Tofugu » People A Japanese Language & Culture Blog Mon, 31 Aug 2015 13:05:09 +0000 en-US hourly 1 4 Foreigners in Traditional Japanese Roles Wed, 29 Jul 2015 13:00:00 +0000 When you think of Japan, certain traditionally日本的 (typically Japanese) things spring to mind. There are some things so ingrained in Japanese culture and history that you can’t help but picture a Japanese person in association with them. And this includes traditionally Japanese jobs. However, in modern Japanese society, there are certain foreigners who have found a way […]

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

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

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


traditional jobs in japan for foreigners rakugo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


traditional jobs in japan for foreigners the great sumo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


traditional jobs in japan for foreigners enka

Photo by Shinya ICHINOHE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


traditional jobs in japan for foreigners the great wave

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

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

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

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

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

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

Traditional Jobs in Japan Aren’t Only for the Japanese

traditional jobs in japan for foreigners sumida river hiroshige

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

Bonus Wallpapers!

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The Daily Life of a Housewife in Japan Mon, 27 Jul 2015 13:00:00 +0000 Here on Tofugu, we talk about all kinds of different people in Japanese society. The politician, the salaryman, the artist, the musician. But seldom do we focus on a large section of the Japanese population – the housewife. Though being a stay-at-home mom has fallen out of fashion in other parts of the world, it’s […]

The post The Daily Life of a Housewife in Japan appeared first on Tofugu.

Here on Tofugu, we talk about all kinds of different people in Japanese society. The politician, the salaryman, the artist, the musician. But seldom do we focus on a large section of the Japanese population – the housewife. Though being a stay-at-home mom has fallen out of fashion in other parts of the world, it’s still a popular option for women in Japanese society.

U-Can and I-Share conducted a research study in Japan. Out of the 1,243 women surveyed, 53.9% said they wanted to be housewives with the primary role of “attending to housework and raising children.”

I wrote about Japanese housewives a little bit in one of my previous articles, which focused on the perception of women in Japan. In writing that piece, I found that Japanese men aren’t alone in wanting their wives to stay at home. Many women are very keen on the idea, as well.

Because of this, I thought it worthwhile to take a look into some of these women’s lives. So I organized interviews with four different women about their daily lives. Of course, there are a lot of Japanese housewives and each one leads a different life, so this is just a sample to give you an idea. But hopefully this small sampling of information will shed some light into this part of Japanese society.

Note: The women I interviewed wished to remain anonymous and provided pseudonyms in place of their real names.

Japanese Housewife #1 – KonnichiwaKitty

Housewife in Japan feeding the children

Photo by domkey kong

Pseudonym: KonnichiwaKitty
Age: 27
Occupation: Housewife, does not work outside the home
Housewife Career: 1 year

Q. Could you tell us about your daily routine?

6:00 – wake up
6:30 – have breakfast and relax
8:00 – prepare baby food and feed the baby
8:30 – play with the baby
10:00 – do housework and prepare for lunch
12:00 – have lunch
13:00 – play with the baby
15:00 – do housework
17:30 – prepare baby food and feed him
19:00 – bath time
19:30 – cook dinner for me and my husband
21:00 – go to bed

Q. What do you do for fun or to relax during the day?

I just try to enjoy an extended breakfast time alone in the morning. It gives me time to relax while my son is still sleeping.

Q. What’s the best thing about being a housewife?

To be able to closely observe my child as he grows.

Q. What’s the worst thing about being a housewife?

Other than that short window of time in the morning, I don’t really have any extra time that I can devote to myself.

Q. How many hours a week do you think you work as a housewife?

If playing with my son isn’t considered working, it would be one to two hours during the week and five hours on each day over the weekend. I tend to do a lot of cooking over the weekend and freeze those meals for the upcoming week.

Q. How much does your husband help with the housework?

He helps me a lot. He takes the garbage bags out, washes the dishes, cleans our bathroom, and takes care of our child.

Q. Have you ever considered working full time instead of being a housewife?

I haven’t considered it.

Japanese Housewife #2 – Miki

Housewife in Japan raising her family

Pseudonym: Miki
Age: 37
Occupation: Housewife (and has a part time job online)
Housewife Career: 8 years

Q. Could you tell us about your daily routine?

6:00 – I wake up and start making bento lunch for my husband. I prepare breakfast for him and my daughters and then I do the laundry.
7:30 – After my older daughter leaves for school, I hang the laundry out to dry and then read the newspaper.
8:00 – I eat breakfast with my younger daughter, then wash dishes.
8:30 – While my younger daughter is playing by herself or watching TV, I finish some work online. Afterwards, I spend time with her, like taking her to a park.
12:00 – Lunch
13:00 – I work online while playing with my child.
14:00 – I bring in the dry clothes and then clean the house. If I still have some time, I’ll do more work online.
14:45 – My older daughter’s school ends around this time, so I walk to her school with my younger daughter to pick her up.
15:30 – I check my older daughter’s homework and then I make preparations for dinner.
16:00 – I take my older daughter to her friend’s house or to one of her lessons and I go shopping.
17:00 – I pick my older daughter up and then I start making supper.
18:00 – We all eat dinner.
19:00 – I do the dishes.
19:30 – We all have a bath.
20:30 – I read or tell stories to my daughters.
21:00 to 21:30 – My daughters go to bed. (If I am tired, I go to sleep, too.)
21:30 – I work online.
22:30 to 23:30 – My husband comes home from work and I serve him his supper.
24:00 – I go to bed.

Q. What do you do for fun or to relax during the day?

After sending my older daughter off to school and finishing the dishes, I enjoy having a coffee and listening to music.

Q. What’s the best thing about being a housewife?

To be able to closely observe my children grow up. When I am sick or not feeling well, I can simply rest. Although I’m unable to get out into the workforce, I do have time to study, learn new things, and brush up on some skills.

Q. What’s the worst thing about being a housewife?

I have to fight against loneliness. I don’t have many ties to the community or much of a social life and I sometimes feel fear and question myself, “Can I really keep doing this?”

Furthermore, people hold the stereotype that housewives are lazy and useless for society, which makes me sad. I believe that staying at home and spending time around your children when they are young is better for them because you have a chance to positively affect their lives as they grow. So I intentionally chose to be a housewife for my children’s sake, instead of spending time at some random part-time job.

But there are a lot of married couples in which both partners work nowadays and it may be a little difficult for them to understand what it means to be a housewife without a job. They should be aware that many housewives want to work, but intentionally choose to stay at home for the sake of their children.

It’s especially difficult when I have a quarrel with my husband. He sometimes says, “I’m the one who is earning the money for this family. The stresses and hardships of working and being a father is incomparable with just being a housewife.” It’s very upsetting to hear that from him.

I know many mothers who choose not to work until their children finish pre school/kindergarten, but they all take the job of properly raising their children very seriously, and I respect them for knowing how important that is. Of course, some women have to work out of financial necessity, but that’s a different story.

Q. How many hours a week do you think you work as a housewife?

Basically from the time I wake up to the time I go to sleep, I think I am always doing work in some form or another. I barely even have time to sit down and watch TV for a while.

Q. With all this time spent on housewife-work, how do you find time for your online job?

I am usually able to find two hours on weekdays to work online. On weekends, my husband is home to cook and play with the kids, so I work for about 3 or 4 hours then, but I also still work as a housewife.

Q. How much does your husband help with the housework?

On weekdays, he works all day and gets home around 10:30pm or 11:00pm, so he can’t help with anything. On weekends, he cooks and plays with the children, but I don’t know how things are with other families’ husbands.

He helps with cooking because he likes to cook, but he doesn’t do the dishes because he doesn’t like to. It’s still helpful and I can work while he is cooking. He also bathes the children on weekends and that’s really helpful because I don’t get chance to take a bath by myself and relax at all during the week.

He wants to relax on weekends, but the children want him to take them outside and play. He doesn’t help with the cleaning at all, but if the dried laundry has piled up, he’ll help with folding them, so I guess he cares about housework.

However, he tends to not realize what I want him to help with and I wish he would ask me what to do before starting something. It might be a stereotype, but there may be many husbands who try helping their wives on their own regardless of what the wives actually want them to help with. He feels satisfied because he knows he helped me, but it’d be better if he talked to me so we could share the necessary workload.

Q. Have you ever considered working full time instead of being a housewife?

I absolutely do. I would work full time, if I could. However, my children are still little and my husband works very long hours. I can’t ask for support from either of our parents because both sets live pretty far away.

My mother in law lives fairly close, but she can’t drive. I also live in the countryside, so finding a good job also means a long commute. Therefore, I don’t think I’ll be able to work full time for a couple more years. I also think that many Japanese companies are a far cry from providing an easy and comfortable work atmosphere for women. The problem of wait listing children for kindergarten and nurseries still remains, too.

I think the way that society is and the way companies conduct themselves need to change first. It’s really rare for a woman 40 years of age or older to find a full-time position. My friends have mostly only been able to work part-time after being a housewife for so many years. I feel as though it’s nearly impossible to get a full-time position after being a housewife.

I personally think that housewives sacrifice a great deal more than people think. By taking on this role, many women learn patience through raising children and by working on their friendships with other mothers. I feel I have grown a lot, so much more than when I was single. In that sense, I hope that companies will come to value housewives more in the future and see them as people that possess a certain set of transferable skills. We should be granted a better opportunity to work full-time.

Japanese Housewife #3 -Wasabi

Housewife in Japan cooking for her family

Pseudonym: Wasabi
Age: 53
Occupation: Currently a housewife without a part time job (has experience with both full and part-time jobs.)
Housewife Career: 30 years

Q. Could you tell us about your daily routine?

Morning: Housework (Cleaning, shopping, laundry, etc…)
Afternoon: Watch TV, read books, or other such leisurely activities.
Evening: Walk our dog, make dinner, and wash the dishes afterwards.
Night: Watch TV, read books, or other such leisurely activities.

Q. What do you do for fun or to relax during the day?

Watch TV or read books.

Q. What’s the best thing about being a housewife?

I am free to use my time however I want.

Q. What’s the worst thing about being a housewife?

I can’t really think of anything.

Q. How many hours a week do you think you work as a housewife?

Approximately 40 hours.

Q. Have you worked a part-time or full-time job in the past, and if so how did you find enough time to be a housewife?

When I worked part-time it was 4 hours a day, so I had enough time to work as a housewife. But when I worked full-time it was 8 hours a day and I was too busy to do things around the house. My commute was really long. It took me an hour and a half to get to the office.

Q. How much does your husband help with the housework?

He takes the garbage out and makes his own breakfast. He walks our dog in the morning. If I ask him to do something, he is willing to do it, but I often don’t like how he washes dishes. I’m also better at cooking than him, so I usually handle all things kitchen related.

Q. Have you ever considered working full time instead of being a housewife?

Yes. I tried, but it was too difficult, especially while raising my children. So it didn’t last very long.

Japanese Housewife #4 – Ninja-Pie

life of a Housewife in Japan

Photo by Julie

Pseudonym: Ninja-Pie
Age: 62
Occupation: Housewife without any part time job
Housewife Career: 35 years

Q. Could you tell us about your daily routine?

6:00 – I wake up.
7:00 – I eat breakfast and relax
8:30 – Cleaning, laundry, and other housework.
11:00 – Prepare lunch.
12:00 – Eat lunch
13:00 – Clean the dishes and do other housework
14:00 – Free time for myself
16:00 – Prepare supper.
17:00 – Go for a walk
18:30 – Supper
21:00 – Have a bath.
23:00 – Go to bed.

Q. What do you do for fun or to relax during the day?

I have teatime after breakfast and dinner, and enjoy a couple snacks with coffee.

Q. What’s the best thing about being a housewife?

I can have some time for myself.

Q. What’s the worst thing about being a housewife?

It’s difficult to keep myself in good shape because I tend to stay inside all day. That’s why I try to devote a certain amount of time each day to walking.

Q. How many hours a week do you think you work as a housewife?

About 35 hours a week.

Q. How much does your husband help with the housework?

He helps with the shopping and by cleaning the bathroom.

Q. Have you ever considered working full-time instead of being a housewife?


Would You Want to Be a Housewife in Japan?


Special thanks to our interviewees for letting us into their lives and how they feel about being a housewife in Japan. What do you think about their answers? Do these situations seem different from housewives’ lives in your country? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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Interview with Chiptune Musician TORIENA Mon, 20 Jul 2015 13:00:00 +0000 The Game Boy has become a popular musical instrument in recent years. Many DJs use its internal sound chip to make music. But few use it like TORIENA. She started making music on her Game Boy (also known as chiptune) in 2012 and hasn’t slowed down. Her fast-paced and complex compositions make her stand out […]

The post Interview with Chiptune Musician TORIENA appeared first on Tofugu.

The Game Boy has become a popular musical instrument in recent years. Many DJs use its internal sound chip to make music. But few use it like TORIENA.

She started making music on her Game Boy (also known as chiptune) in 2012 and hasn’t slowed down. Her fast-paced and complex compositions make her stand out in the sea of chiptune DJs. She’s performed at Blipfestival, Sasakure Festival, Square Sounds Festival, Design Festa Vol. 40. She founded her own label, MADMILKY RECORDS, in 2013 and was awarded “Best New Artist Award” at the World Wide Chiptune Awards.

TORIENA took some time away from composing, touring, collaborating, and making art for her music (yes, she does that too) to answer a few of our questions.


Photo by jeriaska

Q. How did you first get into making music? How long after that did you start making chiptune music and why?

There was no definitive reason why I set out to start making my own original music. But when I was a junior high student and (this may sound a bit audacious) I felt as though there wasn’t any music out there that matched my preferences or met my needs. So I suppose that feeling was the biggest factor in why I started making my own music.

Also, I have loved music for as long as I can remember because I grew up with a family who loves music. When I was in high school, I had an overwhelming desire to play original songs in a band. But my parents were against it, so I wasn’t able to. In the meantime, I got into artists from Warp Records and was drawn to electronic sounds. Eventually I found myself wanting to make techno music. In my 3rd year of high school, on a whim I went to an Internet label event for the first time, and was instantly fascinated by the high-volume electronic music coming from speakers. That moment spurred me into making my own electronic music.

As soon as I became a university student and started living by myself, I bought “Cubase6” and started making hard and minimal techno music. I joined a band club that mainly performed original songs and I had a lot of fun with them. One of the alumni from that club is NNNNNNNNNN. He is my senpai and someone I get along with very well. One day he asked me to start making chiptune with him. So we went to a café in Kyoto called “Café la siesta.” Miraculously, the café owner let us use an LSDj cartridge that had been sitting around and we started making songs with that.

And here I am now. Come to think of it, it was all rather fateful.

Q. What brought you to the Game Boy as a musical instrument?

It plays direct and sharp sounds. Although many people say that electric sounds are very monotone and don’t express any soul, I believe there is soul in its sound. Electric sound is a kind that doesn’t naturally exist in the world, right? Human beings created these sounds all by ourselves. It’s very mystical and sexy to me. I think electric noise created by humans is full of life force and soul. I really like the sound of the Game Boy. It comes directly out of the built-in chip in the form of a pulse or trianglular sound wave. It’s like the chip is screaming out its feelings. Making it into an instrument and having it play music that is an audible expression of my heart and soul is what attracted me to it.

Q. Where did the name Toriena come from? What does it mean?

I actually get this question a lot. “TORI” means “bird” in Japanese and my birth year is the year of the bird. “ENA” came from my younger sister. I consulted her about my artist name with her, then her answer was like, “Your face fits the name ENA, so why don’t you choose ENA?” Thinking back now, it’s kind of weird. But nobody else has the name TORIENA and I liked the sound of it.


Photo by jeriaska

Q. Making music on the Game Boy is very complex. On top of that, your music is deeply complex. What kind of skills does it take to create such fast-paced music on the Game Boy?

I use Game Boy music composition software called “LSDj.” The Game Boy sound chip offers only four channels with 4-bit sound. Within this restriction, I put multiple elements in one track to make your ears play tricks on you and make you believe you’re listening to multiple sounds. I can also create one sound by using two channels. If I really started talking about it, I could go on forever.

Actually, the way to make music differs from person to person. So if you are thinking of making your own music, you have to try and fail over and over again until you get the hang of it. To be honest, I still have difficulty creating music in the exact way I envision it sounding. One of the most important things for creating music, I think, is not to persist on reaching one outcome or accepting one standard. You should listen to a wide variety of genres of music and learn of all the elements you like. While doing so, you should create your own music while happily dancing away. Then you will probably be able to make fun music by yourself. The most important thing is that YOU also enjoy your own music.

Q. Are there any systems or programs besides the Game Boy you use or would like to use to make music?

I’m using DTM a lot recently. I use CUbase too. I’m curious about working with SID sound source found in ATARI machines. The sound is good and is really interesting.

Q. Who are your musical influences?

Even though he’s not a musician, I might have to say my father. He likes roots reggae and R&B, and he has listened to those genres on his record player and huge sound system since I was little. I am not sure, but I assume I have always thought deep down that it’s really cool music. When I started getting into music, I borrowed some records of his and listened to a variety of genres. He recommended some music as well and also gave me a rock compilation album.

Q. Your Pulse Fighter music video is amazing! Is there any chance there will be a Toriena game?

Thank you for those very kind words! Actually, I made an app game called “Pico^2 Sprite” with m7kenji who was in charge of the pixel art and video of Pulse Fighter. Like the music video, I did the music, sound effects, character design, and the scenario. m7kenji did the pixel art, the boss characters, and the UI. It is a puzzle game and all the characters including the boss are very unique. I’m sure you will enjoy it!

Q. You founded your own label, MADMILKY Records, in 2013. What inspired you to make the jump from artist to producer?

When I performed at BLIP Festival Tokyo in 2012, a thought raced through my mind. It was that chiptune is really awesome and I want to make it much more popular in Japan. I talked about it to NNNNNNNNNN who was performing there as well, and we ended up deciding to make a music label together.

Q. What are your favorite games? Which games inspire you to make music?

My absolute favorite game ever is MOTHER 2. I’ve played it over and over again. The best part is the pixel art. I also like the story, which is very well written. It actually influenced my worldview quite a bit. I also like Kirby and the Pokemon series. I like them for their music. Sometimes I even just listen to the music from those games.

Q. What foods go hand-in-hand with chiptune music?

Pepsi and Haribo gummy candies. I always have them while making music and drawing.

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

I don’t know anything about musical theory. Although I used to play the bass and contrabass, I couldn’t read music, so I just played by ear. I am also very bad at sports, haha!

Q. What skills beyond music does it take to be a successful musician?

I think people need to clarify what it is they actually want to do. I believe that everybody has a dream, but it’s often vague. You should understand yourself and your dream really well and pursue it. Throughout the process, you’ll form your own unique style and you’ll become an artist that can’t be replaced. That said, I’m still on my way to becoming an artist like that.

Q. What skills do you need to be a successful musician in Japan particularly?

Japanese people care about courtesy, duty, and humanity. So I believe communication ability is necessary. If you don’t forget to be thankful and thoughtful, you’ll get to know more and more good people, and that will lead you to success.


Photo by jeriaska

Q. What advice do you have for our readers who may want to become DJs in Japan?

I don’t know much about the club scene overseas, so my advice comes solely from a Japanese standpoint. First, you should clarify what kind of music you like and what kind of performance you want to give. It might be good to mimic one or two DJs whom you really admire. You can get a leg up on others by having at least one unique thing that you are good at because people may think, “We should call so-and-so for this kind of music event! We should ask them to perform for us.”  I believe it allows you to play a more active part in your success.

Other than that, just don’t forget the spirit with which you started and be polite to everyone you meet. Apart from that, you should certainly also strive to learn more and more DJ techniques.

Q. Is there anything else you want to say about your job or any messages to Tofugu readers?

I am preparing to release a new song in a popular series. I am also thinking of releasing something interesting this year. My overseas live performances are also scheduled too, so if you see I’m coming to your town, please come out!

I have concerts on October 24 and 31 in UK. The details haven’t been revealed yet, but it’d be great if you can keep your eye on it. I’d also like to create more video content and distribute my concert performances and music videos more.

I’d be happy if Tofugu readers who read this interview got interested in me and/or chiptune even a little bit.

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

The question I wish people would ask me is, “what’s your final goal?” I do a lot of things from composing to illustrating to performing, but I don’t want to be limited by anything. I want to be a person that can’t be replaced. The one and only TORIENA. I want to be a stylish girl with various charming attributes which, like a hologram, change depending on your perspective.

Get Your Japanese Chiptune Fix!

Big thank you to TORIENA for answering our questions. Give her music a listen on SoundCloud, bandcampher website, and MADMILKY RECORDS.

Special thanks to our own Mami for setting up and translating this interview.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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

The post Interview with Chiptune Musician TORIENA appeared first on Tofugu.

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

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

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

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

Before Japan Was Japan


Photo by Saigen Jiro

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

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


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

“Queen of Wa Friendly to Wei”


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

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

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

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

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

Himiko’s Legacy: From Hero to Zero and Back


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

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

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

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

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


Photo by geraldford

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sakurai City Mascot

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

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

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

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

What’s So Great About Queen Himiko?


Photo by 皇なつき

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

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

Bonus Wallpapers!

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

嘘つき! (Uso tsuki! Liar!)

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

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

Anime’s Success Ingredient 1: Television

Image from Always Sanchōme no Yūhi

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

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

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

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

Anime’s Success Ingredient 2: Astro Boy

Difference Between Anime and Cartoons

Image from Astro Boy

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

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

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

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

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

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

Forging a New Path

Difference Between Anime and Cartoons

Image from Sakigake! Cromartie High School

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

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

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

Difference Between Anime and Cartoons

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

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

Film theorist Christian Metz explains,

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

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

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

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

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

The Difference Between Anime and Cartoons

Difference Between Anime and Cartoons

Photo from Giovanni’s Island

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

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

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

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

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

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

Limited-Animation’s Definitive Techniques

making naruto

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

1) Three Frame Shooting

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

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

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

2) Stop-Images

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

3) Pull cels

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

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

4) Repetition

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

5) Sectioning

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

6) Cel Banking

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

6) Lip-Synching

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

8) Short Shot Length

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

9) Special Effects Layers

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

10) Camera Movement

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

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

The Virtues of Limited-Animation


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

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

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

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

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

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

Limited-Animation’s Unlimited Style

Image from The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya

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

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

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

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

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

Image from Dragon Ball Z

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

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

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

Image from Astro Boy (live action)

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

Image from Bakemonogatari

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

Synergy: A Marketing Dream Come True

Image from Gintama

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But animation expert Roger Noake counters,

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

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

Beauty Lies in the Perception of the Beholder

Image from Astro Boy

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

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

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

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

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

The Grand Illusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Origins of Ashigaru


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

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

The Shady Years


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

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

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

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

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

An Upwardly Mobile Class


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

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

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

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

Ashigaru and Guns


Photo by PHGCOM

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

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

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

The Ashigaru Who Became Master of Japan


Photo by Victor Lee

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

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

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

The Rise to Samurai


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

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

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

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

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

Pre-Emoji Emoji

smiley emoji koamoji emoticon

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

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

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

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

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

Made in Japan


Photo by Mytho88

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

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

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

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

Gaining a Foothold


Photo by wackystuff

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

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

The Journey West


Photo by TaylorHerring

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

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

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

Decoding Emoji 


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

There are a ton of Japanese food emoji, like:

  • 🍡 Dango

  • 🍱 Bento

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Making Faces


Photo by Fred Benenson

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

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

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The Secret Japan Air Self-Defense Force Gundam – And Other Stories Tue, 09 Jun 2015 13:00:00 +0000 In August 2014, Japan’s defense ministry announced a new “Space Monitoring Force.” It will utilize personnel from the Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF), the country’s air force. This new team is supposed to become active by 2019. Russia beat Japan to the punch by establishing the Aerospace Monitoring Forces (AMF) on April 1, 2015. But in […]

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In August 2014, Japan’s defense ministry announced a new “Space Monitoring Force.” It will utilize personnel from the Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF), the country’s air force. This new team is supposed to become active by 2019. Russia beat Japan to the punch by establishing the Aerospace Monitoring Forces (AMF) on April 1, 2015. But in 4 more years, the Japanese space force is bound to be way cooler.

It’s mission: to monitor dangerous space debris orbiting Earth and to protect space satellites from collision, as well as “other attacks.” Because Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party discussed building a real life Gundam in 2012, this new squad might be a part of the secret Japan Air Self-Defense Force Gundam project. The JASDF has battled monsters and extra-terrestrial enemies in many TV shows and movies, so maybe they’re bringing fiction to life. Were these shows suggesting that the JASDF is Japan’s secret weapon?

I don’t think we’ll uncover any classified information. But we can at least look into what JASDF is, its history, its usual activities, and how they appear in TV and film. Let’s blast off!

What Is the Japan Air Self-Defense Force?


The Japan Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) is called 航空自衛隊 (Koukuu Jieitai) in Japanese. It is the major aviation arm of the Japan Self-Defense Forces (SDF), called 自衛隊 (Jieitai) in Japanese. It handles the defense of Japanese airspace and other aerospace operations and this includes both direct and indirect aggression. Recently, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s cabinet submitted a package of bills for debate. They’re designed to expand Japan’s military role overseas. The new legislation might change how the SDF operates. But as of now, they’re strictly a defense force. Thus, their slogan is “The Key To Defense, Ready Anytime.”

Although its purpose is to “defend” Japan, most countries consider it a full-fledged air force because it is equipped with many fighter aircraft. As of 2013, it had 769 aircraft in operation. About 350 were fighters.

The JASDF consists of military units and departments that are special departments of the Ministry of Defense. They are supervised by the Air Staff Office, the Chief of Defense, and the Chief of (Air Self-Defense Force) Staff. The highest authority of the JASDF is the Chief of (Air Self-Defense Force) Staff who resides over the Chief of Defense and is in control of the Air Staff Office. Its personnel is estimated at approximately 47,000. The annual budget they received in 2011 was about 1,060,200,000,000 yen.

The History Of Japan Air Self-Defense Force


After WWII, a study began to determine whether Japan required further militarization. It was conducted by those with ties to the Japanese army, such as Yasuyuki Miyoshi, Sadanori Harada, Kazuo Tanikawa, Monjirou Akiyama, Kouji Tanaka and Shigeru Ura.  They believed that Japan must have military preparedness to continue being an independent country. Naturally this preparedness must include an independent air force. They asked for the cooperation of the U.S. Air Force in the creation of the JASDF.

On July 1st, 1954, the Defense Agency replaced the Security Agency and the JASDF was finally established. The Ground Self-Defense Force (JGSDF), called 陸上自衛隊 (Rikujou Jieitai), and the Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF), called 海上自衛隊 (Kaijou Jieitai) were successors of the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy. The JASDF, however, didn’t have a war-era predecessor. Air operations were handled by The Imperial Japanese Army and Navy, who both had Air Services.

What Do They Do?


In times of peace, the JASDF’s mission is dealing with foreign aircraft and potentially hostile threats to Japan’s airspace. They set up an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ ). This is an air defense radius that a country establishes over waters near its shores. Twenty-eight radar sites were built around Japan for the monitoring of the ADIZ. This resulted in Japan’s Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW&C).

When an unknown plane crosses the ADIZ, a radio transmitter, running at 121.5MHz or 243MHz, sends a warning. Fighter planes scramble to intercept. Objects confirmed by the intercepting jets are reported to the public by the Joint Staff Office (JSO).

In times of emergency, the JASDF will conduct naval strikes, air to ground assaults, and air transport to support the Ground Self-Defense Force and Maritime Self-Defense Force. Since their security policy is strictly defensive, their preparation is meant primarily for air-defense and to protect Japan from ambush attacks. They utilize the F-15J, AEW&C, and patriot missiles for this purpose.

The Real Ability And Cooperation With U.S.


The JASDF boasts state-of-the-art fighter jets, self-defense systems, and the ground-to-air Patriot missiles. Therefore, its actions have been the most politically restricted, more so than the Ground and Maritime Self-Defense Forces. For example, precision bombing systems in JASDF jets have been disabled and aerial refueling tankers have been grounded.

But based on the U.S.–Japan Security Treaty, the JASDF has been securing and strengthening its coordination with the U.S. Air Force since its establishment. They share cipher machines, privacy telephones, a Tactical Digital Information Link (TADIL), and Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) systems. This enables both the U.S. and Japanese forces to operate in their cooperative strategies. English proficiency among personnel is also considered to be very important to those aged 35 or under. Troops must take a JASDF English Proficiency Test every year.

The number of JASDF aircraft in operation is quite high. The time a given pilot spends practicing is typically over 200 hours per year. There are Japan/U.S. joint maneuvers everyday at a few bases around the country, as well as annual joint maneuvers at Cope North in Guam.

JASDF in Film, TV, and Anime


It sure sounds as though the JASDF is capable of quite a lot. As I mentioned earlier, their abilities have been portrayed in various anime and movies. The JASDF doesn’t usually suffer losses unless it’s from monsters or extra-terrestrial foes. JASDF fighter jets can be seen in the Godzilla film series. Of course, as skilled as they are, they usually don’t fare well against Godzilla’s atomic breath.

The JASDF has recently tried to increase its exposure in anime. In 2003, they created a moe anime called Stratos 4. In this series, a group of pilots are set up in a space comet blaster. Although the anime’s storyline involves the “United Countries,” it seems suspiciously close to the JASDF’s latest space project.

The JASDF helped with the combat scenes in Yukikaze, an anime series that ran from 2003 to 2006. They did the same for scenes in Blood+. It aired the same time as the Gundam series, Saturday at 6pm. Coincidence or conspiracy?

Okay. Maybe I’m reading too much into it. But who knows?

Japan’s Ministry of Defense and Self-Defense Forces sure like Gundam though. They invented a special suit called Advanced Combat Information Equipment System (ACIES), a.k.a “Gundam”, in 2007. It cost 4,300,000,000yen ($4.3 million). The person who started calling it “Gundam” was Yoshitaka Akiyama, Director General of the Technical Research & Development Institute within the Japan Ministry of Defense.

When asked about the Gundam name in an interview with “MAMOR” magazine, he said “I called it Gundam in the sense that we are aiming to invent something like Gundam in the future.”

The interviewer was not satisfied with that answer. So he threw out another question: “You mean, you are considering inventing a giant robot like Mobile Suit Gundam in the future?” The moderator cut off the answer by saying, “I’m afraid we’re not able to talk about our future development projects.”

How suggestive is that?

As some anime fans say, this new project might be “one small step for Gundam.” It will hopefully lead to one giant leap for mankind flying around in awesome mech suits. Although the ACIES research on the initial combat suit was probably terminated in 2012, if it followed the original plan, there might be a secret project to invent a real Gundam still going on. They are very secretive about the future, so I am hoping this conspiracy is true….because it’s very very exciting!!

Up in the sky!


Photo by nubobo

Will the JASDF finally fulfill humanity’s destiny by creating giant space robots? Is its space debris defense force the first step in a real life Gundam army? We can hope, but all we know for sure is the current and past JASDF boast some nifty tech and organization. And it’s all to make the impossible possible. It’s to make our dreams come true! If any combat force were to finally make our sci-fi dreams a reality, it would probably be the JASDF.

When I think about this kind of stuff, I always feel super ワクワク (excited) and I can’t help dancing. You too? Then let’s dance all together in hope. Oppa Gundam Style!

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Sonny Chiba vs Bruce Lee: The Debate Finally Put to Rest Mon, 08 Jun 2015 13:00:00 +0000 “He’s the cat they call The Street Fighter! Yeah he’s pretty cool. He’s no Bruce Lee, but who in the hell is?”(Phillips) It’s the Asian cinema equivalent of Batman versus Superman, of Ali versus Tyson, of Schwarzenegger versus Stallone. The divisive debate offers endless speculation and an opportunity for fans to show off their depth of knowledge on […]

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“He’s the cat they call The Street Fighter! Yeah he’s pretty cool. He’s no Bruce Lee, but who in the hell is?”(Phillips)

It’s the Asian cinema equivalent of Batman versus Superman, of Ali versus Tyson, of Schwarzenegger versus Stallone. The divisive debate offers endless speculation and an opportunity for fans to show off their depth of knowledge on the actors. Of course, a dispute once limited to fan circles and conventions has been given a new dynamic thanks to the world wide web.

Bruce Lee burst onto the international movie scene in the 1970s and his hit, The Big Boss (Fists of Fury in the US) led to a string of movies that showcased Lee’s martial arts skills and philosophies. His definitive film, Enter the Dragon would serve as an exclamation point to his untimely death at 32 years of age.

Meanwhile in Japan, another superstar’s career bloomed. Sadaho Maeda shocked audiences with the graphic violence of The Bodyguard and The Street Fighter. Better known as Sonny Chiba, some would declare the budding action star Japan’s answer to Bruce Lee. Others would label him a blatant rip-off.

The debate continues today, fueled by Lee’s growing legend and Chiba’s ongoing career. Who had better movies? Who was the more accomplished martial artist? Who would win in a fight to the death (or, less dramatically, an exhibition match)?

Please read on as Tofugu throws its hat into the ring and puts the debate to rest once and for all… or just adds fuel to the action-packed fire.

The Man Called Sonny

Sonny Chiba vs Bruce Lee

Photo from The Street Fighter

Born in Fukuoka, Japan in 1939, Sonny Chiba had dreams of becoming an Olympic gymnast. After his high school graduation, Chiba enrolled in Nihon Taiku University’s physical education program and began the rigorous training to fulfill his ambitious goal (Ragone). Taking aim at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Chiba remained a serious candidate for the team until an injury sustained while doing part-time construction work forced him to change course. (Interview 2004)

Chiba would take up bodybuilding and martial arts, learning karate from World Karate Grand Master and Kyokushinken Karate founder, Masutatsu Oyama. “In his senior year, he was given the honor of coaching (karate) at the university”(Ragone). Martial arts became a mainstay in Chiba’s life and a key ingredient in his acting career.

Though athletics and acting may seem worlds apart, Chiba bridged the two. As a fan of Hollywood films, Chiba found inspiration in an unlikely source: James Dean.

If it weren’t for James Dean, I would have never become an actor… His acting rings with truth… Movies are all lies. The point is whether or not we can make the audience believe… to have them think what they’re seeing is the truth. And that’s exactly what James Dean’s work brought home to me so powerfully. (Interview 2004)

Thanks to James Dean and the influence of Hollywood films, Chiba hoped to change the Japanese movie industry from within. But first he would have to become an actor.

“Chiba auditioned and won the Toei Studios’ 1960 New Faces Contest, and he began traveling down the road of acting.” (Ragone) Japan’s studio system, which pumped out films with industrial efficiency, worked Chiba hard, casting him in roles that ranged from war dramas to sci-fi adventures. The exposure paid off and his popularity grew.

Thanks to his success, Chiba would be cast in roles outside the movie industry. In fact, Chiba earned his international nickname through an advertising campaign for the Toyota Sunny-S. “The ads were successful, and the name stuck with him – especially with Toei’s overseas advertising department, who started to bill him as Sonny Chiba.”(Ragone)

Enter the Dragon’s Shadow

Photo from The Bodyguard

Bruce Lee’s success sent shockwaves throughout Asia. His fame and fortune fueled a worldwide kung-fu boom as studios around the world scrambled to exploit the genre’s sudden popularity.

In 1973, Lee’s death would inspire a flood of knock-offs and look-a-likes. The phenomenon gave birth to a whole genre of Bruceploitation films, with studios clambering to cash in on the actor’s likeness and image at any cost.

Lee’s onscreen passion and intensity inspired Sonny Chiba as an actor. Lee’s marketability and Enter the Dragon‘s enormous profits inspired Toei and the studio attempted to cash-in by reviving the martial arts genre for Japanese audiences.

It’s no coincidence that Chiba’s roles in karate-themed action films boomed following Lee’s death, from 1973 onward. With his muscular build and hard-boiled attitude, Chiba would be the man to herald a new wave of Japanese action films.

In the slew of karate films that followed, Chiba became the prototypical karate master, mixing Bruce Lee’s martial arts action with Charles Bronson’s hard-hitting style. The Street Fighter and The Bodyguard garnered the most fame, thanks in part to Japan’s gritty 70s cinematic style.

Photo from The Street Fighter

Since Chiba emulated Bruce Lee’s trademark coos, caws, body-tension and crazy-eyes during the peak of his karate-action movie era, many accuse him of being a Bruce Lee copycat. Although those moments were undoubtedly Lee inspired, Chiba lent his own flavor to these action films, using brute violence and blunt force where Lee would have used grace and finesse.

Furthermore, while Lee’s characters walked a moral high ground, Chiba’s characters could be ambiguous and self-serving. He admitted, “For me the most enjoyable role to play is the bad-guy” (Ross).

During that time in Japan (1970s), there was no action movie character like the main character in The Street Fighter. There was no precedent, so everyone greeted the character, and myself, with great applause and pride in Japan during that time.(Yamasato)

The Street Fighter took everyone, including the US ratings board, by surprise.

The Street Fighter was such a shock to the American rating board… that it became the first action film to get an “X” rating for violence… including throats ripped, eyes gouged, testicles torn asunder” (Donovan).

Thanks to his own personality and the style of Japanese films at the time, Chiba never entered the ranks of shameless Bruce Lee rip-offs like Bruce Li, Bruce Lai, Bruce Le, Lee Bruce or Dragon Lee. Slick choreography, a blunt hard-hitting technique and trendsetting, graphic violence earned Chiba a worldwide fan-base. Chiba’s later roles would only feed his popularity, as he cast off Lee’s shadow and exhibited his own unique talents and style.

Unique Aspirations

Photo from Karate Warriors

Sonny Chiba owes his fame, in part, to his hard work ethic. His career has spanned over five decades and includes over 130 movies. Thanks to the studio system he sometimes starred in two to three movies a year! He also earned fame for his television roles, particularly the ninja master Hattori Hanzo (more on that later).

Yet Sonny Chiba didn’t focus on acting alone. The Hollywood-influenced independent thinker hoped to change the Japanese film industry.

First, Chiba took it upon himself to improve the quality of Japan’s stuntmen and physical actors, creating The Japan Action Club in 1969. The JAC brought a standard and professionalism to Japan’s action movie production “providing able-bodied stuntmen and martial artists for any studio who was able to hire them”(Ragone). Chiba did his best to help promote young stars and propel the Japanese film industry into a new era.

The members of JAC became popular idols with the Japanese public with a huge merchandise-chewing fanbase. This following helped Sonny Chiba Enterprises to swell into a powerful company, which not only offered a huge line of goods, but spawned mountains of magazine articles and photo books. (Ragone)

But Chiba’s ambitions didn’t end there. Chiba explained, “I… believe that the dramatic story, or the natural story, is very important… (A movie) can’t be mere spectacle”(Yamasato). Chiba looked to Hollywood’s film industry to provide the blueprint for improving Japanese film.

But Chiba felt stifled by Japanese studios and production teams. “American movies are more open to actor’s ideas,” he said (Interview 2004). Chiba believed an actor’s job didn’t lay in speaking lines alone, but in contributing to the shaping of the picture. An actor’s ideas, particularly those of one with Chiba’s experience and know-how, could make a film more realistic, more compelling (Interview 2004).

Chiba believed that Japan’s films would have more global appeal if they incorporated Hollywood sensibility, style and techniques. Japanese film could then expose a world audience to Japanese culture.

True to his ambition, Chiba would abandon Hong Kong inspired action films and their contemporary settings for historical, Japanese-centric roles.

The Karate Master Goes Samurai and Ninja

Photo as Hattori Hanz0

One of Sonny Chiba’s most celebrated roles came after both The Street Fighter and The Bodyguard, as the charismatic sword swinging historical legend Yagyu Jubei. Still revered today, Jubei gained the reputation as a rebel thinker and “champion of the masses.” A tragic figure whose mysterious causes of death range from assassination to heart-attack, Chiba declared Jubei his favorite role, a complicated character who “had no choice but to kill.”

As the historical figure and war hero Hattori Hanzo, Chiba helped create some of Japan’s most famous ninja imagery. The popular television series and movie fueled a renewed interest in one of Japan’s most mysterious historical archetypes. The spillover is thought to have helped spur the Western ninja craze as well. Chiba would once again take the Hanzo name as Okinawa’s resident master sword smith in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol 1.

Photo as Yagyu Jubei

Although he played hundreds of roles over the span of his career, Chiba didn’t bat an eye when asked his favorite director or character to play. “I feel that my best characters were in director Kinji Fukasaku’s work.” (Yamasato) Chiba calls Fukusasaku “a master of tempo.” The men complimented each other’s styles, creating a unique breed of potent, sordid films. Chiba’s most notable, charismatic works would come under Fukasaku’s unique direction.

It comes as no surprise that Chiba’s favorite role as Yagyu Jubei was with Fukusatsu’s direction in Yagyu Ichizoku no Inbo, or The Yagyu Conspiracy (Yamasato).

A Very Sonny Filmography

Although he starred in countless action-packed roles, Chiba never considered himself an action star. “I do not believe I am an action star,” he explained, “but an actor in action movies”(Yamasato). The following is a mixed selection of Chiba’s most notable roles, with a couple of wildcards thrown in for good measure.

With over 130 films to his credit and several television series, picking just a handful proves a challenge. Here are some of Chiba’s most noteworthy films and performances. If you’re looking for notoriety, watch The Bodyguard or Shogun’s Samurai. If you want to get crazy, watch Soul of Chiba. However, my personal favorite is Karate Warriors.

  • The Bodyguard (1973) Also known as Karate Kiba, The Bodyguard‘s brutal violence made it an instant cult classic. When Chiba offers to protect anyone willing to offer information on Japan’s dangerous drug cartels, a mysterious woman steps forward and Chiba’s life spiral’s into violence; as if he’d have it any other way.
  • The Street Fighter (1974)When gangsters attempt to kidnap the heiress of an oil empire, karate tough-man Tsurugi (Sonny Chiba) jumps at the opportunity to protect the girl and take the baddies out as violently as possible. The Street Fighter is one of Chiba’s most well-paced action films and it lies somewhere between Hong Kong and Hollywood styled action.
  • The Executioner II: Karate Inferno (1974): When a jewel heist proves too much for the police to handle, they hire a professional criminal to get the job done. In the vein of films like The Dirty Dozen and Wild 7, and with a touch of Lupin III for good measure, Chiba and company must go beyond the law to aid the law. Karate Inferno delivers with campy lowbrow humor and intense karate action.
  • The Bullet Train (1975): Known as Shinkansen Daibakuha in Japan, The Bullet Train features two superstars, Ken Takakura and Sonny Chiba, in a high-octane thriller about a train armed with a bomb set to explode if the train slows down. Sound familiar? Many cite The Bullet Train as the inspiration for for 1994 Hollywood blockbuster, Speed.
  • Karate Warriors (1976): Inspired by Kurosawa’s YojimboKozure Satsujin Ken features a badass street fighter, played by Chiba, versus a samurai and son, à la Lone Wolf and Cub. Surprisingly, the movie-influenced mishmash blends into one of Chiba’s best works. Although its outstanding fight scenes featuring a mix of karate blows and samurai sword play will please action fans, Karate Warrior’s well conceived story makes it a stand out among Chiba’s other action films.
  • Soul of Chiba (1977)Also known as Violent Death! Way of the Evil Fist, this “Japanese-Hong Kong co-production set in Thailand” costars Bolo Yueng of Enter the Dragon fame in an as-crazy-as-they-come, low budget kung-fu flick(coolasscinema). Chiba plays a kung-fu master searching for his master’s killer. Fans of cheesy kung-fu movies with equally cheesy dubbing should love this unique Hong Kong and Japanese collaboration.
  • Shogun’s Samurai (1978): Better known as The Yagyu Conspiracy in Japan, this movie marks Chiba’s most notable adventure as the sword swinging, eye-patched badass Yagyu Jubei. When the ruling Tokugawa shogunate dies, intrigue and violence abound as a conspiracy is uncovered and his sons battle for the throne. Shogun’s Samurai sees Chiba teaming with his favorite director Kinji Fukasaku for a stylized jidai (samurai period) action classic.
  • Shadow Warriors (1980)In the long-lived television series also known as Kage no Gundan, Chiba played various members of the legendary ninja lineage Hattori Hanzo. Made famous in Kill Bill Vol 1, this television series and movie popularized ninja and ninja tropes in Japanese culture.
  • Samurai Reincarnation (1981): Makai Tenshō marked the return of Yagyu Jubei, this time in a fantasy setting that allowed for two fan-service showdowns: Yagyu Jubei vs. Miyomoto Musashi and Yagyu Jubei vs. his father.
  • The Stormriders (1998): Sonny Chiba gained popularity in China for his roles in the martial arts fantasy epics based on the Chinese comic book series.
  • Kill Bill Vol 1(2003): Quentin Tarantino considers Sonny Chiba one of his favorite action stars. In fact, Jules Winnfield’s bible quote in Pulp Fiction is a homage to the opening sequence of the American version of Chiba’s The Bodyguard. Despite his string of cult hits in the US, Chiba would get his biggest western exposure when he reprised his role as Hattori Hanzo for Tarantino in Kill Bill Vol 1, this time as the legendary sword-smith living in Okinawa.

Sonny Chiba versus Bruce Lee

Round 1: Film Career

Photo from Karate Bear Fighter

Bruce Lee became famous thanks to his films. But his biggest notoriety came off screen, as a philosopher and demonstrator. Sonny Chiba’s career spans over five decades, with over 130 roles spanning various genres. Chiba also created his own production company, directed two movies, and created the JAC to better the standard of action movies, whether he was in them or not. From a pure career standpoint, it’s hard to top Sonny Chiba.

Winner: Sonny Chiba

Round 2: Philosophy

Photo from Enter the Dragon

Chiba took hard-hitting roles but often played characters of questionable morality. He admits it’s more fun to play the bad-guy. Although Chiba cultivates a positive philosophy offscreen, promoting karate and work ethic, onscreen Chiba’s characters didn’t always practice what he preached.

On the other hand, from The Big Boss to the unfinished Game of Death, Lee infused his movies with ideology. His legend lives on thanks to his approach to fitness and unique philosophy which is embodied in his unique fighting style, Jeet Kune Do. Want to know more? Watch his famous interviews, or read Striking Thoughts or Tao of Jeet Kune Do.

Winner: Bruce Lee

Round 3: Unique Image

Photo from Game of Death

Since, at one point in his career, Chiba emulated Lee it would be easy to give this round to Lee. But we cannot deny Chiba’s influence in Japan. His representations of Hanzo and Jubei planted the seeds of the ninja boom that would inspire characters and imagery both at home and abroad.

Yet Bruce Lee inspired his own genre of Bruceploitation films. His yellow and black jumpsuit from Game of Death became iconic and was even worn by Bride when she slayed countless enemies with Hanzo’s blade in Kill Bill Vol 1‘s climax. Bruce Lee’s image is, without a doubt, more recognizable than Sonny Chiba’s.

Winner: Bruce Lee

Round 4: Martial Artist

Photo from Karate Bullfighter

The founder of Jeet Kune Do became famous for his speed and power put on display in movies and demonstrations. On the surface, it’s hard to argue against Bruce Lee in this category. But legend has blurred reality and the lack of concrete fact, video or competitive accomplishments make Lee’s accomplishments as a “real” fighter questionable legends at best.

Bruce’s own students and friends offer no confirmation on his true fighting ability. When asked about reports of bursting 700-pound punching bags and throwing seven punches in a second, Lee’s student and famed kickboxer Joe Lewis responded:

Please, drop all the stuff you’ve heard. Martial arts is full of nonsense. Only believe what you have seen or can prove… Bruce was not a fighter. He was an actor and a teacher. He was a great teacher… Bruce Lee was a wealth of knowledge. (Divinewind)

Lee’s friend, actor and karate legend Chuck Norris offered similar doubts, “Would I have beaten Bruce Lee in a real competition, or not? You’ll forgive me for answering with another Bruceism: Showing off is the fool’s idea of glory” (Sattler).

Lee’s most famous confrontation, with martial artist Wong Jack Man remains shrouded in mystery. Lee bragged that he beat Man, who turned tail and fled. But Man contended that Lee fought dirty: “According to Wong, the battle began with him bowing and offering his hand to Lee in the traditional manner of opening a match. Lee… pretended to extend a friendly hand only to transform the hand into a four-pronged spear aimed at Wong’s eyes” (Dorgan, Hayes)

What isn’t questionable is Lee’s multi-styled legacy. Lee explored styles ranging from kung-fu to fencing and this philisophical legacy lives on today in the booming sport of mixed martial arts (as seen in the UFC and One Championship).

When it comes to martial arts, Sonny Chiba is no slouch. The athlete turned actor holds high rankings in kyokushin karate, ninjutsu, gojuryu karate, shorinji kempo, judo and kendo. Chiba helped spread the benefits of karate to the masses by providing an alternative hero; a karate master in the midst of kung-fu overload.

Both men mastered and promoted multiple fighting arts. Although neither touts a tangible fighting legacy, their films and fame inspired fans around the world take up martial arts.

Winner: Tie

Round 5: World Stardom

Photo from The Storm Riders

Both stars conquered box offices around the world. Lee’s popularity extends into Japan while Chiba made a name for himself in China, even taking roles in Chinese movies. Both men made inroads in the west and lent their talents to western films. Based on these accomplishments alone, discounting notoriety (next round), it’s hard to declare a true winner.

Winner: Tie

Round 6: Notoriety

Photo from Avengers Age of Ultron

Lee wins this round, no question. Robert Downey’s Bruce Lee shirt in the latest Avengers film proves that Bruce Lee’s place as an influential icon hasn’t faded in the slightest.

Even in the West, Bruce Lee is a household name. T-shirts bearing his image, his books, his movies are all readily available. In contrast, although you might come across a few of his movies, you’d be hard-pressed to find a Sonny Chiba t-shirt or book at the mall, even in Japan. In The Asian Influence on Hollywood Action Films, Barna Donovan explains, “Although Chiba earned a sudden cult fan following (in the US) he did not have the sort of staying power in American popular memory as Bruce Lee did”(96).

Winner: Bruce Lee

Round 7: Cultural Ambassador

Photo from Kill Bill Vol 1

Although Lee took kung-fu too new heights of popularity, in reality he wasn’t a kung-fu man. Lee’s art was Jeet-kun Do, as influenced by western boxing and fencing as it was Chinese kung-fu. In fact, Lee left China where where he could freely make movies and explore his philosophy.

In On the Warrior’s Path, Daniele Bolelli gives an in-depth examination of Lee’s deviation from mainstream Chinese thinking:

Lee stood in firm opposition to the most dogmatic aspects of Chinese tradition cherished by Confucianism. By rejecting Confucianism and choosing to embrace the antiauthoritarian viewpoint of philosophical Taoism, Lee allied himself with the fringe-dwellers… the misfits of Chinese culture. (161)

Although Lee provided all Asian men with a powerful role-model and representative, he never became a clear ambassador of Chinese culture. I didn’t learn anything about Chinese history or traditions from his films.

Barna Donovan agrees, “Lee always looked at kung fu films as a way of introducing the world to the far east… Hong Kong studios, however, hardly had such an ambitious cultural agenda”(96).

Chiba embraced Japanese culture and made spreading Japanese culture one of his main goals. His roles as Hattori Hanzo and Yagyu Jubei are steeped in Japanese history and culture. These movies helped fuel the karate and ninja booms that flourished in the 80’s.

Winner: Chiba

And the winner is…

Photo by Benson Kua

Bruce Lee by an inch.

While Chiba is a legend in his own right, Lee’s legend and influence crosses cultures, race and sport like no other. World audiences respect Chiba, but want to be Bruce Lee. Bruce Lee has received countless homages, from Hokuto no Ken’s Kenshiro to the Street Fighter gaming series’s Fei Long. MMA fighters cite his influence. Former UFC champion Anderson Silva embraces Lee’s words as if they were his own. Silva’s personal documentary Like Water starts off with archival Bruce Lee footage.

Without a doubt Bruce Lee occupies a special place in the global consciousness. All of these accomplishments come despite his early death and Lee belongs in the ranks of immortal legends like guitar god Jimi Hendrix, worldwide sports and humanitarian icon Muhammad Ali, or Chiba’s own influence, James Dean.

Place Your Bets!

Photo from Way of the Dragon

The big, unanswerable question remains: who would have won in a fight?

Lee is the fan favorite. His speed and power need to be seen to be believed. His style, Jeet Kune Do, embraced an amalgamation of styles and “effective” techniques. Lee’s battles with challengers in the street and on movie sets are legendary.

But Chiba makes a worthy dark-horse. The master of many styles trained under Masutatsu Oyama, a man who fought hundreds of men, battled bears and killed bulls with his bare hands. Like Lee, Oyama created a unique style then discarded techniques he deemed ineffective. In many ways Oyama is the prototypical Bruce Lee.

Chiba’s judo, a powerful grappling art, spices things up. Grapplers like jiujitsu and wrestling practitioners ruled the early mixed martial arts era. Even muay thai practitioners, a style known for destructive striking, succeeded thanks to grappling techniques in the clinch.

If I had to place a bet, I’d put my money on Lee. Fact or fiction, Lee had a fighting reputation Chiba lacks. Plus Lee possessed impressive reflexes and power. And his aim to intercept oncoming opponents is proving effective in today’s mixed martial arts’ scene.

Peas In a Kickass Pod

Photo from Karate Bear Fighter

Watch any Bruce Lee movie and you’ll note his morality, fluid grace and skillful execution. On the other hand, Sonny Chiba often played morally ambiguous characters and relied on brute, blunt power.

While Bruce Lee’s gift to the world is his philosophy, Sonny Chiba focused on the Japanese film industry. And thanks to his movies and the formation of the JAC, Chiba helped shape the Japanese film industry in a way that is, at long last, gaining recognition.

Under-appreciated for years, Kill Bill Vol 1 helped bring Sonny Chiba back into the international spotlight. His performance as Hattori Hazno won the respect of critics and exposed Chiba to wider audience than ever before. Kill Bill Vol 1 helped Chiba fulfill his Hollywood intentions. Tarantino’s script gave Chiba the chance to play a pivotal, charismatic role in the series and gave viewers a taste of Japanese action culture.

Sonny Chiba claims he traveled to Hong Kong to meet Bruce Lee in 1973. But the plan was ill-fated and Chiba arrived to news of Lee’s death. “If I could have met him, I think we could have had some exciting, interesting conversations.” (Ross)

Although it’s fun to speculate about who would have won in a fight, in reality that’s not important. Ultimately both men proved themselves as actors and philosophers, but not as actual fighters.

Despite anyone’s take on the debate, the real winners are film fans. Thanks to Bruce Lee and Sonny Chiba, we have a library of awesome martial arts movies to watch. And while their influences can still be felt today, few of today’s films have the charismatic grit and style of the Bruce Lee and Sonny Chiba classics.

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Inside the Japanese TV Industry: An Interview with a TV Salarywoman Wed, 03 Jun 2015 13:00:00 +0000 Last year, we interviewed a Japanese TV announcer, Naomi Uemura, and she taught us How To Speak Beautiful Japanese. Since she provided some intriguing insight into the business, I wanted to learn more about the Japanese TV industry. So I contacted a former TV reporter who is now working for a TV sales division. Needless to say, she […]

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Last year, we interviewed a Japanese TV announcer, Naomi Uemura, and she taught us How To Speak Beautiful Japanese. Since she provided some intriguing insight into the business, I wanted to learn more about the Japanese TV industry. So I contacted a former TV reporter who is now working for a TV sales division. Needless to say, she knows the ins and outs of Japanese TV very well. I interviewed her and learned a few industry secrets.



Name: Wishes to remain anonymous
Occupation: Salarywoman working for the sales division of a broadcast company in Kansai region
Age: 29

Q. What’s your story?

I work for the sales division of a TV company. What we do is find sponsors who want to air their commercials during our TV programs. We often create and conduct presentations for sponsors completely on our own. But we usually get teamed up with an advertising agency and work together to attract new sponsors or keep good relationships with our current sponsors.

Q. How did you come to work for a TV company?

I was actually looking for a job in the publishing industry. I love reading and wanted a job related to books. However, in my third year of university I came across a book in the library called “Practitioner’s Media Literacy.” That one book literally changed my life, especially after I read about “Sunset On-The-Spot Broadcasting” of a news program called “Chichin-Puipui.”

The view of the sunset from the top of Mt. Ikoma (Nara Prefecture) is particularly beautful. It was so beautiful that they decided to dismiss its scheduled programming and broadcast a view of the mountain for 20 minutes. It really touched me that they didn’t prioritize the scheduled programming but instead decided to share footage that viewers could admire, connect with, and share together.

That was more than enough for me to become interest in working in TV industry. I was very lucky to be offered an internship position with them. From the internship, I learned that the company is working hard to preserve local culture for the future. It made me want to contribute to my community, which is the Kansai area, and led me to work for this company.

Q. Why did you want to become a TV Reporter?

My company was hiring for four different positions: the general-duties department, technical jobs, art jobs, and announcers. HR assigns workers in the general-duties department to various divisions and I just happened to be chosen for a TV reporter position. Oddly, I wasn’t even applying for that position.

Q. Now you’re in sales, though. Why did you make the change?

Japanese companies traditionally assign their workers to an assortment of jobs throughout various departments within the company. It’s called 人事異動 (Jinji-idou) and it is also how I was eventually assigned to my position in the sales division. This position is actually the one that I was applying for. This sales position requires me to be flexible and have substantial physical endurance. So I thought it would be better to experience this job while I’m still young.

Q. How long have you been doing this job?

I’ve been here for 6 years now. I was a News Reporter at the News Center of the News Bureau for 2 years and the Tokyo Branch TV Sales division for 3 and a half years.

Q. Tell us about your job in sales and how you get sponsors for TV programs.

We visit the public relations and/or advertising departments of potential sponsors and pitch our TV programs. We try to explain why airing commercials during our programs will be beneficial to their company. We also suggest collaborative ideas of our programs and their products.

Q. How do you find sponsors for television shows?

We usually find new sponsors based on the information from advertising agencies. We find out who is looking and why.


Q. What’s the best thing about your job?

When a sponsor that I am in charge of expresses their appreciation to me for proposing a good program for them. Or when an idea or event that I proposed is actually used and aired. When this happens I feel really happy and have a real sense of job satisfaction.

For major companies, making their own commercials to advertise their products is a common thing, so we are always seeking new and unique ways to advertise. For example, we once had to advertise かき氷 (kaki-goori), which is shaved ice topped with flavored syrup. We wanted to convey the great taste of it as accurately as we could. So during a live show, the director and I shaved the ice in the back of the studio so we could serve it fresh. At the same time, we set up a live broadcast in a different location and made kaki-goori there as well. In order to do this, we had to swap and adjust some wires in the facility’s switchboard. This is a good example of how, even as sales people, we get involved in many things. We try to do whatever we can whenever we’re able to.

After it aired, the sales of kaki-goori surpassed the goal that was set and our sponsor was really happy. It made me happy as well. Throughout my time in this department, I’ve learned that proposing specific TV programs to sponsors, learning as much as I can about a product, and being a big fan of the sponsoring company is a vital part of my job. If we become staunch admirers of the product and work really hard to sell it for them, they will eventually admire us too and a great relationship will form.

I think that is the most fundamental thing to the success of this sales job. Not surprisingly, the hard work done in pursuit of this also leads to the most rewarding moments of my job.

Q. What’s the most difficult thing about your job?

  1. Sponsors are decreasing advertising expenses, so it’s getting more difficult to make a sale.
  2. We often have dinner meetings with advertising agencies which means we often get home quite late. Even when there are no meetings, there is a lot of work to do, so I generally get home pretty late every night.
  3. We have to adjust a lot of things from between sponsors, advertising agencies, and even divisions within the company. So we have to work hard on building and maintaining good relationships with them.

Q. What’s something funny or interesting that relates to your job that you’ve never told anyone?

Although this is common knowledge within the company, the percentage of divorce is really high in my division. I think more than half have experienced it. I’m not sure, but I feel the likelihood of divorce is high in the TV industry.


Photo by David

Q. It seems like cable television is getting more popular in Japan. Do you think this is making it more difficult to find sponsors because more people have more and more channels to watch?

Not only cable but other forms of pay-to-view TV, such as BS or CS, are increasing in popularity. Because of these, people are starting to watch a wider variety of programs. This results in weaker audience ratings across the board.

It’s getting difficult to make sales, but it also makes certain demographics more specific. This makes it easier to narrow down the advertising target. In other words, it has made it easier for us to respond to a request from a client.

Q. If someone else wants to do what you’re doing, what should they do?

You need the ability to sell a TV program as an ideal compliment to a sponsor’s product, as well as proposing new ideas to utilize a program or event. With that in mind, you can see the need to be creative, a quick thinker, and have good interpersonal skills.

Q. If someone wants to become a TV reporter, what should they do?

They should have something in mind that they are really interested in and have the desire to learn as much about it as possible. Any area, whether it be politics, the economy, education, or medicine would be suitable. Choose one and make it your forte.

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The Other Side: What Do Japanese College Students Think of English? Fri, 29 May 2015 13:00:00 +0000 Tofugu readers tend to be dedicated to improving their understanding of Japanese language and culture. So I think many reading this can agree that learning a foreign language can be a reeeeeeal pain. Learning a new way of thinking is a struggle no matter what country or culture you’re from. It’s hard for me to understand certain concepts in […]

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Tofugu readers tend to be dedicated to improving their understanding of Japanese language and culture. So I think many reading this can agree that learning a foreign language can be a reeeeeeal pain. Learning a new way of thinking is a struggle no matter what country or culture you’re from. It’s hard for me to understand certain concepts in Japanese, as I’m sure it is the other way around.

This got me thinking.

Each year, my university invites a handful of international students from one of our partner schools in Japan to come and spend a few semesters living and studying on our campus. Many of these students are dedicated, long-time English language learners and members of the English Speaking Society at their university in Japan. I saw this as a wonderful opportunity to ask a few questions and see what these students thought about learning English.

Meet the Students (Kind of)


For this study, I interviewed 5 exchange students: Mizuta-san, Ota-san, Suzuki-san, Watabiki-san, and Yoshiyuki-san. Out of respect for their privacy, I’ve withheld the participants’ school and their first names. Let’s meet our English student participants:

Name: Mizuta-san

Hometown: Hiroshima

Major: Science

Year: Junior


Name: Ota-san

Hometown: Hiroshima

Major: Science

Year: Sophomore


Name: Suzuki-san

Hometown: Aichi

Major: Economics

Year: Sophomore


Name: Watabiki-san

Hometown: Osaka

Major: Chemical Engineering

Year: Junior


Name:  Yoshiyuki-san

Hometown:  Hiroshima

Major:  Chemical Engineering

Year: Freshmen

The Questionnaire


Let’s see what they have to say, shall we?

Q. How long have you been studying English?

Mizuta-san: Nine  years.

Ota-san: Since junior high school, about eight years.

Suzuki-san: For seven and a half years.

Watabiki-san: For nine years.

Yoshiyuki-san: Eight years.

Q. Do you consider studying English a passion of yours?

Mizuta-san: Yes, I do.

Ota-san: Yes, I think you shouldn’t study for study, but should study for fun.

Suzuki-san: Yes, I do.

Watabiki-san: Yes

Yoshiyuki-san: No.

Q. Do you want to move to an English-speaking country?

Mizuta-san: Yes, I do. If I have the chance.

Ota-san: Yes!

Suzuki-san: Yes, I do.

Watabiki-san: No. I love Japan.

Yoshiyuki-san: Yes.


Photo by EO1

Q. What in your opinion are the hardest parts of learning English?

Mizuta-san: Speaking English without hesitation.

Ota-san: I don’t have confidence in my sentences.

Suzuki-san: A lot of slang and accents which are different from country to country.

Watabiki-san: We have no problem living in Japan without English. There are no chances to use English in daily life.

Yoshiyuki-san: Enriching my vocabulary.

Q. How is this different from Japanese?

Mizuta-san: We need to be more emotional in English than in Japanese.

Ota-san: Because I’m afraid of making mistakes.

Suzuki-san: Maybe it is relatively easy for us Japanese to understand Japanese slang or accents in different parts of Japan because Japanese is spoken only in Japan. But English is an international language. So I often face difficulties in understanding what native English speakers say, because it is hardly possible to acquire all of those words.

Watabiki-san: We use Japanese everyday.

Yoshiyuki-san: I just have fewer opportunities to listen to English than Japanese.

Q. Why is this “hardest part” difficult for you?

Mizuta-san: Because we are not used to doing it, and I feel a little afraid of making grammar mistakes in English.

Ota-san: It’s really hard to check sentences. I don’t have confidence in translation tools or electronic dictionaries, because they often make mistakes.

Suzuki-san: There are too many English slangs and accents across the globe.

Watabiki-san: No opportunities to use english Each day.

Yoshiyuki-san: I’m poor at memorizing.


Photo by Wonderlane

Q. How have you helped yourself compensate for these difficulties?

Mizuta-san: Practice and memorize English I learned in English classes.

Ota-san: I make sure to study grammar.

Suzuki-san:  I make some time to talk with native English speakers on a regular basis. I try to understand as many different  things as I can.

Watabiki-san: I study when I can.

Yoshiyuki-san: I’m learning more English words by reading a book for the Eiken test.

Q. What are the easiest parts of learning English?

Mizuta-san: Reading.

Ota-san: Grammar

Suzuki-san: English sentence structure is simpler than Japanese.

Watabiki-san: Learning Vocabulary.

Yoshiyuki-san: Grammar.

Q. Are these “easiest parts” similar to Japanese or different?

Mizuta-san: Different, but simple.

Ota-san:  Different.

Suzuki-san: The latter.

Watabiki-san: Some English  words are used in Japanese as if they are Japanese words, but most of them are different.

Yoshiyuki-san: Different but simple to learn.


Photo by Clark

Q. Why do you find these things easy?

Mizuta-san: Because my English classes in my school days had focused on reading English.

Ota-san: English is systematic and the meaning is clear in sentences. On the other hand, Japanese has many kanji, which you have to memorize, and the meaning often depends on the context of sentences.

Suzuki-san: Japanese seems to have a lot of expressions to explain the same thing.

Watabiki-san: I have two reasons: first, everyone can easily improve their vocabulary if they study, and second, there are relationships among English words. For example, “ped” means “foot” so “pedal,” “biped,” “pedestrian” all relate with “foot.”

Yoshiyuki-san: I have done well in grammar tests since I started studying English. In junior high, I found I liked English grammar more than my classmates did.

Q. How did you begin learning English?

Mizuta-san: As mandatory education in middle school.

Ota-san: I started because we have to study in junior high school.

Suzuki-san: It was a compulsory subject in my junior high school.

Watabiki-san: Almost all Japanese start learning English when they enter junior high school. First, we learn easy words and sentences like “hello,” “nice to meet you,” and so on.

Yoshiyuki-san: My mother made me go to English school when I was 11.

Q. If you were going to teach an English speaker Japanese where would you begin?

Mizuta-san: I would consult the International faculty at my home university.

Ota-san: I would start with greetings.

Watabiki-san: Same with how I was taught. I would teach them “konnichiwa” means “hello” and “arigatou” means “thank you.”

Yoshiyuki-san: Greetings.


Photo by fo.ol

Q. In your opinion is it harder to teach an English speaker Japanese or to teach a Japanese speaker English?

Mizuta-san: Both of them are equally difficult.

Ota-san: For me, it’s harder to teach an English speaker because with a Japanese speaker I can teach in Japanese. It is difficult to teach delicate nuance in English.

Suzuki-san: The former.

Watabiki-san: It is harder to teach an English speaker Japanese.

Yoshiyuki-san: To teach an English speaker Japanese, I think.

Q. What were the best methods and activities to learn English you have had?

Mizuta-san: I think singing songs in English is the best.

Ota-san: Reading foreign books that I’m interested in. For example, novels and science books.

Suzuki-san: Shadowing.

Watabiki-san: I force myself to use only English when I practice and not Japanese.

Yoshiyuki-san: Living in an English-speaking country. I did a homestay in Australia for two weeks

Q. What were the worst methods and activities to learn English you have experienced?

Mizuta-san: Memorizing single English words with Japanese translation.

Ota-san: This may not be what you expect, but for me it was textbook exercises. In Japan, school teachers teach grammar a lot, but the students don’t get deeply in touch with English. Junior high school English textbooks are really thin.

Suzuki-san: Just memorization of English words and phrases. It is important to use the words not just memorize.

Watabiki-san: I have no idea.

Yoshiyuki-san: Reading English sentences silently.

What Do Japanese College Students Think of English

Photo by takomabibelot

Q. What are the characteristics of Japanese education or the Japanese people that influence how you learn English?

Mizuta-san:  Japanese English education is likely to be focused on reading English rather than speaking, so most Japanese people feel difficulty when speaking English.

Ota-san: Classes teach reading and grammar a lot, but I hardly learned listening and speaking.

Suzuki-san: Japanese English education just focuses on reading or writing. So most Japanese cannot speak or listen to English. Even some Japanese English teachers cannot.

Watabiki-san: I think the Japanese are generally shy and introverted so we tend to study English alone, only reading books or listening to CDs.

Yoshiyuki-san: They make us recite English sentences.

Q. What kind of activities do you enjoy most in the classroom and why?

Mizuta-san: Singing songs and pair work. Because we can speak English in those activities.

Ota-san: Talking with English speakers, because I can really get in touch with another culture.

Suzuki-san: I enjoy conversation, just because I like speaking English.

Watabiki-san: Having a conversation with people whose English skills are different from mine.

Yoshiyuki-san: I like small-group activities. It is easier than telling the whole class my opinions.

Q. What kind of activities in the classroom do you dislike and why?

Mizuta-san: Word quizzes, because they are boring.

Ota-san: Memorizing grammar.

Suzuki-san: I hate just translating English into Japanese in class, because it is meaningless when I communicate with English speakers.

Watabiki-san: Having a conversation with people whose language skill is equal to mine. I can’t learn and I can’t teach.

Yoshiyuki-san: Giving a presentation. I don’t like speaking in front of a large audience.

Q. What kind of activities to do with the language do you do outside the classroom?

Mizuta-san:  Hanging out with foreign people.

Ota-san: Reading books and watching movies in English.

Suzuki-san: Listening to English music.

Watabiki-san: Improving my vocabulary with books and dictionaries, and listening to English CDs.

Yoshiyuki-san: I made a speech for ESS (English Speaking Society). I liked learning how to make a speech, and trying to overcome my weaknesses.


What Do Japanese College Students Think of English

Photo by Yarian

Thanks again to all five dedicated students who took the time to answer my questions. It was really interesting to see how many of their responses lined up. Especially in regards to the benefits of practicing speaking and listening instead of just reading and writing.

Writing and compiling this interview definitely motivated me to dust off some of Japanese textbooks. If you have any language learning sentiments or stories of your own, please share them in the comments. Stay diligent with your studies!

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Printed, Painted, and Sculpted Kitties – Cats in Japanese Art Wed, 27 May 2015 13:00:00 +0000 Cats are an obsession in modern Japan. Most people have heard of cat cafes by now, but did you know there are cat shrines and even cat tourism?  Tama the cat was appointed stationmaster of a Wakayama train station and revived the local economy by attracting tens of thousands of tourists a year. There’s a tourist-magnet island overrun with kitties. February 22 is unofficially […]

The post Printed, Painted, and Sculpted Kitties – Cats in Japanese Art appeared first on Tofugu.

Cats are an obsession in modern Japan. Most people have heard of cat cafes by now, but did you know there are cat shrines and even cat tourism?  Tama the cat was appointed stationmaster of a Wakayama train station and revived the local economy by attracting tens of thousands of tourists a year. There’s a tourist-magnet island overrun with kitties. February 22 is unofficially Cat Day because nyan-nyan (the Japanese “mew-mew”) can also mean “two-two.” If you love your cat too much, you can take lessons in how to cook for it. Go a step further and you can even get your house designed specially to accommodate your feline family. Cats are stars on the Japanese internet: Videos of the Scottish Fold cat Maru (often doing that basic cat thing of being in a box) have hundreds of millions of views. And of course of all the thousands of merchandising characters in Japan, Hello Kitty reigns supreme.

This may all seem like particularly modern craziness, but in reality it’s just the 21st-century version of something that goes way back, as we can see by looking at the history of Japanese art. Whether ink on paper or pixels on a screen, depictions of cats have been popular for as long as cats have been in Japan.

Hello Kitties! How Cats Invaded Japan


Cats may stroll around Japan like they own the place now, but they’re not natives. It’s said they were originally imported from China around the mid-sixth century to keep the mice away from precious Buddhist scrolls. With this kind of first impression, people’s attitudes toward them were positive and maybe even reverent from the start. The first pet cats were rare, so they were kept only by the elite and carefully cherished. Art of the period shows them on leashes and living indoors. Individual cats could be celebrities back then, too. One Heian-era manuscript details the habits and personality of a black cat given as a gift to the Emperor Uda.

Despite positive associations, cats clearly started making trouble from the beginning. The print above illustrates a scene from The Tale of Genji, a classic of Japanese literature that’s considered the world’s first novel. A cat sets a major part of the plot in motion when it knocks down a screen. This allows Genji’s nephew to catches a glimpse of its owner, the third princess. He later seduces her (or forces himself on her, depending on which interpretation you read) and she bears an illegitimate son who’s the main character of much of the rest of the book.

In early art, cats are shown living in the lap of luxury. Contrast this with Chinese art of the same period that tended to emphasize their natural hunting ability. But the good times couldn’t last. Eventually cats were cast out of their aristocratic lifestyles to work in the streets and fields like cats everywhere else. In 1602, the government decreed that all cats should be set free to catch rodents that were destroying the silk worm industry.

Life on the loose may have had some downsides, but it enabled the making of more cats. More cats meant more people could get to know cats and start obsessing over them. The rest is history.

Hey, Edo Entrepreneur! Wanna Buy Some Ukiyo-e?

Cats in Japanese Art

Photo by Thornet

In the Edo period (1603 – 1868), Japan stopped making war and started making mass popular culture. People had the time and means for leisure. While they didn’t have the internet, they did have romance theater, trashy literature, and of course, ukiyo-e prints.

Ukiyo-e prints are now delicate and precious works of art displayed in museums, protected under glass in dim light. But ukiyo-e, though extremely sophisticated, was in fact originally a popular art form. These are woodblock prints, not paintings. The whole point is to make a bunch of them to sell.

A merchant class had developed and it had money to spend on non-essentials. To attract those buyers, the subject matter of ukiyo-e was everything fashionable and popular. This included cats.

Cats As They Are


Cats were depicted in many ways in ukiyo-e. One is naturally, precisely capturing their appearance and behavior. Cats chasing and playing with their prey, sleeping in various cute positions, licking themselves, etc. That also includes the ways cats naturally interact with people, as in my favorite above. Those who have lived with cats know how true to life that picture is: a cat treating a human the same way it would treat the back of a sofa or a tree branch. While it seems ridiculously awkward, somehow they find that comfortable.


Wild cats were popular in art too, sometimes depicted by artists who’d never seen them in real life. One way you can tell is by looking at the eyes. House cats have pupils that look like vertical slits when contracted. Lions and tigers don’t – their pupils contact to small circles, just like ours. So if the artist draws a tiger with slit pupils, you can bet he’s never seen a live tiger. For all its apparent ferocity, the print above is really a kitty in a tiger suit.

Cat People


There’s only one thing cuter than cats au naturel: cats in human clothing. In ukiyo-e, cats were frequently depicted as people, walking upright. fully dressed, and engaging in a whole range of human activities. Sometimes these prints are caricature and social commentary, but other times they’re just in fun. In the print above, the cats are performing a traditional Edo acrobatic act of balancing on sticks. But the sticks are pieces of katsuobushi (dried bonito), something cats love to eat.


Cats portraying famous kabuki actors and scenes from equally famous plays became a thing in the mid-19th century when the government banned pictures of actors and courtesans, considering them detrimental to public morals. Artists will always find a way around the rules, of course. In this case cats came to the rescue. Supposedly all of the cats in the print above are recognizable stars of their day. I guess it’s as if someone had ‘shopped cat faces onto a cast photo of Mad Men or some such.


And once you’ve got cats in clothes, why not cat paper dolls? Prints like this one only rarely survive, since children needed to cut them up to play with them.

Bad Kitty


Although cats first arrived in Japan in a revered and religious context, eventually people got to know them better. This inevitably developed more mixed emotions. From torturing dying mice, to knocking things off the dresser in the middle of the night, cats are often not at all nice.


From this meanness came a tradition of cat monsters and horror stories. Of course we see these in art as well. The print above illustrates a scene from a famous story I’ve found called the “Bakeneko Rebellion of Nabeshima and The Cat Monster of Saga.” It was made into a kabuki play called “The History of the Stone Monument of the Demon Cat of Sagano.” (A story this good can’t have just one title, I guess.)

It starts when Lord Mabeshima puts his retainer Matashichi to death. Matashichi’s mother commits suicide out of despair, and the cat licks the blood from the knife and turns into a bakeneko. Things just get worse from there.

Crazy Cat Man


When it comes to monstrous cats, no one can beat Utagawa Kuniyoshi. This late Edo-period ukiyo-e artist was a master of the violent and frightening. His art still has such an impact that one modern art critic saw a Kuniyoshi print as a child and ran out of the gallery in terror.

Along with this penchant for the creepy, Kuniyoshi was also obsessed with cats. His studio was reportedly overrun by them and visitors would find him working with a cat cuddled up in his kimono. So it’s no surprise that he combined those two interests in scary cat prints like the one above.

As you would expect, though, he also produced plenty of the other kinds of cats. He did the cats in human clothes thing to the hilt. Lots of kabuki actors and parodies of historical figures. Then there were cats as Edo townspeople dancing, carousing, and playing games.


And as you’d expect from someone with a studio full of felines, he also drew cats doing typical cat things, such as these guys below:


The cats above have punny names corresponding to the 53 stations of the Tōkaidō, a favorite theme in non-cat-related art of the time.

In this more realistic vein, he also included one of his own cats in each of his own self-portraits.

I think my favorite, though, is his series of cats positioned to spell out the names of different kinds of fish in kana. In this one, the second character is a bit hard to decipher, but it should help to know that it’s a fish that is the obvious favorite for us at Tofugu:


Cats in the Round


Prints and drawings aren’t the only place we see cats in Japanese art. There are plenty of three-dimensional versions as well. The famous maneki-neko or beckoning cat may not be high art, but it’s a depiction of cats that you’ll see all over Japan. Cats also appear in higher-class knicknacks in the form of netsuke, which include some of the most fabulous animal art to come out of Japan. Netsuke are tiny carvings that were hung at the end of a cord of purse as part of an arrangement for carrying things when wearing traditional garb that lacks pockets.


Photo by catasa

A more modern sculptor who had an interest in cats was Asakura Fumio (1883-1964), sometimes called the father of modern Japanese sculpture. You can see many of his cat sculptures at the Asakura Museum of Sculpture in Yanaka, Tokyo, where his amazing house has been preserved and used to display his work.

His sculptures clearly show the hand of someone who’s observed cats closely. As the story goes, when he was a student he couldn’t afford to pay models. So he’d wander around the streets of Ueno sketching cats. It makes sense he eventually settled in nearby Yanaka, since it’s famous for its street kitties.

Once he was successful enough to build his large home and studio, he kept many cats. There are supposedly many photos of him surrounded by a dozen cats. Apparently he even hired a student to care for them.

While its website shows mostly his sculpture of humans, it’s significant that there’s a cat right there in the museum’s logo. Unfortunately they forbid photography inside the museum and I hesitantly obeyed the rules, so I don’t have photos. But at this link you can see a photo of the master and some of his cats, as well as one of a sculpture of a cat being held by the scruff of its neck. Realistically, he’s not all that thrilled. There’s also a great photo of him with another cat sculpture at the museum website.

Contemporary Cats


Photo by yeowatzup

I had planned to wrap up with article with a section about current artists who are obsessed with cats, but it quickly became clear that researching this topic could take up the entire rest of my life. That said, I can’t leave out this link to a couple of terrific modern cat netsuke. There are also some great prints here…  OK, I really better stop now.

Now go forth onto the Internet and find Japanese cat obsessive media yourself. And if anyone tells you you’re wasting your time looking at cat pictures, share this article to prove that you’re part of a long and honorable tradition.

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The post Printed, Painted, and Sculpted Kitties – Cats in Japanese Art appeared first on Tofugu.

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