Tofugu » People A Japanese Language & Culture Blog Thu, 26 Mar 2015 13:00:00 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Story in my Hands – GAKUTEN Artist Spotlight Mon, 23 Mar 2015 13:00:00 +0000 Every year in August students from all over Japan and the world gather at Tokyo Big Sight for an event organized by Design Festa called GAKUTEN. This event is for elementary, middle, high school, college, and self taught students of all ages and nationalities to gather, display their art, and meet other artists. One of […]

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Every year in August students from all over Japan and the world gather at Tokyo Big Sight for an event organized by Design Festa called GAKUTEN. This event is for elementary, middle, high school, college, and self taught students of all ages and nationalities to gather, display their art, and meet other artists.

One of the many in attendance at last year’s GAKUTEN was Kana, a university student from Tokyo who loves music, art, and Hello Kitty. But more than anything, she loves creating miniatures.


Doll house miniatures have been around for at least four hundred years, but only recently has focus switched from the dolls to the worlds they inhabit. Artists and enthusiasts have begun to see the value in the tiny worlds themselves, and the exceptional skill it takes to craft them is even more fascinating. Kana is one such artisan who, under the name “Story in my Hands,” has been creating miniatures since elementary school. She was able to chat with us about her role as a forger of the mini.



Q. Where did you get pseudonym, Story in my Hands? What does it mean?

It comes from how the things I make are meant to be stories created by my hands. Through things like doll houses and other arrangements, I try to create complete miniature stories in which people can be absorbed. I don’t have a large body of work yet, but I am pursuing the goal of creating stories with my hands and using it as a guideline for what I create in the future.

Q. When did you first start creating miniatures?

I first started making them at 11 years old. I’d always known about doll houses and miniatures in general, but it wasn’t until I came across a How-to book at a bookstore that I thought about making them myself. I’ve been fascinated ever since.

Q. Most people would read that book and think “that’s neat” and leave it at that. What was it about that book that inspired you to try making miniatures?

I think because it was aimed at beginners and the explanations were particularly easy to understand. Even before I got into miniatures I already enjoyed drawing and making things out of clay. I remember wanting to start on the projects described in the book as soon as I could.


Q. How have your miniature making skills progressed over time?

I made a much larger quantity of things back when I first got started, because I didn’t really pay much attention to how large or realistic they were. From there I gradually began to focus more on detail. It took a lot more time than it used to, but I think that the quality of the resulting products has been improving.

Tiny Worlds


Q. The attention to detail in your work is incredible. What drives this?

I’ve always liked small things, so creating them delights me, and those feelings of happiness serve as my motivation. Because my head is always so full of thoughts and ideas about making miniatures, when I go to a cafe and see the different dishes on display or go to a store and find a cute accessory, all I want to do is see it in miniature–and then I have to make it happen!

Q. The idea of miniature foods, homes, and worlds is found elsewhere in Japan. Is this a uniquely Japanese concept?

The entire doll house culture is originally European and thus not a wholly Japanese concept. But thanks to companies like Sylvanian Families, Re-Ment and anime figurine designers, miniatures are now very common in Japan. The word “kawaii” is commonly expressed in Japan, and I believe a love of small things is included in that general love of cute things.


Q. Why do you think humans make miniatures of things that already exist? What is our fascination with the small?

That is a very difficult question…I wonder why, too. Personally, when I can touch and place something in the palm of my hand, it sends my heart fluttering, and I fall in love with it.

Q. Do you make up stories to go along with the miniature worlds you create?

I do! When I make a doll house, I’m trying to convey the entire background of a character that exists only in my head. I want people who look at what I make to feel that too.

The Mini Method


Q. What is involved in making an item from start to finish?

I use mainly clay, wood, and paper, often crafting with the aid of toothpicks and dress pins. I have to be constantly aware of size and realism as I work. I try to make everything at 1/12th scale, but since I make objects of varying sizes, being too accurate to that scale can result in a strange collection when a variety of my work is displayed together. So I try to just imagine the real object–and if it’s something like an apple, hold it in my hand–and estimate the size I want as I work.

As for realism, people have to be able to recognize the object at a glance and, if it’s a food, it needs to look good enough to eat, so I plan out my designs and paint with all of that in mind.

Q. What is the biggest challenge in making miniatures?

Molding and coloring really forces me to focus, since everything gets so small.


Q. What kind of music do you listen to while working?

I love rock music, so I listen to it all the time. You probably wouldn’t think so though, considering the nature of my work! Right now my favorite artist is Fall Out Boy.

Q. What is your favorite kind of miniature to make?

Definitely food. While looking at food miniatures, you might think “that’s so cute!”, but at the same time you might also imagine how it tastes. I love that.

Q. Your food miniatures look so delicious! What do you do to create the texture, sheen, and color to make your little foods look so tasty?

I do coloring while looking at reference photographs of the food I’m recreating. I apply different kinds of varnish so that things vary in glossiness according to what type of food it is.

Q. Do you ever make miniatures with moving parts?

I’m not sure if this counts as “moving”, but whenever I make something like a chest of drawers or a window I make sure that they can open and close properly.

Showing the Minis


Q. Who are the people that consume your work and what do they love about it?

At last year’s GAKUTEN I met a lot of people who were also interested in miniatures, and many who had never seen handmade miniatures before. Men were just as interested in my work as women, and a lot of people expressed surprise at just how small they are.

Q. What is the project you’re most proud of?

I don’t really have anything that I can confidently say I am most proud of yet. No matter how many times I make something, there will always be a part that I struggle with. My work is better now than it was before, and I’m always striving to make my next project better than the last.


Q. Who has had the most influence on your work?

A Japanese doll house artist named Takao Kojima has been a huge inspiration for my work. I want to one day be able to make a lot of doll houses, just like he does.

Small Steps Forward


Q. What are you going to do next?

I am going to participate at the International Art Event Design Festa vol.41 at Tokyo Big Sight on May 16th and 17th, and I will participate at GAKUTEN again on August 9th. I’m currently working on a miniature bakery for those exhibitions.

I don’t have a whole lot of time to work on my miniatures since I’m a student, but I would love to be able to make a wide variety of different work and create a portfolio for myself. Since my work is so small and delicate, it’s difficult to carry the pieces around. But if I had a book of my work, people worldwide would be able to see what I make. Nothing would make me happier than knowing there are people all over the world who have a book of my work.

Q. Where do you want miniature making to take you, ultimately?

I’d like to continue making miniatures like I’m doing now, but I don’t know if, in the future, I’ll want a job that’s related to them. I was contemplating whether or not to attend a fine arts university, but I have a feeling that the kinds of worlds I create aren’t going to be granted their own category in any university’s curriculum any time soon, so I decided against it. I’m thinking I want to find a job career will allow me to keep creating something art-related.

Q. What advice do you have for people who want to try making miniatures?

Since you’re recreating actual objects it is important to focus on realism, of course, but you should simply enjoy the act of creating it at first! If you’re able to make something and really enjoy it, whatever it is, it will be great.


To see more of Kana’s work, visit her booth at Design Festa vol.41 on May 16th and 17th or at GAKUTEN on August 9th.

Or visit her online:

Blog and Gallery


For more info on GAKUTEN and Design Festa visit:


Design Festa

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Juri and Prostitution in Ryukyu Fri, 20 Mar 2015 13:00:00 +0000 Prior to 1609, Ryukyu (modern day Okinawa prefecture) was an independent kingdom, but in that year the Shimazu clan of Satsuma (in southern Kyushu) successfully invaded. The Shimazu left the Ryukyuan monarchy in place, letting them remain semi-autonomous so they could get a piece of the Sino-Ryukyuan trade. That remained the state of affairs until […]

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Prior to 1609, Ryukyu (modern day Okinawa prefecture) was an independent kingdom, but in that year the Shimazu clan of Satsuma (in southern Kyushu) successfully invaded. The Shimazu left the Ryukyuan monarchy in place, letting them remain semi-autonomous so they could get a piece of the Sino-Ryukyuan trade. That remained the state of affairs until Japan officially annexed them in the 1870s.

Everyone has heard that prostitution is the oldest profession in the world, so it should be no surprise that it was present in the Ryukyu Kingdom. The general term for prostitutes in Ryukyu was juri, usually written 尾類. Unfortunately, pictures of juri are quite scarce, and I could not find any that would do them any justice, which is a shame because the way prostitution was conducted in this time and place was different than that of Edo. Let’s take a look at the lives of these women and how they fit, or failed to fit, into Ryukyuan society.

Raising the Red Lantern


Photo by: Akira Asakura

Sources on prostitution in the kingdom before the seventeenth century seem scarce. Though women certainly sold themselves prior to the Satsuma invasion of 1609, their numbers increased thereafter. Many were from rural villages which they fled due to a life made harsher by the annual tribute demanded by Satsuma. Most plied their trade in Naha, the kingdom’s chief international port, in the sections most frequented by Chinese visitors. Their favorite haunt appeared to be Tsuji 辻, a section of Naha near the Tenshikan, the official lodging of Chinese envoys. Due to its proximity to the Tenshikan and the port, there were people from Ryukyu, China, and Satsuma of all classes frequently coming and going, making it an ideal location to attract customers. Uncontrolled prostitution came to be such a problem that in 1672 the royal government had the pleasure quarters of Tsuji and Nakajima constructed, the prostitutes scattered about the city were moved to these quarters. There was also a third pleasure quarter, Watanji, the construction date of which is uncertain.

Until the Meiji period there were no inns or restaurants as such in Okinawa, so brothels often functioned in those capacities as well as tending to more intimate needs. One might invite a friend there for a meal, or hold a party or meeting there. Some sources assert that the pleasure quarters were a place where people came and went without caring about class. This is something often claimed in regards to the pleasure quarters of Japan as well. This appears to be based largely on the fact that men of any class would be served, that samurai were required to check their swords at the door, and that though they were at the top of the normal social hierarchy, in the red-light district a wealthy merchant might hold more sway than they would. Still, though its importance may have been reduced, that does not mean Yoshiwara and its ilk were classless havens for the men who visited. Given that prostitution in Ryukyu was being systematized at a time when the government was also attempting to indoctrinate society with Confucian ideas of hierarchy, it would be somewhat surprising if class was completely absent from their pleasure quarters.

Sold into Service


Photo by: Yuxuan Wang

It’s important remember that even today sex trafficking remains a problem all over the world. Past or present, though we may not always be able to put names or faces to the women who have been exploited in the sex trade, it makes their situations no less tragic. In Ryukyu girls were usually sold at around the age of ten to anmā (the madams of the brothels), either through intermediaries or by brokers. When anmā told middlemen their terms and wishes regarding a girl’s age, price, etc. when an appropriate girl appeared he would promptly take her to the anmā. There the girl and the person considering taking her on would live together for about a week. During that time the anma would observe her behavior and appearance, investigate her lineage, and receive a doctor’s diagnosis, provide official papers determining the girls price, and before long plans were made to take charge of the girl.


Photo by: bopo

These girls were known as kōingwa, chikanēngwa, or juri nu kūga. They were taught etiquette and traditional arts such as dancing, playing the koto and the sanshin (the Okinawan predecessor of the shamisen). It is unclear to what extent juri may have been literate. Those that came from peasant backgrounds probably could not read, but those from upper class families may have had the ability. The girls survived on meager fare, boiled barley and rice, pickles, and a thin soup. They generally slept somewhere like the kitchen, until they took their first customer around the age of fourteen or fifteen, at which time they were given their own room. This may sound like a harsh existence, which it was. However, one must keep in mind that it may not have been that different than the living conditions of most Ryukyuan peasants. The girls were then known as anmāsūtē for two or three years, during which time the anmā handled their clients and financial matters. When a girl turned eighteen she received a courtesan’s license, becoming a full-fledged juri. From then on she was expected to earn enough to pay monthly rent for her room and furnishings, and to begin paying off her ransom. Once her ransom was paid, she became free to either return to her home village or continue as a prostitute. Some women went on to acquire the necessary license and become anmā themselves, continuing the cycle.

Some prostitutes became chimijuri, or mistresses to a single patron. In this case she could come and go between her patron’s home and the pleasure quarter. If a husband was having trouble producing an heir, his wife might even encourage such a relationship. In such cases if a son was born he might be adopted into his father’s household (however, as shall be explained shortly, this sort of adoption was perhaps the government’s biggest problem with prostitution). Otherwise, sons of juri would sometimes return to the home village of his mother, while daughters born while the mother’s ransom remained unpaid usually became juri themselves. On the other hand, the children of anmā were free, though some chose to become juri of their own accord.

Not the Norm


Juri occupied an awkward position, and not only because of the disapproval some people had for their occupation. There were two roles held in common by nearly all Ryukyuan women, which therefore represented what it meant to be a woman in that society. The first of these was giving birth to, and raising children. While some juri raised the children born of their liaisons, boys were often treated differently by being sent to be raised by their mother’s family. In either case it was not a family structure that accorded with either Okinawan practice or the Confucian idea of a family (one in which maintenance of the male line was of great importance) that was becoming the norm. The second was that every married Ryukyuan woman would become the spiritual head of her household (if not upon marriage, then when her mother-in-law passed away). This role was also denied to juri. The sources were unclear on how juri participated in religion or whether or not they were buried in their parents’ family tomb. In these ways they did not conform to the norms expected of women in either Ryukyuan practice or Confucian teachings. They also disrupted the class system, either because they themselves had come from upper class families to such low position, or because they were consorting with men of the upper class, and even bearing their children. Their irregularities within the social order did not go unnoticed by those in power. The royal government saw fit to regulate prostitution beyond the official systematization that began with the designation of official pleasure quarters.

Controlling the Chaos


Photo by: 663highland

The first to address prostitution with policy appeared to be Shō Shōken, a government official who ordered the establishment of official pleasure quarters, as mentioned above. He also issued laws to prohibit the upper class from patronizing prostitutes and to restrict the movements of juri as well. However, neither of these regulations was strictly enforced. In the time of Sai On (1682-1761), another influential government minister, upper class patronage of prostitution continued to be a problem. It was described in 1725 in the following way in the Kyūyō, the official history of the kingdom:

Prostitutes wreak havoc on great ethics, [lying with] countless people in a single night…. A thousand seeds in one womb make it difficult to discern [the father of any children]. Among customers who have taken such children as their own, many have been mistaken. This practice, therefore, has been forbidden. In recent years, the number of violators of this law has grown large. Those [offspring of prostitutes] who have disrupted the legitimate line of succession by having been entered into household registers are to be expunged and made commoners…

Informed by a Confucian worldview of a strict social hierarchy and the importance of maintaining a household’s male line, the Ryukyuans condemned prostitution when the relationship between man and woman transgressed class barriers. The fact that they did not conform to Confucian norms of a woman’s role was part of this as well. The act of selling sex itself was not seen as evil in the way it was in the West, based on the judgment of a disapproving omniscient deity. The muddling of class divisions became such a concern for the royal government that in 1747 the Sanshikan, on which Sai On held a seat, issued the following proclamation:


As regards the daughters of the gentry who are sometimes sold into prostitution by their relatives due to poverty, I can hear people’s reasons for making them courtesans, but the loss of the gentry’s fidelity to principle is a very bad thing that in the end will be the undoing of the country’s laws. Hereafter, those daughters of the gentry who are made into courtesans shall adopt the genealogy of their owner and become commoners. The leaders of all communities should go out and firmly pronounce this, so that its principles will be obeyed. That is all.

The Sanshikan

When they are told the above, its intent will be grasped, and should be firmly announced within the group.

Greater Community Seat

Community Leaders


These two declarations support the view that the main issue Sai On and other officials of his era had with prostitution was its distorting effects on the lineages of upper class families which distinguished them in the social hierarchy. The government’s attempts to prevent the upper class from patronizing prostitutes were ineffective, and so their solution was to make all prostitutes and their descendants into commoners.

The Genie That Won’t Be Bottled

Photo by: Fg2

Thus one can see that the Ryukyuan government saw the construction of official pleasure quarters with licensed prostitutes as the appropriate way of handling the sex trade. The Ryukyuan government had a strong concern with the preservation of upper class family lineages. This was why systematization and control were deemed necessary. Subsequently, when unlicensed prostitutes undermined that system the government took action to force them into it. Of course, this was a perfect solution for no one. That still eludes governments today.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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  • Okinawa daihyakka jiten. 4 vols. Edited by Okinawa daihyakka jiten kankō jimukyoku. Naha: Okinawa taimususha, 1983
  • Okinawa kenshi. Vol. 22. Naha: Ryūkyū Seigu, 1965
  • Smits, Gregory. Visions of Ryukyu. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1999

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“Let’s Play” Gamers In Japanese, With Anijya and Otojya… desu. Tue, 17 Mar 2015 13:00:36 +0000 Myself (and many others) have always recommended you study Japanese together with the things you enjoy. I enjoy video games, but I also enjoy watching people play video games. A little under a year ago I came across a YouTube channel run by two Japanese brothers and was surprised by it. First of all, they were […]

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Myself (and many others) have always recommended you study Japanese together with the things you enjoy. I enjoy video games, but I also enjoy watching people play video games. A little under a year ago I came across a YouTube channel run by two Japanese brothers and was surprised by it. First of all, they were Japanese people doing “Let’s Play” videos, which I hadn’t really seen before. Second, they were playing first person shooters and other “typically Western games.” Combine all this with the fact that they are entertaining to watch and you have yourself a winner. You definitely can’t say that about every YouTube channel, that’s for sure.

At the time of this writing, they have 653,521 subscribers on YouTube. It seems they’re doing something right. I had wanted to interview them for a while, and I finally got the chance. As a primer, here’s a compilation video of some highlights from 2014.

Koichi: Let’s get introductions out of the way. What are your (internet) names?

Brother 1: 兄者 (Anijya) - Editor’s note: This is the kanji for “older brother” and “person.”

Brother 2: 弟者 (Otojya) -Editor’s note: This is the kanji for “younger brother” and “person.”

Koichi: They’re an older and younger brother duo, in case you (the reader) didn’t get that.

When did you start doing “Lets Play” videos?

Otojya: I started in November of 2009. At first, we didn’t include our own commentary. We simply added subtitles and made game video tutorials.

Koichi: Here’s the oldest video I could find on their channel.

Koichi: And why did you originally start doing these videos?

Anijya: I saw a “Let’s Play” video my brother made and I got interested in how people commented on it, so I started doing it too. However, the videos I made initially were things like “how to post a video online without losing its picture quality.”

Otojya: The biggest reason was I just wanted to know how people would react to my “Let’s Play” videos. I still remember one of the comments on one of our first videos that said my voice sounded like a villain character and that made my brother laugh so hard. After a while, I’ve really come to enjoy communicating with a large number of people through our videos.

Koichi: That’s so true. I think it was your voice (Otojya) that originally drew me to your videos. I thought it sounded more like an “announcer” though, which really added a lot of excitement to watching you play games. Okay, maybe an “announcer villain.”

Koichi: So what keeps you doing “Let’s Play” videos now then?

Anijya: I want to enjoy games with other people – Or rather, because I do enjoy playing games with other people.

Koichi: I can definitely see that in your videos. I think some of my favorites are the 4player ones you do. I have a soft spot in my heart for the Left4Dead videos, but that’s because I particularly enjoy that game.

Payday2 was pretty good too.

And Vagante.

Otojya: I like gaming, so I try to convey how fun and interesting games are. I introduce them to people like, “Here is a fascinating game that’s now out there!”

Otojya: I also want people to evaluate the playing styles I come up with for multiplayer games. One thing that has come from posting videos that makes me the happiest is when I am told “I started gaming after watching your videos.” It makes me hold up my fists in triumph.

Your Favorite Games

Koichi: Well, it made me want to start doing “Let’s Play” videos, but then I realized people would get angry at me for not doing my actual work. Speaking of games, what kinds of games do you usually play?

Anijya: I play FPS (first person shooters) and TPS (third person shooters), but I actually try out all the games that interest me. Games are so profound and I’m fascinated with them.

Otojya: I usually play FPS

and I recently started playing horror games

as well as retro games

but I like every kind of game.

Koichi: I think I know this already, but what’s your favorite genre?

Anijya: FPS perspective games. I’ve liked this genre for a long time because it gives you the feeling of being in the game and you can immerse yourself in its world.

Otojya: If you have ever watched our videos, you will probably know, but my favorite genre is FPS! Although I say FPS, there are some other types, like puzzles, adventures, or horror that I really enjoy too but I like all kinds of FPS. My most favorite FPS are those with explosive action.

Koichi: I have to ask. Least favorite game genre?

Anijya: RPG or MMORPG. I get tired of playing games where all the events or missions are offered from the beginning.

Otojya: Well, to be honest, I just mentioned how I like every kind of FPS, but I like horror games the least among them. When I was a kid, my brother and his friend played a zombie horror game called “Biohazard 2″ (many of you likely know Biohazard by another name – Resident Evil) and it scared me to death. I’m afraid of zombies, so I don’t like my brother…oops I mean I don’t like horror games very much. Haha!

Koichi: You two often play games together. What are your strong points and weak points? Are you a good team?

Anijya: A strong point would be that we can communicate without saying very much at all. I’ve played games with him longer than anyone else, so he can help me out without me even asking him. He is very reliable. However, as a weak point, we have really big arguments when our gaming doesn’t go very well. You may think, “it’s just a game, right?”, but we play it so seriously and enthusiastically that sometimes we get a bit too intense. We’re an ideal team rather than just a “good” team…at least in my eyes, the older brother, who likes gaming.

Otojya: The strong point would be our teamwork. I’ve played games with my brother more than anybody else, so that naturally created our ability to work as a team. It’s also easier to play with him. However, we are often too serious about gaming, so if one of us makes a mistake, we get into a serious fight. In terms of enjoying games from the bottom of our hearts, we are the best and strongest team.

Koichi: Aww, that’s 可愛いね.

“Western Gaming” vs. “Japanese Gaming”

Koichi: What do you think is the difference between Western gaming and Japanese gaming?

Anijya: I think the differences have been decreasing, but I’d say “reality.” In Japanese games, there are often anime characters or handsome boys or cute girls that Japanese people like. However, in Western games, there are usually tough guys and women who are more likely to exist in the real world. Thus, in terms of realism, I think Western gaming has the advantage. Conversely, non-realistic fantasy settings might be the Japanese strength.

Otojya: This is my personal opinion, but I think the difference is “whether a cute character appears or not.” There are almost always cute characters in Japanese games. I like movies, so I prefer to play games with cool characters you might see in a movie, but Japanese people tend to prefer playing games with cute characters rather than cool people.

Koichi: Then how do you feel about “Western gaming culture?”

Anijya: Western gaming is very particular about details. There are some very particular things in games that closely mimic reality, but if that were done for Japanese people, none of them would enjoy it. I’m sure there are fans of that style in Japan too, but since we have to get over the language barrier, I suspect it may not be very many.

Otojya: I think that there are many games pursuing reality. Western gaming even diligently pursues reality on silly or seemingly unimportant details, so I feel the scale of Western gaming is vast.

Koichi: On the flip side, how about “Japanese gaming culture?”

Anijya: I think Japanese gaming culture is completely different from that of other countries. The gaming experience that at one time could only be had in an arcade suddenly became available at home with family game consoles, and even people who weren’t interested in gaming that much now play app-games on their smartphones. Now, it’s trendy to create games for smartphones that everyone can enjoy rather than just for game consoles or computers, which have become more complicated and expensive. The gaming industry is still developing, but I think there is still a lot of room for growth.

Otojya: I think Japanese people consider gaming a childish thing. If you play games as an adult, it can give people a bad impression of you, so I think many people hesitate to confess that they like gaming.

Koichi: I was surprised to see you playing so many FPS games. I’ve always thought of FPS as “Western” gaming, but a lot of Japanese people love your videos. Are FPS games getting popular in Japan too?

Anijya: In the 90s, FPS games on computers became popular worldwide, and the number of Japanese fans has slowly increased since then. I was actually one of them. Although there were no games that had the language localized in Japanese, I still ran into Japanese players. FPS players increased a lot more after people learned how to enjoy FPS with game consoles, such as PlayStation or Xbox, and the number of titles in Japanese increased as well. The image of FPS must have changed from that of hardcore computer games to a much more common game. The type of gameplay specific to FPS, much like an action movie, makes people excited, and the scenes also change depending on which character you choose to be, so you won’t get tired of it.

Otojya: My brother first learned about FPS and I started playing because of his influence. I probably never would have known about FPS if he hadn’t known about them. At first, I was just watching my brother play while thinking “I want to play that too!” So I posted “Let’s Play” videos for viewers to enjoy with similar feelings that I had experienced. I think FPS are becoming more and more popular in Japan.

Koichi: I’m surprised! I guess I don’t know anything. As someone who’s on the front lines of Japanese gaming, what do you think about the current state of Japanese gaming?

Anijya: I like obscure games, and I feel Japan doesn’t have many unique ones. The games made for smartphones are mostly not my genre either. My favorite game series Metal Gear Solid is loved all over the world, so I hope Japanese game companies create something that focuses not only on Japan but also the world.

Otojya: [Japan] makes games mostly for children and I think that’s fine, but they should also challenge themselves to make games that adults can enjoy.

Koichi: And how do you think Japanese gaming will change? As in, what will it be like in 5-10 years?

Anijya: I think the main market will change from consumer consoles to peoples’ smartphones. Right now, many games are only enjoyable on game consoles, but I’m pretty sure those will be available on smartphones soon enough. I also think that brainstorming type games might be popular soon. Haha!

Otojya: I think smartphone games will become the mainstream…or web browser games.

Koichi: Well, I hope they get better then. I haven’t seen many other “Let’s Play” videos from Japan, not like in the West. Why do you think that is?

Anijya: I think it’s because it used to be pretty difficult to upload videos of someone playing a game while also talking about it. It costs quite a lot at first, and knowledge of computers is also required. Recently though, computers have changed to PS4s and to Xbox Ones, so everybody can post “Let’s Play” videos. It was impossible not so long ago, but now it’s awesome!

Otojya: For Japanese people, I think gaming is usually something you enjoy by yourself, so it’s not necessary to share videos to enjoy with others.

Wrapping Up

Koichi: But are there any “Let’s Play” people out there that you guys enjoy?

Anijya: I often watch Markiplier despite the language barrier. It’s not related to gaming, but I also watch Freddie Wong.

Otojya: I look on Youtube every once in a while, but I haven’t found one yet.

Koichi: Dang, so no Japanese “Let’s Players” to recommend. I hope more pop up, though I will continue to watch your videos either way. What are your goals for your channel / website?

Anijya: We now have over 600,000 subscribers, but my new hope is to reach 1,000,000. It would be great if everyone could find enjoyment through our gaming videos while watching with their friends.

Otojya: We will post more videos, make new challenges, and increase channel numbers!

Koichi: Sounds about right – so if someone wanted to subscribe to or follow your videos, how can they do it?

Anijya: Homepage

Otojya: YouTube

Koichi: They’re also on Twitter (AnijyaOtojya) and TwitchTV, too. Thank you both so much for doing this interview! I found a bunch of your videos that I haven’t watched yet while doing research for this interview, so I’m going to go watch them now. Everyone who likes gaming and is studying Japanese, be sure to subscribe to their YouTube channel. It’s one of my favorite channels and a lot of fun.

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Japan’s Robot Theater and the Rise of the Android Actor Mon, 02 Mar 2015 14:00:00 +0000 ROBOTS CAN ALREADY VACUUM YOUR HOUSE AND DRIVE YOUR CAR. SOON, THEY WILL BE YOUR COMPANION. ~”Friend for Life” By Adam Piore for Popular Science (November 2014) Or so predicts Popular Science magazine in response to a US tour of Osaka University’s Robot-Human Theater Project. Whether you find the premise that your next best friend […]

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~”Friend for Life” By Adam Piore for Popular Science (November 2014)

Or so predicts Popular Science magazine in response to a US tour of Osaka University’s Robot-Human Theater Project. Whether you find the premise that your next best friend will come with batteries enticing or eerie or some combination thereof, the Robot-Human Theater Project has dedicated itself to making that dream/nightmare come to life—or at least appear as if it’s come to life—on a stage near you.

Just when you finally thought we were safe from a robot takeover, they’re learning how to act even more like us—by acting instead of us. Dr. Ishiguro Hiroshi of android fame is at it again, only this time he’s in cahoots with Seinendan Theater Company and Osaka University. Thanks to these human allies, our robot overlords (or “companions” as their propaganda would like us to believe) inch ever closer. Only now they’ll be trying to woo us with Shakespeare.

Meet the Masterminds

ishiguro and geminoid

Photo by Ars Electronica

Robots don’t make themselves, you know (at least not yet). Thus far the aspiring robot actor’s journey from assembly line to curtain call has relied on the single-minded devotion of their human allies—particularly the aforementioned Ishiguro Hiroshi along with Hirata Oriza and Kuroki Kazunari.

Ishiguro, an international authority on robotics engineering and AI who often sends the android version of himself to lecture abroad, unsurprisingly heads up the engineering end of things. Hirata, a well-known public figure in Japan and playwright/director/founder of the internationally active Seinendan Theater Company, equally unsurprisingly takes charge of all things artistic. And Kuroki, president of Osaka-based robot and computer company Eager Co. Ltd, throws lots of money and resources their way.

But why go to all this trouble in the first place? Wouldn’t it be cheaper to hire a human actor rather than build one from the ground up? Despite their remarkably diverse backgrounds, engineer Ishiguro and theater artist Hirata are remarkably in sync with each other on this point: for them the Robot-Theater Project isn’t just an big-budget spectacle, it’s a way to combine the forces of art and science in order to tackle what makes humans human and what makes a performance a performance—and they’re equally convinced that both of those boundaries are incredibly malleable.

osaka univ robot lab

Photo by Ars Electronica

In Ishiguro’s words, “My goal is…to understand the feeling of a presence. What is that? I want to understand what is a human, and what is a human likeness.” He’s psyched to use this opportunity to come closer and closer to replicating human “presence” and behavior with his electro-mechanical minions. Hirata, for his part, believes that “robots are a means of thinking about human beings.” As far as he’s concerned, robots are just another way for him to learn how to most effectively manipulate an audience. He firmly believes that a performance doesn’t have to be “real” to have a real effect, that human emotional response is more of a mechanical reflex than anything more “mystical.” In other words, these two aren’t just looking to shock and awe their audience with shiny gadgets—they want to break our entire conception of reality.

Robots and Androids and Humans, Oh My!

robot theater serving tea

Photo by Brett Davis

Since the Robot-Human Theater Project opened its factory doors in 2008, Hirata and Ishiguro have sent their creations on tour to 33 cities in 15 countries. Out of the six plays they’ve developed thus far, both eerily lifelike androids and clearly mechanical robots have taken the stage alongside human co-actors. In order of appearance, here they are:

Hataraku Watashi (I, Worker) Debut in 2008

It’s the near future, where Takeo and Momoko, two portly and blindingly yellow service bots, tend the home of the married couple they work for in this short one act play. But Yuji the human husband and Takeo the robot have both become too depressed and existential to work—leaving human wife Yuji and robot Momoko to fret about their hikikomori other halves.

Mori no Oku (The Heart of the Forest) Debut in 2010

Three species collide in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where a team of scientists and their robot helpers are studying the local bonobo population—the species most closely related to our own. While the scientists industriously gather data for comparison of the primates and the humans, the robots give them more “help” than they bargained for in this one act.

Sayonara (same title in English) Debut in 2010 (since updated in response to the Great East Japan Earthquake)

A young woman facing imminent death seeks solace from her android caregiver, Geminoid F. As the woman struggles with her mortality, the immortal android tries to comfort her as best she can with the immortal words of poets. The updated epilogue to this one act reveals that after the woman’s death, Geminoid F was sent to comfort the victims of irradiated Fukushima, a place where no human is willing to go.

Sannin Shimai (Three Sisters, Android Version) Debut in 2012

A Japanese sci-fi twist on the Russian realist original, this full-length play features human, android, and robot actors on a rural Japanese estate. As the unkempt manor languishes in the current economic crisis, its inhabitants are plagued by malaise and unease. They won’t shut up about moving to Tokyo, but just like in the original no one ever actually gets off their ass.

Ginga Tetsudo No Yoru (Night on the Galactic Railroad) Debut in 2013

This full-length play is the latest adaptation of a Japanese novel with the same name by Miyazawa Kenji, a perennially popular fantastical and philosophical children’s book that some adults ended up obsessed with. A poverty-stricken and socially malnourished young girl boards a magical train one night and zooms through the Milky Way galaxy, only this time with a robot tour-guide in tow.

Henshin (Metamorphosis) Debut in 2014

The skeletal Android Repliee S1 plays the lead role of Gregor Samsa in this full-length play adaptation of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis. Except this time, instead of waking up as a bug, poor Gregor wakes up as a robot. As the Japanese advertising poster puts it: “Us humans exist in an absurd world where we might become bugs tomorrow. Us humans exist in an absurd world where we can’t even prove that we’re different from androids.” Strap in for an existential crisis or three, ladies and gentlemen.

robot theater

Photo by Brett Davis

While three one-acts and three full-length plays in six years might not seem like much of an accomplishment, each of these six works required a ridiculously long development process along with a ridiculously patient team to execute it. Even for Ishiguro, designing and programming robots capable of speech and movement takes a bit of time and effort. As for director/playwright Hirata, the fact that he’s directing actors that can’t respond to his direction, along with the fact that he’s always directed his human actors as detailed and minutely as if they were robots anyway, means hours and hours of rehearsal and programming changes to get a robot to make JUST the right degree angle turn of his head at JUST the right moment. Is all that worth it? Audiences seem to think so.

Human Responses to Theatrical-Electrical Stimuli

robot theater 2

Photo by Ars Electronica

These giant hunks of metal have proved themselves capable of both emotionally and intellectually stirring audiences. All of the Robot-Human Theater Project’s performances so far have played to almost exclusively full houses and dropped jaws. And if theater critics have not always responded with outright praise, they’ve at least expressed deep fascination with the phenomenon. For example:

…the stage presence of [robots] raise significant questions about theatricality and empathy. Provocatively, this evening demonstrated that perhaps the qualities we typically associate with good or effective acting—presence, responsiveness, emotional availability—may, in fact, prove ancillary. Although the success of these pieces necessitated understated performances from the human actors and particular design choices (such as easily navigable sets and low lighting) to establish the commonality between person and machine, these [robots] excited sympathy to an equivalent, or perhaps even greater, degree than their human counterparts. Their effectiveness in performance suggests that mimetic engagement on the part of the audience may owe less to actorly skill than to our collective instinct to attribute human feeling—even to decidedly nonhuman performers. Whether these two short plays confused the boundaries between human and robot or explicitly marked them, both pieces relied upon the audience’s capacity to create empathic bonds with lifeless objects…engaging dialogue between the human actors and their machine counterparts simultaneously both emphasized the differences between person and automaton and blurred those categories. (From review of “Seinendan Theater Company + Osaka University Robot Theater Project” by Alexis Soloski)

On the emotional end of things, many an audience member has admitted to empathizing with the robots as much if not more so than with the human actors—even to the point of shedding tears. One reviewer notes, “…even as I grieved for the young woman, I also felt myself worrying that the android would feel lonely once she died.” Hirata’s unemotional explanation for the audiences’ emotional outpourings is that “audiences’ brains make up half of a performance’s reality.” In other words, we see what we want to see.

Then there’s the inevitable intellectual migraine that comes from witnessing seemingly autonomous three-dimensional beings participate in an activity once exclusively reserved for humans. Feeling empathy apparently isn’t limited to feeling empathy for living things. And a performer apparently doesn’t have to be emotionally alive or even alive at all to deliver a convincing performance. Hirata has said, “In the case of the android(s), there are audience members who did not realize until close to the end of the play which was the robot and which (was) the human actor.” Where does the human begin and the robot end? Where does the robot begin and the human end? What is a human? What is a performance? Where’s my mommy?

And then once you’re through crying and philosophizing, there’s still the future to consider. A future where our lives more closely resemble these plays than the lives we’re living right now. A future that’s already being pioneered in Japan with the introduction and integration of robots that can cater to not only our practical, but our social, needs. Look no further than Paro, the fluffy robotic seal that has taken up residence in many nursing homes, or Pepper, the customer service automaton now employed by Softbank to converse with their customers. So in a sense, the Robot-Human Theater Project is depicting the logical continuation of our current society, encouraging us to imagine what roles robots can fill, what roles we want them to fill. How will humans and robots co-exist? Will they be our servants and our customer service representatives? Our friends and our lovers? And if so, is that really a bad thing? Film has given us plenty of CGI robot creations, but nothing is quite as convincing as the real thing IRL—with live 3-D actors, live 3-D audiences, and seemingly live 3-D robots in the same room at the same time.

The Future of Robot Theater

robot theater 3

Photo by Ars Electronica

Regardless of the pace at which robotic technology is developed and integrated into our lives, the folks at the Robot-Human Theater Project show no signs of slowing down. Could it be possible that other robot theater companies will soon join them? After all, programming the robot actors might be a giant pain in the fuse box, but once it’s done you can rest assured that they’ll never forget their lines. As Hirata has mused, “Will actors at auditions soon by vying for their roles with robots? And are we entering an era in which robot actors will one day take the leads in ‘Romeo and Juliet’?” How long is it before robots become better at being people than we are?


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Hideo Nomo, Baseball Rebel With a Cause Fri, 27 Feb 2015 14:00:00 +0000 2014 marked the 50th anniversary of Masanori Murakami’s Major League Baseball debut. Sent to the San Francisco Giants farm system for developmental purposes, Murakami sparkled when he took the mound in the minor leagues. Giants brass took notice and Masanori took the field against The Mets at Shea Stadium in 1964, becoming Major League Baseball’s first Japanese player. […]

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2014 marked the 50th anniversary of Masanori Murakami’s Major League Baseball debut. Sent to the San Francisco Giants farm system for developmental purposes, Murakami sparkled when he took the mound in the minor leagues. Giants brass took notice and Masanori took the field against The Mets at Shea Stadium in 1964, becoming Major League Baseball’s first Japanese player.

But instead of a flourishing career in the majors, Murakami found himself in an ugly tug-of-war between teams and country that would prevent Japanese players from coming to the US for years to come.

That is… until Hideo Nomo stormed into Major League Baseball and changed things forever.

Masanori Murakami Opens The Door

Photo by Dave Glass

It was only intended as a temporary, developmental trip. When the Nankai Hawks lent a handful of players to the San Francisco Giants, no one predicted it would spark an international incident.

And it was all thanks to Murakami’s success on the mound. The pitcher shined in the closing nine games of the 1964 season, posting a 1.80 ERA in 15 innings pitched. Robert Whiting commented, “No Japanese had gotten this much favorable attention in the continental United States since Kyu Sakamoto’s improbable (and misnamed) hit single ‘Sukiyaki‘.”

According to the contract stipulations, the Giants could sign one of the loaned Japanese players by awarding Nankai a fee of $10,000. Murakami signed the contract. The Giants wired Nankai the money and considered it a done deal – Murakami would take the field for the Giants come 1965.

Faced with losing a budding star, Nankai met with Murakami during his winter vacation in Japan. If he joined the Giants, they threatened, he’d never play baseball in Japan again. With additional pressure from his father, Murakami signed on with the Nankai Hawks for the 1965 season.

Murakami now had contractual obligations with two separate teams in two separate countries. Something had to give.

Of Culture and Contracts

Photo by delphinmedia

The root of the Murakami dispute lay in Nankai’s contract with The Giants. The Giants viewed the contract as a literal, binding agreement; every word was chosen with care. The $10,000 stipulation existed in the contract and therefore had to be honored.

Nankai managment, however, took a Japanese view of the contract. Robert Whiting explains,

The Japanese believed more in the spirit of the contract than the letter, that the purpose of a contract was to ensure that both sides benefitted. Since situations changed the parties… should not be locked in by mere words… What was most important was mutual understanding and the cultivation of ningen kankei , or human relationships.

Nankai stated the organization had accepted the $10,000 as a bonus for Murakami’s contribution to the Giant’s season. When the Giants refused to bend, Nankai resorted to other explanations. First they claimed the signature on Murakami’s release was a forgery. Next they flaunted a “home sick” clause that allowed a player to return to Japan due to difficultly to adjusting to American life. But Murakami’s success the previous season and signing of a new contract made that claim hard to swallow.

MLB (Major League Baseball) teams feared that Murakami’s disregard of contract would set dangerous precedent. What if other players followed suit? NPB (Nippon Professional Baseball) teams harbored similar fears. Would other players follow Murakami’s example, abandoning the Japanese league for the MLB?

Yushi Uchimura, the Japanese commissioner took control. After mulling over the problem, “(Uchimura) came to the conclusion the (Nankai) Hawks had been careless in their dealings with the American team”.

In a compromise that balanced the spirit of ningen kanei with the expectation of binding contracts, Uchimura decided to allow Murakami to play for the Giants for the 1965 season. At season’s end Murakami would rejoin the Nankai Hawks and remain in Japan for the rest of his career.

At first US commissioner Ford Frick refused. But the sides finally came to an agreement when Murakami was allowed to choose whether to stay with the Giants or return to Japan at season’s end.

Murakami picked up where he left off for the Giants, mounting a successful 1965 campaign. Although he intended to stay in the US, pressure from his father and the Japanese media, who dubbed him a greedy traitor, gave him a change of heart. Murakami returned to Japan where he finished out an unremarkable career with one notable season in 1969 when he posted a 18-4 record with a 2.38 ERA.

The Murakami fiasco would sour US and Japanese baseball relations for decades. “As a result of the trans-Pacific tiff over Murakami, the U.S. and Japan commissioners has signed something called the United States-Japanese [sic] Player Contract Agreement… in which both sides pledged to respect each other’s baseball conventions.”

Free Agency: MLB Players Fight Back

curt flood

Photo by Dman41689

Until 1969, US and Japanese baseball teams enjoyed similar rights over players. Allen Barra of The Atlantic explains,

In 1969, players were still bound to a team for life by the so-called reserve clause. Simply put, a player was a team’s property. Unless the team chose to trade him or release him, his first big-league team would be his only big-league team for his entire career. A player’s only recourse was retirement.

Then the Cardinals attempted to trade Curt Flood against his will. Infuriated by players’ lack of rights, Flood sued hoping to benefit himself as well as future players. Due to a unconstitutional antitrust pardon granted to MLB, Flood would never benefit from his efforts. But his case would eventually see victory, giving birth to free agency.

In 1976, four years after Flood’s initial lawsuit, pitchers Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally became baseball’s first free agents. Free to negotiate with other teams, a player could weigh his options and accept the contract offer that best suited his needs. The media and fans vilified Flood, accusing him of destroying baseball. Allen Barra writes,

Prophets of doom and gloom about the future of the game could be seen on every sports page, but in the end, the Players Association worked out things with management, and salaries sky-rocketed—along with profits, it turned out, as fans liked the exciting new era of free agency and the players it brought to their teams.

…Meanwhile Back In Japan

Photo by kamon

Yet in Japan things went on as usual. Teams maintained control over their players, pay remained low and players had little say in their futures. Although players earned the right to strike, it wasn’t a step they were willing to take. Robert Whiting explains,

Indeed, the majority of players in Japan continued to speak not only of team loyalty… but also a feeling of responsibility to the parent company, the stadium food vendors, the parking-lot attendants, the transportation companies and other individuals and businesses dependent on professional baseball who would suffer economically in the event of work stoppage.

Although MLB teams are associated with the cities in which the play, Japanese teams are attached to their sponsoring companies. From the Yomiuri Giants to the Softbank Hawks, Japanese teams exist to advertise their respective sponsors.

In the US, players sought to take their share of their team’s profits. But Japanese teams made less profits (if any) from their clubs and therefore had less to offer players. The Economist reports, “Almost all (Japanese teams) lose money.” Unlike their American counterparts, most Japanese clubs fail to take advantage of “broadcasting rights, merchandising, sponsorship and internet distribution. Accordingly, the average salary for a Japanese player is around $500,000, compared with $3m in America.”

A team built and supported by a cooperate media giant, the Yomiuri Giants are the major exception. And when free agency finally hit NPB, it came at the whim of Giants’ brass who hoped to fill their team with established talent. Unlike in the MLB, the change did little in way of players’ rights.

Robert Whiting explains, “Players could only become free agents after ten full years of service on the parent team… the salaries of free-agent signees would be limited to only 150 percent of their previous season’s pay.” Player agents were banned from the negotiation process.

Despite a culture of loyalty, sooner or later Japanese stars were bound to be attracted to the salaries and challenge MLB offered. It was only a matter of someone standing up to the established system.

Enter the Rabble Rouser

Photo by RichardMcCoy

With his unconventional corkscrew windup, Hideo Nomo always marched to the beat of his own taiko. For example, when one of the nation’s top high school coaches rejected Nomo because of his windup, Nomo joined a relatively unknown team and thrived. And when colleges refused to draft him, Nomo joined Japan’s farm league. Both choices paid dividends, allowing Nomo to perfect his unique throwing style.

A successful 1988 Olympic campaign prompted Nomo’s drafting into the NPB in 1989. The Kintetsu Buffaloes offered him a record contract. “Nomo said yes,” Whiting recalls, “but only on condition that the Buffaloes promise not to change his form.”

It was money well spent as Nomo went on to become the league’s premier pitcher. But Nomo’s rebellious nature continued to show. When Kintestu struck an exclusive deal with the Mizuno sporting goods brand, Nomo donned Nike cleats to the NPN all-star series. Nomo’s refusal to compromise would eventually spell the end of his career in Japan.

In 1994 Kintestu brought in the strict, old-fashioned Keishi Suzuki as manager. Suzuki’s reputation for overworking pitchers proved true and Nomo paid the price with a shoulder injury. The last straw came when Suzuki demanded that Nomo, practice and play through injury. A firm believer in the rest and recovery practices afforded pitchers in the MLB, Nomo set his sights on America.

Enter Don Nomura, an agent waiting for a Japanese player to challenge the system. Nomura uncovered NPB’s voluntary retirement clause, Nomo’s key to leaving Japan. Under the clause, “a voluntarily retired player, under Japanese contract was obligated to return (from retirement) to his former team only as long as he stayed in Japan… A player who went on voluntary retired list in NPB would thus essentially be free to play in the US.”

When Kintestu declined Nomo’s request for an unprecedented three-year, $9 million contract, he announced his retirement from NPB. To the chagrin of Kintetsu, the media, and fans, Nomo signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers and left for the player-friendly pastures of the MLB.

Walk this Way

Nomo became a sensation; he won games, he sold merchandise, he (once again) proved Japanese players could survive and even thrive in the MLB.

A media and society that once criticized him now embraced him as a successful countryman on the world stage. Japanese media outlets paid large sums for interviews, providing the opportunity for Nomo to criticize the Japanese game. He condemned its treatment of players, particularly the managers that cut pitchers’ careers short through overuse and ignoring injuries.

Nomomania hit both the US and Japan. Eric Nusbaum recalls,

He went into his ritual windup, summoning pitches from a place no one else had access to. He walked back from the mound, keeping his eyes on the grass. He disappeared from the public eye between starts. They called him the Tornado, but he was quiet and still, even at the center of a storm of tchochkes and sellout crowds at Dodger Stadium and kids who were mesmerized by his windup, his forkball, and even his name. We said it a lot. Nomo, Nomo, Nomo.

Nomo’s success and the loophole he exploited paved the way for other Japanese players. At home Japanese stars felt like big fish in a little pond, and for many a bigger challenge beckoned. Some, like Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui would find similar success, becoming celebrities at home and abroad. Others, like Tsuyoshi Shinjo and Hideki Irabu, wouldn’t fare so well.

But no matter the degree of success, Japanese players have Hideo Nomo to thank for the opportunity to play overseas. Nomo’s unique windup symbolized his unique spirit. Like Curt Flood, Hideo Nomo was a man willing to break cultural and contractual moulds for the better opportunity of all.

The Ruin of Japanese Baseball?

Photo by ぽこ太郎

Just as US media and fans bemoaned the advent of free agency brought on by Curt Flood, Japan’s baseball pundits and media outlets declared Nomo’s move to the MLB the death-knell of Japanese baseball. With players free to leave NPB, many believed the league would become nothing more than a minor league feeding system for MLB.

These worries inspired the posting system. Under this 1998 arrangement, Japanese teams “post” a player as eligible to play in MLB and declare a “posting fee” or negotiation price. If an MLB team and player reach a contract agreement, that MLB team must pay the posting fee to the NPB team as well as the player’s salary. In other words, NPB team’s receive this posting fee as compensation for the player.

Although the posting system provided relief for NPB, it was also seen as a strike against players’ rights. Teams posted the player and declared the posting fee which added an undesirable expense for MLB teams hoping to sign NPB players.

Only long-time veterans could forgo posting. After nine years in NPB a player was free to negotiate freely.

Continued Success

Photo by ilovemypit

With two World Baseball Classic victories, Japanese baseball looks stronger than ever. The posting system has protected the NPB and the feared exodus of talent never came to fruition. As of 2014 twenty NPB players have used the posting system, yet among those twenty, only fourteen are Japanese, the others being foreigners who came up through Japanese teams’ youth recruitment systems.

Fresh off a magnificent season where he won a record-breaking 25 consecutive games in NPB, Masahiro Tanaka became the latest player to take advantage of the system, signing with MLB’s Yankees for big money in 2013. Only time will tell if Tanaka can reach Nomo’s success, but thanks to the rebel pitcher, Japanese players like Tanaka continue to challenge baseball’s best in MLB.

In 2014, fifty years after Murakami became the first Japanese player to play in MLB, Nomo continued blazing his revolutionary path, becoming the first Japanese player inducted into the leagues’s baseball hall of fame. Today Nomo’s career has come full circle as the retired pitcher “lead(s) an industrial league team in the Osaka region of Japan, called Nomo Baseball Club, which gives non-drafted (semi-professional) players an opportunity to compete” (Gandy).

But it’s unlikely any prospect will impact baseball like the uncharacteristically stubborn Nomo who broke with cultural norms, blazing his own path to success in the United States, a path other Japanese players felt inspired to follow.

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Japonism: How Japan Shaped Modern Art Fri, 06 Feb 2015 14:00:00 +0000 Art is pretty awesome. One of the most awesome things about art is how it can bring people together. Throughout history, neighbouring peoples have constantly exchanged aesthetic ideas, inspiring the form and content of each others’ work. Art has consistently transcended political conflict, with even the bitterest of rivals sharing innovations. A prominent and relatively […]

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Art is pretty awesome.

One of the most awesome things about art is how it can bring people together. Throughout history, neighbouring peoples have constantly exchanged aesthetic ideas, inspiring the form and content of each others’ work. Art has consistently transcended political conflict, with even the bitterest of rivals sharing innovations.


A prominent and relatively recent example is the modern diffusion of Japanese art across the Western world. While Chinese art has been known in Europe since ancient times, the influence of East Asian aesthetics truly skyrocketed in the nineteenth century, when Japanese prints arrived en masse to shops across Western Europe. As we’ll see, many of the biggest names in the modern art scene received gigantic bites from the Japanese art bug.

Lines of Communication


Direct European contact with Japan dates to the 16th century, with the arrival of Portuguese traders, followed by those of other European nations. Japan was thereby introduced to Christianity, as well as European technologies like ship-building and guns. Naturally, many works of Western art were also imported.

This initial phase of Euro-Japanese relations is known as the Nanban period, where “Nanban” means “southern barbarians”. The term “Nanban art” denotes Japanese art of this period that reflects Western influence, including works of painting, sculpture, and furniture. Yet barbarian influence was quite limited overall, leaving native Japanese aesthetics fully intact.

Meanwhile, works of Japanese art were carried back to Europe. The impact of such works on Western artists was significant, notably in the field of ceramics. But this phase of Japanese influence on the West was a mere trickle compared with the flood to come.

In the early 1600s, Japan’s affair with foreign traders seriously cooled off. The Tokugawa, who ruled the country for upwards of three centuries, were somewhat averse to contact with the outside world; anyone caught trying to leave the country, for instance, could be executed. With policies like this in place, European residents and trade flows, though not eradicated, became increasingly rare.


Then, in the late nineteenth century, America sent a group of friendly visiting-ships into Uraga Harbour. Using some very persuasive arguments, the Americans convinced Japan to re-open relations with the outside world. From this point onward, Japanese culture would radiate throughout the West.

So It Begins


“Modern art”, which dates roughly from the late nineteenth century onward, sought to break away from traditional aesthetics in favour of novel means of expression. In search of fresh ideas, many modern artists looked to native artistic traditions around the world, from Sub-Saharan masks, to Mesoamerican temples, to Oceanic tiki sculptures. Modern networks of transportation and communication accelerated these waves of cultural fusion.

Japanese influence on Western art, often known as “Japonism”, manifested most vigorously in France (followed closely by England and the Netherlands), especially among painters of the impressionist movement. While inspiration was drawn from imported Japanese ceramics, bronzes, textiles, and fans, the foremost medium of influence was the woodblock print. Japanese prints, also known as ukiyo-e, had the advantage of cheap mass-production, making them universally accessible both at home and abroad.

So what form did this influence take, specifically? To start with, European artists often lifted distinctly Japanese imagery from ukiyo-e, grafting them into their own works. Cherry blossoms, lanterns, kimonos, and temples would be four primary examples.

More deeply, ukiyo-e helped reshape the techniques and guiding principles of Western art. The long-entrenched standard of realistic shading and perspective was finally overturned, partly due to Japanese prints. After all, while physical realism is a fine way of doing things, why should it be the only way? The upheavals of modern art were driven largely by the notion that art is about communicating ideas, and that in order to communicate a full range of ideas, one must be open to a full range of forms of expression.

Ukiyo-e typically feature prominent outlines (rooted in the Japanese reverence for calligraphy), and areas of flat, vibrant colour. Shadows are generally omitted altogether. Early modern artists realized that, far from hindering Japanese art, these unrealistic techniques could unlock unique aesthetic experiences.


Woodblock printing was also influential in terms of composition; that is, the overall arrangement of a picture. Traditionally, Western artists laid out scenes carefully to achieve certain effects; Renaissance painters typically sought a balanced, harmonious arrangement, while Baroque painters often went for a sense of unrest and movement. Japanese artists took a more subtle, organic approach, opting for asymmetry, often with the principal figure or object positioned off-centre. Many ukiyo-e scenes are presented from a diagonal view, and figures are often partially “cut off” at the edge of the picture.

Traditionally, Western art was dominated by standard “appropriate” subjects, which generally meant either biblical or classical; while some artists did portray scenes of everyday life, these were widely considered inferior. Part of the great revolution of modern art was the elevation of everyday life to first-class artistic consideration. Modern artists grew fond of capturing urban life, including streets, parks, restaurants, and entertainment venues. This everyday focus was partly fueled by (guess who?) ukiyo-e, in which these very subjects had long been explored.


Had enough background info yet? It’s time to roll out some concrete examples. And why don’t we look at ukiyo-e artists and modern Western painters side-by-side, to really bring out the influences and whatnot?

Suzuki Harunobu / Edgar Degas

Suzuki Harunobu is known as the founder of polychrome ukiyo-e. French artist Edgar Degas is considered one of the great founders of the impressionist movement. Both men are known for their many portrayals of women, whether at home, socializing, or as professional performers.


This Harunobu print depicts a young couple at home; the man kneels, reading a scroll, while the woman stands at the doorway. In terms of ukiyo-e influence on early modern art, the most striking feature of this print is its composition. Note the abundance of diagonal lines, along with the sense we are looking down on the scene from a height. The overall arrangement is asymmetrical, with elements positioned in a plausibly natural manner.


This relatively simple painting illustrates Degas’ love of ukiyo-e style composition. The view is elevated and diagonal to the architecture, providing interesting diagonal lines. The scene is sharply asymmetrical, with the right-hand figure cut off by a wall, similar to the partially hidden woman in Harunobu’s print.

Impressionist painters, who seek to capture the overall impression of a momentary scene, don’t concern themselves with sharp, detailed realism. Some parts of impressionist paintings border on abstraction, such as the background behind the two gentlemen in Degas’ painting. Note that a similarly abstract background is found in the top left of the Harunobu print, behind the house.

Kitagawa Utamaro / Mary Cassatt

Mary Cassatt, arguably the greatest American impressionist painter, is known particularly for her portrayals of women, including mothers with children. Ukiyo-e artist Kitagawa Utamoro, whose work Cassatt collected, is known for these same subjects.


Here we have a typical, everyday mother-child scene. Well okay, maybe not completely typical. The child is Kintarō, a popular Japanese folk hero with super strength, while the woman is Yama-uba, Kintarō’s “mountain witch” mother (biological or adoptive, depending on which version of the story you hear).

But still, it’s basically a mother-child scene. Note the warm psychological connection between the pair, as well as the close-up view (such that most of Yama-uba’s body is cut off) and the off-centre positioning.


This Cassatt painting depicts a sensitive mother-child scene in typical sketchy impressionist style. Just like Kintarō and Yama-uba, the figures exchange an affectionate gaze; the child’s hands rest on her mother’s embracing arms, just as Kintarō’s left hand grasps his mother’s wrist. Like Yama-uba, this mother leans at a diagonal, only back instead of forward.

Utagawa Hiroshige / Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

Hiroshige, known particularly for scenes of nature, was a master of capturing weather and the seasons. His work became a major influence for landscape painters of the impressionist movement.


This print, which features a prominent figure over a landscape background, is from a series Hiroshige created while travelling along the Tōkaidō, the principal Japanese road of the age. Once again, diagonal lines are abundant, drawing the eye in criss-cross fashion across the picture. The mountain and tree are both cut off at the edges, and the colouring is mostly flat and contained within prominent outlines.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, painter and printmaker, is perhaps the most iconic ambassador of the bohemian artist lifestyle. His depictions of Paris night life and theatre drew partly from ukiyo-e, which often feature equivalent scenes of Japanese recreation, including kabuki theatre. Toulouse-Lautrec eagerly embraced the vivid colouring and dramatic curved forms of Japanese prints.


In addition to the age-old art of painting, modern technology allowed a new medium to flourish: the poster. Toulouse-Lautrec is considered one of the leading figures in the “golden age” of poster advertising, which spanned the late nineteenth century. The actress in this Toulouse-Lautrec theatre advertisement, executed in bold outlines and flat colours, features a sinuous, diagonal posture that echoes the Hiroshige print above.

Katsushika Hokusai / Vincent Van Gogh

Hokusai is probably the most famous of ukiyo-e artists, due to his most famous work: The Great Wave, from a series of prints focusing on Mount Fuji. Along with landscapes and seascapes, Hokusai is known for his closeup studies of plants and animals. Landscapes were also among the favoured subjects of Van Gogh, the troubled Dutch artist, for whom ukiyo-e provided immense inspiration.


This print undulates with a gentle asymmetry, in the form of clustered houses and rolling hills. As usual, colours are few in number and flat in texture, with some parts of the scene left strategically uncoloured. Hills are evoked with simple outlines, rounded out with lateral sub-lines and vegetation.


Like Hokusai’s print, this Van Gogh painting features a rolling asymmetry of hills and vegetation, executed in a simple, bright colour scheme. The angled rows of haystacks lend the scene a vigorous bottom-left to top-right momentum. Outlines are thick, and there is little in the way of shading or shadows.

A Universal Language

Art of the late nineteenth century laid the foundation of modern art, which continues to this day. Even as the early twentieth century was ravaged by war, artistic endeavour pierced the darkness with lights of cooperation and understanding between kindred spirits across the world. Ukiyo-e was, and continues to be, very much one of those lights.

Art really is pretty awesome.

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Christians in Kyushu, Part 3: The Last Stand Wed, 04 Feb 2015 14:00:00 +0000 Be sure to check out Part 1 and Part 2 to understand the history of Japanese Christianity that bring us here! When last we left our holy heroes, the situation for Christians in Japan had gone from tenuous to downright dangerous.  The Tokugawa shogunate had begun to persecute Christians, largely out of a fear that Christianity would […]

The post Christians in Kyushu, Part 3: The Last Stand appeared first on Tofugu.

Be sure to check out Part 1 and Part 2 to understand the history of Japanese Christianity that bring us here!

When last we left our holy heroes, the situation for Christians in Japan had gone from tenuous to downright dangerous.  The Tokugawa shogunate had begun to persecute Christians, largely out of a fear that Christianity would subvert the order and hierarchy that they had struggled for so long to create and maintain.  In 1614, Tokugawa Ieyasu issued a proclamation expelling Catholic missionaries from Japan.  Japanese Christians were forced to go underground, becoming known as Hidden Christians (kakure kirishitan).  Under successive shoguns, persecution intensified.  The final straw was to come in 1637, when a revolt broke out in Kyushu.

We’re Not Gonna Take It!


Photo by 663highland

The Shimabara Peninsula lies on the western part of Kyushu, somewhat out of the way.  The lord of the area, Arima Harunobu (1576-1612) was a zealous Christian, and after Hideyoshi’s 1587 expulsion edict, many Jesuits escaped to Harunobu’s domain.  He was later involved in the corruption scandal of 1610, stripped of his lands and ordered to commit seppuku.  He was replaced by Matsukura Shigemasa.

The life of a Japanese peasant was generally filled with a good deal of suffering.  It wasn’t unusual for a lord to treat them poorly.  Yet, Matsukura Shigemasa was exceptionally cruel.  He taxed everything, even births and deaths, and didn’t take kindly to those who couldn’t pay.  Being thrown into a water-filled prison was perhaps the best one could hope for.  His most notorious punishment was called the raincoat dance (mino odori), so named because the victim, wearing a straw raincoat, was doused in oil and set on fire, causing them to dance about.  Sometimes the family members of those who failed to pay were taken hostage or punished as well.  In 1637, when one of Shigemasa’s men assaulted a farmer’s pregnant wife the people finally snapped.

Rebel, Rebel


Map of Hara Castle and surrounding area. Just south of the peninsula, you can see two large Dutch ships, which fired upon the rebels on behalf of the shogunate (there was a lot of Protestant-Catholic tension at this time).

The violence quickly spread from the original village to others on the Shimabara Peninsula, becoming a serious uprising.  The oppressed marched on Shimabara Castle, but couldn’t take it.  Meanwhile, the peasants offshore on the Amakusa Islands also revolted.  After conferring, they decided to come together at Hara Castle in the south of the peninsula.  The vacant castle’s coastal position made it quite the defensible base for the rebels.  It was generally illegal for peasants to own weapons, but the rebels still managed to get a hold of some.  Still, many had to make do with farm implements, or even sticks and stones (which we all know may break some bones, but are not the first choice for battle).

You may be wondering where Christianity comes into this rebellion.  The truth is that it may not have had that much to do with Christianity, at least initially.  It had much more to do with the extreme pressure and cruelty that Matsukura Shigemasa inflicted on the peasantry.  However, after converging at Hara Castle, the movement acquired some Christian leadership.  There were a handful of Christian ronin (masterless samurai), and at the top, a mysterious youth.


This young man was Amakusa Shiro (c. 1621-1638).  Born on one of the Amakusa Islands, he was the son of a former Konishi clan retainer (the family’s Christian head, Konishi Yukinaga was killed for picking the wrong side at Sekigahara).  He studied with Jesuits in Nagasaki, and according to local lore, made a name for himself preaching equality and dignity for the poor on the island of Oyano.  Little else is known about him, but during the rebellion his followers began to think he was the one foretold years earlier by Father Marco Ferraro, a priest who worked in the area before being expelled.  He said that, “After 25 years a child of God will appear and save the people.”

The rebels were able to hold out for a surprisingly long time. However, as the winter months wore on, hunger took its toll and the defenses were breached.  The victors spent three days slaughtering the rebels.  An estimated total of 37,000 were killed, including Amakusa Shiro, and as John Dougill points out, “It’s invidious to play the numbers game when it concerns the dead, but the number killed at Shimabara is almost identical to the 39,000 who died in the Nagasaki atomic bomb.”  10,000 heads were staked up around the castle, and 3,300 were sent to Nagasaki for the same treatment: a clear warning to the people.

Following the Shimabara Rebellion, the Tokugawa took the final step in guarding the country against foreign subversion by expelling all Europeans from Japan and banning their reentry on pain of death.  The one exception to this was the tiny island of Dejima, just off Nagasaki’s coast, where an extremely limited number of Dutch ships were allowed to dock and trade.

Methods of “the Man”


Photo by Chris73

In the decades prior to and following the Shimabara Rebellion, the shogunate came up with some strategies for ensuring the loyalty of its subjects and rooting out Hidden Christians.  In 1635, the government began to require that all subjects register themselves at a local Buddhist temple, which in 1666 became an annual requirement.  Apart from this annual registration, it probably wasn’t necessary to regularly visit the temple.  However, groups of households were organized to observe and report on one another, and if one person was exposed as a Christian their family would also suffer the consequences.  To avoid suspicion, most Hidden Christians needed to have a Buddhist funeral as well.

Another set of tools at the shogunate’s disposal were fumi-e “stepping-on pictures”.  These were small pictures of Jesus or Mary, usually made of metal, stone, or wood.  As the name implied, they were designed to be trod upon, a sign that one held no loyalty to the forbidden faith.  Fumi-e were first used in Nagasaki in 1628, and became a staple of anti-Christian procedures.  The practice even became known to some back in Europe.  In Jonathan Swift’s, Gulliver’s Travels (1726), Japan is the only real country visited by the protagonist, who asks the emperor “to excuse my performing the ceremony imposed upon my countrymen of trampling on the crucifix.”

In 1640, a central prosecution office (shumon aratame yaku) was established, with branch offices in each domain.  Many Christians were killed, their numbers dropping from 300,000 in 1612 to half that or fewer by 1625.  Not only that, but the government knew that if they could make Chirstians publicly recant their faith it would be far more effective than simply creating more martyrs.  Thus, various methods of persuasion including horrific tortures were inflicted on many arrested Christians.

Practices of the Persecuted


Photo by PHGCOM

A Kirishitan statue of Mary disguised as Kannon

In the face of such persecution, how did Hidden Christians stay hidden?  In Part 1, we already saw that there were many misunderstandings in the early days of conveying Christianity to the Japanese people.  After the banning of the religion and expulsion of foreigners, the Hidden Christians were left without clergy, leading them to develop some very unorthodox practices.

Without a clergy, the only sacrament left to the Hidden Christians was baptism, as lay people were allowed to perform this in the absence of a priest. Thus baptisms became quite important. They also made statues of the Virgin Mary that look nearly indistinguishable from the Buddhist bodhisattva, Kannon, or Jesus statues disguised as Jizo.  In fact, Mary became a major focal point of Hidden Christians’ practice.  Though everyone was required to register at a Buddhist temple, in some more rural localities the Buddhist clergy knew there were Hidden Christians, but looked the other way.  Still, the consequences of being Christian could be so severe that they learned to be extremely secretive.

Perhaps the most important part of daily practice was the recitation of prayers.  Called orashio (after the Latin oratio), these were Catholic prayers such as The Lord’s Prayer and the Hail Mary.  They were passed down orally to avoid detection. Those that had been translated into Japanese changed little over the centuries, but not so for those in Latin or Portuguese.  For example, “Ave Maria gratia lena” became “Abe Mariya hashiyabena.”  In fact, many modern practitioners don’t know what some of their prayers mean.  Another important prayer was the Konchirisan (Contrition), which must have assuaged the guilt felt for stepping on fumi-e, holding Buddhist funerals, and all the other compromises Hidden Christians were forced to make in order to keep practicing their faith secretly.

The Second Coming of Japanese Christianity


This state of affairs more or less continued throughout the remainder of Tokugawa rule, with Hidden Christians paying lip service to Buddhism to satisfy the authorities, while practicing Christianity in secret.  During the 19th century, even before the reopening of the country to the West, the shogunate began to become lax in enforcing many of the policies they had crafted to carefully maintain the hierarchy of society, including the hunting of Christians.  Of course the U.S. finally did force Japan to open up in the 1850s, then the Tokugawa fell in 1867, and the modern Meiji government was established the following year.

Foreign Christians reentered the country, and in 1871 religious freedom became law.  Hidden Christians revealed their existence, to the surprise of many at home and abroad.  This didn’t mean things became easy.  Many Hidden Christians rejoined the Catholic Church.  Many chose not to, largely out of respect for the practices of their ancestors, and a feeling that if they abandoned them it would be admitting they were wrong.  In addition, as the climate became more and more infused by nationalist State Shinto ideals, being Christian continued to be a liability until the end of World War II.

Considering Japanese Christians have only had about the last 70 years or so to make up for roughly 350 years of persecution, it may not be that surprising that Japan’s Christian population is so small.  I won’t dwell on the modern period and reintroduction of Christianity, as the main focus of these articles was meant to be the Hidden Christians.  Today there are very few carrying on the Hidden Christian traditions, mostly in Kyushu, particularly on Ikitsuki Island.  It’s hard to know exact numbers, but one estimate is that only about 500 practicing members remain on Ikitsuki.  Young people today are generally neither interested in carrying on Kirishitan traditions, nor in staying in the rural areas where the religion survived.  It seems quite likely that the religion will die out within the next few decades.  Even if their beliefs are no longer practiced, the history of the Kakure Kirishitan will remain.  Even in three articles, I was only able to highlight some of the major points in Japan’s Christian history.  I urge everyone to read more on the subject.

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  • Cobbing, Andrew. Kyushu: Gateway to Japan, A Concise History. Folkstone: Global Oriental Ltd, 2009.
  • Dougill, John. In Search of Japan’s Hidden Christians. North Clarendon: Tuttle Publishing, 2012.
  • Elisonas, Jurgis. “Christianity and the Daimyo.” in vol. 4 of The Cambridge History of Japan, edited by John Whitney Hall, Marius B. Jansen, Madoka Kanai, and Denis Twitchett, 301-368. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

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Interview with Ken Taya, aka Enfu, the Master of Japanamericana Wed, 28 Jan 2015 17:00:37 +0000 When the review copy of Ken Taya’s art book, “Enfu: Cute Grit”, arrived at the Tofugu office, I knew I had something special in my hands. It was one instance where judging a book by its cover was very appropriate. I sat down with headphones full of music and cracked it open. What followed was almost […]

The post Interview with Ken Taya, aka Enfu, the Master of Japanamericana appeared first on Tofugu.

When the review copy of Ken Taya’s art book, “Enfu: Cute Grit”, arrived at the Tofugu office, I knew I had something special in my hands. It was one instance where judging a book by its cover was very appropriate. I sat down with headphones full of music and cracked it open. What followed was almost a religious experience.

Seattle-based artist, Ken Taya, aka Enfu, grew up between the U.S. and Japan. From this life experience, he forged an art style that has won him praise as a video game industry professional, as well as laud from art critics and lovers of color the world over.

Tofugu got the opportunity to talk to Ken about his art, career in the video game industry, and what it takes to become a professional in both sectors.

Welcome to Enfu


Q. Tell us a little about Ken Taya.

I’m a Japanese American bilingual nisei (二世) video game artist. I’ve been making video games for over 13 years as an Environment Artist. The types of games I’ve worked on range from Halo 3 to Scribblnauts Unlimited.

I went to University of Washington and Digipen Institute of Technology. I love hip hop, reggae, and old school rap. I used to breakdance in high school, but if I tried that now I’d snap my neck.

Q. What about your artist name Enfu? What does it mean and why did you choose it?

I’ve always liked monkeys, and my nickname in high school was “flying monkey” because of the way I played basketball. Enfu is the on’yomi (Chinese reading) of the Japanese Kanji 猿風 (sarukaze), which literally translates to “monkey wind”. I rarely go by the kanji, but that is the background.

Q. When did you first start drawing?

All kids draw, so I was just like any kid and have drawn since then. I guess drawing was always fun for me. What’s hardest is to stay childlike.


Q. What do you do to stay childlike?

This is a scenario that illustrates a time I realized I lost my inner child. I was watching my daughter (then about 4) play Scribblenauts on the Nintendo DS. She was wide eyed playing this game. All she knew was she could write anything and it would appear in the game. She didn’t even know how to write yet.

What I’m trying to drive home is she didn’t yet know how to use the tools, but she was excited about spawning the next object. After many sessions of coaching her on how to spell the names of kitchen and tea items, she eventually got around to asking me “Papa, can I make an ocean?”

I outright told her “I don’t think you can make an ocean in this game, honey.” My reply meant nothing and she asked me how to spell it anyway. I reluctantly spelled out ocean and, to both our surprises, an ocean popped up!

At that moment I realized the adult me was beaten by a child. I was saddened by the restraints I put on myself as to what could and could not be done. I mourn the loss of the child in me, and it will be a lifelong struggle to regain that childlike perspective. As of now I only can harness the inner child in spurts. It is usually the time when I convince myself ‘I can do anything!’

Art and Video Games: A Regular 9 to 5


Q. When did you know you wanted to pursue graphic arts as a career?

Well it was more the video game industry I wanted to enter. After graduating and working as a freight forwarder, I decided I wanted to be a part of making something cool. That’s all I knew. I just wanted to ‘make something cool’.

So I reassessed what I enjoyed, which was drawing, speaking Japanese, and playing video games. Then I just said to myself, “What kind of company allows me to do those 3 things specifically and (hopefully) locally as well?” It was Nintendo.

I looked up “how to get into Nintendo”, and Digipen came up as the school next to Nintendo. I took the test, got in, and that’s how I started my journey.

Q. How did you get started as a professional artist?

Well, I don’t really know if I’d consider myself a ‘pro’ yet. But in terms of earning a salary making art…pretty much right after Digipen.

Digipen did a great job putting me in probably one of the most stressful, competitive, supportive classes of students. I’m still friends with those guys to this day, and I have fond memories of us all grinding away on our projects and teaching each other.

I started Enfu in 2005 as a creative side outlet because I wanted to make my own thing, not just what I’m hired to make for a company. I started off making screenprints, and my first print, Tako Truck, embodied the content that meant something to me: East meets West…we’re really different yet really similar.

Q. So, after Digipen you got straight into game design?

Well, most of my formal titles were in the realm of Environment Artist, which is only a small slice of the production pipeline in game creation. I would model the digital 3D terrain/buildings/props that are in each scene. Only recently, when I started to make my own games/apps, have I really taken on the role of Designer. Everyone has a ‘designer brain’, but many don’t pursue it and stay within their discipline.


Q. What does the Environment Artist do beginning to end? Are there specific steps to the creation process or is it more more loose? How long does the whole process take on a game the size of Halo 3?

Well, it’s hard to summarize, as it is a really complex process. You basically need to translate what the Designer needs for gameplay and combine that with how the Concept Artist interprets that same scene.

Then, aside from the complexity of creating the 3D models, texturing them, creating shaders for each texture, and flagging surfaces to react to effects a certain way, you have to budget the amount objects that can exist in certain areas whilst keeping the game performant.

Next, you have to make sure all your textures fit within the budget of the level, create geometry like grass and decals like signage, create convincing lighting scenarios, check all your portals dividing the level for loading purposes, and so so much more technical considerations to weigh. Do players get caught up in the geometry? Can other players identify other characters in front of the busy background?

To me, it is much much more complicated than drawing a picture. Also, much of environment work is a collaborative process, so managing and communication makes this discipline very interdependent.

Q. For our readers who want to know more about the video game industry as a whole, what does the whole process of game creation entail, beginning to end?

I’ve yet to complete a full game by myself, I’m still on that journey with my iOS match game. But, in a nutshell, a game is born first with a core game mechanic, then the look is conceived. After that, a whole body of work is required to execute the game (asset creation, optimization, level design, UI, animation, testing). Finally, scratch that a couple times and repeat the process until you finally end up with a game. I’ve been fortunate enough to have worked in many of the roles on the art side from beginning to end, aside from the music and programming disciplines. A game has to be fun more than anything else. Looking good is often simply a secondary priority. Many, many artists often forget that.

Q. What advice do you have for our readers who may want to get a career started in the video game industry?

You have to prepare yourself to play games, not as a consumer, but as a developer. That means, first play for reference but allocate most of your time to improving on your actual craft.

But if you’re considering going into the industry…you’ve probably already played many games throughout your youth. I would encourage you to drop everything and draw every single day (assuming your discipline in game design would be art). Then learn the basic digital 2d software like Photoshop. You’ll learn the rest in school. Explore a lot of analogue disciplines before fully pursuing digital tools. Its kind of like the advice of learning on an acoustic guitar before you play electric. You learn to be precise with your fingers on the fret board before you get away with sloppy techniques on electric.


Q. It sounds like the best way to enter the field is with formal training. Is it possible to enter into a video game arts career without going to a school like Digipen?

Of course. Anything is possible. Of course I’m biased toward Digipen because that is where I went. I know a lot of other successful artists in the game industry that aren’t from Digipen. But I believe Digipen provides more training that goes beyond just the traditional/technical skills of rendering art. They also teach you to collaborate with their Programming department (which produces top talent) and the ability to collaborate with Programmers and other departments is an art in itself. It’s one thing to be able to draw, it’s another thing to be able to make a game. Pick any school if you want to draw. If you want to make games, pick a game school.

Q. What advice do you have for readers who may not want to make art for video games, but just make art, like you do with Enfu?

Draw everyday. Draw something that means something to you. Then try to sell it even though you’re not ready. It will toughen you up. Nothing forces you to consider your personal convictions better than having to literally stand behind your work at a table. You will hear many art theories by people who practice a lot, but if you don’t put it out there in action, you really won’t know.

Enfu Art is Born


Q. When did you start your Enfu side projects and why?

I was working on F.E.A.R. at the time, and I really curious to see what else I could make other than suspense horror type FPS.

Q. Do you consider your Enfu work as more important than your video game work? Would you ever give up one for the other?

I’ve described it before in this way: Working on console games millions of people enjoy, working on Enfu thousands of people enjoy, and drawing a picture for my daughter making only her enjoy…they are all equally rewarding.

Q. When did you first feel like you had “your style”? In your book, there are examples of figure drawing and realistic styles. You have the skill draw in any style, so what is it about the iconic, shiny, and colorful that you feel represents you?

Well, I had put a lot of thought into it before I started doing the screen prints. I wanted to create something that looked hand drawn (hence wavy lines), but also reflected content that was relevant to my background.  I don’t just find a perfectly rendered image of a tree, it needs to be more than that. The style keeps getting refined and changing. But the gist of the style is well explained in my book. Line heavy, colorful, and busy. It really has its roots in what influenced me growing up. Japanese manga, games, and anime. Generally line heavy, colorful, and busy, but also weighs more in favor of content that is whimsical than mature, cute more than gritty.


Q. Let’s talk “Enfu: Cute Grit”. Your book is wonderfully massive. How did such a gigantic project come about?

Well it took around 2 years to make the book which contains 10 years of my work. My publisher Chin Music Press worked closely with me to compile the gigabytes of data I sent their way. I trusted their book designer, Dan D Shafer (, to design the flow and look of the book. He just killed it.

Q. I love the way you use small icons to create patterns. What inspired this idea in your work?

I can point to the exact moment where this movement happened for me. I was working on marketing materials for Scribblenauts Unlimited, which was a launch title for the Wii U. I wanted to make an epic gif using all the 3-frame emotes used in the game. As I was putting it together, a coworker came by showed me a better way to put it together. He made it for me programmatically way quicker than had I done it manually. That was the “aha moment”. I asked him to create for me a basic pattern tool, which he did. I did some demos of this pattern tool when I was on book signings and there was feedback that people wanted to buy it. I am currently working with a partner to bring this proprietary software to market.

What I learned from my years as an environment artist is that a big scene is the sum of many many many small parts. And the engineering and creation of these products have so many technical requirements to meet, whilst having to look and feel good on a macro level. But this all starts with thousands of “lego parts”. In a game like Scribblenauts Unlimited, there are literally thousands of things you can spawn. You type in something, it pops up. The experience working on a game like that really only emboldened me to build a huge asset library of little images, and then figure out what to make out of it all. There are so many things you can make if you design your building blocks to be replicated quickly, and engineer the machine and process in which products are made.

Q. You have an Enfu app out for iPhone and iPad that lets you use your iconic art as emoji. So it seems only appropriate that I ask you a question with your own art and you do the same with the response. Here goes:


Translation: How long does it take to draw one picture icon?


Translation: First I don’t have any good ideas. I try drawing something, fail, and scrap it.

Then I have a better idea and draw it. It is good and it’s party time!

Takes around 30 minutes. I repeat this over and over just chasing that carrot.

Q. You’ve said that your daughter is your muse and inspired your character, Elly. Does the musing come through things she says or is it more unspoken?

Well the whole book Enfu: Cute Grit covers kind of covers the transition of my content being mostly about my Asian American identity, into capturing the fleeting innocent imagination of childhood. I think every parent sees their child and becomes appalled we were once that age, and covets the child’s perspective.


Q. What’s the story behind your art on clothing? How did that come about? Is there anything special about using clothes as a canvas?

Curiosity led me there. I wanted to see what I’d learn from creating a different product offering. That is generally why I like to make many different things. I like wearing trucker caps, so I wanted to make my own. It’s cool to see people wearing them in public.

I was exploring surface design, which is a discipline already similar to what video game environment artists already do, texturing surfaces. I learned more about it, thought about other applications, and clothing was one of them. I invested much of my effort, and I am continuing to invest in this now, into making a pattern-making software that fits my needs.

Q. What artists have had the most influence on your work?

326, Kozyndan, Toriyama Akira, Taiyo Matsumoto, Mr., and Takashi Murakami. Basically many line heavy, intricately busy, youthful/childlike , and colorful Japanese style renderings are really interesting to me.

Japanamericana: Creating Art That Straddles Two Worlds


Q. You lived in Sendai, Japan for a time. When was it and why did you move there?

My dad’s work brought us to Sendai as he is a University Professor. He taught at Tohoku University while I endured middle school with my broken elementary Japanese skills. (Still elementary by the way.)

Q. How did your time in Japan influence your work?

I was struggling in all my regular Japanese classes and my teacher, Miura-sensei, influenced my psyche by encouraging me in art class. He really made it a point to empower me to pursue art. Maybe because I was having fun, compared to my other classes, this let me know there was a sanctuary in art. I was in 7th grade at the time and it was impactful. I wouldn’t understand it all until much much later. I really wish I could thank Miura-sensei for his positive impact on my life.

Q. Your work has been called “a celebration of how cultures are enlivened by their commingling.” What, in your view, are ways that cultures can commingle to their betterment?

Well, the U.S. is kind of like that. We try to adopt other cultures’ ideals, fold them into our own, and then own them. The issue is more we don’t often commingle. We usually pick out characteristics that make people different and exaggerate them, without picking those exact same characteristics and trying to bridge the gap, while realizing we have an equivalent quirky difference. There is something extremely satisfying about the transformation from stranger to friend.


Q. As an artist who deeply understands the blending of Japanese and American culture, how do you feel Disney handled this task with its film “Big Hero 6”?

Now, I’m going to sound super critical and nitpicky, so let me preface this with the fact that, overall, I loved the movie. But you asked, so here it goes:

I’m usually super vocal about the lack of Asian Americans represented in media. I’m also trained as an Environment Artist, who has himself had experience working on fictional hybrid Asian themed sets. That map (in the link) was the penthouse of a corporation called Sino-Viet, a total hybrid Asia-generic set. I mean, there is a rocket launcher in the river between a stepped zen garden. Who builds that, right? So I totally understand bending the reality for the sake of fulfilling the design needs of the deliverable.

With that said I still had issues with Big Hero 6.


Finally a half Asian lead!

Hiro as a character displayed absolutely no Asian American/Asian qualities whatsoever. He basically had a ‘white’ personality with an Asian name. What do I mean by “he has no ‘Asian qualities’ “? Well, let’s see, there is already a precedent for other cultures. Hispanic characters throw in Spanish words or slang. African Americans have their own swag carved out. Asian Americans…what defines them as Asian American? It is a mystery, almost. Lilo and Stitch had Hawaiian culture ingrained in its dialogue. Even Po from Kung Fu Panda had more Asian in him than Hiro, and he was a Panda and voiced by Jack Black.


Yes, this is a fictional town, I get it. But if you’re going to portmanteau city names, you’re establishing solid reference points. San Fransokyo was just San Francisco “ching-chonged up”. It was supposed to be a mix between SF and Tokyo, but many representative props weren’t “Tokyo” at all. They took the red shinto gates (torii) and put them on the bridge.

They’re gates of shrines, but to me they represent totally different regions of the country. What if a Japanese Anime had a hybrid set based on NYC and put Mt. Rushmore on top one of the buildings? Does sprinkling in Baptist church steeples in the environment make it American? Its like an effort was made to highlight old Japan, not modern Japan, which is kind of sad. Tokyo Tower instead of Sky Tree.

What they got right were the vehicles, especially the police car. A bit of redemption.

Also we need to stop putting chopsticks in hair buns and calling that ‘good enough’. Yeah so, Japanesey pagoda-like roofs curved up corners = not Japanese.

All these little details are petty in the bigger scheme of things, but these petty details are what Environment Artists need to take care of.

Let’s hold San Fransokyo to higher standards. What did Treasure Town in Tekkonkinkreet look like? What about the hybrid fantasy world Sen strolled through in Spirited Away? I believe those environments were twice as lush, more embellished, with way more attention to detail than the cityscape of San Fransokyo.

All that to say some things were a bit “off” to me, but I know it’s passable for most. I know most of my critique can seem a little like “this ramen isn’t as great as the ones in Tokyo”-type comments, but I’m happy that I get to eat good ramen stateside. I’d much rather be slightly misrepresented than have no representation at all.

Q. What is it about Japanese aesthetic that you find most appealing? How do you incorporate this into your work?

Well its not just the Japanese aesthetic, but also the Japanese psyche (content) which speaks to me. Aesthetic is the shallow shellac which identifies or brands the work, but content is what keeps people engaged in your work.

The Japanese aesthetic not only prioritizes the line, being line heavy, but also unabashedly uses color, and, to a lesser extent, plays with the contrast between nothing-ness and busy-ness.

Japanese content mirrors the culture in its idolization of youth, thematically and aesthetically. This appeals both to children or the inner-child. Though cute or “kawaii”, the Japanese psyche promotes grittiness, hunkering down, working hard, and perseverance. These characteristics are necessary to focus on the intense line work.

Wrapping Up


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

Most people would never really ask this outright because it may sound offensive:

Q. Why are you so obsessed with being Japanese?

My answer would be different depending on who asked it.

American: I’m proud of what makes me different.

Japanese: It’s kind of stupid to be proud of something you had no choice in.

Q. How do you feel about the Seahawks going to the Super Bowl?



Get Your Own Cute Grit

Big thanks again to Ken Taya for answering so many of our questions. If you’d like to buy his massive art book “Enfu: Cute Grit”, get it here:

If you’d like to then get that book signed, Ken will be at Giant Robot in Los Angeles on February 7th from 2:00pm-4:00pm. He’ll be signing his book, shaking hands and just generally being awesome. Check out his site at

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Christians in Kyushu, Part 2: The Shogun Strikes Back Fri, 23 Jan 2015 17:00:00 +0000 Be sure to check out Part 1 before engaging in this epic second part. When we last left off, Oda Nobunaga, the padres’ most powerful patron had just perished.  The next great unifier to take his place was a general of his, Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-1598).  Hideyoshi had worked his way up from peasanthood to become the most […]

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Be sure to check out Part 1 before engaging in this epic second part.

When we last left off, Oda Nobunaga, the padres’ most powerful patron had just perished.  The next great unifier to take his place was a general of his, Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-1598).  Hideyoshi had worked his way up from peasanthood to become the most powerful man in Japan.  Due to his background, he was never able to take the title of shogun, but he was equally influential.  His policies laid the groundwork for what was to come, including an increasing suspicion of Christian motives.  There will be plenty about him in this article, but first, back to Kyushu.

The King of Bungo

statue-of-otomo-sorin Christians in Kyushu

Photo by 大分帰省中

As mentioned in Part 1, just before leaving Japan in 1551, Francis Xavier met with Otomo Sorin (1530-1587), lord of Bungo (in eastern Kyushu).  Initially reluctant to meet with Xavier due to slanderous descriptions given by Buddhist clergy, Sorin was convinced to see him by a Portuguese captain, who described Xavier as a man of high status who could commandeer a European vessel anytime he wished.  Sorin gave the Jesuits permission to preach in his territory and a building to use, but it would seem his initial generosity was not religiously motivated.  In 1562, he even became a Buddhist lay-priest.

However, over time he may have had a change of heart.  In 1578, he converted to Christianity, taking the name Francisco in honor of Xavier. Actually, a marital problem led to his conversion.  Sorin had married a woman in 1550, who was staunch in her traditional religious beliefs and shared a contentious relationship with the Jesuits.  She is known only as Jezebel, the name the Jesuits used to refer to her.  In 1578, Sorin became ill, which the priest Luis Frois claimed was Jezebel’s fault.  He was nursed by one of her ladies-in-waiting, with whom he fell in love.  Sorin had his new paramour spirited away to a seaside villa where they were free to hear Christian instruction.  First, she converted, taking the name Julia. Later Sorin also converted.  They soon married, and Jezebel, as a pagan, was no object.  To many observers Sorin’s behavior was scandalous, but to the Jesuits he was a hero.  Sorin’s happiness did not last long.

At the same time that Sorin was pulling a Henry VIII, there was trouble brewing further south.  The Shimazu family, which had rejected Christianity, had begun to expand their territory northward.  They soundly defeated the Otomo at the Battle of Mimigawa (1578).  The Shimazu were doing so well that by the mid-1580s, nearly all of Kyushu was theirs.  Knowing the Shimazu’s final push would come soon, Sorin asked Toyotomi Hideyoshi for aid.  In 1587, Hideyoshi’s armies entered Kyushu and began pushing the Shimazu forces back southward to their home territory until they were forced to surrender.

Christian Cruise

Japanese-delegates-visit-Pope-Gregory Christians in Kyushu

Japanese delegates visiting Pope Gregory.

Otomo Sorin did one other major thing in the history of Christianity and Japan.  In the midst of combating the Shimazu in 1582, he and two other Christian lords sponsored the first official Japanese embassy to Europe.  The embassy was the brainchild of Italian Jesuit, Allesandro Valignano (1539-1606), who had been preaching in Japan for three years.  The Tensho Embassy (named after the reign-name of the time) consisted of four Japanese converts.  With them was their European tutor and translator, and two servants.  They stopped at Macau, Kochi, and Goa along the way.  Valignano himself accompanied them as far as Goa.

The embassy arrived in Lisbon in 1584, and from there went on to Rome.  During their European tour, they met several kings and two successive popes.  In Rome, one of the converts was made an honorary citizen.  They returned to Japan in 1590, after which Valignano ordained them as the first Japanese Jesuit fathers.

A Tenuous Tolerance

toyotomi-hideyoshi-climbing-a-mountain Christians in Kyushu

Having conquered Kyushu, Hideyoshi soon finished what Nobunaga had started and united all of Japan under his banner.  Like his predecessor, Hideyoshi expressed an interest in what the Europeans had to offer.  When the Tensho Embassy returned from Europe, he received them at Osaka Castle, curious to hear their stories and the music of European instruments, like the harpsichord, which they had learned to play.  However, under his rule we can also see the seeds of doubt that would ultimately lead to the downfall of the Christian mission in Japan.

In 1587, Hideyoshi issued an edict to expel the missionaries (not all Europeans).  He seemed mainly concerned that too many lords were converting, and were also forcing the conversion of their retainers and subjects.  There was a worry that Christian lords might have conflicting loyalties.  Fortunately for the padres, the edict was not well enforced. They there were able to remain in Japan, they had to keep quiet for a while.  This was not true, however, of the Franciscans and other orders, more recently arrived, who continued to preach boldly.  This led to Japan’s first martyrs.

The 26 Martyrs

painting-of-the-nagasaki-martyrs Christians in Kyushu

In 1596, the San Felipe, a Spanish galleon shipwrecked off of Shikoku, spilling its cargo of silks and gold.  When the local authorities confiscated as much of this as they could and detained the crew, the ship’s pilot warned them to be careful lest they wind up a Spanish colony like South America.  He told them “the missionaries come as the king of Spain’s advance guard.”

This was just the wrong thing for Hideyoshi to hear, and from a list of 4,000, ultimately 24 leading Christians from the Kansai area were arrested.  Hideyoshi had them marched all the way to Nagasaki to face execution.  This was symbolic as Nagasaki had become one of the strongest Christian centers in Japan.  Along the 450 mile journey, two more were arrested for giving comfort to the prisoners, including a twelve-year old boy.  He was given the chance to recant, but refused.  On February 5, 1597, the 26 were crucified on a hilltop in Nagasaki.  It may sound like Hideyoshi chose this form of execution to be ironic, which I don’t think is out of the question, but crucifixion had long been a common punishment in Japan.

Tokugawa Transition

Konishi_Yukinaga Christians in Kyushu

While dealing with issues at home, from 1592-1598 Hideyoshi had thousands of samurai carrying out an invasion of Korea.  One of the top two generals of the expedition was a Christian himself, Konishi Yukinaga (1555-1600).  Yukinaga often found himself at odds with the other leading general, Kato Kiyomasa (1561-1611), a Nichiren Buddhist.  When Hideyoshi passed away in 1598, his war weary generals negotiated an end to the war in Korea, but Yukinaga’s problems were far from over.

Japan soon divided between those supporting the Toyotomi and those supporting another former ally of Oda Nobunaga, Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616).  In 1600, came the decisive Battle of Sekigahara, and Ieyasu emerged victorious.  Konishi Yukinaga had fought for the losing side, but rather than commit ritual suicide (seppuku), he chose execution.  This would have been the less honorable choice in the eyes of most of his peers, but his Christian faith taught him that suicide was a sin.

Tokugawa Ieyasu became shogun, and established a line that would rule Japan for the next 268 years.  At first, like Hideyoshi, he took a cautious attitude toward Christianity.  In 1600, shortly before the Battle of Sekigahara, English pilot William Adams (1564-1620), the basis for the protagonist in James Clavell’s Shogun, arrived in Japan.  Ieyasu valued his knowledge, but Adams, out of his own Protestant prejudices against the Catholics, fed the lord’s fears that the missionaries were precursors of a Catholic conquest.

The Hammer Falls

jesuit-with-a-japanese-nobleman Christians in Kyushu

Added to the fear of foreign conquest, one of the biggest concerns that Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu had always had with Christianity was the matter of loyalty.  For a Christian samurai, did allegiance to the shogun or the pope take precedence?  In 1612 there was a bribery scandal, involving a daimyo and a member of Ieyasu’s council, both Christians.  This showed that ties between the faithful might be stronger than those to the central authority.  In addition, at the execution of a Christian, a priest told the crowd that obedience to the Church should trump obedience to their daimyo.

These events led Ieyasu to ban Christianity in domains governed directly by the shogunate, and many daimyo followed his example.  Then in 1614 he issued the “Statement on the Expulsion of the Bataren”, in which accusations against the priests were leveled. They were commanded to leave the country at once, and Japanese converts were ordered to renounce their faith.  Most missionaries left the country, but some continued to operate in secret. Those who were caught were executed.

Anti-Christian measures became even harsher under the third Tokugawa shogun, Iemitsu, who took power in 1623.  It’s estimated that in 1612 there were approximately 300,000 Christians in Japan, but that by 1625 there were half that or fewer.

Dark Times Ahead

beheaded-jizo-statues Christians in Kyushu

Things were never easy for Christians in Japan during the Sengoku period but, as the country moved toward unification and peace, they came under even closer scrutiny.  Though some anti-Christian reasoning points to other issues, it seems that the biggest problem was the fear of those in authority that Christians would have conflicting loyalties.  After a century of chaos, betrayals, and civil war, that was something the Shogunate would not tolerate.

Next time we’ll see where the suppression of Christianity leads.

To Be Continued . . .

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

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

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

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

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

Ken Takakura

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

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

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

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

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

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

Abashiri Prison (Abashiri Bangaichi – 1965)

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

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

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

Demon Yasha (Yasha – 1985)

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

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

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

Black Rain (1989)

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

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

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

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

Mr. Baseball (1992)

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

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

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

Dearest (Ananta e – 2012)

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

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

Bunta Sugawara

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Truck Guys (Torakku Yarō – 1975)

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

The Boxer (Bokusa – 1977)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Grandpa (Watashi no Guranpa – 2003)

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

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

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


International Gangs of Kobe (Kobe Kokusai Gang – 1975)

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

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

Antarctica (Nankyoku Monogatari – 1983)

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

Spirited Away (Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi – 2001)

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

The Projector Rolls On

black rain

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Apostle of the East

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

Making Good Impressions


Photo by Roke

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

Mission Impossible


Photo by Uploadalt

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

Comings and Goings

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

Convenient Conversions


Photo by 大分帰省中

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

The Enemy of My Enemy


Photo by 名古屋太郎

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

Onward to Part 2! →

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Brian Ashcraft: A Scholar of Japanese Schoolgirls Studies Fri, 19 Dec 2014 17:00:21 +0000 Over all these years reading and writing about Japan I couldn’t help but notice a certain name popping up more and more: Brian Ashcraft. Whether it was on Wired, Kotaku, the Japan Times, or his various books, I kept seeing him. Eventually I became a fan of him too. He was (and is) one of the […]

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Over all these years reading and writing about Japan I couldn’t help but notice a certain name popping up more and more: Brian Ashcraft. Whether it was on Wired, Kotaku, the Japan Times, or his various books, I kept seeing him. Eventually I became a fan of him too. He was (and is) one of the most well read and well written experts of Japanese culture that the internet has to offer.

So I was especially pleased when we got a copy of his latest book, which you can read more about in yesterday’s review of Schoolgirl Confidential. I wanted to learn more about how he chose the topic of schoolgirls to write a whole book about though, so we asked him to the interview dance and he said yes.

Let’s learn what goes on inside the brain of Japan-expert (and schoolgirl expert) Brian Ashcraft.

Name: Brian Ashcraft. Occupation: Author Of Japanese Things


1. What’s your story?

Let’s see, where to start. I’ve been in Japan well over a decade now. I ended up coming here on a lark of sorts. I’d always been interested in Japan since I was young, growing up with video games and anime. But it wasn’t until I was in college spending my summers at a movie distribution company that I thought Japan might be an interesting place to visit.

The movie distribution company was called Rolling Thunder Pictures and was started by Quentin Tarantino. My boss, Jerry Martinez, visited Japan to try and get the rights to the iconic yakuza film Battles Without Honor and Humanity as well as a Gamera movie. He was unsuccessful, but had a wonderful time in Japan. I thought after graduating, I should visit. I did. And now, here I am married with three children. The plan was only for a few months, but it’s obviously turned into a much longer stay. Japan is now my permanent home.

2. Why schoolgirls?

Ha, why not? There’s actually a few good reasons. A friend of mine said he had a friend at Wired Magazine who was looking for Japan-based writers and that I should pitch articles. I did and after writing a bunch for Wired, I ended up as a Contributing Editor for several years. Besides doing a couple features, I wrote about Japanese schoolgirl trends. So for a good chunk of time, I followed their fashions and interests, read their magazines and absorbed their culture. An editor named Andrew Lee who was at Kodansha International was keen to do a schoolgirl book and knew I had written about their trends and that’s how this project was born.

But, in a larger sense, I wanted to explore the eternal question as to why schoolgirls continually appear in Japanese popular culture. Why are schoolgirl characters in so much of the visual culture in Japan? Why do they keep popping up in commercials, even if the ads are for things you wouldn’t necessarily associate with them, like bread or health insurance? The answer wasn’t as straight forward as you’d think, and I thought the book would be an interesting way to look at some larger issues in Japanese society.


3. Could you give us a synopsis of Schoolgirl Confidential?

Certainly. The book is a look at how schoolgirls, and in turn young women, have influenced and come to define Japanese popular culture. It sets out to answer the question as to why schoolgirls are so popular in Japan.

4. From the original idea, through the research, writing, and editing up to publication, how long would you say this whole project took?

This was a several-year project that began long before it got the greenlight. As I mentioned, my first paying writing job was covering Japanese teen trends for Wired Magazine over a decade ago. To do so, I had to immerse myself in their culture. So the book really drew upon that backlog. Andrew Lee, who edited and designed the book, was super keen to do a book on schoolgirls. I figured out a structure and a way to cover this topic that worked for me, and then, I believe we went into production for about a year, a year and a half.

5. How much of the book was you and how much was your wife, Shoko?

I really wanted to do this book with Shoko for a number of reasons. One of which was that often when you see schoolgirls written about in English, they are portrayed in a somewhat abstract and nebulous way. Yet, these young women grow up, get jobs, maybe get married and perhaps have families. So, it was super important that Shoko participated, because I wanted to ground the project in reality. This is also why we spoke with numerous Japanese women of varying ages.

Of course, Shoko was around when I was writing for Wired, so she’s been following these recent trends as well–and was an invaluable source of firsthand information when discussing fads of the 1980s and 1990s. Friends and mothers of friends and even grandmothers helped fill in everything from the pre-war years to the 1970s.

Like with any project, collaborators have an huge influence, and Shoko most certainly did.

6. Reading through the book, it really felt like there was only one voice, so the two of you seem to mesh really well. Was it easy for you to work together?

When my books have a “with” credit that means I wrote it. So, the book I just finished, “Cosplay World” is credited as “By Brian Ashcraft and Luke Plunkett.” That’s because we literally split the writing 50-50 and then rewrote the heck out of each other’s work. It’s now hard to tell who wrote what, and that was what we wanted to do. We’ve been working together for a long, long time at Kotaku, so this arrangement worked best.

For “Schoolgirl Confidential,” the book is in English. Shoko will be the first to say she isn’t a writer, so for the sake of efficiency, I wrote all the words. That doesn’t mean to say her influence isn’t felt in those words. They are. Likewise, as with any good editor, Andrew Lee’s influence is also felt in the text. If a book is a collaborative process, then it should be a collaborative process. Writing is so lonely! I love working with others, whether that’s a great editor or a wonderful collaborator. I was able to funnel all that into a singular voice, which is perhaps why you felt that way.

7. This book seems like it was extensively researched, how much of the information did you know prior to the decision to publish it, and how much did you learn in your journey to write it?

That’s hard to say. Lots of the information was stuff I had picked up over the years writing for Wired. Other stuff was the result of talking to people or reading up. The really interesting stuff for me was learning about the uniforms, because uniforms are often taken for granted. I really wanted to roll up my sleeves and learn as much as possible about that. But I really loved researching and writing all the chapters, whether that was pop music, movies, or games, because this is stuff I am interested in.

8. How did you go about doing the research part?


Photo by Jim Epler

One thing that was very important for me was that the book tackle a variety of issues in a way that really hasn’t been done before. Sometimes, students email me, saying they’ve used the book at university for papers and whatnot, and for me, that was the point. I do see this as a serious look at schoolgirl culture that certainly could be used in a course on Japan, but by “serious,” I don’t mean “dull” or lacking humor or wit. I still wanted the book to be fun, but have a certain gravitas. This is an earnest look at popular culture.

So, to answer your question, the research really started when I was writing for Wired, covering teen trends. For this book, it then became a matter of doing more precise research for each chapter. And then creating a book that, hopefully, even students interested in Japanese popular culture could use.

9. You spoke to a decent amount of famous (or once famous) people, like Chiaki Kuriyama (Kill Bill, Battle Royale), who was the hardest person to arrange an interview with?

Everyone I spoke with was incredibly generous with their availability. Surprisingly, nobody was difficult at all! Perhaps, I caught them at a good time? I’m not sure. But they were all great.

10. Do you have any fun stories about any of the interviews?


Oh sure. When I spoke with the AKB people about setting up an interview, they asked me how many members I wanted to speak with. I thought about saying all of them, but instead, said if I could speak to three who were still students, that would be great.

After the interview, I remember telling Shoko that Rino Sashihara seemed like she had star quality. So I wasn’t really that surprised when she later became one of Japan’s most famous idols!

It was also really cool interviewing Scandal. The group is now a major band, but when I interviewed them, they were were largely unknown. It’s exciting to see people on their way up.

11. What was the most surprising thing you learned in your research on schoolgirls?

I think the thing that surprised me the most–or even saddened me somewhat–was that during the war, schoolgirls wore pants so they could run away from U.S. military bombs. I remember talking to my wife’s grandmother about that, and it was a detail that really made the horror of the bombing raids much more immediate. These kids were dealing with stuff like this on their way to school.

12. So schoolgirls are more than just people, they’re a symbol to Japan and the world outside it. Without spoiling the, I guess, conclusion of the book, why is the Japanese schoolgirl so pivotal to Japanese society?


Photo by Jim Epler

Well, in the past, symbols of Japan were either the geisha or the samurai. The schoolgirl, however, encompasses qualities of both, which is why you see schoolgirl characters appearing in a wide range of media–from fighting games and horror movies to coming of age stories and teenage love stories. Schoolgirls can mean and embody so much to such a wide section of Japanese society, from kids to adults as well as to men and women.

13. In the book you, every once in a while you have these really poignant statements. Like this for example, “Schoolgirls represent the common people, they are the soul of the country and bear the brunt of society, they are the ones who keep it going.” (p.145) Could you explain that a bit?

Certainly, in that section I was talking about how schoolgirls are often depicted in art. In the past, French painters might have painted field workers to explore larger issues, but today, many Japanese artists, both male and female, use schoolgirls to explore problems in society, such as suicide or a lack of individualism, or merely, the stresses of modern life and consumer culture.

14. I know some people find the layout of the book to be a bit of a turnoff, but I feel like it really fit the topic and the discoveries to be made about these young women and the world that’s grown up around them. Who’s decision was it to make it look so much like a fashion magazine?


Oh, wow? Really? I love the design. Andrew Lee, who edited the book, also did the design. He designed my arcade book Arcade Mania!, too. He’s a fantastic designer. The feeling was, look, this is a book about schoolgirls, so let’s embrace the visual look of schoolgirl culture. We didn’t want to shun that look at all. Why make a book on schoolgirls if you are going to shy away from schoolgirl culture, you know? What’s the point?

15. What is your personal favorite chapter of the book?

That’s hard! I mean, I studied art history in college. So, for example, going to Takashi Murakami’s studio for an interview was incredible. Ditto for interviewing Makoto Aida, an artist I had studied years ago. But, I spent time in the movie business in Hollywood, so writing about movies was great, too. And I like games, anime, manga, fashion, media, history–you name it. I like ‘em all!

16. Was there anything that didn’t make it into the final edition (that you wish had)?

Hrm. Good question. There was one famous fashion model we had talked to about the book, and she seemed interested, but we weren’t ever able to finalize an interview with her. She would’ve been interesting to interview, I think.

17. What is the one thing about schoolgirls that nearly nobody knows?

Well, I’d say ultimately there isn’t. Because really, even if the adults don’t know something, the schoolgirls themselves do. That being said, some of the historical issues surrounding things like uniforms, such as where the first sailor style schoolgirl uniform appeared, have been somewhat foggy until recently. Stuff like that, maybe, because a good chunk of schoolgirl history and culture doesn’t always make it into the standard history books!

18. What is one question you hate getting asked (and then can you answer it for us?)

The appeal of schoolgirls is just about sex, right? Um, no. This question actually ends up showing a lot about the person who asks it, revealing what kind of schoolgirl media he or she has seen so far.

19. What is the one thing you wish we asked you in this interview?

Did you write the book on a computer? Nope! I first write everything out longhand with a 4B pencil, and then I type it up. I love writing with pencils, and of course, with my day job at Kotaku, doing so is simply impossible due to the lightning speed at which the internet moves. Mono 100 are my favorite pencils, but I also like Hi-Uni and the new Blackwing 602s.

20. Where can people find you? (books, websites, Twitter, etc)


You can find me on Twitter @Brian_Ashcraft or on Kinja should you want to read only my Kotaku posts. Luke Plunkett and I recently published Cosplay World, a book on cosplay that we are both very proud of. Besides the great content, it’s a flexicover that was printed in Italy and has a wonderful coffee table book feel to it. Here is my Amazon author page.

21. What are you working on next?

Right now, I am writing a book on irezumi for Tuttle. I am collaborating with Hori Benny, an Osaka-based tattooist and an all-around good dude. After that, I have another book in the pipeline. Besides that, I write for Kotaku on a daily basis and do a column each month for The Japan Times. I like to keep busy. Life is short. Writing is fun.

22. Anything else you want to say to the Tofugu reader people?

I love Tofugu! This is a great, great site that does a solid job of covering Japanese culture. I’ve been reading it for years. The comments section is also fantastic, so keep up the good discussion Tofugu reader people and keep the wonderful articles coming Tofugu writer people!

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