supporters want worship services so I have to visit a lot of places. I usually visit about 30 to 40 places a day, and sometimes up to 50. I get so busy that I can only offer 5 to 10 minutes of worship during this season, though I wish I could offer longer ones.

My area is a small countryside town, so my temple’s supporters are all in the same area. The supporters of city temples could be all over the place, so they probably wouldn’t be able to visit as many supporters as I do (probably 10 to 15 places a day). For both ohigan, I also hold memorial services for the people who died during the war on top of the memorial services held at each house.

And We Do It All Again Tomorrow!

And that’s an average day in the life of a Japanese monk! Did you find it interesting? Did you find any parts that you want to learn more about? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below!

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The Fabulous World of Japanese Socks! Wed, 20 May 2015 13:00:00 +0000 Recently I was talking with a group of people who had all lived in Japan. The conversation turned to socks, as it does. Everyone agreed that they missed Japanese socks passionately. One person, who was taking a trip to Japan, had already earmarked sock-buying time while he was there. If you haven’t lived in Japan, […]

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Recently I was talking with a group of people who had all lived in Japan. The conversation turned to socks, as it does. Everyone agreed that they missed Japanese socks passionately. One person, who was taking a trip to Japan, had already earmarked sock-buying time while he was there. If you haven’t lived in Japan, you might not think that socks would inspire such affection, but that’s probably because you haven’t experienced the wonders of Japanese socks.


pink tabi

Photo by Nozomi

If we’re going to look at socks, we should start with the traditional tabi. Tabi (足袋) are ankle high and recognizable by their split toe design and hook fastenings. The split between the big toe and the other toes means they are suitable to wear with traditional Japanese footwear such as geta and zori that resemble sandals with a strap that attaches to the sole between the toes. Traditional tabi are made of stiffer material than socks. This is good since it provides some protection for your feet (is it just my weird feet or are zori super painful to wear?).

Tabi are still worn today when people dress in wafuku, traditional Japanese clothing such as kimono. I have a pair that were required for a kimono class, and tea ceremonies are good places to spot tabi. The best places to buy tabi are department stores and specialist kimono shops. Unlike a kimono, a pair of tabi are not very expensive. The traditional colours are white and black, but these days you can find all kinds of cute coloured tabi.

jikatabi soles

Photo by Ton Schlösser

Jika-tabi (地下足袋) are a variation of tabi. They are tabi-boots with rubber soles. Although they are a 20th Century invention, you’ll probably have seen them on the feet of “ninjas” in movies. In reality they are worn by rickshaw pullers, workmen, farmers and construction workers, though they are not as popular as they once were.

The jika-tabi name illustrates something important to keep in mind: it means tabi that connect with the ground. From this you can infer something about regular tabi: that they should never touch the ground. The Japanese attitude toward the boundary between inside and outside can clearly be seen with the use of socks. Just as you never walk with shoes in the house, you should also never pop outside in your tabi (or any kind of socks.)

Sock Etiquette

shoes at genkan

Photo by Erik

In Japan your socks are on display far more often than in some other countries, thanks to the traditional code of leaving your shoes at the door. Your feet and socks can be on show many times a day and people aren’t shy about commenting on them. Wearing dirty or worn out socks is a big faux pas – if you want to make a good impression, you must have nice socks.

There are some regional and generational differences about sock etiquette when visiting someone else’s home. Younger people are often more relaxed. However, there were exclamations of horror as a lady in my calligraphy class told a tale of how a visitor had had walked on her tatami with his bare feet! Outrageous! This is just anecdotal evidence, but I can still recommend wearing socks you wouldn’t be embarrassed by while you are in Japan. Take into account the TPO (that’s a bit of Japanese English that means Time, Place and Occasion). For example, sports socks are not appropriate in a business setting.

But having impressive socks to show off is no hardship, because luckily for you there is a fantastic selection of all kinds of socks in Japan.

Modern Tabi

modern tabi socks

Photo by pekochan

Modern tabi take the split toe design of traditional tabi and pair it with modern materials. They stretch and pull on like a normal sock and don’t have a clasp closure. Personally, I never found them very comfortable, but some people swear by them, claiming they have health benefits. Split-toed running shoes have also become popular in recent years, so split toed socks suit them perfectly.

I’ve noticed a difference between modern tabi socks inside and outside Japan. In Japan they are just another kind of normal sock. You can find them in a range of colours, from ones suitable for work to wacky character socks. Outside Japan, where they are available, they still fall into the category of novelties, and tend to be very Japanesey-kitsch, patterned with sushi, ninjas or other Japanese cultural stereotypes. It’ll be interesting to see if they break out and become more mainstream outside of Japan.

Five Toed Socks

five toed socks

Photo by Bert Kimura

If one toe split was good, five must surely be better. Or at least that’s the thinking behind 5本指の靴下 gohon-yubi no kutsushita. Five-toed socks are basically gloves for your feet. They were invented in Spain, but popularised in Japan. Japanese researchers at the University of Tsukuba even did research that showed five toed socks improve circulation in comparison with standard socks. They also supposedly help prevent athlete’s foot. Despite their health benefits, five-toe socks are not considered very fashionable, but if you visit a sock shop in Japan, there will probably be a five-toed sock section.

Warm socks

socks galore

Photo by Chris Gladis

These socks might not be cute, but they are cosy. I lived in Hokkaido, so I valued any socks that would keep my feet warm. There are many brands of socks which claim to have warming properties. My favourites were Uniqlo’s Heat Tech range and the slightly cheaper versions I could find at my local Aeon department store. Look out for them if you want toasty toes. They are a seasonal item, more common in the winter. There are cooling socks which use a different blend of materials in the summer too.

Character Socks

kawaii socks for sale

Photo by Ricado Sosa

Chances are your favourite Japanese character or mascot comes in sock form. You can find socks emblazoned with the faces of characters from the big hitters like Hello Kitty and Rilakkuma to more obscure characters like Hokkaido’s Marimokkori or the bean dog Mameshiba. Manga and anime characters also frequently make appearances on socks. Wearing character socks is a fun way to brighten up your day with your favourite character in a subtle way.

Screen printed socks

screenprinted socks

Photo by Cory Doctorow

I haven’t seen screen printed socks much outside of Japan, though perhaps the fashion has spread and I’m just not aware of it. The obvious attraction is that you can have a bright, detailed image on your feet. Woo cute koala feet! The downside is that these socks are usually made of synthetic material so are not as comfy as cotton socks. Whether you want to make that trade-off to have astronauts or macaroons on your socks is up to you.

Fuwa Fuwa Socks

fuwafuwa socks

Photo by Ranee Flory

フワフワ or もくもく socks are fluffy just as their onomatopoeic name suggests. Whenever I was chilling in my house, I was wearing fuwa fuwa socks. Thanks to their softness, they are a great alternative to slippers. I bought mine at the 100 yen store. They usually come in pastel colours and cute animal designs.

Chair socks

chair socks

Photo by joannej

In Japan, even the chairs wear socks. You might be thinking, why would a chair possibly need socks? However, consider that tatami mats were not designed to withstand western-style chairs with legs. The socks help to keep the chair legs from scratching or denting the floors. If you want to clothe your naked chairs, the best places to find them are 100 yen stores.

Slouchy “Gal” socks

gal socks

Photo by Ogiyoshisan

ルーズソックス Loose socks, (or more accurately legwarmers) were a must-have in the 90s among school girls, but it was the gal subculture who went to extraordinary lengths to have the most slouchy socks possible. Some girls wore socks that were longer than their own height in order to achieve an extreme effect. These socks are sold by length, often over 1 meter long and usually come in white. Fashion is a great snake that eats itself, and so in 2014 slouchy socks returned as retro. You can find them in stores that cater to teenage girls.

Kon-Hai 紺ハイ


Kon-hai, or navy-blue high socks are the fashion successors to loose socks. In the 2000s, loose socks were out and knee high navy blue socks came in. They are also sometimes called 紺ハイソ or 紺ソク. They are worn with Junior and Senior High School uniforms. They are distinctive for their navy blue colour and for often having a small, embroidered logo near the top. This logo can be anything from a generic horse, to Rilakkuma, to the Statue of Liberty. Of course, the association with school girls feeds into the fetishisation of this section of society. However, in everyday life, they are just normal socks worn by normal girls.

Sock Obsession

zettai ryoiki

Photo by Beryl Chan

Now, I like socks. I like wearing them. They keep my feet warm and comfy. But after doing the research for this article, I’d be a fool not to know that some people like socks for different reasons. Looking for information on Japanese socks can take you to some very sketchy corners of the internet, but an article on socks would not be complete without mentioning of the fetishisation that surround them. Socks are a part of many school uniforms and are part of the cultural icon status of school girls. Another aspect of these socks as icon is 絶対領域 Zettai ryōiki. The phrase zettai ryōiki comes from the anime Neon Genesis Evangelion and is a reference to defensive shields. In terms of socks zettai ryōiki refers to the area of skin revealed between the bottom of a skirt and the top of thigh high socks. It is common in character designs in manga, anime and games, as well as in real life, either as cosplay or as a fashion statement. A great amount of mathematical analysis has gone into this phenomenon. This is not really my kind of thing, but as long something it isn’t hurting anyone, it doesn’t bother me. And it certainly hasn’t put me off Japanese socks. It would be easy to fall into the trap of thinking that Japanese socks are just another part of “otaku” Japan, but reality is far more broad and complex. There are socks in Japan for every taste, and now I’m going to tell you how to find them.

Sock Recommendations


tabio shop

Tabio’s goal is to be the finest speciality sock store in the world. They’ve been opperating since 1984 and seem to have been doing a good job so far. You can find Tabio stores in Japan, France and the UK, but all the socks are made in Japan. Tabio is where you go for grown-up socks. Their range of socks is extensive, coming in a variety of lengths, colours, materials (including alpaca and silk!) and styles. If you are looking for a style of sock, Tabio probably has it, from five-toed socks, to walking socks, and of course a modern version of the tabi sock with a split toe. There is even a whole selection of wedding-after-party socks. This is the pricier end of the sock market, with socks ranging from about 800 yen to over 3000 yen. Tabio has an English language online store in the UK as well as Japanese online store.


socks at uniqlo

Photo by alisdair

My partner is a huge fan of Uniqlo’s men’s socks. They come in significantly more than a rainbow’s worth of colours (50 to be exact), they fit true to size, and they last a long time. Before leaving Japan my partner stocked up on Uniqlo socks. He’s slowly adding the unworn pairs to those already in circulation so his supply lasts until he can get back to Japan for more (or Uniqlo comes to Canada.) When a colleague going on a bussiness trip to Japan asked him what souvenir he’d like, he said Uniqlo socks. Such is his love for these excellent and very reasonably priced socks.

Uniqlo’s women’s socks are also very nice. They come in a wide variety of lengths, from footies to ankle socks to knee socks, as well as tights. Living in Hokkaido and now Canada, I’m particularly fond of the Heat Tech line at Uniqlo. They often come in two or three packs and the patterns and colours change every season. You can’t go wrong with Uniqlo socks. They are comfortable, colourful and hard wearing and priced reasonably for the amount of wear you can get out of them. You can find Uniqlo stores all over Japan. Luckily for us sock lovers, Uniqlo has expanded overseas too and you can shop online for all the socks (and other clothes I suppose) you want. They might not be as exciting as some other socks, but they are dependable.


right angle socks

Photo by ORAZ Studio

The no-brand brand Muji has some nice socks. It was my go-to place for comfortable ankle socks that last. Much like most of Muji’s products, they aren’t flashy, but they are good quality. But Muji does have one particularly innovative sock, the 90 degree sock. Apparently the right angle design keeps you from getting tired, although having never tried it, I can’t vouch for that.

Village Vanguard

village vanguard shimokita

OK, that’s enough sensible socks. It’s time for some fun ones. A good place to start is Village Vanguard, which describes itself as an “Exciting Book Store.” Not exactly the first place you’d look for socks. But if you go inside you’ll find a lot of fun socks, particularly character socks, as well as a bunch of other wacky, fun stuff. If you are looking for souvenirs to make your friends laugh, Village Vanguard is a good place to go, and not just for socks. It has an online store, but it can’t recreate the overwhelming experience of visiting in person.

Sock Dreams

Finally, if you are in the US and looking for Japanese socks closer to home, my recommendation is Sock Dreams. This company is based in Portland, Oregon and has a good selection of Japanese socks, particularly modern tabi, as well as socks from the US and around the world. They also have a bricks and mortar shop, if you prefer that over online shopping.

Buying Socks

sock store

Photo by fletcherjcm

It’s not hard to find specialist sock stores in Japan. If you walk around any shopping area in a big city, you’ll probably come across more than one. There are also often displays of socks in department stores. Buying socks is pretty easy too, but here are two tips to make it even easier. Japanese socks are sized by Japanese shoe sizes. Here’s a conversion chart so you can work out your size:

japanese shoe size chart

The second hint is to look for offers on three pairs of socks. I almost always bought socks in threes, saving money with this kind of offer in many different stores. If you see a display with a range of socks and a sign with the number 3 and a price then you are probably looking at a good discount. Sometimes if you miss the offer, the sales assistant will explain it to you, so if you don’t speak Japanese and someone selling socks is trying to explain something to you, look around for these signs. For example, these epic luchador socks illustrate a typical offer, 3 for 1000 yen or 400 yen each.

luchador sock sale

Photo by Simon Q

I hope you have happy sock hunting and happier feet!

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Have a Rice Day! Rice Cooker History, Features, Futures, and More Fri, 15 May 2015 13:00:00 +0000 My brother had warned me, “Once you go rice cooker, you don’t go back.” He was right. I had grown up in a household where we cooked rice in a pot, on our stovetop. In college I used a hotpot to the same effect. Then I came to Japan, where a small but mighty appliance forever changed my […]

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My brother had warned me, “Once you go rice cooker, you don’t go back.”

He was right.

I had grown up in a household where we cooked rice in a pot, on our stovetop. In college I used a hotpot to the same effect. Then I came to Japan, where a small but mighty appliance forever changed my cooking ways.

Although I had had a rice cooker at my disposal upon arrival in my Japanese apartment, I felt reluctant to use it. The kanji labeled buttons intimidated me. It did not appear intuitive.

In retrospect, I’m not sure why I worried. What was the worst that could happen? My rice turns to porridge? It took a visit from my brother to teach me the wise ways of the rice cooker.

Measure the rice. Dump it in. Wash it. Measure the water. Dump it in. Press the big red button. Go enjoy life until you hear “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” Enjoy perfect rice every-time.

But that’s not all. New models push the limits of the term “rice cooker.” Equipped with features like magnetic fields, fuzzy logic and artificial intelligence, and with cooking versatility ranging from stew to bread, today’s rice cookers are the go-to kitchen appliance.

So forget the microwave and give your gas bill a break. Join us as we compare models and features and decide which rice cooker is best for you. If you’re still feeling reluctant, don’t be (like I was). Learn to stop worrying and love the rice cooker.

A Grainy History

Photo by TANAKA Juuyoh

Sometimes referred to as “denshi jaa” (電子ジャー) or “suihanki” (炊飯器) rice cookers were born out 0f Japan’s post-war revival. Before then, people cooked rice on kamado, large stoves made to accompany giant pots.

The nature of these stoves made controlling temperatures tricky and cooking delicious rice difficult. A short lyric attempted to make up for the lack of technology at the time. Kids Web Japan describes the old rhyme:

Hajime choro choro, naka pappa, butsu butsu iu koro hi o hiite, instructs the cook to begin at low heat, then increase the heat, and then lower the heat again when the inside of the pot begins to bubble.

The post-war period left companies scrambling for new commodities. With cash scarce, rice was also accepted as payment. War factories closed down and left Japan with plenty of electricity but few ways to utilize it. These two factors would soon lead to a rice cooking revolution.

At the time Sony focused on modifying and repairing radios built to strict wartime specifications (like limited stations), but looked to expand. How could they take advantage of the electrical productivity of a rice-fed nation like Japan?

The (first) electric rice cooker, made by merely interlocking aluminum electrodes which were connected to the bottom of a wooden tub, was a primitive product. The result depended heavily on the kind of rice used and the weight of the water. Tasty rice was a rarity, as the rice cooker produced mostly undercooked or overcooked rice. It was a memorable first failure.(Sony)

But Sony wasn’t the only company dreaming of a convenient rice cooking apparatus and thanks to competition, the quality of rice cookers improved. According to Kids Web Japan, Toshiba would release the first commercially successful rice cooker in 1955.

After much trial and error, the company came up with a method called “double-pot indirect cooking,” in which a cup of water was poured into the outer pot, and the machine automatically turned off when all of this water evaporated, signaling that the rice was ready. (Kidswebjapan)

Because of how they drastically altered the standard of living for households in the 1950’s, Japan dubbed the refrigerator, television and washing machine The Three Treasures. The rice cooker could have easily been declared the fourth. The convenient appliance became a cultural mainstay, offering safely cooked, delicious rice while rendering the more dangerous, inconsistent kamado obsolete.

Fuzzy Logic, A.I. and Rice Cookers of the Future

Photo by Alex Shultz

Competition between brands meant rice cookers would continue to improve. For example, “in 1960, the first rice cookers that could keep rice warm after it was cooked went on sale, as did some models with timers.”(Kidswebjapan)

Rice cooker technology continues to march into the future, cooking rice faster while bringing out the best taste. Old machines relied on simple mechanical settings, ignoring factors that are now considered like air pressure, weight, temperature and planetary alignment (okay, maybe not the last one).

Technological advancements have even made direct heating obsolete. Induction heating or “IH” (for those in-the-know) became the industry standard.

Here’s how an IH cooker works. An electric current is passed through coils around the pot. This produces a magnetic field, which in turn produces an electric current in the pot’s metal. Metal heats up when an electric current runs through it, so the entire pot quickly rises to a high temperature and cooks the rice evenly. (Kidswebjapan)

The next wave of machines incorporated computer chips and fuzzy logic. As  explains,

Fuzzy logic has to do with mathematical sets, or groups of items known as elements. In most mathematical sets, an element either belongs to the set or it doesn’t. For example, a sparrow would belong to a set of birds, but a bat wouldn’t. In fuzzy logic, though, elements can belong to sets in varying degrees. So since a bat has wings, it might belong to a set of birds — but only to a certain extent. Fuzzy logic is basically a way to program machines so they look at the world in a more human way, with degrees of truth.

Fuzzy logic allows rice cooker to make “judgement calls” based on collected data and rewards its owners with consistently delicious rice, despite life’s variables.

So what does the future of rice cookers hold? Perhaps we only have to look to sci-fi films, like The Terminator, 2001: Space Odyssey or Rojin Z for scary but delectable predictions. For example, Jordan Shapiro of Forbes contacted Zojirushi, the premier rice cooker producer, about their new lines of A.I. rice cookers. He reported,

 Zojirushi tells me that (its rice cooker) learns from each cooking experience so as to adjust to your cooking idiosyncrasies. I didn’t ask, so I’m not sure what rice cooking behaviors it “learns” from, but I imagine it could adjust to variables that may stay constant for each particular user: i.e. different brands of rice, the moisture in your climate, the particular chemistry of your water.

I’m hoping for a “smart” rice cooker I could control with a phone app. Or at least a talking rice cooker, similar to HAL from 2001 Space Odyssey that could create well balanced meals on its own. “Dave, your rice is ready. Please eat before it gets cold.”

Rice Cooker Features

Photo by esPose de


Rice cookers come in various shapes and sizes. Choose a model that best fits your lifestyle. If you’re single, the smaller the better, no need for a family-sized behemoth. But if you have a family or plan on hosting parties, go big!

Choosing the Best Pot

Even the cooking pots vary. Some have chemically treated, nonstick surfaces to make cleaning easy. Aluminum is also a popular option. But if you want to avoid those surfaces, for their purported health detriments, go with a more natural option like steel or clay.

Programming and Settings

Of course, some rice cookers boast more features than others. Even those made strictly for cooking rice often feature multiple rice cooking settings. Making brown rice? Hit “brown.” Feeling under the weather and need some kayu rice porridge? Hit the special button. A clock and timer add to a cooker’s convenience. Other models even feature digital screens for detailed options and settings.


Why mention it twice? Because a timer is a rice cooker’s must-have feature. Set it before you go to bed to have fresh rice in the morning. Set it when you head off to work to have fresh rice waiting when you get home.

Multipurpose Versatility

Rice cookers now take cooking convenience to the next level and smash the excuse, “I don’t have time to cook.” You can steam some veggies, broccoli or barbecue some meat and have a healthy, fresh, affordable home cooked meal in minutes. And with some rice cookers, you can cook it all at the same time in the same appliance!

If you want to cook more than rice, you could take your chances with a standard “rice only” model, but its cooking settings and rice-centric fuzzy-logic might make for over cooked, mushy meals. But don’t fret, many of today’s “rice” cookers accommodate multipurpose needs. Special cooking settings make cooking soups, stews and even steaming vegetables and meats as easy as the push of a button.

Some rice cookers feature special steaming trays. Others double as crock pots and pressure cookers. With the help of a timer you can prepare all of your ingredients in the morning, set the timer and have a well balanced scrumptious meal waiting for you when you get home.

One of my current models, the Vitaclay 2-in-1 Rice N’ Slow Cooker, has special settings for making stew and soup (I can smell the tomato and chicken stew stewing as I write!).

Charm Points

On top of all of the shapes, sizes and technological advancements and features, rice cookers also feature charm. Although I love my Vitaclay, my Zojirushi takes the prize for charm.

For one, it has a convenient, self winding plug that stores internally and never gets in the way. There’s also a removable container to catch spill water from the lid. But best of all, the Zojirushi plays “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” when the rice is done.

The rice cooker universe is surprisingly vast. Please examine all the options (and read the next section) before buying one!

Rice Cooker Battle!

Photo by Eric Hunt

Now that we’ve covered the appliance’s history, technology and features it’s time to look at specific models. Which will come out on  top? You be the judge!

Zojirushi NP-NVC10/18

The Zojirushi NP-NVC10/18 is the top-of-the-line, rice connoisseur’s model.  The giant (15.4 x 10.1 x 8.6 inches, 13 pounds) NP-NVC10/18 flashes some bling in its a “platinum infused nonstick coating.” Apparently this coating makes for the best rice which is the NP-NVC10/18’s goal.

The model features both fuzzy-logic and AI and takes pressure into account. Settings allow users to make the rice as soft or hard as they prefer, and rice can even be toasted and crispy with the NP-NVC10/18’s “scorch” setting. The clock and timer means you can have your preferred style of rice when you want it.

The top of the line, this rice cooker comes in sizes and price ranges to match. If rice cookers equalled street cred, MC’s would be rhyming about the NP-NVC10/18 instead of spinners and medallions. Although it lacks versatility in terms of cooking foods other than rice, if you want awesome rice prepared nearly any way (brown, gabba brown, scorched, umami, sushi rice, or porridge), the NP-NVC10/18 is the model for you.

Panasonic SR-DE103 (13 X10 X8)

The Panasonic SR-DE103 is a well balanced model with a few extra features at a great price. Fuzzy logic helps the SR-DE103 alter the cooking time to net delicious rice every time. Although its choices in rice cooking settings pale in comparison to the NP-NVC10/18, it features a steam tray and steam and cake push-button settings that give it the edge in versatility. It’s also more compact (13 X10 X8 inches), making it easier to store.

With a timer that lets you have rice when you want it the Panasonic SR-DE103 offers what’s expected of a traditional rice cooker with a few convenient features. Priced under $100, the Panasonic SR-DE103 offers a high end cooker at a more affordable price.

Aroma Digital Rice Cooker and Food Steamer

The Aroma Digital Rice Cooker and Food Steamer offers easy, one button controls (white rice, brown rice, keep warm and steam). It comes in various sizes so you can choose one that suits your needs.

Like the Panasonic SR-DE103, the Aroma Digital features a black nonstick coated aluminum cooking pot. It also has a special “steam” setting that allows users to steam vegetables in the fitted tray while cooking rice. Take advantage of the timer to have balanced meals ready when you need them!

What’s the difference between the Aroma Digital and Panasonic SR-DE103? Size, shape and material. The Panasonic SR-DE103 is a rectangular plastic box. The Aroma Digital is a round, crock-pot styled rice cooker with a stainless steel shell (8.7 x 8.5 x 9.3 inches for the 8-cup model).

VitaClay VF7700-6 Chef

VitaClay’s claim to fame is its clay pot; a natural, stick-free alternative to most rice cooker pots’ artificial coatings. Although I love the clay pot, it can be a double edged sword. If you tend to drop things, the breakable clay pot might prove problematic. Although extra pots can be purchased online, it’ll cost you. But for the sure-handed readers out there, the clay pot is easy to clean and won’t pell after prolonged use like non-stick coated pots do. It also presents a nice aesthetic when it’s carried to the dining room table!

The VF7700-6 Chef encourages experimentation; its stew and soup settings work well in preparing curries, sauces, as well as ANY types of soups and stews. My only gripe is its lack of a steam tray. Like the Aroma Digital Rice Cooker, the VitaClay comes in a crock-pot styled shape.

Aroma Simply Stainless

As the Japanese-English phrase goes, sometimes “Simple is best.” And in the case of the Aroma Simply Stainless, it’s cheap too. This no-nonsense model features a lid, pot and plastic casing. A bare bones rice cooker, Aroma’s Simply Stainless line comes in three sizes and one touch simplicity. The pot is made from surgical-grade 304 stainless steel, so it’s a great option for those looking to avoid aluminum and chemically coated surfaces. The pot also boasts the ability to cook soups, stews, chili and oatmeal.

Although some reviews complain about steam and water spurting from the hole on the lid, the reviews are overwhelmingly positive. Want a no-fuss, affordable and tiny rice cooker? The Aroma Simply Stainless is your best bet!

Not Just for White Rice Anymore

Photo by Rich

When I first arrived in Japan I asked a Japanese acquaintance, “Can I cook brown rice in my rice cooker?”

“Oh… you better not,” she warned.

Japanese take their white rice very seriously, and I’ve heard the myth repeated time and time again, “Rice Cookers are for white rice.” But nothing could be further from the truth. I’ve cooked brown rice, beans, and even fish and vegetables in a rice cooker only meant for rice. Slight odors and staining of the white plastic shell proved to be the only downsides.

Whether cooked through induction heating, fuzzy logic, or artificial intelligence, at its very core a rice cooker is a heated pot. Like some of the models mentioned above, many rice cookers are moving to multi-functionality. And taking advantage of these features can be simple and fun.

A simple Youtube search reveals all sorts of things that can be cooked in a rice cooker – from various types of rice to pasta, eggs, pancakes, cake and bread. Resources to help you become a cooking everything-other-than-rice rice-cooker master.

Karate Rice

A site offering tips on how to prepare the perfect rice as well as various rice-based dishes, Karate Rice proves anyone can cook for themselves. I recommend the “Japanese Sweet Potato and Rice” and “Rice Chili Stew.” Add extra garlic and cumin to the stew to give it more zing!

Ariel Knutson’s 21 Surprising Things You Can Make in a Rice Cooker

A less traditional collection of recipes that often abandons the rice altogether. Although Mac and Cheese is always popular, I love the Vegetable Frittata as a quick, well balanced meal. Just looking at the “Tofu and Asparagus’s” deep green asparagus, soft brown tofu cubes and rich broth made my mouth water.


The offers all sorts of articles aimed at dedicated dog lovers. It even features a recipe for dog food (though I’m considering trying it as people food) made in a rice cooker. Instead of cooking with a dog, cook for a dog!

The Ultimate Rice Cooker Cookbook

With the subtitle, 250 No-Fail Recipes for Pilafs, Risottos, Polenta, Chilis, Soups, Porridges, Puddings, and More, Beth Hensperger and Julie Kaufman’s book puts cooking within reach of even the most inept household chefs.

Learn to make risotto, chunky or smooth applesauce, tapioca pudding, and hot breakfast cereals. Although I haven’t run into any problems myself, reviewers say this book nets the best results with fuzzy-logic models.

Bask in the Glory of Well Cooked Rice!

More versatile than the name implies, rice-cookers are clean, safe, and super convenient! After not using one for most of my life, aside from the refrigerator it has become the most used appliance in my kitchen. I don’t even own a microwave, toaster or oven anymore and have no plans on investing in any of them. Don’t get me wrong, the rice cooker can’t outperform those appliances, but for me it’s an acceptable alternative.

Rice cookers make cooking easy.  Timers and extra features can make cooking convenient for even the busiest of people. Best of all, it’s easy to make healthy, well balanced meals. Plus experimenting with new recipes is fun and (usually) rewarding.

If you have a rice cooker to recommend or recipes or recipe websites, please comment below. Happy rice (and everything else) cooking to all!

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Kata and Kiai in Martial and Other Arts Wed, 13 May 2015 13:00:00 +0000 Hi-yah!  A stoic martial arts hero dramatically works his way through a series of deadly techniques handed down from generation to generation, punctuated by a fearsome shout.  It’s a familiar scene to any martial arts film buff, but what is the reality?  Both kata 型 (forms) and kiai 気合 (shouts) are a part of many […]

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Hi-yah!  A stoic martial arts hero dramatically works his way through a series of deadly techniques handed down from generation to generation, punctuated by a fearsome shout.  It’s a familiar scene to any martial arts film buff, but what is the reality?  Both kata 型 (forms) and kiai 気合 (shouts) are a part of many martial arts.  However, there’s often an air of mystique built up around both, so let’s have a go at separating fact from fiction.  There is practical thought behind these traditions, and we’ll see how their usefulness has spread outside of the dojo.

Form and Function


Learning through repetition and rote memorization has long been a favored method in East Asia, and kata are an extension of this.  By practicing the same series of movements again and again one builds muscle memory, so that, eventually, one can perform the technique well without conscious thought.  These concepts traveled from China to Japan and over time kata came to be used in martial arts like karate, kendo, aikido, and judo, to name a few.  There’s often an aura of antiquity around kata.  Whether explicitly expressed or not, there’s a feeling that masters have been handing down these forms for centuries.  The truth (as usual) is a bit more complicated.

Take karate for example.  It began as a blend of Okinawan and Chinese fighting styles.  Although it may go back farther, no one has been able to reliably trace karate any earlier than the early nineteenth century.  A lot of the exact Chinese connections have been lost, but it is possible to trace a few kata to their Chinese antecedents.  For example, the kata Sanchin can be traced to the Fujian White Crane Style, beyond a reasonable doubt, but that would still put its origins at about the mid to late eighteenth century.  There are many kata like this; ones that are old, but probably not ancient in the way people imagine.  Others are less than a century old.  Most of the masters responsible for bringing karate from Okinawa to the rest of Japan (and then the world) lived in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  To bring their art to a much larger audience, some of them invented new kata.  Some of these broke down or simplified older kata, while others were more original.  Likewise, most of the kata in judo were created by founder Kano Jigoro during the 20th century.

Non-Combative Kata


Photo by Todd Fong

There are also kata among non-martial Japanese traditions.  When studying abroad in Fukuoka a few years ago, I took a course on tea ceremony, part of which was learning to perform a bit of it ourselves.  Having some prior experience in karate, I began to notice that the routine of the tea ceremony was quite similar to practicing a kata.  In both cases, you build technique and muscle memory through repetition with strict attention to detail.  As you hone your skills there is room for the individual to shine through, to adapt the form to yourself without losing that which makes it the form. But you must learn the rules before you can bend them.  I voiced these sentiments in class and my tea sensei was inclined to agree.  Indeed, kata are part of training in both the tea ceremony and in kabuki, as well.

Kata For the 21st Century


Though kata can be a way to preserve knowledge, they are also a way to sharpen skills, whether for fighting, pouring a cup of tea, or writing computer code.  That’s right, kata have found a place in the digital world.  Programmer and author, Dave Thomas (no, not the Wendy’s guy), probably coined the term “code kata.”  These code kata are basically code writing exercises or problems that can be practiced repeatedly with the goal of improving one’s programming skills.  Unfortunately, I know nothing about programming, so I can’t really comment on the details or effectiveness of these exercises, but I think it’s really cool that people are attempting to apply the concept to new skills.  I imagine there are other skills for which kata could be a useful learning method.

All About the Shout


Photo by cenefil_

At its most basic the kiai is a shout, usually given in conjunction with executing an attack, such as a punch or kick.  A proper kiai originates in the diaphragm, not the throat, and emanates as a loud shout, with the shouter expelling as much air from their lungs as possible.  What sound your kiai makes doesn’t matter much, and there is a lot of individual variation, but there are some trends among different arts.  The kiai of most unarmed styles like karate tend to be short and sharp, while those in sword arts like kendo tend to be much longer. In fact, in kendo, the kiai is deemed so important that in a match points will not be awarded to a successful strike if there is no accompanying kiai.

Why kiai at all though?  Well, there are several practical reasons.

Firstly, doing kiai when practicing kata can help develop the proper coordination of movement and breathing, which is important in maximizing the efficiency of your movement and not tiring yourself out as quickly.  For this purpose making a sound is not strictly necessary, but doing so during a kata just emphasizes the point.  Secondly, getting all the air out of yourself voluntarily when you strike makes you less vulnerable to getting it knocked of you by a counterattack, which is much less pleasant.  For a similar reason, those who do jujutsu or judo are trained to kiai at the point of impact when they take a fall, and I can tell you from experience that it works pretty well.  Thirdly, a kiai can have the effect of intimidating an opponent.

However, some have taken this last possibility to an unbelievable level.  There has been much discussion over the existence and nature of ki 気 (the ki in kiai).  Perhaps the best translation is “energy,” but much like this English word, ki can be used in a variety of situations.  Trying to briefly define energy in a way that covers all of its possible uses is not so easy.  However, that does not necessitate the mystification of either word.  Having some experience in martial arts and in studying ancient Japanese and Chinese texts, in my opinion, most of the uses of the word ki within the martial arts/medical fields are related to breathing, physical/mental effort, blood circulation, biomechanics, perhaps bioelectricity, or some combination of the above. But all of these have been put under the blanket term ki.  Therefore, many of the things ascribed to ki are explicable through science.  In the cases where ki is credited with something supernatural, I would approach that with just as much skepticism as I would someone who claims to read auras or see ghosts.

Legends of Dubiousness


There are a number of stories of martial arts masters able to employ the kiai in a near superhuman manner.  However, there is plenty of exaggeration in the martial arts world, so it’s best to take such stories with shaker of salt.  Funakoshi Gichin was the master perhaps most responsible for popularizing karate throughout Japan, and then the world.  In his memoir he dismisses claims of karate masters who can pierce through human flesh with their fingertips, saying that no amount of training will allow a person to exceed the bounds of human ability, but shortly thereafter he relates a story that arouses skepticism in me for those same reasons.

The story goes that well-known karate master Matsumura Sokon was challenged to a match by an engraver, who also happened to be skilled in karate.  The engraver tried to attack Matsumura twice, but each time was immobilized by the latter’s gaze alone.  The confused engraver realized he had lost, but was determined to finish the match to save face.  He attacked, but Matsumura gave a “great cry that sounded to the engraver like a thunderbolt,” and finding himself unable to move, the engraver made a final feeble attempt before falling to the ground.

A Lot of Hot Air


Photo by dfbphotos

You may think such fantastic stories are a thing of the past, something that could only exist in a time before smartphone cameras and such, but no. There are still individuals purporting to be kiai masters with abilities beyond our perception.  Some of these people claim to be able to attack someone without touching them, in a Jedi-like manner.  I will admit to feeling a bit of schadenfreude when I see videos of people demonstrating to these kiai masters ample evidence to the contrary.  I give you Exhibit A, in which an MMA fighter takes up a kiai master’s offer of 5,000 dollars to anyone who can beat him.

As satisfying as that was, I think I like Exhibit B even better. Here we take a look at kiai master, George Dillman.

I think my favorite part of this video is watching Dillman jump through hoops trying to explain away the failure of his technique on a nonbeliever.  From his reaction, it seems that he is not cynically trying to fool his students, but believes in his own ki abilities.  Others who have analyzed dojos like this one, have theorized that they may be examples of both self-delusion in the master and a form of mass-delusion among the students.

Back to Reality


Kata are great for developing technique, and if one analyzes them, the sequences can tell you some useful things for an actual fight, but to jump in the ring and start doing a kata from beginning to end is ridiculous (I’m looking at you “Karate Kid 3”).  Also, keep in mind that although they are a useful training tool, they are not the end-all, be-all of martial arts.  Likewise, they are practical uses for kiai, just not anything that would qualify you for the X-Men.  There are many reasons to do martial arts, but if practicality is of any concern to you, it’s good to keep your romanticism in check and think about what you are doing.

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25 Reasons To Join The JET Program (And 8 Reasons Not To) Fri, 08 May 2015 13:01:33 +0000 If you’re reading this, you must have some kind of interest in the JET Program. This isn’t a decision to be made lightly, though. As a JET alumni myself, I’ve experienced (and heard stories of) the incredibly positive aspects of the program, as well as the not so positive. You are packing up and moving to a […]

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If you’re reading this, you must have some kind of interest in the JET Program. This isn’t a decision to be made lightly, though. As a JET alumni myself, I’ve experienced (and heard stories of) the incredibly positive aspects of the program, as well as the not so positive. You are packing up and moving to a foreign country, after all. It’s important to do your research.

I’ve put together a list of pros and cons for going on JET. By pulling from my own experience, as well as the experience of many other JETs, I think I’ve come up with a pretty thorough resource. I hope it helps you to make a good decision for you.

A Note

This article is intended for those interested in the ALT (Assistant Language Teacher) position. JET also employs CIRs (Coordinator of International Relations) who work in Boards of Education and government offices. However, the CIR position requires at least N2 level Japanese and accounts for only 10% of JET participants. Less than 1% of JET participants are SEAs (Sports Exchange Advisors). ALTs make up 90%. All this to say, our focus will be on becoming an ALT in the JET Program.

Tangible Benefits


Photo by

Free Trip to Japan

JET brings foreign people to Japan, so the plane ticket seems to go without saying. As “basic” as this sounds, it’s actually a perk JET has over other ALT programs. Most private ALT companies expect you to pay your own way into the country.

Be aware that flying with JET means you must return to the same airport you departed from. Aside from this it’s a free round trip international flight (with 1 to 5 years in between). A nice perk not offered by many other programs.

Job in Japan

One of the most stressful situations in life is finding a job. It’s doubly stressful when paired with moving your life to a new country and culture.

It’s possible to move to Japan without a job and find one once you get there. But consider the vast expense of moving to Japan. Then finding a place to live, and the costs associated. Finally add job searching.

You’ll probably find an English teaching job, but not having one set up beforehand adds a countdown to zero monies. Stress like that is the last thing you need while job searching.

Depending on the company, some ALT staffing agencies may not always have your best interest in mind. Their job is primarily to make money by keeping the Board of Education happy. This is not always the case, but keep it in mind when looking at alternatives to JET. JET places you in a job with the intention of keeping you there. Things will go wrong (we’ll get to that later), but at least the JET Program isn’t trying to make things difficult for you.

The fact that JET offers you employment in Japan may go without saying. But considering what it’s like to move across the globe without a job helps put into perspective what a major benefit this is.

Getting Set up

You’re flown to Japan and given a job. On top of that, JET sets you up with an apartment, a visa, a residence record, and a residence card. Most other English teaching programs should help with this as well, in varying degrees. However if you are coming to Japan on your own, all of these things rest on you.

Even with a good deal of Japanese under your belt, navigating the bureacracy required to secure an apartment, put the utilities in your name, set up a cell phone plan, get a visa, and register your residency would be daunting. Having a supervisor to get you on your feet in a matter of days relieves a lot of that hassle.


JET sets you up with your living situation. This is a big deal considering how different home set-up in Japan is, compared to other countries. In most cases, you’ll take over your predecessor’s home, which diminishes the startup fees normally required for new apartments. This isn’t a guarantee though. You may need to have up to six times your monthly rent to pay in key money and other fees. Super expensive, but that’s just how apartments in Japan work.

Your JET apartment may not be a dream home, but it’s your own place in Japan. In most cases, it’s fully furnished and partially subsidized, though it could be only one of these or neither. You are free to leave and find your own apartment at your own expense (which is very possible, given the generous JET salary). Follow this guide if you take that route.

Don’t underestimate the benefit of having a place set up for you before you arrive. It’s a big stress reliever and a great way to feel that Japan is your home as soon as you land.

Lots of Support

You have a lot of bosses with varying degrees of power to help you. If one boss is not helpful, at least you have other avenues to explore when solving problems. Not all bosses help with the same things, so in certain situations, you’ll need to approach a certain boss.

School Supervisor (担当者)

This person will be your main go-to supervisor at school. They will be a Japanese Teacher of English (JTE) who works at your school, a day-to-day coworker and one you will work with in class. You can go to them with school issues, classroom issues, Japanese culture issues, etiquette issues, and sometimes even issues outside of work.

Vice Principal

The Vice Principal is a supervisor as well and can help with a lot of things, but usually only when your School Supervisor directs you there. These are usually issues that the School Supervisor can’t handle on their own, thus they move up the chain of command.


The Principal is definitely your boss. If it’s a situation the Vice Principal can’t handle, it’s on to the Principal. Realistically, you won’t handle issues with Principal at all, if ever.

Board of Education or Prefectural Office Supervisor

CLAIR refers to this supervisor as your “supervisor”. Like, this is the supervisor for your JET contract and your number one go-to boss in just about every situation.

This person is someone who works at the office of your contracting organization. Your supervisor will be in charge of setting you up in your apartment, setting up utilities, registering you at all local government offices, registering you for health insurance, dealing with repairs in your apartment, opening your bank account, helping you find a doctor, giving you permission to take time off, evaluating your performance, helping you in case of emergency, and helping you to recontract to stay on JET at the end of each year.

Prefectural Advisor (PA)

You will most likely have two Prefectural Advisors (PA). These people are JET Program participants who work closely with the contracting organizations and Prefectural government. Their job is to confidentially counsel you in all issues you have on JET, including issues with your contracting organization. Because PAs are still performing their duties as JET participants, they have a more relatable perspective and may be able to mediate between you and your contracting organization. Bear in mind that PAs have limited power and may not be able to solve your problem. But no matter what, it’s nice to have an advocate who can be in your corner, even if the outcome doesn’t develop the way you like.


After publishing this article, I learned that CLAIR had effectively removed the PA position from JET’s support network last year. PAs still exist, but they are barred from offering counseling or mediating in any way. I don’t know why the PA position is still in place if it’s been stripped of ability to act. The other supports are still in place, but the Prefectural Advisor was one of the most helpful and important sources of official support. The Association for JET (AJET) compiled a study on JET participants’ reactions to this change and presented it to CLAIR, MOFA, MEXT, and MIC. You can read it here. Hopefully this will turn things around, but we’ll see.

If you do go on JET, I would recommend you supplement the loss of PA support with other support organizations like the AJET Peer Support Group or the Tokyo English Life Line. They won’t be able to mediate with your contracting organization like PAs did, but at least they’ll be able to provide the counseling aspect.


JET Program pay is very generous. The pay scale goes like this:

  • 1st year JETs – ¥3,360,000/yr
  • 2nd year JETs – ¥3,600,000/yr
  • 3rd year JETs – ¥3,900,000/yr
  • 4th and 5th year JETs – ¥3,960,000/yr

This is more than enough to pay rent, pay bills, buy meals, spend money, save money, and go on trips. You’re not only given the experience of living in Japan, but also the means to enjoy it!

Generally speaking, JET is the highest paying ALT gig there is, unless you join a company that has a pay scale in which your raises would eventually exceed ¥3,960,000 a year. However, this might take a few years of teaching, which would be a great goal for those wanting to live in Japan long term. But as far as starting salaries for ALT work go, JET can’t be beat.

Tax Exemption for 2 Years

On top of the high pay, you will most likely be tax exempt for the first two years. Many countries, including the U.S., have a tax treaty with Japan, wherein the money you earn for the first two years on JET is tax free. Check with your home country’s tax authority to find out if you qualify. You will still need to file taxes with your home country and your local Japanese government, but that’s a small price for two years of tax free pay.

Pay off Debts with That Money

Many JETs use their income situation as an opportunity to pay off student loans or other debts. This is a huge benefit considering the amount of time it usually takes people to pay off debts. You could pay off those student loans in 4 years rather than 30, and still having money to spend on vacations.

Many Insurances

As a member of the JET Program, you are automatically enrolled in 3 insurance plans to cover you in most imaginable cases. Many private ALT staffing companies try to get out of enrolling their employees into the National Health Insurance Program by claiming employees’ total work time per week as 29.5 hours. In reality ALTs in those companies work closer to 40.

With JET, you are enrolled in the mandatory National Health Insurance Program and two others as well. And all without any paperwork required. Below is a breakdown of the healthcare you would receive:

  • The National Health Insurance Program is the social healthcare program. The majority of Japan is enrolled and nearly every Japanese doctor accepts it. This plan covers 70% of your medical expenses, which includes doctor visits, treatment, medical supplies, operations, hospitalization, nursing, and transportation. Dependents are also covered under this plan and receive all the same benefits of the beneficiary. Dependent care differs in that they must pay 20% of hospitalization costs and 30% of out-patient care.
  • JET Accident Insurance covers whatever National Health Insurance doesn’t. Use it if it’s a situation you wouldn’t want to pay for out of pocket. It also covers you for up to one month at a time outside of Japan, in case you want to go on vacation or visit your home country.
  • Employment Insurance is your contribution to the Japanese unemployment fund. This allows you to collect unemployment if you remain in the country after JET and are unemployed for a time. This is an invaluable safety net for those who wish to reside in Japan long term and need to look for a job after JET.

Pension Fund (for retirement or unable to work due to injury)

Everyone working in Japan is required to put money away in the National Pension. It’s like America’s Social Security, except you get back the money you put in. This is used in case you are too ill to work, you die and need to leave money to family, or you retire in Japan. In the event you leave Japan without doing any of these things, you can apply for a refund of the majority of what you put in after you return to your home country.


JET offers an incredible amount of time off, especially when compared with your Japanese co workers. The exact amount you get depends on what your contracting organization allows. The numbers below should be a close estimate to what you will get:

  • Vacation Days – 12-20 per year
  • Sick Days – 5-10 per year
  • Special Days – If you are a prefectural ALT, you may be entitled to a compensatory holiday (だいきゅう, 代休) if the number of work days in a month exceeds the number stated in your contract.

Language Practice

JET gives you an invaluable chance to take textbook Japanese and temper it into real, working fluency. Whether you know a lot or a little, it will get practiced into a smooth buttery flow. And studying on JET means real world application, which smashes the learnings into your brain.

Is it possible to live in Japan and not learn any Japanese? Definitely. But Japan offers so many opportunities for immersion that it’s the best place to reach benchmarks of fluency.

The JET Program Japanese Language Course

CLAIR offers its own Japanese Language Course to all JET participants free of charge. The course is split between Beginner/Intermediate Courses and the Translation and Interpretation Courses. You have to test into the Translation and Interpretation Courses, but the Beginner/Intermediate Courses are open as soon as you start JET.

In years past, the JET Program Japanese Language Course was administered with textbooks and CDs mailed to your contracting organization. However, in recent years it has become an online e-learning course.

You can read what JETs say about the course here. It may not ultimately be the best course for studying Japanese, but it’s worth trying. It teaches grammar and vocab based on situations you may encounter on JET and it’s free. If anything, it at least shows CLAIR’s pro-activeness in caring for your development.

International Work Experience

The ALT Job, which has its pros and cons, does offer a lot of opportunity to hone skills which look good on a resume. Chief among these is “international work experience,” which hiring managers love. To employers this usually means, adaptability, flexibility, and the ability to work with various personalities. If you know how to highlight this on a resume and in an interview, it can be the career strengthener you need to land a better job.


Enkai are one of the best perks of the job. You pay some money and go to a party with all your teachers. Eating and drinking ensues. You can only experience this by working in Japan, as enkai are only for those “in the group”. No spouses or family allowed.

Tatemae gets pushed to the side at these parties and you see a side of your co workers that you won’t see at school. After the fun, there’s more fun. Most enkai continue at the 二次会 (second party).

Enkai are fantastic and exclusive experience. Go to as many as you can.


Yay! Sitting in chairs and listening! There’s not a whole ton of training involved on JET (see sections below), but you are offered some. There are several orientations before leaving for JET, one in Tokyo upon arrival, one before you finish JET, and in the middle of every year.

The Skill Development Conferences were the ones I found most helpful. They are conducted by host prefectures and all ALTs in the prefecture attend with one JTE from their school. This means open discussions and workshops with one of your JTEs, and getting to hear from other ALT/JTE teams from the region. Results will vary, but the potential is definitely there.

The CLAIR Grant for TEFL Certification

CLAIR offers grants for JETs to get Teaching English as Foreign Language (TEFL) Certification. This is great if you want to teach English in foreign countries as a career or want to get better at your job as an ALT. More info here.

A TEFL Certification will allow you to get better teaching jobs in Japan, including universities. Other countries in which English is not the native language open up as well. If you love your job as an ALT and want to travel Japan or the world, a TEFL Certification can help you achieve that goal.

Alumni Network

JET only lasts five years, so you will need to find another job at some point. This is where the JET Alumni Association (or JETAA) can be a big help. There are 52 chapters in 15 countries totaling over 25,000 members. No matter where you end up after JET, there should be a (relatively) nearby support base built in. Not only does this help with reverse culture shock, but JET Alumni are always eager to help a former JET get adjusted to their new home, whether it be in finding a new job or anything else.


Your contracting organization will most likely supply you with a bicycle while on JET. Maybe not, but 90% of the time you will get a bike. Hey kid! You wanna free bike? Why would you say no?

Foothold in the Country for Living Long Term

For those wanting to live in Japan long-term, this might be the number one reason to go on JET. You can get to Japan and live for a year or two while networking, job searching, and getting acclimated to your new life. Starting a career in a new country is difficult enough without having to blaze your own trail. JET gives you a solid base from which to start your career advancement operation.

Intangible Benefits


A Chance to Live on Your Own in a Foreign Country

It goes without saying that living in Japan is different than visiting. You’ll experience Japan as a relative insider, seeing both good and bad aspects of culture, society, religion, government, and daily life. You will also be largely on your own forcing you to become more resilient in a shorter amount of time than you might in your own country.

Dealing with Culture Shock (Initially Bad, Long Term Good)

Culture shock is a personal disorientation experienced when moving to new countries or environments. While on JET you will be forced to deal with it in varying degrees. This may not sound like a benefit, but it can be if dealt with correctly. If you can gain perspective and adjust in some ways, you’ll find it easier to cope during other transitional times. Not fun but certainly beneficial.

Learning More About Your Own Culture

Yes, I did say your own culture. Learning about and interacting with Japanese culture has the funny side effect of teaching you about your own. When confused or frustrated by the way things are done in Japan, eventually you’ll start to examine why those things bother you. This usually leads to an examination of your own values and/or the values of your home country. With a lot of these experiences and thinkings compounding on one another, you eventually gain a broader perspective of your own culture and why it functions the way it does.

Experience All Four Seasons in Japan

Recently in the Tofugu office, we had a fun argument about which season was the best. I said fall, while Koichi said winter, and Kristen said summer. Seasons in Japan are all wonderful (though fall is definitely the best). This is not so much due to weather, but rather the interesting and exciting ways Japan celebrates each season. Sakura viewing in spring, matsuris galore in summer, momiji hikes in the fall, and nabe at the kotatsu in winter. Living in Japan year round enables you to experience each season and discover reasons to love each one.

The People

It’s great to talk about mountains, temples, shrines, arcades, and konbinis. But none of these amazing Japanese things would exist without Japanese people to create them. The people you will meet in Japan are the best part of the experience.

A lot of guide books and travel sites say things like, “Japanese people are polite, kind, and hospitable.” I’m not arguing that but you’ll meet all kinds of characters that fall in line with and defy the stereotypes. There’s no telling what you’ll encounter when dealing with the cocktail of personalities that is humanity.

You’ll certainly always remember places you went and things you did, but people are what make experiences into adventures.

The Horcrux Effect

A fellow JET friend of mine likened her leaving Japan to a Horcrux from Harry Potter. For the uninitiated (muggles), a Horcrux is something a wizard can use to split their soul and attach a piece of it to an object, thus anchoring that piece of them to a certain place. This is the best description I’ve heard for living in and leaving places.

We all leave pieces of ourselves in the various places we’ve called home, and this is no different when living in Japan. When you leave, there are people, places, and memories that you’ll hold dearly. I’m not sure whether or not to call this a benefit. But it’s definitely a feeling, though bittersweet, that I wouldn’t trade for anything.

Reasons Not to Go on JET


Photo by tokyoform

After reading the lists above, you may get the impression that JET is a perfectly positive organization offering a perfectly positive experience. Of course, this is not true or possible. JET has its share of pitfalls, miscommunications, and downright crappy situations. Some of these are due to Japanese culture and society conflicting with a JET participant’s worldview (ie. Culture Shock), while others may be administrative problems caused by JET or the Japanese school system itself. Below is an overview of cons to consider before jumping into JET with both feet.

Every Situation is Different (thus you can’t prepare for it)

This was the previous mantra of the JET Program, sometimes abbreviated as ESID. Though CLAIR no longer officially supports this catchphrase, it’s still a fact of life on JET. The organization is so large and sends ALTs to such disparate locales, it’s impossible for them to predict what will happen to you when and how. On some levels this is understandable, but it came to the point that CLAIR and other JET entities used this idea to deny responsibility or take action when there was a legitimate issue. While it’s encouraging to see this motto dropped, it’s probably still ingrained in the wiring of the organization.

In reality, JET and CLAIR are not god-like entities that can swing the hammer down any time a JET is in trouble. Part of the point of the program is being on your own in Japanese society. So you are, in essence, signing up for an experience in which the powers that send you have very little ability to help after you are deployed. You may have a great school with attentive students, or a difficult school full of street toughs. You may get Japanese co-workers who are thoughtful and caring, or indifferent and rude. You may get housed in a large 2 bedroom home or a tiny shoebox. More than likely, you’ll get a mix of good and bad elements to your JET experience (ie. Good teachers, bad students. Small home, close to train station, etc). JET drops you directly into Japanese life and Japanese life, like life anywhere, is complicated.

Culture Shock

Just a few sections up, I talked about the benefits of culture shock, but to get the benefits one must go through some real sucky times.

Most will go through culture shock and come out on the other end just fine. But it can be detrimental if you have a predisposition to depression or are in the middle of dealing with a tough life situation. It’s best to deal with those things first, learn some coping strategies, and then try coming to Japan. Adjusting to Japanese life takes some mental preparedness, so it’s best to defer if you aren’t ready.

Training Sucks

Rather, training in Japan is different. Japanese work culture is one of on the job training, wherein you jump in and learn the ropes as you go. If you’re coming from a Western country, you may be more used to being trained in what to do before being sent to do the job.

Neither approach is right necessarily, but going from one to the other can be frustrating. This is explained best in this article by Rochelle Kopp. In Japanese culture, training is seen as something that develops the self and therefore should be done on one’s own time. Thus, you should be ready to jump into your new job and roll with the punches until you get the hang of it.

You’ll Most Likely Get Put in the Inaka

The majority of JET participants are placed in the countryside of Japan (called “inaka” in Japanese). This could be a pro or con depending on your preferences. In general, inaka life means living far from train stations, having only a few shops in your town, being one of the only foreigners in your area, needing a car, and not having a whole lot to do after work. There is a lot of charm to living in the inaka, but we’re focusing on the negative here, so let’s not get too chipper.

Medical Situations

Japanese medical practice is a whole issue that is best covered in this article. The Japanese medical system will provide you with the care you need, though you may bump into a number of nuances and roadblocks that give you pause. Certain procedures that are common in the West may not be in Japan. Certain medications you are used to may not be available. Doctors are gods among men who cannot be questioned. The language barrier can feel especially daunting when it comes to medical Japanese. All in all, you will be fine in the Japanese medical system and you won’t pay much thanks to all your insurances (see above sections). But unfamiliarity with Japanese medical processes and the differences in medical practices may cause some frustration.

The Japanese School System Takes Some Getting Used To

Just as the Japanese medical system takes getting used to, so does the Japanese school system. The difference here is that the majority of your time on JET will be spent in this system.

Understanding the Japanese School System would take an entire article in itself, but the main things to remember are:

  • Kids are the center of the school, not the teachers: Kids stay in their homerooms and teachers go to them. This gives the students a sense that the classroom is their turf.
  • The school school is a group and that group must がんばります together: This is more of a dynamic of Japanese work culture, but the basic idea is that the group has to work together, and that means individual needs may get marginalized.
  • Japanese school is test focused: Japanese students have one goal: to get into a good college. To do this, they need to pass an entrance exam. And to get accepted to take the exam, they need to graduate from a good high school. And to graduate from a good high school, they need to test into a good high school. And to do all these things, Japanese students need to be good at taking tests. This can mean that some or most of the English lessons you teach have very little practical application.

These are just a few examples, but hopefully they should give you a good idea of how different the Japanese school system may feel.

You Are a Public Servant, Not Simply a Teacher

This means that you are bound by the same rules and obligations of other full-time government employees. As a public servant you may be asked to attend functions at the last minute, work on weekends, or stay late. Most schools choose not to ask their ALTs to do these things, but it is in your contract so be aware that your school or Board of Education has the right to rope you into a lot of extra work any time they choose.

The Answer to Some Questions Is “Just Do It Because That’s the Way It’s Done”.

In the West, we usually want to know why we are doing something before we do it. In Japan sometimes reasons may not be given as to why you need to do something.

For example, a friend of mine asked his Japanese neighbor about paying the NHK man who asks for money door-to-door.

The NHK is a government run public broadcasting service funded partly by the public. Instead of running telethons, the NHK simply goes door-to-door and insists on payment. As a person with a TV that receives NHK (all TVs in Japan do by default), you are expected to pay for the channel.

My friend told his Japanese neighbor that he didn’t pay the NHK man because he doesn’t watch NHK. The neighbor responded in shock. “You must pay the NHK man!”

When my friend asked why, the neighbor replied, “Because that’s what you do!” The real answer is that payment is required by law, but to the Japanese neighbor that wasn’t the issue. You just do it because you do it.

Several of your “why” questions on JET may be answered with “Because that’s the way it is” or “Because that’s the way it’s done.” This is especially frustrating when your questions are about things more serious than paying for public television.



Photo by skyseeker

JET is without a doubt a worthwhile program with a lot of flaws. There’s much to consider when deciding whether or not the JET Program is for you. You’ll want to talk it over with family and friends, make your own pros and cons list based on your life situation, and think about overall career goals. Keep in mind that life on JET is an adventure, and adventures are not constant excitement or good times. There’s a lot rough patches, boring spots, and downright frustrating obstacles. But peppered in there will be joys and ultimate rewards. An adventure is always a gamble, but hopefully worth it in the end.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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The post 25 Reasons To Join The JET Program (And 8 Reasons Not To) appeared first on Tofugu.

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

The post Interview with Sarah Feinerman from Design Festa appeared first on Tofugu.

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

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

Becoming Part of the Team


Q. How did you get to Japan initially?

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

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

Q. What were you doing before Design Festa?

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Q. What are the responsibilities of your job?

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


Q. How many people do you work with?

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

International Art Event Design Festa


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

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


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

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

For some reason it was hilarious.

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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



Q. Why was GAKUTEN started?

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

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


Q. What separates GAKUTEN from Design Festa?

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

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


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

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

Advice and an Ever Changing Gallery


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

But yes: talking.

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

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


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

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

Q. What’s the most magical Japanese food?

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

Create & Participate

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

Design Festa


Design Festa Gallery Access

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

Bonus Wallpapers!

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

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

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

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


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


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



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


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


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




Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure…


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

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


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


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

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


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


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

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


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


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


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


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


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

Interview Time!

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

Q. What does a manga editor do?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q. Which was your favorite?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Bonus Wallpapers!

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

The post Japanese Civic Duty: A Look at the Responsibility of 日本 appeared first on Tofugu.

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

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

Conclusion: The Japanese are responsible.

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

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

This is where the Japanese come a bit short.

Good at Following Rules

To the left, to the left.

Photo by Dom Pates

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

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

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

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

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

A Cultural Grounding?

Photo by Jun Seita

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

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

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

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

The Other Side of the Coin

Photo by Moyan Brenn

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

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

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

Responsible – but to Whom?

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

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

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

What About Rotten Rules?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Oh, and the infamous “Penis” Festival.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

The History of Kanamara, the Penis Festival


Emperor Nintoku

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


Photo by mrmayat

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

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


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


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


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

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



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


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


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


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


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


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


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

Oh, the Irony


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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All photos taken by author unless otherwise specified

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

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

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

Hokkaido-ben Highlights

めんこい menkoi


Photo by Dai Wat

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

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

道産子 Dosanko


Photo by tomosuke214

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

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

しばれる shibareru


Photo by Chris Lewis

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

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

ごみを投げる gomi wo nageru


Photo by Odyssey

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

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

内地 naichi


Photo by @yb_woodstock

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

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

はっちゃきこく hacchakikoku


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

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

ばんきり bankiri


Photo by Nick Mustoe

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

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

How to Sound like an Old Hokkaido Man


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

なまら namara


Photo by Verity Lane

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

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

こわい kowai


Photo by katsuu 44

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

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

いずい izui


Photo by Ashley Grant

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

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

Dialects Within a Dialect


Photo by Verity Lane

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

じり jiri

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

ガス gasu

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

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

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

I Lived in a Root Room


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

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

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

More Resources


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

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

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

Here is a Hokkaido-ben grammar primer.

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

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

Bonus Wallpapers!

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

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

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

Araki Joh. Occupation: Manga Writer


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

Q. How did you become a manga writer?

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Q. What was your first story about?

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

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

The Life of a Manga Writer


Q. What does a manga writer do?

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

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


Q. What is it like being a manga writer?

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

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

Q. What is the best part of your job?

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

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

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


Q. What do you think is the worst part?

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

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



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

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

Q. How did you get started working on Bartender?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Ins and Outs of a Manga Career


Q. Why do you have so many pen names?

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Q. Any funny stories about your job?

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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The post Interview with Araki Joh, the Best Selling Writer of Japan’s Most Intoxicating Manga appeared first on Tofugu.

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