Tofugu» People A Japanese Language & Culture Blog Wed, 23 Jul 2014 16:00:58 +0000 en-US hourly 1 How The Ainu Do Mythology: A Primer Mon, 21 Jul 2014 16:00:17 +0000 I have kind of an interest in the Ainu, one of Japan’s original inhabitants. As someone who is mixed (like many modern Ainu) but looks just different enough to stand out, I have a vague idea of what it’s like to be seen as an outsider in my home country. I’m not a Native American though, so it’s not nearly as strong, but like the Ainu, my father’s culture is largely viewed by my home country for how it was centuries ago, not what it’s like today. However, I understand the power of that attraction. I find that mythology is, at the very least, a good way to introduce some of the bare basics of a different culture and its beliefs. Like the gaming displays in your favorite electronics store, I hope that sharing just a little mythology with fellow Tofugu readers will awaken a thirst for greater knowledge and investment in other cultures (but without charging you for it!).

A Quick Overview of the Ainu


Photo by seriykotik

So for those who aren’t sure who the Ainu are, I’d like to quote Nick’s article on Traveling to Hokkaido:

_In a quick history overview, the Ainu are an indigenous group of people in Japan with rather mysterious origins. While they initially inhabited a large part of northern Japan, they were gradually pushed north by the Japanese, eventually limited exclusively to Hokkaido. After the Meiji Restoration (1867), Hokkaido was annexed by the Japanese and the Ainu were forcefully assimilated and their language and culture was largely destroyed. Only very recently, beginning in the early 1990s, have the remaining descendants of the Ainu gained significant ground in the revival of their language and culture. _

Odd as it may sound, I actually originally found Tofugu, not because of its focus on Japanese culture, but to cross check another article I read. I was looking for Japanese words with Ainu origins, and Tofugu didn’t disappoint. I was surprised that, at the time, the article was fairly new. Finding information on the Ainu isn’t all that easy, especially in English. In fact, there’s a certain museum in Japan that focuses on different ethnicities from around the world, and one of the very few displays that is only in Japanese is the Ainu display. Apparently, even though displays on African, Australian, and Mezzo-American tribes were bilingually displayed, the curators said that they wouldn’t display other materials in English because it would show linguistic favoritism.

The Ainu in Japan are rarely talked about, to the point where if I mention them in Japanese, I have to also talk about Hokkaido, beards, and bears before people realize that, yes, some foreigners know about the people who inhabited these lands before the Wajin (term for Japanese people usually used to differentiate between them and other ethnicities living in Japan). Textbooks make very little mention of them, and my students seem to know more about the hardships of black people in America than… well, anything that has to do with Ainu culture. In fact, I’ve had schools that take students on their class trips to Hokkaido but don’t bother to visit anything Ainu related.

This is one of the reasons I really started to read Tofugu. There are a decent collection of related Ainu articles. There is an overview on who the Ainu are and the article on reviving the Ainu spirit, while other articles, like about Japan and bears, will often include references to the traditionally bearded northerners. There’s nothing in our Tofugu handbooks that require this, we’ve just got some wise writers that I’ll simply piggy back off of while I try to add a little something more.

Part of this is because, well, a lot of western information about the Ainu is based off of very old texts, mostly by John Batchelor, a missionary who wrote a whole lot about the Ainu (though there are some ethnocentric ideas present in texts one has to wrestle with as well). If it’s not Batchelor, it’s Kyousuke Kindaichi, a Japanese linguist who made some foreign friends and trained or worked with other influential Ainu researchers. The best place I’ve personally visited to find information on the Ainu is the Ainu Culture Center in Tokyo which has a rather full library of English texts for those who want to continue doing research on the Ainu but can’t find any authentic informant. What you’ll quickly find, though, is that many books reference texts made around the early 1900s, of which the culture center has copies of for your reading and researching pleasure (and yes, Batchelor and Kindaichi’s names will come up in those texts unless you’re reading something written by them). However, it is because these texts are so old that I have a bit more interest in Ainu mythology and wish to share what I’ve learned.

Ainu Mythology 101


Photo by davidooms

Unlike a lot of the raw culture books, Ainu mythology personally feels more alive and aware of itself. I must admit that I’ve gotten some help from Verity Lane who actually is lucky enough to live in Hokkaido and talk to Ainu people. Perhaps if enough people beg her, we’ll be fortunate enough to have an advanced Ainu mythology article sometime in the future!

Now, because the Ainu language had no system of writing prior to contact with the Japanese, myths were handed down orally. Recent projects, such as Project Okikirmui and Project Uepeker, are trying to keep the Ainu spirit alive and international. If you like video games, there’s a little game that has a lot of Ainu mythology in it. I’d like to think that for those interested in a modern use of Ainu mythology, Ms. Byrne’s article will provide some insight and use of things I’ll be discussing.

However, my best friend for this article is Donald L. Philippi’s 1979 book “Songs of Gods, Songs of Humans.” Not only is it one of the bigger collections of English Ainu mythology that I’ve been able to find (sadly not available at the Tokyo Ainu Culture Center), but it contains a wonderful introduction that explains some of the themes, structures, and linguistics details used in Ainu mythology, building on both research done by the above mentioned researchers as well as their students. If this is starting to sound like your English Literature classes, good. We need some context first, because diving right into some myths will certainly reveal patterns and habits, but hopefully some explanations will allow you to appreciate them more.

First is first person. While this isn’t always true (at least, when I’ve read some of the more modern translations that don’t give the original Ainu language glossary for me to research), most Ainu myths are told in first person. While men tell stories too, it’s often a female shaman speaking for the dead or the gods, uttering their tale as she is possessed by them. When the tale is in first person, we often can’t tell who the speaker is, or even their gender. It is revealed through the story, and at times, may even shift to another speaker, causing the listener to once again figure out who exactly is speaking. Luckily, the last line or two are spoken as the shamaness, naming who the spirit or god was who told the tale.

It’s important to note genders here because Ainu women had their own culture and practices that were kept apart, even secret, from men, such as stitching family patterns on the inside of girdles. Because these were shamanesses, and because many early researchers were males, we’ve lost some information to the ages, so female informants and translators such as Chiri Yukie have been invaluable.

It is important to know about this idea of the possessed narrator because these tales aren’t just for humans, but sometimes meant for gods or animals. For example, while humans don’t have claws or fur, we have words (well, and the ability to make art and wine). If a human wants or needs something, they can’t just take it, especially not by force, but must ask for it. While other spirits and animals can sometimes use human speech, it’s not as powerful as our own. In fact, human speech for the Ainu can literally cause pain or change the mind of the gods. If an animal or god needs help, it is through a human, like the shamaness, that they can gain access to our power. Gods do have their own abilities (I mean, what’s a godess good for if she can’t act on her own?), but our words have a different kind of strength that the gods fear at times, envy at others. It’s our unique powers that attract the gods and spirits to the human world. When our words fail, there are inau, a kind of carved prayer stick, and… well, millet wine. The gods love that stuff. Combining words with wine and sticks may sound like a bad idea, but it seems to work everytime in Ainu mythology.

Kamui moshir, which means “land of the gods,” will come up from time to time, especially when compared to ainu moshir, or “land of the humans.” Don’t think of this so much as heaven and earth but the same place, accessible to different beings. The gods very much walk among humans, but we can’t always see them. However, they are very human-ish. That is, the gods have their own homes, clothes, taste in food, and even prayers. Just the same, because humans apparently smell bad, they do travel in disguise and don’t want to be discovered.

One thing that many people know about the Ainu is that there’s a sort of bear worship. However, much like the Native Americans, there were various groups of Ainu, and the bear wasn’t the main god for everyone. A group by the sea might worship the orca, or another might worship the owl. Bear worship is simply known the best because its followers are the majority now. In some ways, I feel one could argue that Kamui Fuchi, the hearth goddess, is one of the main gods in Ainu mythology. Prayers to the gods are often delivered at the hearth in an Ainu home because the hearth goddess transmits messages between the world of humans and the world of spirits. Want to send a little wine to the gods? Give it to Kamui Fuchi. Thanking a deer for providing your family with meat and fur? Again, talk to Kamui Fuchi. There’s a reason why the bear sacrifice ceremony, iyomante, involves visiting the hearth a few times. How can you send a little god home without telling his friends to start a party and then later sending a thank you offering?


Ainu myths aren’t purely myth though. The Okhotsk culture wasn’t really something discussed or researched until the 1930s, but had been present as other people separate from the Ainu in various myths. Tales that bring up the making of pottery in very old myths hint at the Ainu’s possible connection to the Jomon, ignored for awhile in favor of outlandish theories that the Ainu were a lost tribe of caucasians. It’s important to remember this, since these myths really do show what Ainu society was like, which can be difficult to do in a society that didn’t keep written records.

One such way we can see this is through formulaic expressions. While kamui (meaning “god/ess” or “divine”) comes up often in these expressions, such as kamui katkemat (divine lady) or kamui ranke tam (god given sword), there’s a lot of kane, meaning metal. Those studying Japanese might be a little surprised by that one, but the word isn’t Ainu in origin. Because the Ainu were hunter-gatherers, they never mastered metal working, so they often traded for iron made goods. For this reason, kane kosonte doesn’t literally mean “metal robes” but is meant to express that the robes are strong, sturdy, and made of the best materials. Literally translating that from Ainu would certainly be confusing if you didn’t take the culture into account!

We can also gain insight from the role of women in these myths. While men fight physically, women will also participate in battles, often as a shamaness with her own powers, but she is often as brave as the men in her stories. In fact, you will sometimes have a woman doing battle in the sky while a man is in a different battle on the ground, both taking place at the same time and showing how the woman is matching the man in her battle prowess. This is just one example of how the Ainu use parallelisms in their myths, not just for artistic purposes, but to illustrate important comparisons.


Sadly, part of this emphasis on formulaic expressions carried over to the Ainu themselves. The stories had their own sort of grammar not used in everyday life, and there were certain phrases that the narrators themselves could no longer explain but had simply memorized from their teachers.

Finally, remember that Ainu myths were songs. Literally, songs, with their own melodies and burdens with improvised lyrics. These songs were so intense that the speaker would sometimes lay down while performing. Reading these myths removes them from their context in a big way, similar to adapting an improv-comedy routine into a written joke. It can be done, but to various degrees of success. Add to it that there’s few people who speak the language, and it becomes a bit more difficult to convey just how out of place a written myth is for the Ainu, but due to historical circumstances and cultural differences, this is the situation we find ourselves in.

The Ainu and the Fox: A Modern-English Retelling of an Ainu Myth


Photo by mushimizu

So one of the great parts of mythology is that, as the stories are passed down, they change. They’re adapted for a new audience, a new time, a new people. It’s why comic book heroes’ backgrounds change every other decade and why we’ve got a Spider-Man reboot (ignoring that whole thing about the director and cast not wanting to come back for a fourth movie). There are some Ainu myths you can find online, but to make things a little easier, we’re going to retell the myth of “The Ainu and the Fox” based on the version by Shigeru Kayano, translated into English by Deborah Davidson and Noriyoshi Owaki, which was originally recorded in 1973 and told by Nepki Nabesawa in Biratori, Saruba, Hokkaido. There are other adaptions you can find, but this one is the Tofugu version. While it doesn’t have all the elements discussed in our primer, it hopefully has enough to give you a small idea of what you might expect should you ever go out and read other Ainu myths:

I am an Ainu who once lived in in South West Hokkaido, in Usakumai near Lake Shikotsu. In my day, there were plenty of wild deer and bears roaming the mountains. Whenever I wanted meat, I had to go hunting in the mountains with my bow and arrows. After each hunt I shared the meat with the other villagers. We lived as a family, and smoked a lot of meat to eat later.

When fall came, the river filled with salmon heading upriver to spawn. Many fellow Ainu came to the river then. Not just our neighbors, but Ainu even from distant villages Piratori, which you now call Biratori, to catch salmon and preserve them for winter food. We humans were not the only ones to come for the salmon, but also bears and foxes. We all lived peacefully together, and my father would also leave fish for the crows. Their share was one fish for every ten we caught, and my father lay them out with the skin cut for the crows to eat, and so we did not get in each other’s way.

Life with my family was good. As time went on, people began to call me “grandpa.” My strength left me, so I no longer went into the mountains to hunt. I stayed at home and made tools and wood carvings for my family and village. It was a good life

One night, after carving late into the night as I usually had done, I wrapped myself in soft fur blankets and slowly fell asleep. However, at once, I heard a voice coming froma distance. At once, I heard a voice coming from nearby. I wondered who would be up at such an hour. I listened hard, but the voice was silent. Again I put my head on my pillow and wrapped myself in soft fur blankets. Again I heard the distant voice. Again I heard the nearby voice.

How was it far but close? My curiosity got the best of me, so I quietly got up, trying not to wake my family, and went outside. The moon was bright and lit the land for quite a ways. Slowly and softly I moved towards the voice. It was always nearby, and always so far away, as if from another world.

Eventually I saw was a fox. A normal fox, I thought, but this fox could speak our language, the human language. I listened carefully and discovered that it was making a charanke, a passionate argument we use to persuade), but his was a claim against the Ainu people!

“Ainu people! Listen up! The Ainu didn’t make the salmon! The foxes didn’t either, but it was the gods who made the salmon, and the god and goddess of this river, the Ishikari river, Pipirinnoekuru and Pipirinoemat, are the ones who decide how many salmon should swim up the river, so that the Ainu, the bears, and the foxes can all have their share to eat. However, this afternoon, I took one, just one salmon from the myriad salmon you Ainu had caught from our shared river. You know that gods won’t let us starve but will provide us all what we need! Still, one of you became so angry at me that he shouted at me, using the cruelest words there are in your language. The pain was so great that I felt like I was being attacked by horrible black flames.”

“And that’s not all! That man then prayed to the god of water and the god of the mountains, asking them both to banish us foxes from the land we share with you Ainu. He asked the gods to send us foxes far away to a place of barren hills, where there are no trees, nor grass or birds.”

With tears in his eyes, the fox called out, “I can’t stay silent. If the gods only hear his side of the story, they will think he is right, and we foxes won’t be able to live here any more. If something isn’t done, we foxes are doomed! Listen you gods! Listen you Ainu! Hear my story! Help us!”

The fox’s words touched me. He was right about what he had said. The salmon aren’t food only for the Ainu. The gods provide them for other creatures too, so when morning came, I gathered the villagers together and told them about the fox’s charanke. I called out the man who had insulted the fox and sternly lectured him. We carved many inau to help make our apology stronger, offered much millet wine to show our sincerity, and solemnly apologized to the fox god.

The other gods also heard our apology and decided not to banish the foxes, but to let them stay with us in Ainu Moshir, the Land of the Ainu.

Remember this, modern Ainu, modern men. The fish of the sea, fruit on the trees, and water of the river are not just for you and me. They should be shared with all the other animals. We must live together.

These were the final words of an Ainu elder before he died.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Takarazuka’s Crossdressing Starlets: Better Than Real Men? Wed, 16 Jul 2014 16:00:57 +0000 The Takarazuka Revue is a unique Japanese all-female theater company that has gained incredible popularity since it was founded nearly one hundred years ago. With over one thousand performances each year and an audience of two and a half million, including people who come from all over the world, The Takarazuka Revue is one of the largest theater companies in the world. A single-gendered troupe of such incredible popularity is a unique phenomenon, though Japan is no stranger to gender bending in theater performance. The traditional theater Kabuki has been restricted to men only since 1629, with males playing female roles.


The revue is not only unique because of its fame, which is on the same level as Broadway musicals in the United States, but also because of its unique stylistic elements. The women in the troupe are split into two categories, otokoyaku, who play men’s roles, and musumeyaku, who play women’s roles. Once these roles are decided, the actresses specialize in that role and almost never switch from one to the other.

Becoming Takarazuka


The goal is not to trick the audience into believing that the otokoyaku are men, but to present an idealized male character through a woman’s body. The productions are almost always romantic, glamorous musicals, and thus attract a mostly female audience. They are generally Western-style musicals, with costumes and music very similar to American Broadway musicals. Although they often stage adaptations of Western plays such as Romeo and Juliet and Gone with the Wind, they are even more glitzy and extravagant than their Western counterparts. It is as if they took the idea and exaggerated it. For an American like me, it is a strange sight to see the actresses with their blonde hair and eye-exaggerating makeup.

The Takarazuka Revue was founded in 1914, in the small Takarazuka City near Osaka, for which the group was named. The founder, Kobayashi Ichizou was a railway tycoon, and his original intent was to increase the use of his new railway by attracting people to Takarazuka City and making it a leisure location. Kobayashi created the revue’s motto, which still endures today: Kiyoku, Tadashiku, Utsukushiku (Purity, Integrity, Grace). The company currently has five troupes with about eighty performers each: The Flower, Moon, Snow, Star, and Cosmos Troupes, which all perform both in the Takarazuka Grand Theatre located in Takarazuka City and the Tokyo Takarazuka Theatre, as well as going on tour both in Japan and abroad. The company has in-house playwrights, costume designers, stage art directors, music composers, and orchestras.

The audition to be accepted into Takarazuka is extremely competitive, with fewer than one in twenty girls passing each year. Originally they accepted girls in their early teens, but now only girls aged fifteen to eighteen may apply. After passing the audition, the girls attend the Takarazuka Music School for two years where they receive rigorous instruction not only in performing arts, but also in how to become disciplined in everyday life. The school is renowned for its strictness; for example, first year students must get up in the early hours of the morning and clean the school from top to bottom in complete silence. Furthermore, there is an even more controlling aspect of Takarazuka: the actresses must remain unmarried until they retire from the group, and in fact are not permitted to date or even have interaction with outside men.

The “Dream Factory”


The characters that the otokoyaku try to create are heroic figures, masculine enough to seem strong and supportive, but gentle enough to be romantic and loving. This is not meant to seem realistic by any means, but to portray an ideal, impossible man that will delight the hearts of the audience. As a foil to the otokoyaku, the musumeyaku portray exaggeratedly feminine women, who therefore make the male characters seem more masculine by comparison. The otokoyaku train their voices to reach low octaves, attempting for a husky tone, while the musumeyaku practice an unnaturally high tone. Beyond that, the Japanese language also provides a way to set them apart from each other, as they can use gendered language to an extreme that most Japanese people don’t use in their day-to-day speech.

Before I went for my year abroad in Tokyo, I had heard about Takarazuka and was intrigued. During my time there, I saw two shows at the Tokyo Takarazuka Theatre and I found myself enraptured by their performances. There was a Disneyland-esque feeling of a fantasy land being brought into the real world. Indeed, Takarazuka is sometimes called a “Dream Factory.” The otokoyaku held a particular mesmerizing appeal.

One Takarazuka show I saw while I was in Tokyo was The Rose of Versailles, the company’s most famous play. Based on a classic manga series of the same name, it follows the story of Oscar, a female who is raised as a male because her father needed a son. This show adds another delightful layer of gender confusion, and throughout the years there has been discussion about what kind of actress should play Oscar; the actresses who play females, the musumeyaku, or the actresses who play males, the otokoyaku? Generally they choose an otokoyaku, who then ironically plays a more feminine character than usual, a woman pretending to be a man rather than a pure male character. This is further complicated by her romantic relationship with her male friend and companion, Andre. This is my favorite scene, in which a young Andre is introduced to Oscar, who immediately challenges him to a sword fight. You then get to see them grow up together in a few flashes of theater magic:

The advance tickets were sold out for this show within hours of becoming available, but there were also limited same-day at the door tickets. I stood in line with some hardcore fans from 6:00 am to 10:00 am in the freezing winter cold in order to secure these tickets.


Luckily my friends and I could take turns to run to the local convenience store to buy hand warmer packets. During that time I was bemused to observe fan club members, dressed in identical scarves and shirts, standing in a line outside the theater and waiting patiently for hours until their favorite actress arrived so that they could hand her gifts and letters. The clubs will perform this ritual both before shows and after, simply to have that moment of contact with their favorite star.

The Takarazuka Fanclub


Almost all of the star actresses have one or more specialized fan clubs, where dedicated fans take on almost a cult-like tendency as they support their favorite actress. The Takarazuka official fan club, Takarazuka Tomonokai (Takarazuka Friends’ Society), was founded in 1934 and is a general club for any Takarazuka fan. But almost all of the stars have their own personal fan clubs. The top stars often have more than a thousand loyal fan club members. Although the group was originally intended to appeal to families and to young girls, the typical fans today are usually middle aged married women.

Club activities include writing letters together, discussing theater, and staging their own plays. Letters to the actresses typically contain compliments, requests for advice on personal problems, gentle criticism of the star’s latest performance, or may sometimes even contain love confessions or sexual content. While the newer fans can only have contact with their favorite actress through those letters and fleeting moments outside the theater, long time fans will perform duties such as chauffeuring her to and from the theater, preparing meals for her, and in some cases even providing financial support.

When attending a Kabuki performance, I saw two otokoyaku accompanied by two fans sitting in the most expensive seats, no doubt purchased as a gift by the fans. How did I know they were otokoyaku? Even outside the theater, they dress in a particular style that is fashionable and sleek and androgynous. They also have a particular aura, such that one could practically feel their presence in the room. The rest of the audience also seemed keenly aware of their presence, but they were guarded the entire time by their adoring fans. My friends and I noticed them immediately, and since we were up in the balcony we spent the entire intermission peering down at them with our binoculars.

How Do You Categorize Them?


Quote from a fan of Takarazuka:

Japanese men are boring, so of course women love Takarazuka. The husbands work so hard that they have no time for their wives, and Takarazuka is a place for wives to go that doesn’t threaten their husbands. At Takarazuka, women can express the emotion they can’t show their coldhearted husbands. Takarazuka never disappoints them. (Takarazuka: Sexual Politics and Popular Culture in Modern Japan).

Because Takarazuka fans seem so passionate about their favorite actresses, Western scholars who study Takarazuka often describe it as a “lesbian” phenomenon, while Japanese scholars, fans, and actresses alike insist that there is no romantic attraction at work. Instead they explain the bond as a sisterly bond, with younger fans and actresses acting as the adoring imouto(younger sister) and the older ones acting as the wise, protecting oneesama (older sister). In fact they often use these words to describe each other. But as many fans of anime and manga have no doubt noticed, this kind of relationship can seem very romantic to an outside eye. And in some ways, it is romantic.

Even so, there is no way to call Takarazuka fans lesbians. They do not fit into Western ideas of romance and sexuality, where one must fall into one of several neat categories. They exist somewhere in between, and while Americans might try to figure out the exact nature of the relationship, Japanese Takarazuka fans are perfectly content to leave that question unasked, and to enjoy their hobby with no shame.

When an answer can’t be nailed down, sometimes we have to let that question go and enjoy the uncertainty.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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More Than Gaijin: Specific Ethnic Groups Living in Japan Thu, 10 Jul 2014 16:00:03 +0000 When you hear that Japan is a homogenous country, know that it’s a lie. There’s certainly less diversity here than other places, but there are tons of foreigners. Some are harder to spot than others, partially because there is pressure to conform and blend in, but diversity is here. We have preconceived notions of many ethnicities in our own countries, so Japan isn’t alone in its treatment of foreigners. But their treatment is a bit different (again, partially because of that emphasis to fit into the group). There are so many other foreigners out here that I feel some comments should be made about some of these stereotypes. That way, hopefully, people have a starting point for in-depth discussions about, not only being a gaijin in Japan, but something more specific. Being Nepalese, being half Korean, half Japanese, Vietnamese American. In Japan! Something more than just gaijin.

She’s Not Foreign!


Photo by Dylan Raife

I know people forget this often but, sometimes, just because someone looks foreign, doesn’t mean they are. Some of us are born to parents who look a little different from other native people and end up kind of in between two or more cultures. I know a bit about how this feels, but Japan isn’t my home country. I have been mistaken for half in Japan, but it’s more funny than insulting to me. I know I’m foreign here, but for the kids born here that look foreign, I know it can be rough.

As a teacher, the first day of the first semester generally means I have to do a self introduction. While for normal people this should take less than a minute, for some reason, Japanese teachers want to make it much, much longer. I’ve turned mine into something more akin to “people and places in my life before Japan” because, well, talking about yourself for up to an hour seems really narcissistic. Anyway, while I’m doing my presentation, I notice there’s a little commotion centered around one student. The room’s a bit dark at this time, so I can’t tell why. I keep looking to the teacher, and he just smiles. I’m still not sure if it was because he knew why it was happening and wanted to surprise me, or because it was normal and he didn’t think much of it. When the lights come up and I ask if anyone has any questions, I see the students staring at the kid: she’s half white, half Japanese. I’ve been in similar situations myself but, as a kid, I didn’t really share my ethnicity and people could never guess it. I knew the girl didn’t want to be singled out, so I just taught class as I usually do. She never spoke and never raised her hand. She didn’t try to come talk to me after class or school. Instead, on her introduction card, which only I see, she says the obvious, like any other normal Japanese kid would. It turns out her mother is from the same state as me, but she spells it the way Japanese people would.

I rarely interact with her but, when I do, she’s fully Japanese. Some students get very interested when I randomly call on her or in the very rare cases she’s brave enough to ask for help in class, but she’s very much a normal Japanese girl. Her English isn’t great. There are many students better at English than her, even in her own class. We have no special bond, no chats after class, nothing like that. I know she’s Japanese but mixed, and she knows it too. She knows kids are staring and expect her to do something different, to suddenly turn super foreign and, I don’t know, speak perfect English and suddenly know all about America. But it doesn’t happen. It’s not that much different from the states except that here, it stands out much more.

If anything, I probably end up connecting more with the kids who are mixed asian. Students secretly (or sometimes openly) tell me they’re also mixed or born to foreign (asian) parents after my self introduction, if my mixed heritage comes up. I’ll talk about it a bit more later, but sometimes it’s the teachers who tell me someone is mixed, like it’s a secret, and those are the kids that, like the girl I described above, might distance themselves from me a bit. Moreso than her, though, there’s kind of some unspoken tension because we both know what being mixed and “not foreign” is like, and calling any attention to it is just not needed most of the time except when the kid gets teased.

It’s not just something that happens in class though. I had a kid somehow mistake me for her dad in the super market and grab my leg. Maybe it’s because we both were wearing black jeans and, being a small child, she didn’t look high enough before latching onto my leg. I heard perfect Japanese, no accent, and looked down to see a little black girl. Mom (Japanese) and dad (African) had a good laugh as the kid noticed her mistake and found them a few aisles down.

Asian Foreigners or “Oh, So You’re Not a Japanese Girl?”


Photo by camknows

I hope that Tofugu faithfuls recall Austin hitting on this topic, but will hopefully allow me to make a few broad additions and add new voice to the discussion.

As Austin mentioned, the Japanese often can’t tell the difference between their country’s men (or women) and non-Japanese Asians until they hear an accent, and sometimes even then they seem to have trouble. For example, I went to a Chinese restaurant with some Japanese friends and I noticed the waitress’ accent. I mentioned that I thought she was Chinese, but my friends didn’t believe me, so we asked her in the politest way possible (“Can you speak Chinese? Oh, where did you learn it?”) and yes, she said she was Chinese and had moved to Japan. Now, I’m not saying everyone can do this, but let’s compare this to my trip to Korea where my Japanese friend, who always approached people in English, always had Korean people greeting him in Japanese. As much as he thought he’d be able to blend in, he somehow stood out like I normally do in the Japanese countryside.

From what I’ve gathered, in Japanese eyes, Koreans seem “preferable” to Chinese. I’ve never heard complaints about the accent or personalities from Japanese people about Koreans, only sometimes that Koreans can be a bit “outgoing.” When I’ve brought up the idea of studying a foreign language, a fair number of students I’ve had in Kanto said they wanted to study Korean. It’s seen as “cool” by the younger generation. Korean dramas and bands are really popular here, and the “Korean Towns” I’ve visited aren’t just filled with Koreans.

However, even being Korean-Japanese still gets you treated as a foreigner. Teachers will sometimes “out” a student to me. I will say that the Korean students do stand out a bit most of the time, and seem to be popular. But for the most part, I would have never guessed they were foreign born unless I had been told. In some ways, it almost feels like the reverse of the American perspective of Canadians, in that they’re seen as friendly neighbors, but Japanese kids at least seem to think Koreans are cool, or at least when there’s no political misalignment (though a lot of the kids don’t seem to understand why Koreans are sometimes angry at Japan).

The Chinese, though, get a lot of complaints, both from Japanese men and women. I had a student everyone called “China” even though his dad was Japanese. He had a Chinese accent and was tall, so it was hard for him to blend in. The person he seemed closest to (and got teased by the most) was a yankiI think they meshed together because they were both outsiders. Unlike other kids, when he learned I was mixed, he was pretty happy. I could get him to work a little harder just by giving him a little extra attention, or he might hang back in the hall to talk a bit if I saw him between classes or after school, which isn’t totally uncommon for Japanese students, but it’s usually the sign you’ve won them over.

Like in English, Chinese accents (and thereby the people) are often accused of “sounding angry” in Japanese, which is something part of my culture is accused of (I prefer see it as “passionate”). Chinese are often seen as selfish and loud, more so than rude Americans, except that no one here understands Chinese (even though Mandarin is honestly spoken in my city more than English). The typical idea of Chinese here seems to be that they always want to be first in line and always speak loudly and don’t care who’s around. I’m sure white foreigners are a bit familiar with this idea, except Japanese really don’t understand Mandarin or Cantonese, so whatever’s being said is just a mystery to the locals. With Western English speakers, however, they usually understand quite a bit about when you’re complaining about Japanese culture.

What’s funny though, I’ve heard many Chinese people here say the Japanese are too quiet and polite, and that the food here “has no taste”. Of all the foreigners though, I feel like I get along with the Chinese best in that we try to blend in a bit, but also understand that we have our own culture and want to share it. One thing to note, though: If you’re dating Chinese and Japanese out here, be ready for a bit of a rant if you tell one that you’ve dated the other!

My Vietnamese friend and her mother who visited kind of blended in, until they spoke. My friend would get dirty looks because, truthfully, she’s more endowed than your average Japanese girl and showed a little skin, but once she started speaking to her mom in Vietnamese, people apparently got a little confused. I was recently talking to her and figured it might be nice to get some exact quotes from a female, non-Japanese Vietnamese, American-born perspective:

“It was oddly comfortable in Japan compared to say when I was visiting Canada or France. Maybe it was because everyone was Asian, so non-Asian foreigners stood out a lot more. However, in Tokyo, it was clear that my mom and I were foreigners in some sense because of the way we dressed. Tokyo’s very…stylish and the women there dress very feminine, while my mom and I were more comfortable in jeans. I really think that I was the only girl my age wearing jeans…and I got even strange looks when I finally took out my flip flops. Of course, the “low cut” shirts were also a very odd experience since that’s what would be considered mildly “conservative” where I’m from. My sister-in-law mentioned that when she went to Japan during May two years back, when she wore shorts, and got a lot of stares. And she doesn’t wear Daisy duke short shorts; they’re typical shorts that stop just above the knee.”

“I would get strange looks from Japanese people when I was speaking in Vietnamese to my mom – and when I couldn’t think of the word – switch to English. Or a full-on English sentence.”

“My mom wasn’t really into all the bowing. She felt uncomfortable when we went to the hotel and the staff members bowed at us. For me, I understand that it’s a cultural thing, but for my mom, who really takes pride in women standing up for themselves and all that, felt uncomfortable and sorry for the staff.”

European and Not “White”


Photo by camknows

During the last Cherry Blossom festival, I met an older German woman selling bratwurst. I can’t tell every nationality apart, but from both the look and sound of her, I knew she was German when she stood up: heavy accent, fading blond hair, blue eyes, and tall. Very tall. We had a short chat, and one thing that was kind of interesting popped up: Japanese people apparently thought she was from England!

That’s important because in Japan, many people (Japanese and traveling foreigners alike) see white Europeans and seem to think they’re American, English, Australian, or Canadian. If you’re Irish, they might ask why your accent’s so different. French? “Your English is amazing!”

Often on trains, I’ll see “white” people who are French, Spanish, and Portuguese. The travelers are always happy to ask me questions since my English is (naturally) better than the locals’ and they have questions. Those who teach here though are sometimes a bit miffed. Sometimes they’re accused of “not speaking real English” because it’s also their second language though. At the same time, they’re seen as experts. It can be a frustrating situation from what I’ve seen and heard, but I hear most of it second hand. Just know that if you’re from Europe but not England, Japanese might ask you about your hometown, what foods you like, and might even ask for some recipes. How do I know ? To be honest, after a bunch of drunk Americans walked by a little ramen shop I was having lunch at, the store owner turned to me and asked where my parents came from. I claimed the French part. And I taught them about French toast. Not my proudest moment, but now you fellow Americans who know your background, maybe a little of the language and food can pull that off if your colleagues get horribly embarrassing and you are tired of playing ambassador (sorry America!).

Quick aside to those who are mixed in America and are asked about their heritage by European people: If your grandparent came from Europe, but not your parent, you might be told you’re not European, just American. It’s happened a few times when trying to explain my various ethnicities (more on that later). Simply note which exact family member came from which European country in order to possibly avoid the long debate on when Americans stop being foreigners and become Americans (personal opinion: when people stop questioning your nationality).

“What are you?”- The Rest of Us


Some cultures here are rarer than others, and while I have maybe a single, strong experience with a group or many small run-ins with the same people, I’m kind of lumping them together because I have experience (or a great link to share) and have done the “cross culture” chat with them a few times so I don’t look like a total boob. That being said, remember these are just my experiences, and everyone will have a different one.

Now, I really hate saying this, especially with the current political climate, but in Japan, Muslim people stand out in Japan, and in a horrible way. I don’t really mean it in the “terrorist” way, but there’s that too. I used to have a long beard and long hair I kept under a beanie, and my brother was often described as either “That guy that looks like Jesus” or “the terrorist.” And that was in English. In Japan, he got stopped pretty often and attracted a lot of attention, good and bad.

No, it’s not quite the “terrorist” thing. The religion is seen as extreme, and the dietary restrictions are starting to become well known even in the inaka.” I had a co-worker who was Muslim and she had a very difficult time with food, which is one of the things Japanese really try to share. The easiest way to bond with most people is through food in my opinion, and when you can’t do that, things become difficult. Japanese people don’t realize that almost everything they eat is haram, or “not allowed.” They know about the “no pork” thing, and some know about “no alcohol”, but they don’t know quite how far Muslims take this. For example, I was told that a lot of baked goods (even the bread!) from convenience stores comes from factories that use pork-based grease on their pans. That’s not allowed. Mirin? It’s a kind of rice wine. Not allowed. Even things with soy sauce are dicey because natural soy sauce is fermented. Fermentation is how you make alcohol, which is very much haram. How the new Muslim Egyptian sumo is able to keep his weight here is a mystery to me.

Black people in Japan is something I don’t want to talk a lot about, not because it makes me uncomfortable, but because it’s a whole other article. Dark skin in asian countries is usually not viewed well, but Nigerians in Tokyo have particularly stood out and are associated with crime. Obviously not every Nigerian is like that, but the stereotype is hard to avoid, even out in the inaka where the rare black people I see are often working in a hip-hop store if they aren’t teachers. For those who want a really good, slice-of-life black-in-Japan look, I suggest reading Gaijin Chronicles. The blog hasn’t been updated in a few years, but it covers the topic so well, and in so much detail for everyday life, that I really can’t even try to do it any justice. Just give it a read.

Next time you to got an Indian place, ask yourself this: are they Indian or Nepalese? I won’t lie, I can’t tell the difference, which is why I ask. My favorite “Indian” restaurant here is actually run by a guy from Nepal, and he actually had another place in Tokyo before. Japanese people who lament not being able to practice English in the inaka always forget that Indian and Nepalese people speak English. They say it’s “not real English” but let’s be honest: there are so many dialects of English, you might as well use what you’ve learned and talk to someone else who can understand you. Honestly, any Japanese people reading this: go talk to foreign staff at your favorite curry house! They’re always friendly, to the point where the half Indian kid who barely speaks English (born in Japan) still goes out of his way to greet me if we bump into each other, even though I only ate at his parents’ place one time. Same goes for the Indian guys from another place. The Nepalese guys… I only go to their place twice a year, but they seem to know I love their food, or are just happy to have someone to practice English with. Anywhere I see them they give me a head nod at the very least.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m mixed. If I say I’m part Ainu, people are actually willing to believe it, even though it’s a joke. If a co-worker introduces me as half Japanese, people will believe it. Sometimes, if the conversation is right, Japanese people will think I’m half too. That’s only the ones that are more culturally aware though. Most Japanese just see my beard and think I’m American, English, or German (got a bit of all of that in me though, so that’s fair). However, I do get asked where my parents are from, and “America” isn’t good enough because, like many Americans, some Japanese can tell I’m “not quite white.”

Other foreign people seem to pick up on it too though. Spanish people have approached me in Spanish first. I’ve gotten a “guten tag” while I was in Kyoto before my terrible German quickly revealed to them that I was not a native speaker, and just last month, I had an Indian or Nepalese ask for directions yet insist that I was from a Middle Eastern country (I have Persian friends who would have been a bit upset with that).

Some people say I should be mad, or I should call them out on their racism, but let’s be honest: if you’re not a little bit racist, you’re probably terribly innocent. Americans people love cheese and bacon, Germans love beer, Asians can use chopsticks. You can actually offend people by questioning them about these things, even though there are honestly people out there that these stereotypes don’t apply to. I’ve seen it happen, and I’ve been the guy that didn’t fit the stereotype and the one that was shocked I was asked about it. It’s just how our world works.

In general, foreigners stand out a lot, even in Japan, unless you’re a quiet Asian. Much like the “Are you Chinese?” question many Asians report encountering, Japan has only the faintest idea of where people come from. And sometimes it’s really, really far off. Just smile, laugh, and try to educate people a little.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Interview About Lang-8′s New Service: HiNative Mon, 07 Jul 2014 16:00:44 +0000 Most everyone who reads Tofugu knows about the language learning site Lang-8 (and if you don’t you should check it out). Lang-8′s creator, YangYang, has recently released a new service which has seemingly spawned from something that comes up a lot in Lang-8: People want to ask questions about languages. There is a saying in Japanese: 餅は餅屋 (Mochi wa Mochiya), which literally means “you should ask a rice cake shop about rice cakes” and figuratively means “leave it to a specialist”. We wanted to know more about this new service so I talked to the CEO of Lang-8, YangYang Xi. He will answer all our questions about HiNative in this article so we can learn more about it and why they created it.

Name: YangYang Xi. Occupation: Lang-8 CEO


Q. What’s your story?

I was born in China, moved to Japan at the age of four and grew up in Japan, so I was never really good at speaking Chinese when I was younger. So when I was a university student I went to Shanghai to study the Chinese language for one year. During that time, I did a language exchange and my Chinese skills rapidly improved. I then thought it would be a great service. After coming back to Japan, I developed lang-8 with my friend and made it into company after my graduation.

Thanks to everyone, it grew in to a worldwide service with about 870,000 users from 190 countries (4 more countries to conquer the world). Then, this year, we launched a new service (still need to improve a lot of things though) called HiNative which enables you to ask native speakers any questions at any time. I can’t wait to introduce this awesome new service to you all!

Q.Really quickly for the people who don’t know, what is Lang-8?

Lang-8 is a language exchange platform, which is an SNS language learning service that native speakers utilize to teach their languages to each other.

Q. How did Lang-8 go from your bedroom to the company it is today?

I just wanted to make Lang-8 bigger, so I set up a company.

Q. Why should people use Lang-8?

I think learning from native speakers is the shortest way to improving language skills. That’s how I improved my Chinese and Lang-8 enables everyone to do so without actually going abroad.

Q. So you now have a new service called HiNative. What is that?


It’s a service where you can be frank about asking native speakers about absolutely anything, including language-related things, as if you were saying “Hi!” to them.

It’s aimed to be used on the Smartphone or tablet, though we are still in the middle of developing the app, so literally you can ask questions from anywhere you are with a simple press of a button.

Q. Why should people use HiNative?


In my experience, I often come up with random questions about the language I am learning and/or some cultural things of other countries. I could ask my friends to find the answer out, but I don’t want to bother them too much. I think many people have similar experiences. In such situations, if you have “HiNative” on your phone or tablet, you can freely ask questions without imposing on your friends.

We also set up some question forms that people can make a question sentence just by tapping the screen because we want HiNative to be very user friendly for everyone. We received a lot of Lang-8 user’s voice messages saying that they don’t even know how to ask questions, though they have many things to ask in their minds. So we hope this format option will be helpful to such people.


You can choose the language level you believe yourself to be at, so if you choose beginner, it is often that you will you be replied back to in your native language.

Q. Can you give me some examples of how somebody might use HiNative in real life?

You may think you can just Google the meaning of a word, but if you are a serious language learner, you’ll probably know that the dictionary is not always right. Even if it is right, the word you searched may be too formal for the situation you’re in. So when you want to find the true and natural usage of a word or a sentence, HiNative will be a perfect tool for it.

As I said above, you can ask any questions such as “What is the current most popular thing in the country?” Furthermore, if you are at a restaurant and you don’t understand what the menu says, you can take a photo, upload it, and ask native speakers what it is. In the future, we will make it an option to upload sound or video and a native speaker will be able to answer whether or not your pronunciation is right. There are a lot of uses.

As a real life example, I thought this one is quite unique. The Chinese person named bebe found the word 泡盛り(Awamori) on a face washing soap. Awamori is actually a type of alcohol and that’s the only meaning that she/he found on her/his dictionary. So she/he was wondering why it was written on the soap. Japanese people answered it is not a common usage and only used to emphasize that there are a lot (盛) of bubbles (泡) that the soap can make as a pun of the famous alcohol 泡盛. I’m pretty sure that bebe would not be able to find out the answer without asking native speakers.

Q. Do you have plans for an app in the future?

We are currently making the app. HiNative is intended to be used with smooth operation on smart phones and tablets just tapping the screen.

Q.What do you think about the language learning industry right now (in general?)

There are so many language-learning sites right now, but most of them are “contents-type”, which offer you a set material. On the other hand, the “SNS-type” such as Lang-8 and HiNative aren’t that numerous yet. In that sense, I think our services still have great potential.

Q. How could language learning be improved more (in general)?

I believe that you can improve language by actually using the language that you have learned and by making a lot of mistakes, then ask native speakers to fix it or adjust your requests.

Q.How are you trying to fix those problems with Lang-8 / HiNative?

Even though you are in an environment without native speakers around you, you can get the language you are learning fixed by native speakers on Lang-8 and ask questions to them via HiNative without any wait time. If you study with non-native speakers, you may not learn natural expressions, but you can learn natural phrases from native speakers on Lang-8 and HiNative.

Q. What do you think language learning will look like 10 years from now?

I’m not sure about 10 years from now, but in the near future the technology will be incredibly increased by machines making the perfect translation. If such time does come, HiNative will be used not only for language questions but for things more related to cultural differences and opinions.

Q.What are some upcoming features or updates for Lang-8?

We are focusing on HiNative from now on, so we will maintain the current state of Lang-8 for a while.

Q. What are some upcoming features or updates for HiNative?

We will make an app and an option to upload sounds and videos. We will also make some small improvements as well. Oh, and we haven’t decided the mascot character’s name yet, so we will get that done.

Q. Why is your mascot character Momonga (Flying Squirrel)?


I’m not sure, so I’ll let our designer answer that.

(The Design of Lang-8 Nutti~ answers)

I wanted to use a unique character and I’ve never seen a flying squirrel used as a mascot for anything else. They also fly quite fast from branch to branch, and it reminds me of a scene of people chatting with and questioning each other. That is why I chose the flying squirrel for the HiNative mascot.

The name hasn’t been decided, but I call it “Monga-sama” with myself. The name of the Ai file that I drew the illustration in is too. We would appreciate it if you could let us know if you like the name Monga-sama, or if you have come up with what you think is a better name and why you believe it is so.

Q. Do you have any other messages about HiNative to share with the Tofugu readers?

HiNative is an incredibly useful and cool website, so please try it out if you’re interested in learning a new language.


We at Tofugu are interested in seeing how HiNative grows and evolves. I mean, anything made by the creator of Lang-8 is worth keeping an eye on, I think. At the very least, perhaps you can direct some of your Japanese-related questions to HiNative instead of our support emails :p

But, being able to ask a native speaker a question and get an answer fairly quickly is quite a nice thing to have. In the past, you would have to search for an answer or ask the question on a forum, and you’re never sure if anyone will answer it. Now there’s an actual place for it, and if this works as well as Lang-8 does, you’ll be getting answers soon after posting them. Plus, being a community environment you add the “give and take” equation in there. You help out people and they help you out. Everyone’s warm and fuzzy.

If you’d like to try out HiNative for yourself you can visit the HiNative website on your smartphone or tablet.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Mr. Heavy Metal: An Interview with Marty Friedman Tue, 01 Jul 2014 16:00:58 +0000 Imagination time: You’re one of the world’s greatest guitar players and a pioneer of the metal genre. You’ve had an illustrious career in the U.S. and it shows no signs of stopping. You’re at the top of the world! Where do you from there?

There are a million answers to that question, but Marty Friedman had only one: Japan.

After launching his career with twin guitar harmonization in his band Cacophony, Marty Friedman joined Megadeth in 1990. It was during that time he did groundbreaking work on chart-topping songs such as Symphony of DestructionLucretia, Angry Again, and Tornado of SoulsBy 1999, Marty had made four platinum albums with Megadeth, toured the globe, and become one of the most respected guitar virtuosi in the world. It was at this point he packed up his American life and moved to Tokyo. If his career was unfolding so spectacularly, why move to another country and start over? What obstacles did he face in a move to Japan? What successes did he find once he got there?

Rather than answer these questions, I’ll let Marty speak for himself. Tofugu had the wonderful opportunity to quiz Marty on these topics shortly after the debut his new solo album Inferno (which I must personally say MELTED MY FACE OFF!). Fasten thy seatbelt, dear reader, as Tofugu interviews the man who rocks Japan.

Learning the Guitar


Marty began teaching himself guitar at the age of fourteen. While living in Hawaii as a teenager, he first heard Japanese enka music, which had a profound impact on his guitar playing.

Q. When did you first hear Japanese music?

I lived in Hawaii in my teens, that’s where I first heard it, but at that time I was just mesmerized by enka singing only. I wasn’t really into Japanese pop or rock back then.

Q. How did enka influence your early guitar playing?

I emulated the voices of top class enka singers with my guitar. Everyone else was copying Eddie Van Halen, Jeff Beck, and guys like that so most guitarists sounded quite similar then. I was on a different path of guitar interpretation altogether.

Q. What enka singers were you listening to and which would you say had the most influence on your music?

At the time, I really didn’t know who was who, I just knew I was listening to the major artists, because those were probably the only ones you could get your hands on their music, at the time, in a local store that would sell Japanese cassettes and stuff like that. I later found out that it was people like Misora Hibari and Kobayashi Sachiko and Yashiro Aki and Ishikawa Sayuri, who – except for Hibari – I’ve actually worked with all of these superstars. That’s absolutely blown my mind. Those were the big ones, and they have all had the same influence on my music, which was just the fantastic way that they sang, created a whole new world of ways I could express melodies on my guitar. I would have to say all of those people. Probably the most would be Misora Hibari and unfortunately, she passed away, so I was never able to work with her. She is probably the biggest direct influence on my guitar playing.

Q. For those who have never heard enka but are interested, what enka singers would you recommend starting with?

Anyone from that first list would be fantastic. Those are the big ones, and you could also add Miyako Harumi to that list.

Q. What Japanese experiences did you have in Hawaii that foreshadowed your future in Japan?

It was totally subconscious foreshadowing. I never would’ve dreamt in a million years that I would have anything to do with living in Japan, back in the Hawaii days. However, I did listen to a singer named Mihara Junko, because one of my guitar students had brought it in to learn. I thought it was very odd that such sugary-sweet-candy-pop music would have so much guitar riffing and guitar soloing in it. I just thought that was the oddest thing. I don’t know what the pop music at that time was like in America, maybe stuff like Tiffany or Debbie Gibson or something. That type of music would never ever have guitar solos in it, and yet the Japanese ones would not only have guitar solos but odd time signatures and riffs and typical heavy metal things, so I was really blown away by that.

Q. When did you first go to Japan and why? What were your first impressions? Did you have any idea you would eventually live there?

No idea I would live there. My first impressions were, ‘Man, this is like being on a futuristic planet.’ [I went] because I was in a band called Cacophony, and we were doing our first tour of Japan.

Learning Japanese with Megadeth


Marty played in several bands during his early career, most notably Cacophony from 1986 to 1988. In 1990, he joined the legendary metal band MegadethDuring his tenure with Megadeth, Marty helped produce some of the bands best music and began teaching himself Japanese.

Q. What prompted you to start learning Japanese?

The first time I came to Japan, I was so thrilled at being there, that I really wanted to know what people were saying, particularly about me, and I wanted to be able to read the signs.

Q. How did your abilities as a self-taught musician influence or help your language learning?

Probably a lot. In music, I’ve always been excellent at learning exactly what I want to do to be able to create my music and avoid things I don’t have a use for. In language, its almost exactly the same, as I learned to communicate the way I needed to, not the way a textbook might have taught me.

Q. What are some ways you sidestepped traditional textbook language learning and took your own path?

This advice works for music as well as language, but just getting into it. Not learning it, not practicing – just doing it. Of course, I learned a lot of the basics – the very, very basics – of grammar and stuff and basic Kanji writing from textbooks and learning in class. But I would say 95% of what I’ve learned has been completely just from immersing myself in situations where I have to speak Japanese. That means working in a Japanese atmosphere. Working in a Japanese recording session where everybody’s Japanese. Doing Japanese television is absolutely the best thing for learning Japanese, because you have to read cue cards, you have to say something interesting on the spot, you have to join the conversation. There could not be a possible better way to learn Japanese than that. I realize that’s a bit extravagant for most people, but I would certainly say coming to Japan is by far the best way to learn the language, much more than taking a college course or learning by books. Just being there and doing things on a daily basis, whether it be home stay or working in Japan or just living in Japan, or doing some kind of exchange student type of thing. Being in Japan and not speaking English is by far the best way to learn the language.

Q. Did your ear for music help you with learning Japanese?

Certainly. Language requires astute listening, as music also does. Doing either of them professionally will definitely set you up well to do the other.

Q. For those who are not musically inclined, what are some ways to train their ears for music and thus also for language learning?

I will admit, being musically inclined helps in your language skills, because there’s so much hearing and listening for things and remembering things, so it helps. If you’re not musically inclined, [you can] your ears for music. There is no better training than just immersing yourself in music and listening to music you love, and trying to figure out what the things you really love are, and why is it that you really love them. The deeper you think about that kind of stuff, you’ll be surprised how far you get towards your ear being developed.

Starting Over in Japan


In 1999, Marty left Megadeth for good. There was no decline in financial success that led to his decision. The motivation was pure passion and artistic drive.

Q. What made you decide to make the bold move to Japan? You had a flourishing career in the states, after all!

I looked at the top ten in the U.S. and rarely found [a single] song that I liked. I looked at the top ten in Japan, and usually 8 or 9 songs were songs I liked. As an artist, I knew I had to be in a place where I wanted to make music.

Q. After you moved to Japan, did you experience any culture shock?

Not much. After touring the world X number of times, and maybe 20 times in Japan, nothing surprises me.

Q. How did you establish your career in Japanese music?

Literally one event at a time. One TV show, one recording session, one concert at a time, people started to see what I was able to do and that I was kind of unusual.

Q. What did you do that was unusual?

I left a multi-platinum band in America and just pretty much packed up and moved to Japan, all of a sudden, because I wanted to be a part of the Japanese music industry, the domestic music industry. That’s pretty unusual. And I think I’m – without question – the only person who’s done that. There was never really a specific instance that wowed someone, that launched me into a new level of popularity. Not that I know of, anyway. For better or for worse, my popularity – so to speak – has always, even from the beginning of my career to now, grown in extremely small, small increments, so small that even I don’t notice it. I’m basically just doing what I do, the main thing being making my music, doing what I love to do. And if people join the party, that’s great. I’ve never been the best PR person for myself. Although it’s a necessary evil, and I do my best, but I’m just not that great at it. I just do what I’m best at. Seems like people have joined the party as I’ve gone along. It’s really been a fantastic experience.

Q. How many events and shows did you play in Japan before you felt established? Was it hard starting your career over?

The first step was a tour that I did with a singer named Aikawa Nanase. She’s a household name in Japan. She asked me to join her band, maybe three months after I moved here. I did a rather long tour with her. Maybe like 25 cities in Japan, which is a lot considering most bands do three or four or five at the most. I don’t know if I felt established after that, but I felt like, ‘Okay, now I don’t think I’m going to have any problems going to the next step, because I’m in it. I’ve got my foot in the door and it’s going great.’ It was quite difficult starting my career over, but the challenge was actually what made it fun. When I came to Japan, I was very well known as an International musician, but not known almost at all on the domestic scene. That’s the scene that I wanted to get into. A lot of people saw me and said, ‘Who is this new long-haired foreign guy playing Japanese music? I’ve never heard of him, but he sounds pretty cool. He looks cool.’ It was interesting starting my career over. I rather enjoyed it.

Marty the TV Star


Shortly after starting his Japanese music career, Marty unexpectedly launched a TV career as well.

Q. How did you get started in Japanese TV?

I was asked to do a show called, Hebimeta San (Mr. Heavy Metal). [It was] a brand new show which was like a parody variety show. It’s kind of a send up, taking the piss at heavy metal music. All in good fun, like tongue in cheek. The premise of the show was to expose people’s secret heavy metal fantasies, like people who you’d never think are metal fans but actually are, like models and actors, and stuff like that.  It was a pilot but went well so it lasted 26 weeks, and then its spinoff Rock Fujiyama lasted 52 weeks. Being a regular on those shows started me off.

Q. How did you get that initial gig on Hebimeta-san?

I got an offer to do the show. They asked me to do it, and at that time, I was really not into it, because I wanted to get deeper into Japanese pop music and I’d already been touring with Aikawa Nanase, and it was going great. I was spreading out into the world that I wanted to get into. I really didn’t want to be known as this heavy metal guy, for what my goals were at that point. I was reluctant. When they asked me to do the show, they said, ‘You can just try it once, and if you don’t like it, then you don’t have to keep doing it.’ I did it and it went absolutely fantastic, and the production company pleaded with me to keep going. I did it because I loved it. It was so stimulating. It started a whole bunch of new things.

Q. How much creative control did you have as a host on Hebimeta-san and Rock Fujiyama?

Unfortunately, I had too much creative control, because it was a lot of responsibility. It was the type of thing where I was working very closely with the directors of the show on the content. It was so hard, because how do you make heavy metal funny? How do you make music that you’re playing funny? It was a lot of musical sketches, and musical bits where I’d have to come up with very strange guitar stuff that normally you would never, ever have to do. It really tapped me musically, but it was fantastic for the stimulation of my brain, I’ll tell you, but it was intense hard work. Usually, one of the directors of the show would come to my house on a specific day, and we would brainstorm for hours and hours, and once we’d get the ideas of what we were going to do, then I’d have to make demos of everything, I’d have to record everything that we planned to do. Then, I’d have to memorize a lot of strange, strange collaborations of music that I would make myself. I would have to memorize it, and if there are other guests involved, I’ll have to teach them their parts or have them learn their parts and it was quite an ordeal, every time. I loved doing it, but it was a ton of hard work. Definitely some of the hardest TV work I ever had to do.

Q. Who were your most memorable guests on that show?

Man, there was a lot of great guests. Most of them were Japanese. I really enjoyed having Yashiro Aki on the show. That was the first time I met her and I was – like I told you before – completely in awe of her. When she agreed to do my thing on the show, I was ecstatic and she was so wonderful to me. We’ve been very, very close since then and worked several times after that. She was great. There was a lot of good foreign guests, foreign meaning American guests. Andrew W. K. was fantastic on the show. Kerry King from Slayer was a great foreign guest, and really brought some American credibility to the show, because the show was really a silly parody show, with a lot of wacky guitar stuff going on, and a lot of wacky segments. It was good to have a real thrash metal type of dude on the show. He was a real good sport. There was tons of memorable guests. It seems like a lot of people in the music industry loved watching the show, so they were more than happy to participate in it. Ken Yokoyama was also a great guest several times, he was a blast.

Q. What is your impression of Japanese variety TV as someone who has been a part of that world?

It can be silly, sometimes a bit disposable, but always interesting, fun and engaging. And a whole lot of hard work goes into it.

Q. What is the production cycle of a Japanese variety show?

Well, I sort of touched on it before with Rock Fujiyama, but they are all totally different. Usually I’m just a guest, maybe I’m on a panel or maybe I come in in a certain section of the show, where I have “Marty’s Corner” or whatever. My responsibilities are relatively light. I just learn the content of the show and go on there and bang it out. On Rock Fujiyama, it was a very intense production cycle, where the production stuff would come up with a lot of ideas and then they’d have a meeting without me. Then they’d have a meeting with me after their meeting. One of the producers would come to my house, like I said before, and we’d get into the actual details of what needs to be played, what kind of skits we’re going to do, what would be funny, what would be exciting, what would make people surprised and just how to make the show interesting. We would basically work for maybe two weeks on that and then shoot three weeks of programming in one long, long day. That would start maybe at seven in the morning and finish at 11:30 at night or so, maybe midnight even. I’d be happy to do it again. The shows I’ve done since then have been much, much easier.

Working in the Japanese Music Industry


Despite being a veteran of the U.S. music biz, Marty found a lot of new challenges (and pleasant surprises) in the Japanese music world.

Q. How does working in the Japanese music industry differ from the U.S.?

Domestic artists do many more things outside of recording and touring than in the U.S. They can be regulars on TV or radio shows, have magazine columns, and do other events to keep them in the spotlight. That’s why it’s not a big stretch for me to do so much TV here.

Q. Because you have so much flexibility as a Japanese music star, what avenues do you hope it opens up to you in the future?

I hope to be somehow involved with something that bridges the gap between American music and Japanese music. There’s a lot of great projects that are being heard outside of Japan, like Baby Metal and Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, and other great things. I would like to be involved in some kind of a mash-up, some kind of mix between Japanese stuff and American stuff. I have no idea what that’s going to be. When the right thing happens, it will happen, but I’m open for so many different things, and I have a real open mind. I have a couple of ideas in the fire right now that I’m working on, but you just never know what it’s going to be. You never know what that thing is that’s going to explode, but I just hope to be part of something where you can really bridge the cultures musically and break down some of the stereotypes, as well as build up some of the stereotypes. I’m looking forward to that.

Q. Who are your favorite Japanese music artists to work with?

So many…Hyadain is one of my favorite producers. We did a song for Momoiro Clover Z called, Mugen no Ai and I like to call that song the Bohemian Rhapsody of Japanese idol music.

Q. What artists do you like performing with? Any enka artists?

Enka artists, yes, and I’ve performed with the absolute best. I’ve done Kohaku with Ishikawa Sayuri. I’ve also played and arranged two new songs on her latest album that Takuro from Glay wrote. I wrote a song for Yashiro Aki, and played it on so many TV shows. It’s her latest single called MU-JO. Energy-wise, I love all of the artists I’ve worked with. Every single one has been fantastic. I really love playing with Kitade Nana. This was in about 2008, and I did five songs with her, my favorite being My Treasure. We did some live stuff. Energy-wise, Ame, she’s not from Japan she’s from Taiwan. I would say she’s the Beyonce of Asia. Her energy is mind-boggling, and I just go crazy when I play with her. Of course, Momoiro Clover, we’ve done a bunch of stuff together and there’s no words to describe the insane energy that we have, and that they have.

Inferno and Beyond


This past May, Marty released Inferno, his first album to be released outside of Japan in over a decade. It combines Marty’s years of dedication to the art of guitar playing with his diverse musical background. As I mentioned earlier, it melted my face off.

Q. Tell us a little about your new album, Inferno.

It’s by far the most entertaining and most ambitious album of my career so far.

Q. What Japanese influence can we hear on Inferno?

All of my experiences added up, create the music that I make, so my Japanese experience is all in there. To be specific, the song Inferno is kind of arranged like a Japanese drama. It’s based on a main theme that’s performed several times with different interpretations, different moods with exciting things connecting them in contrast. This I got from watching Japanese dramas, and watching the way they use musical themes in so many different interpretations. There might be a quiet version, a busy version, a jazzy version, a light version, a heavy rock version, punk version, whatever. That’s all kind of in the song Inferno.

Q. What elements of Inferno set it apart from your previous work? What sets it apart from other heavy metal albums?

It’s by far the most Marty-influenced album of all. All of my albums pretty much, they smell like Marty, but this one stinks of me. Even though I’ve had a lot of fantastic guests on this record, they’ve all gone through the Marty strainer, so to speak. I got exactly what I wanted out of these people. Their sound, not my sound, I didn’t make them play to my sound. I got what I loved out of their music and I got it in my record. It’s the most Marty as a musician, the most Marty as an artist, and the most Marty as a fan. I think, that in itself, sets it apart from other heavy metal albums, because I just have such a warped musical identity, that I can’t think of anything that it sounds like, for better or for worse.

Q. What do you like to do when you’re not rocking the Japanese music world?

I love playing music. I just got off a European tour and it’s my favorite thing to do, playing live. It took me maybe 16 months to record Inferno. I’ve pretty much had my fill of studios for awhile. I got back on the stage and played the stuff live in Europe, and I just loved playing live. That’s my favorite thing to do, whether it be Japan or anyplace in the world.

Q. If there was a Marty Friedman video game, what would it be like?

Maybe one of those mahjong games, where every time you win something, a girl strips. I like that. 

Marty’s album Inferno is now available on iTunesAmazon, and the Prosthetic Records Store. Listen at your own risk and bring a replacement face.

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All About Hikikomori: Japan’s Missing Million Wed, 18 Jun 2014 16:00:53 +0000 Everyone wants to retreat from the world sometimes. But while sitting in your room playing video games, scrolling through Tumblr and reading Tofugu articles may be the only things on your to-do list this weekend, you’ll eventually get over that failed test or bad breakup, and leave your room again to rejoin society. (Also, your weakened, sunlight-deprived body will need food that isn’t bright orange and puffed.)

But some Japanese people find themselves spending months—sometimes years—of their lives in their bedrooms, only slipping out for midnight treks to the nearest convenience store. Usually male and usually in their twenties, these are Japan’s “missing million,” otherwise known as hikikomori—and no one really knows why they’ve withdrawn from the world, though it’s not for lack of trying.

A Little Hikikomori History


Photo by Ben Seidelman

Saito Tamaki was working as a therapist in the city of Funabashi when he noticed a recurring pattern. Concerned parents kept coming to Saito asking him what they should do about their lethargic and anti-social children, who had sealed themselves inside their bedrooms. Saito would go on to study and later write a 1998 book about these young people called Hikikomori: Adolesence without End.

Two years after Saito’s book hit shelves and the topic of hikikomori hit Japanese media, a 17-year-old boy, later identified as hikikomori by newspapers, hijacked a bus and stabbed multiple passengers after revealing his plans on an Internet forum. Another tragedy involving a hikikomori had already occured earlier that same year when police discovered a girl who’d been kidnapped and held prisoner for nearly a decade by a reclusive man who lived with his mother.

Although these were both rare instances of a socially withdrawn Japanese man committing heinous crimes (and to be clear, the majority of people with mental illness are not violent), it pushed hikikomori even further into the forefront of Japan and the rest of the world’s awareness. Japan’s hidden population of hikikomori wasn’t so hidden anymore.

Here’s What We Do Know


The lexicographers in the audience may have noticed I’m using the term hikikomori to refer to both the person and the condition. That is, a person who suffers from hikikomori is a hikikomori.In some ways, this reflects how amorphous the subject of hikikomori truly is. Psychologists and other experts disagree on how to classify hikikomori: is it truly a disorder or just a symptom? Is hikikomori uniquely Japanese or does it occur in other countries?

Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare has defined a hikikomori as a person who does not participate in society (particularly school or work) and has no desire to do so. A hikikomori is also someone who doesn’t have any close, non-familial relationships. These withdrawal symptoms must last for at least six months and the social withdrawal itself must not be a symptom of a pathological problem.

The typical hikikomori’s day starts when everyone else’s has ended. They’re night owls who stay up late, keeping themselves occupied in the bluish glow of TV and computer screens with just their own thoughts for company. Since they tend to initially retreat to their rooms during that existential spiral of doom between graduating from school and starting a career, they almost always live with their parents, who help take care of pesky things like food and shelter. But unlike someone with severe agoraphobia, for example, a hikikomori will occasionally leave their room and even their house, usually to scour convenience store aisles.

The DSM-5, a reference book and diagnostic tool published by the American Psychiatric Association (APA), doesn’t really mention hikikomori at all and in previous editions, hikikomori isn’t considered a psychological disorder, but rather, at best, a symptom of other anxiety and personality disorders. As far as the APA seems to be concerned, hikikomori falls under the umbrella of cultural-bound syndrome, a mental health condition that only occurs in specific cultures for specifically cultural reasons.

Just A Japan Thing?


Photo by Jay Bergesen

As unfortunate as it is, there are shut-ins all over the world—not just in Japan—and many of these people are diagnosed as having psychological disorders recognized by the APA. So what gives hikikomori that Japanese je ne sais quoi?

Well, if you read enough news articles about hikikomori, you’ll find there’s practically a checklist of reasons for the phenomenon to have sprung up only in Japan, but the primary explanation is that Japanese society is one in which there are various hoops everyone is expected to jump through on their way to a successful life and there isn’t a whole lot of forgiveness if you stumble. Most cultures are like this to some extent: You go to school, graduate, get a job, then a spouse, etc. But there’s also a little breathing room built in, like gap years for “finding yourself” and socially accepted waffling between jobs and even careers.

Not so in Japan where most college graduates are expected to have a job waiting for them before they’re even officially handed their diplomas and the current state of Japan’s economy makes this task feel all the more insurmountable. The societal shame of failing to get into a good school or get a good job can be too much and staying in your bedroom might feel like the most comforting option.

Sociologists also point to Japan’s culture of amae, which is basically childlike dependence on indulgent parents. Tough love is pretty antithetical to Japanese parenting style, so instead of busting down bedroom doors, demanding their hikikomori children retake their entrance exams or continue the job hunt, they do their laundry and cut the crusts off their sandwiches. It’s hard to blame them: The path of least resistance is usually the easiest.

Or Is It All In Your Head?


Photo by James Lee

In his book, Saito lays out his rationale for considering hikikomori to be a developmental disorder, rather than the result of colliding forces in Japanese culture. He points out that many psychological disorders first appear during adolescence, and says that the problem at the root of hikikomori is the failure to mature. (Although Saito doesn’t claim there is a physiological cause behind hikikomori.)

Hikikomori has a high comorbidity with depression, and people suffering from hikikomori sometimes have other mental illnesses to contend with as well, like schizophrenia and obsessive-compulsive disorder. However, Saito argues that what would be viewed as a symptom indicative of schizophrenia, for example, like a break from reality is actually a symptom of hikikomori. Those who wouldn’t consider hikikomori a disorder would rope the social withdrawal in as a symptom of something else, but it could be just the opposite: The social withdrawal inherent in being a hikikomori causes other symptoms, like depression or obsessive-compulsiveness, to appear. In his work, Saito also says there have been reports of hikikomori cases in countries outside of Japan, particularly South Korea and Italy, further implying that hikikomori may be more than just your average culture-bound syndrome.

The Invisible Hikikomori


Photo by Holly Lay

When we imagine hikikomori, we usually think of young guys, but a survey conducted by the NHK found that only 53% of hikikomori are male. (Though other experts put the number of male hikikomori at closer to 80%. And here we discover the difficulties inherent in surveying an isolationist population.) Either way, it’s undeniable there are women who are hikikomori—they face many of the same cultural pressures as men, after all. (But if we’re going with hikikomori-as-bona-fide-mental-illness, it raises further questions as to why more men than women would be affected by this disorder.)

The lack of female representation amongst hikikomori may also simply boil down to the fact that it’s more socially acceptable for a young woman to live at home with her parents, which would mean hikikomori among women going underreported and untreated.

Treating Hikikomori


Okay, so if you weren’t frustrated enough by the conflicting arguments surrounding the whys and hows of hikikomori, there’s also no real agreed upon form of treatment. But the good news is that throwing spaghetti at the wall has had some promising results.

To treat his hikikomori patients, Saito comes at things from a cognitive-behavioral perspective and uses talking therapies, techniques that are also used with patients who suffer from depression or anxiety. Parents of hikikomori are also encouraged to seek out therapy, particularly support groups.

Speaking of, parents of hikikomori have also been known to go the more straightforward route and hire people to bust down bedroom doors to literally drag their kids out. (Even the stolid principles of amae have their breaking point, apparently.) Suffice it to say, this particular solution has not proven terribly successful and has mostly been abandoned at this point.

In the realm of creative problem-solving, some organizations and halfway houses like New Start employ young women to physically go to the houses of hikikomori and try to strike up a conversation from the other side of the bedroom door. The goal for these “rental sisters” is to ultimately reassure, befriend and then coax the hikikomori out of their bedrooms and to a place where they can get help.

A company called Avex has even produced a collection of videos called “Just Looking” in which girls look straight into the camera for a minute or so. The idea is that hikikomori can then get used to maintaining eye contact, while still in the comfort zone of their room. See how well you can keep eye contact with the little girl in the video below, I dare you.

But beyond the power of a pretty girl or talking therapies, I think the most promising source of healing and treatment is coming from ex-hikikomori themselves, like Kazushi Suganuma, who, with the help of his brother, opened a coffee shop where recovering hikikomori can work and experience responsibility and daily social interactions.

Even though the question of whether hikikomori is a true psychological disorder or not is a valid one, particularly when it comes to figuring out useful therapies, the people who may be best suited to addressing Japan’s social withdrawal problem are ex-hikikomori themselves. And as more hikikomori enter the world again, hopefully they can use their own first-hand experiences and bring other hikikomori out of the dark.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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HELP! I Don’t Know How To ALT! Mon, 16 Jun 2014 16:00:50 +0000 Summer is almost here, bringing with it sweltering heat, limited edition Crunky ice cream bars, and a whole new flock of ALTs (Assistant Language Teachers). Maybe your dream of coming to Japan is finally coming true. Soon you and other ALTs will be scattered across the Japanese countryside, about to be faced with your first classes.

Three years ago I found myself in front of a class of 40 High School kids for the first time. I’d worked with children before (though they tended to throw things at me rather than sit silently staring.) This was a whole different situation. So I’ve written this slightly unconventional guide to ALTing so you can learn from my mistakes. This is a mix of practical tips and some more abstract ones that will hopefully help you get through the first few weeks more smoothly than I did

ALTing and the Art of Improv


Photo by Katie

If I was running an orientation for new ALTs, I’d replace almost all the talks with three days of improv classes. “Every situation is different,” is the realistic but often frustrating refrain heard at these orientations. Okay, so all your situations are going to be different. Then let’s learn how to improvise to suit any of them!

As I said, I have worked with kids before, but that experience didn’t give me as many ALTing skills as the Comedy Improvisation classes I took in college.

Mostly I’m talking about a mindset (though some improv games can also be adapted very neatly into English games too.) The most important one of these I think is the, “Yes, and…” mentality. In the classic improv game you have to accept what your partner says (yes). Then you add your own element to the story or performance (and…). It’s a practice in positivity and rolling with whatever comes your way.

When a Japanese Teacher of English (JTE) asks you to do something strange, (“Please talk about [random thing],”) reach for the “Yes, and…” When a kid says something a bit weird, cheeky, or even rude, just “Yes, and…” them.

Kid: “You became fat.”
Me: “Yes, and I’m practicing sumo.”

This attitude will help keep you from the nightmare situation of being flustered in front of class. It does take practice, but it is something you can learn. Personally I used “Yes, and…” almost everyday, even when I wasn’t speaking. I use a lot of gestures. Sometimes kids would imitate and mock me for them. I’d just do the gesture bigger and more ridiculous. It got a laugh and I kept control of the class, as well as of myself.

“Yes, and…” doesn’t mean you have to agree with everything. You can “No, but..” instead. The important thing is accepting that you’ve been told something and adding your own information.

Smile Until Your Face Falls Off


Photo by Daniel Go

I suddenly became a much, much better ALT one gloomy day in October. I only had to change one thing – my face. After I arrived in August I had been walking around with a slightly terrified expression, like a dog confused by a lemon. Then one day I decided to smile. It wasn’t a particularly good day, I wasn’t smiling because I was happy. I simply decided to smile, no matter what happened.

Then suddenly it became a good day. Kids smiled back. Shy kids spoke up. Loud kids were loud in English. I felt like I’d discovered something magic. Those first few weeks my face actually hurt from perfecting my ALT face, but the benefits of smiling were amazing. Some of the changes were in the kids. They became more willing to talk to me, less sleepy in class, and discipline problems lessened. When my students wrote me letters, many of them wrote how they liked my smile.

The other changes were in myself. It was a positive feedback loop. I smiled – kids smiled – I was happy – I smiled more. I felt more confident, which made a huge difference in how I acted in class. Smiling is free. It is a simple thing, but it can make a big difference.

The ALT Voice


OK, so you’ve got your ALT face on. Now let’s work on your voice. That smile you’ve already got is affecting how your voice sounds. Try it. With a straight face say, “This is a weird experiment that Tofugu is making me do,” Then smile and try saying it again. Listen to how your voice changes. That smiley voice is part of developing an ALT voice.

Now slow it down and speak louder.

Really, really slow and really really loud.

Even slower! Even louder!

There you go. That’s your ALT voice. It took me weeks of confused students’ stares before a teacher took me aside and told me I was speaking too fast and too quietly. Three years later and my ALT voice makes kids sit up and listen. I once even used it to great effect on a drunk, semi-naked Russian man, but that’s a story for another time.

Don’t strain yourself. As an ALT your voice is your most important tool, so take care of it. Projecting your voice doesn’t mean you have to shout. Try to speak from your diaphragm. Doing some voice exercises will help you develop the endurance you’ll need to genki your way through six classes in a row and still be up for karaoke that night.

Games vs. Motivation


Photo by Camil Tulcan

Games, games, games. How I hate games. Okay, that’s an over simplification but I do hate being a clown, not a teacher. This is a classroom, not a children’s birthday party. I’m talking specifically about Senior High School and maybe the upper years of Junior High School. Games will only get you so far in motivating older kids. What really motivates them is a feeling that they are learning something and are improving. You can have fun in class, but fun that teaches the students something relevant is best. If you are doing a game, try to make sure it’s linked to the material the students are studying. That can be harder than it sounds, especially if your JTE doesn’t cooperate and tell you what material the class is covering, but persevere if you can. You may have to remind some JTEs that you are an ALT and the T stands for teacher.

The other thing that motivates students is realism. Let me tell you the tale of the worst game I ever saw. A JTE had printed out vegetable pictures. Students had to walk around and ask each other “Please give me carrot,” or “Please give me potato.” To which the other students responded, “I give you carrot,” or “I give you potato,” as they handed over the cards.

“I give you carrot.” That’s not English! Have you ever said that? Has anyone ever said that? Of course the game ended with the kids getting bored and simply giving up and sitting down. I don’t blame them. What is the point of learning English like that?

When I was asked to make a similar activity I put as much realism into it as I could. To create a realistic setting, I divided the class into shoppers and shopkeepers. Each shopper had a different shopping list. Each shopkeeper had different goods to sell from their “shop”. The important thing was that, even though we were still in their classroom in Japan, we’d made that classroom as close to a realistic shopping experience as we could. The students responded with much more enthusiasm than if they’d been asked to say, “I give you carrot.”

Realia, or real items from your home country, are great for creating a true-to-life setting. Props are great tools too. Even a simple thing like using a book for a passport when doing an airport role-play can make a difference. I can’t overstate the power of hats either, especially with younger students. Students are often willing to suspend their disbelief if you give them something to hang it on.

A good rule to remember, and to tell your JTEs, is if it wouldn’t be interesting in Japanese, then it’s not going to be interesting in English. English doesn’t magically make something cool (despite what all the Engrish on T-shirts would have you think.)

Building Your ALT Kit Bag


Photo by Germain Wu

Whether you are stationed at one school or 20, you can make your ALTing life easier by making yourself a kit bag. Grab it and go!


Comfortable indoor shoes! As you probably know, in most Japanese schools, people wear a different pair of shoes indoors. There are slippers provided for guests. Avoid these slippers at all costs. They only wish you pain, suffering, and broken ankles. Get your own pair of comfy shoes that you can easily jump around in. They don’t have to be smart, just something you can stand up and run around in all day. If you travel to different schools, consider getting a drawstring shoe bag. It looks more professional than a plastic bag and makes it easy to carry your shoes around.

English Posters

You can make any classroom an English room if you prepare some posters and take a few magnets. A lot of schools don’t have a dedicated English room, but you can still throw up some portable posters before the start of the class to create a good English learning environment. Mine include different ways to answer, “How are you?”, a poster about the benefit of mistakes, and a few useful classroom English phrases. As well as encouraging kids, making posters is a good way to spend your desk hours.

A Timer

A very useful tool for keeping students and yourself on track.

A Set of Laminated Pictures

Or other simple, flexible activity materials. I just went online and found about 40 interesting pictures. They have saved me many times from the dreaded “Please do an activity,” request that comes 5 minutes before a class.

Your Self-Introduction Materials

You never know when a school is going to surprise you with a class of students they have kept hidden for months.

Educate Yourself on Education


Photo by fallsroad

There is a debate to be had about employing ALTs who have no formal teaching qualifications. While that debate is interesting, the reality of the current situation is that many ALTs, private or JET, come to Japan with little teaching experience or pedagogical training. So if you are one of those ALTs, I’d really encourage you to do some research. It’s not the same as teacher training, but if you can familiarize yourself with teaching theory you’ll have a skeleton to build your teaching around.

One of the turning points for me as an ALT was working at a seminar run by Dr Olenka Bilash. She is a Canadian educator who works with the Hokkaido Board of Education to improve English teaching. Her website is a good place to go to understand some ways of thinking about education, particularly aspects which are often lacking in Japan, such as student output (“using it” and “proving it”) and how assessment should feed back into how children are taught. At that seminar, I saw that there were better ways of teaching English than the read-repeat-read-repeat I’d mostly seen in Japanese classrooms. Perhaps more importantly, I learned how to talk with JTEs about my ideas using terms they were familar with.

My interest was sparked and from there I began my own research into resources for teachers that went beyond print and play games. Once I had a better grasp of some of the theories behind education, I was able to design my own activities to suit my students. What I know can’t compare to a trained teacher, but even a little understanding is better than nothing. There are so many books and internet resources. Personally, I recommend Teach Like a Champion by Norman Atkins, as it has a lot of practical advice that really works.

Educate Yourself on English


Photo by Verity Lane

Okay, so you’ve got your kit bag, you’ve spent those long hours at your desk studying up on educational theory, you are ready to go! Not quite. You need to do a bit of English study too.

“But I’m a native speaker/native speaker level,” I hear you say, “I’m crazy good at English.” Dear Tofugu reader, that is what I thought too, but I was wrong. I have a Masters in writing and I still get stumped by our bizzare language sometimes. While I might be able to function in English, that’s not the same as being able to teach it. I have done many a frantic Google search to remind myself which are transitive and which are intransitive verbs. You need know the vocabulary to talk about sentence constructions that you’ve probably been using since you learned how to talk. I was never taught those at school, especially some of the obscure ones used in Japan.

The good news is that almost all ALTs say that they’ve learned more about English since coming to Japan than they ever knew before. Don’t worry. You already speak the language. You just have to review the bits of English that we use to talk about English. You can get a head start by Googling some grammar guides and glancing at the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA).

Even so, remember that no matter how prepared you are, some really archaic grammar patterns pop up in Japanese grammar books now and then. Unfortunately, Japanese Exams haven’t been updated for a while, so kids still have to learn these constructions, even if you feel like you’ve stepped out of a black and white movie when you say them. If you get stumped, don’t feel down. Learning English is an ongoing activity. You’ll never truly be finished, and I think that’s kind of cool.

Final Hints and Tricks


Photo by Verity Lane

I’ve got three final things to share with you.

First is the best thing I learned at my orientation. If you see a JTE make a spelling or pronunciation mistake, don’t say, “Hey that’s wrong!” Instead use the wonderful variety of the English language to your advantage. The phrase, “Maybe that’s the American spelling. In Britain we write it like this…” has saved me many times, even when I knew that it was just flat out wrong. Swap American with British, Canadian or Australian etc. as you wish. You might be significantly better at English than the JTEs you work with, but by avoiding stepping on their toes you’ll make your own life easier in the long run.

Secondly, three words that changed my students’ participation rates massively: THINK, PAIR, SHARE. I got this from a presentation on ALTing given by the excellent teacher Rashidat Amanda Oumiya. First, write the words THINK, PAIR, SHARE on the board. Sometimes I illustrate them too. Then you give the students a question or discussion topic. Put a timer under THINK. They have 1 minute to think silently by themselves. Next move the timer under PAIR. Students practice saying their answer with their partner for 2 minutes or so. Finally, move the timer to under SHARE and ask for volunteers. Sometimes you’ll still have to pick out students if they are very shy, but even so, they’ll be more comfortable and prepared to answer. Basically, this is a framework to encourage reluctant Japanese students to volunteer by letting them know it is expected of them from the start of the activity. Moving the timer serves as an extra visual hint. Make sure you explain it clearly the first time and it can really help.

Finally, in Japan a correct answer is marked with a circle. A wrong answer is marked with a tick or line. Don’t do what I did and mark a whole batch of work with ticks and crosses before you find out!

Good luck brave, new ALTs! You will face challenges, especially if you are placed in a bad school, but ALTing can be quite rewarding. Don’t beat yourself up in those first few weeks if it’s tough. I’m sure you’ll find your own groove in no time! Just remember to smile!

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Badass Chicks in Japanese History: Tomoe Gozen Thu, 12 Jun 2014 16:00:30 +0000 First in a series chronicling—you guessed it—female badassery in Japan.

Japanese history, like most national histories, tends to be a bit of a sausage fest–an emperor here, a samurai there, and some Buddhist monks thrown in for good measure. It’s my hope that this series will fill in some of those gender gaps and show you why the badassery of Japan’s womenfolk deserves to be recognized too! On top of that, individual biographies are one of my favorite ways to imagine and learn more deeply about Japanese history as it was lived–almost like my very own low-tech RPG.

So without further ado, allow me to introduce to you the one and only Tomoe Gozen, a 12th century warrior woman who slashed her way to samurai stardom, leaving severed heads and several manga series in her wake. Tomoe stands out as one of Japan’s extraordinarily rare woman warriors who engaged in offensive battle, known as onna musha. These women can be differentiated from the defensive female fighters known as onna bugeisha, a population that John’s already written about: Empress Jingu and the Mighty Onna Bugeisha. Although most representations of Tomoe depict her wielding a naginata, the traditional “woman’s weapon” of an onna bugeisha, her weapons of choice were actually the long sword and the bow and arrow.

But before we dig further into the nitty gritty details of Tomoe’s illustrious military career, let’s set the stage for slaughter.

Japan’s Civil War

Tomoe Gozen had the misfortune to live during a time of extraordinary political and social upheaval. The Genpei War laid waste to capital and countryside from 1180 until 1185, marking a dramatic end to the aristocratic Heian period (794-1185) and ushering in the age of the samurai. But what got everyone’s panties into such a bunch in the first place?


Well, Japan’s civil war was essentially an over-the-top family feud over control of the imperial throne, pitting the refined, aristocratic, Kyoto-based Taira clan against the rough, countrified, provincial-based Minamoto clan. The Taira had the upper hand until they were driven out of Kyoto by their alienated vassals in 1183. The Minamoto then proceeded to win key battles at Yashima and Dannoura, virtually wiped out the Taira in the wake of victory, and established Japan’s very first shogunate in Kamakura, where Minamoto descendants would rule from until 1333.


More than 800 years after the last battlefield casualty had fallen, the Genpei War continues to be fought within the Japanese cultural imagination. Numerous movies, novels, and video games have been based on the war, and the Taira and Minamoto fighting colors (red for the former, white for the latter) are not only emblematic of Japan (including the national flag) but also are used to divide people into competitive teams.

Look no further than the annual New Years’ singing competition NHK Kohaku Uta Gassen, also known as “Red and White Song Battle” (above).

Concubine Today, Samurai Tomorrow


Needless to say, the Genpei War was a brutal and bloody affair. And it was in this inu eat inu world that Tomoe Gozen—against all odds—made a name for herself as a legendary warrior renowned for her beauty, physical strength, and martial skills.

Due to the contradictory nature of medieval sources and legends that accumulated over the years, Tomoe’s personal life remains an enigma. Her love life, however, is one of the few things we can be relatively certain about. She was definitely more than friends with Lord Kiso no Yoshinaka (otherwise known as Minamoto no Yoshinaka)–most likely she was one of his concubines but she’s also been described as one of his wives or “female attendants.”

Although details such as Tomoe’s birth and death date were and are contested, there is overwhelming consensus regarding her military career and her status as an exceptionally skilled and brave warrior.

Occupation: Badass

Tomoe was undoubtedly a force to be reckoned with—equipped with strong bow and long sword, sheathed in armor, and charging on horseback to defend friends and vanquish foes. Lord Kiso no Yoshinaka was so impressed by her skill as an archer and her courage as a warrior that he appointed her as his leading commander (ippo no taisho) in the Genpei War.

Key instances of Tomoe’s badassery include:

  • 6th month of 1181 at the Battle of Yokotagawara: Tomoe defeats and collects the heads of 7 mounted warriors (at a time and in a place when head collections were coveted like Oscar trophies).


  • 5th month of 1183 at the Battle of Tonamiyama: Leads over 1,000 of Lord Kiso no Yoshinaka’s cavalry to victory.
  • 1st month of 1184 at the Battle of Uchide no Hama: Leads 300 of Lord Kiso no Yoshinaka’s forces into an impossible battle against 6,000 Taira cavalry and emerges as one of only 5 Minamoto survivors.

Little did Tomoe know that her head-severing days were almost over—her military exploits came to a dramatic end with her unexpected retirement during the 1184 Battle of Awazu. By this point, the Minamoto had turned the tide against the Taira and were poised to take over the country. But just when you’d think the Minamoto clan would be joining in a big sweaty group hug, they ramped up the family drama with a knock-down drag-out fight for the right to be shogun.

Contestant number one was none other than Lord Kiso no Yoshinaka with Tomoe Gozen by his side, and the challenger was his cousin Minamoto no Yoritomo with the legendary Minamoto no Yoshitsune fighting on his behalf. It was a bad day for Camp Tomoe.


When Lord Kiso Yoshinaka’s forces dwindled to five, he commanded Tomoe to quit the field. Reluctant to desert the battle and reluctant to disobey him, Tomoe made a compromise—she would follow orders, but not before engaging in one final battle to impress her lord and lover, demonstrate her loyalty, and redeem her honor.



Ever the overachiever, Tomoe rode head on into a pack of 30 mounted Taira warriors, picked the worthiest opponent among them (famed strongman Onda no Hachiro), and promptly beheaded him. You know, as one does.

After Awazu

Not long after Tomoe’s final triumph, Lord Kiso no Yoshinaka was fatally wounded, leaving Minamoto no Yoritomo uncontested in his role as head of the clan and ultimately as shogun of the country.

But what became of our heroine? Unfortunately no one knows for sure.

Some say she was captured by Minamoto no Yoritomo’s henchman Wada Yoshimori during the battle of Kyoto, forced to become his concubine, and then gave birth to the legendary strongman Asahina Saburo Yoshihide. Others say she became a Buddhist nun, reciting sutras on behalf of the late Lord Kiso no Yoshinaka’s soul until her death at the ripe old age of 91. Still others say she avenged Lord Kiso no Yoshinaka by killing his attackers, stealing back Yoshinaka’s head so no one else could defile it, and then walked out into the sea—head in hand—to drown. And sometimes elements from all three of these stories get put into a blender to churn out yet another whimsical and speculative tale.


Whatever the circumstances of her subsequent life and death, Tomoe has accumulated quite a reputation for herself over the last eight centuries, blurring history and myth in genres as divergent as kabuki and television, woodblock prints and manga. Let’s check out a few of her many reincarnations…

The “Warrior Worth A Thousand”

Before there were Netflix-equipped iPhones, there were itinerant biwa-playing blind priests. Not long after the Genpei War ended, these entertainers fashioned the raw material of recent history into the Heike monogatari (The Tale of the Heike), Japan’s greatest war epic (or gunkimono). Comparable in scope and influence to the West’s Iliad, the Heike monogatari recasts the Genpei War as a struggle between the Heike and the Genji clans (the Taira and Minamoto, respectively), emphasizing the tragic downfall of the Taira family as a metaphor for the Buddhist philosophy of the transitory nature of all things. These storytellers were priests, after all.


The Heike monogatari text’s definitive form was reached in the 14th century, and its celebrated opening lines can give you a pretty good sense of what it’s all about:

The sound of the Gion Shoja bells echoes the impermanence of all things, the color of the sala flowers reveals the truth that the prosperous must decline. The proud do not endure, they are like a dream on a spring night; the mighty fall at last, they are as dust before the wind. (Helen McCullough, The Tale of the Heike, page 23)

Now if that’s not epic, I don’t know what is. But let’s not forget who brought us here in the first place. Tomoe’s brief but unforgettable appearance in Chapter 4, “The Death of Lord Kiso,” is one of the most frequently studied passages in the entire Heike monogatari. She gets a pretty impressive introduction:

tomoe-tomoe-tomoeKiso no Yoshinaka had brought with him from Shinano two female attendants, Tomoe and Yamabuki. Yamabuki had fallen ill and stayed in the capital. Of the two, Tomoe was especially beautiful, with white skin, long hair, and charming features. She was also a remarkably strong archer, and as a swordswoman she was a warrior worth a thousand, ready to confront a demon or god, mounted or on foot. She handled unbroken horses with superb skill; she rode unscathed down perilous descents. Whenever a battle was imminent, Yoshinaka sent her out as his first captain, equipped with strong armor, an oversized sword, and a mighty bow; and she performed more deeds of valor than any of his other warriors. Thus she was now one of the seven who remained after all the others had fled or perished. (Helen McCullough, The Tale of the Heike, page 191)

And when those remaining seven dwindled to five…

Even then, Tomoe remained alive.
“Quickly now,” Lord Kiso said to Tomoe. “You are a woman, so be off with you; go wherever you please. I intend to die in battle, or kill myself if I am wounded. It would be unseemly to let people say, ‘Lord Kiso kept a woman with him during his last battle.’
Reluctant to flee, Tomoe rode with the others until she could resist no longer. Then she pulled up. “Ah! If only I could find a worthy foe. I would fight a last battle for his lordship to watch.” She thought.
As she sat there, thirty riders came into view, led by Onda no Hachiro Moroshige, a man renowned in Musashi province for his great strength. Tomoe galloped into their midst, rode up alongside Moroshige, seized him in a powerful grip, pulled him down against the pommel of her saddle, held him motionless, twisted off his head, and threw it away. Afterward, she discarded helmet and armor and fled toward the eastern provinces. (Helen McCullough, The Tale of the Heike, page 192)

This “battlefield retreat” scene has been heavily debated. Why does Yoshinaka suddenly give the middle finger to Tomoe, his greatest ally? What’s up with that? Was it simply out of embarrassment about Tomoe’s gender, even though he never seemed to mind that before? Did he fear for her safety? Was he jealous of the possibility that she might die a more glorious death than him? Did he just want someone from his own army to survive, someone to pray for his soul to the gods and to sing his praises to the people?


All speculation aside, the Heike monogatari was an important first step towards imortalizing Tomoe as a legendary figure–but it certainly was not the last.

Tomoe Takes the Stage

What the heck happened to Tomoe after she fled to the “eastern provinces”? One 15th century Noh play offers a theory. Imaginatively titled “Tomoe,” this theatrical ghost story resurrects Tomoe Gozen as a grieving, resentful spirit bound to Lord Kiso no Yoshinaka’s shrine at Awazu. As it turns out, she’s pretty pissed that she wasn’t allowed to die with her master and has been stewing at this shrine ever since. The Buddhist monk who finds her prays for her soul, but there’s no telling how effective that was.

While Noh plays are generally more famous for their meditative calm than their action-packed fight scenes, Tomoe does show off some of her moves with a naginata in this scene (despite the fact that she actually used a sword and bow):

After this depressing role, Tomoe turned to live-action comedy. She stole the show as the lead in Onna shibaraku, a one-hour extravaganza that continues to be one of the most popular and frequently performed kabuki plays even though it first appeared in 1746. Onna shibaraku is parody of the original Shibaraku, a flamboyant and flashy tale of a samurai hero who thwarts an evil lord about to execute innocent nobles who oppose him. When the samurai hero swoops in to save the day, he halts the villain in his tracks by shouting “Shibaraku!” (“Wait a minute!”) and then proceeds to mow down the evil lord and his cronies.


Onna shibaraku replaces the original samurai hero with none other Tomoe Gozen. However, as a parody, the actor who plays her undercuts Tomoe’s achievements by behaving with exaggerated feminine helplessness and confusion, exploiting the presumption that a woman single-handedly defeating these men is laughably ridiculous. You can see for yourself in this scene:

Flash forward to the 21st century and Tomoe Gozen is unapologetically kicking ass and taking names. In August of 2013, Meijiza Theater staged “Tomoe Gozen: Legend of the Female Warrior,” a time-travel action-adventure epic. The basic premise? A modern 21st century woman suddenly finds herself transplanted into a 12th century war zone—and everyone is calling her Tomoe for some reason. All in all, it delivers a pretty contemporary message about the potential every woman has to be strong, independent…and to wear anachronistically revealing leather armor! Check out the trailer below:

From tortured Buddhist ghost to punch line of a parody to contemporary role model, Tomoe Gozen’s stage appearances have been numerous and varied, reflecting centuries of shifting values. The Noh theater’s “Tomoe” and Kabuki’s “Onna Shibaraku” continue to be periodically performed, and Meijiza Theater’s “Legend of the Woman Warrior” just might get a revival, but it’d be a gamble to book travel plans on their behalf. Luckily, there other more reliable venues where you can still catch a glimpse of Tomoe for yourself.

Tomoe Today

If you’re the festive type, don’t miss Tomoe’s annual appearance in Kyoto’s extravagant “Festival of the Ages” (Jidai Matsuri). One of Kyoto’s “Three Great Festivals,” the Jidai Matsuri happens every year on October 22nd. The jidai gyoretsu is no doubt the highlight of the festivities: a five-hour, two-kilometer pageant-parade featuring around 2,000 people dressed as historical figures from Japan’s earliest recorded times up through the Meiji period (until 1912). As you can imagine, important figures from the Genpei War era are well-represented and Tomoe rides among them in a curious combination of courtly make-up and warrior gear.


If crowds and costumes aren’t your thing, you might want to stop by one of the numerous graveyards that claim to be Tomoe’s final resting place. The two most worthwhile to visit in their own right are probably the ones located at Gichuji Temple in Shiga prefecture and Tokuonji Temple in Nagano prefecture.


Although its origins are obscure, Gichuji Temple claims to have been founded in the 12th century with the purpose of mourning Lord Kiso no Yoshinaka. Legend has it that Tomoe built a thatched hut near his grave, began holding memorial services there, and was buried on the site. There’s a stone bearing her name and the surrounding temple scenery is beautiful—after all, this was one of the famous haiku poet Matsuo Basho’s favorite stomping grounds and he’s also buried there by his request.


Tomoe’s Grave via Wikipedia

A statue of Tomoe stands guard next to Kiso no Yoshinaka at Tokuonji, the Kiso family temple. Here you’ll find a museum displaying all things Kiso, Yoshinaka’s mausoleum (a memorial more than a grave, because his body isn’t there), and another one of Tomoe’s graves overlooking a small shrine and a bronze statue of herself on horseback.


Tomoe Gozen and Kiso Yoshinaka statue via Wikimedia

But if you don’t want to leave the house at all, you can always lock yourself in your mother’s basement with a stack of Tomoe-related TV shows, manga, video games, and novels. Even not counting pop culture that deals more broadly with the Genpei War, there’s still plenty of Tomoe to go around.


How about Samurai Deeper Kyo, a manga series that ran from 1999 to 2006 and featured Saisei as the zombie-like reincarnation of Tomoe Gozen? Or maybe Tomoe ga yuku (“There Goes Tomoe”), the popular Bessatsu Shojo comic serial and short-lived anime following the misadventures of bad-girl biker Tomoe and her hidden love for stuntman Tokoro? You can immerse yourself in a fantastical murder mystery as Tomoe Gozen in the RPG video game Shin Megami Taisei: Persona 4. Or you can immerse yourself in a historical fantasy with American writer Jessica Amanda Salmonson’s Tomoe Gozen trilogy. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. After all this, you might be asking yourself…

What’s So Great About Tomoe Gozen?


By all accounts, Tomoe possessed exceptional military skills—in archery, swordsmanship, and horsemanship—that made her a valued warrior in her own time and a celebrated figure for future generations. Furthermore, according to cultural historian Professor Steven T. Brown, Tomoe Gozen’s name “has become synonymous with the image of the woman warrior in Japanese cultural history.”

Even if you’re not personally inclined toward slinging arrows and swinging swords (or even if you’re a pacifist like myself), it’s hard not to be impressed by the sheer fact of Tomoe’s existence—that the patriarchal samurai class accepted this woman warrior into their ranks, and that she was able to make contributions in the very area that the male-dominated military establishment valued most. Her very rarity heightens her importance as a symbolic figure of female independence and achievement.

Bonus Trivia: Just One of Many Tomoe?

As it turns out, Tomoe might not have been such a rare specimen, after all. Recent archeological evidence has detected a staggering female presence in warrior grave sites, women otherwise unaccounted for in–and possibly deliberately excluded from–traditional historical texts. A headmound excavated from the site of the 1580 Battle of Senbon Matsubaru revealed that 35 of the 105 heads buried there were female. DNA testing on two other battlefield gravesites had similarly gender-stratified results. Only time (and shrunken heads) will tell if this pattern bears out more widely across place and time, so stay tuned…

Bonus Wallpapers!

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The Empire Built On Egg Shells: An Interview With TanKuma Owner Gensho Nishigaki Thu, 05 Jun 2014 16:00:02 +0000 What an eggy week it has been! I wrote a travel review of an Egg Vending Machine and a raw-egg-on-rice (tamago-kake-gohan) restaurant called Tankuma. I also wrote simply about the famous Japanese dish tamago kake gohan. I mentioned them a few times, but when I went to Tankuma (the tamago-kake-gohan restaurant) I was both enamored and curious about all the bear statues and figures. I also wanted to know more about the egg vending machine, how this restaurant was started, and more. So, I visited the office of the president of Tankuma, Mr. Gensho Nishigaki (as instructed by his sister, the owner of a nearby pharmacy). He wasn’t there at the time, but a worker called to tell him I was there, and he was egg-stremely generous with his time, coming down to his office to answer my questions. So, thank you Mr. Nishigaki! Down below is the story that he told me.

Q. You have four places of business (the egg vending machine, raw egg on rice restaurant, your personal farmer’s market shop, and cake shop), but which place did you come up with first?

The vending machine and the veggie shop (personal farmer’s market) were first, then the raw egg on rice restaurant, and finally the cake shop.

Q. How did you come up with the vending machine (and the direct store)?


About 40 years ago, there were 18-20 chicken farmers around this area and we were selling our eggs to Osaka and Kyoto together by splitting the transportation costs. However, as other big farmers got ever larger, small farmers like us were getting pushed out. About 20 years ago, I was the only chicken and rice farmer left here. Although I didn’t have benefit of a larger scale farm and production, I did have a very unique quality to my eggs. Yet, I still had to decrease employment costs, so I decided to start the vending machine and the direct sales store in 1996. They both went well and the sales of my eggs increased.

Q. Why did you open the tamago-kake-gohan (raw egg and rice) restaurant afterward?


Actually there is a long story to that one. Although the eggs started selling well, selling rice wasn’t that easy since there are so many rice farmers in Japan. If I became a member of J.A. (short for Japan Agricultural Cooperatives), I could obtain some money right away, but I didn’t want my rice to just be one the many kinds of rice that J.A. sold at the same price because I found my rice to be different. My rice field is located on top of a mountain, so we use only the fresh water that comes from the mountain. It is very clean, pure water, so it makes rice taste better, but it is also so cold that we can’t harvest a lot of rice compared to rice fields with access to warmer water. Furthermore, I had to deal with boars and deer eating my rice crops. If my rice was sold at the same price in J.A., it wouldn’t be fair. So, I decided to sell my rice by myself, though I also had to take the risk of not getting any money until the rice was actually sold. Moreover, every year I also needed to adjust my rice stock until the following harvest. Every Fall, around September and October, new rice is harvested, so the rice harvested the previous year gets price dropped.

Yet, I couldn’t sell it very successfully if it was only available in the direct sale shop, so I thought, “I can’t sell uncooked rice, but what if I make delicious cooked rice?” My cooked rice is delicious but I realized that the people I sell the rice to aren’t able to taste it the same way that I do. They bring the uncooked rice back to their home towns and put their own city water in their rice cookers. Because of this, they miss the chance to taste the BEST tasting rice that I cook by using the perfect amount of mountain water.

The first item I started was not tamago kake gohan (raw-egg-on-rice), but onigiri (rice balls). My goal was to let people know how tasty the rice was by itself, so I made very simple onigiri and seasoned them with a little bit of salt. Unfortunately, those simple onigiri didn’t become that popular. People still bought rice balls, but only if they were seasoned with a lot of ingredients. That killed the taste of the rice itself. I wasn’t satisfied with the result.

I was actually thinking of making a raw-egg-on-rice restaurant for a long time, alongside the rice ball business, since I have chicken farms and a rice field. However, whoever I consulted with laughed at me because they thought that nobody would come all the way out to the middle of a mountain for such a simple meal that everybody can just make themselves. So, I didn’t even try it out until the huge typhoon (Typhoon #26) struck our region on October 21, 2004.

The river was broken and many places were flooded. Some tourists got stuck on a bus and they had to evacuate to the roof and waited there all night for rescue. In the mountain area, we had a lot of debris scattered everywhere because of the strong flowing water and my farms were damaged. So after the catastrophe, the government subsidized grants to aid farmers. It didn’t cover everything to start a new raw-egg-on-rice business, but I thought I could at least try out my idea if I combined this money and my savings. I was really wanting to do this business, so I finally decided to do it, and I opened the restaurant on March 21, 2006.

Luckily, the raw-egg-on-rice boom had just started at that time so my restaurant was interviewed by many media companies, and a lot of people came out to try my raw-egg-on-rice dish. They thought it was tasty and word spread amongst the people until eventually, and thankfully, it became a popular restaurant that people are now lining up for. I’ve never advertised my restaurant because I thought it would be better for the knowledge of it to spread by word of mouth. I guess I was right about that.

Q: What is the secret of the deliciousness?


As for the eggs, they are all fresh and delivered right from the chicken farm. The name of our eggs is “クリタマ (Kuritama)” because they are produced in Tantouchou-Kurio. We raised the baby chickens from the Goto hatchery in Gifu Prefecture since my father started the chicken farm in 1956. When they grow, they become brown chickens called Gotou-momiji (momiji means Japanese maple leaves). We don’t use any antibiotics in their feed (Some people use antibiotics to make the chickens grow faster). As feed, we mix 20 kinds of special feed, such as Super PHF corn, which are not GMO’s and are made with very little fertilizer. They don’t get fumigated after being harvested, either. We also use fish powder without antioxidants. Those chickens produce delicious eggs on our tranquil mountain farm.

The rice we make is called “夢ごこち (Yumegokochi)”, which means enchantment. It is not organic, but I’m using as little chemical fertilizer as possible. I also use organic fertilizer, which is made from fermented chicken manure. Thus, chicken and rice farming is a great combination! Yumegokochi was invented by the Plant Research Institute as a rice with low amylose and low protein. Only a few places are allowed to make it, so it is a niche market rice with low volume and high prices, being sold to people in the know. It has a great stickiness and the amylose is lower than the king of rice “Koshihikari” by about 2%. It also has a feature which is that it stays soft and tasty even when it gets cold. So you can make rice balls and take it to your work as lunch without losing its deliciousness.

First we use a rice cooker for 1升(shou) / 1800 cc, which is an old Japanese unit of measurement for liquid, on a gas stove. I was told the best way to cook rice is not to cook it at half capacity, or at full capacity, but at 80% capacity each time. Yet, this typically only serves 8 people, so it was too little after the restaurant became popular. Six months after its opening, we decided to double the amount, which is 80% of 2升 (3600 cc). It can still serve 15 to 16 people at a time, but I didn’t want to increase the amount any more because it might ruin the taste of the rice. And of course we use the delicious pure water from the mountain to cook the rice.

Q. Why are there so many bears here?


Because our restaurant is named Tan-Kuma! Tan comes from the name of this region, Tajima. Kuma, which means bear, got attached because bears come down to our place before winter when they are preparing to hibernate. One day, while on the phone with my friend who I was talking to trying to come up with a name for the restaurant, I looked out the window to see a bear taking some acorns and persimmons from the yard. I told him that and he said “scary”, but surprisingly he told me that I should be happy about it. I asked him why and he told me that the bear is the biggest land mammal in Japan, so if a bear is there, that shows you how much nature remains at your place. I was amazed at what he said so I named my restaurant Tankuma – a shorter form of Tajima-no-kuma (Tajima’s bear). I wished for a meaning that suggests that people can come to eat delicious food produced in a place with a lot of nature, so much nature, in fact, that you might even see a bear.

Because of the shop’s name, my friend, who is also the husband of one of our staff members, named Zigen-san, started making those wooden bears for us. He is a chainsaw artist. You can see his work on his website.

Q. What about the bear bathroom?


The monumental bear bathroom hasn’t been there since the beginning. It was made when we built the cake shop in 2010. I created such a toilet because I wanted people to take pictures with it. Everyone takes pictures in front of the restaurant and posts it on their blog or social media sites, but it looks too normal and boring. I thought nobody would usually want to take a photo in front of a toilet, so it would be funny if I made a special toilet that people would want to take pictures in front of. It ended up costing about 3,700,000 yen (~$37,000) and I actually regretted it a little bit afterwards. (chuckle)

Q: Do foreign customers come here too?

It’s extremely rare. Our staff can’t speak English, either.

Q: Do you have any other new egg business in mind?

Actually no. Now I’m thinking of how to properly pass the baton (the business) on to my daughter and her family. I have to work hard to decrease our debt as much as possible.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Japanese Food Models, Yesterday And Today Thu, 15 May 2014 16:15:50 +0000 If you’ve ever visited Japan and had to order food without benefit of being able to read Japanese, there’s one thing that’s a lifesaver: those plastic food replicas lined up in the windows of many restaurants. With their exquisite detail, you know exactly what you’re going to get – what toppings on the ramen, what side dishes with the set meal – and if you really can’t communicate in any other way, all you need to do is point.


Photo by YoAndMe

Despite how helpful they are to those of us with minimal Japanese skills, these samples were not created for our benefit – they’ve existed since before mass tourism to Japan was practical. And in fact they’re so unfamiliar to people from most other countries that some are put off by them. One tourist told a reporter:

When I see this it makes me feel like I don’t want to eat it. It is too weird.

Personally I remember that before I was familiar with Japanese food and culture, when I saw food models in a Japanese restaurant in the US, they seemed odd and rather suspicious. Maybe because these days we equate “plastic” with “fake” and “cheap,” they struck me as the opposite of a sign of quality cuisine.


Photo by FakeFoodJapan

Well I couldn’t have been more wrong about the “cheap” – in fact those samples cost a LOT of money. An easy place for the English-speaker to peruse the prices is at the website of FakeFoodJapan (which has a handy converter in the right hand-corner to change the price in yen into your native cuisine). A simple cup of green tea is 3,600 yen (about 36 dollars), and a single onigiri rice ball is 7,000 yen. Full main dishes go up into the equivalent of hundreds of dollars, like 52,600 yen for a platter of sushi for four.

Now imagine one of those restaurant display cases with several rows full of a few dozen dishes, many of them set menus with several components, and add up the numbers in your head. You’re talking serious money.


Photo by camknows

When I first discovered how expensive these models are, I was surprised. Sure, it’s great for customers to know exactly what they’re getting before they order. But other restaurants, both in Japan and in countries that don’t have these food models, do that by printing color photographs in their menus, which is far cheaper. In fact even in Japan many places do both.

So I wondered, how did this business get started?

Who Invented The Food Model? The Pretty Story


It turns out there’s a good reason why the original users of these food models didn’t print photos in their menus instead – it’s because when they were first invented, that wasn’t an alternative. The first model was made in 1917, and the industry really took off in the 1930s, long before color photography – and the reproduction of color photography – was common.

There’s agreement on the general outlines on the start of food models becoming a big business. Takizo Iwasaki is acknowledged as the father of the industry, and his company, Iwasaki-bei, is still in business. His first model was a rice omelet, which is still on display at the company’s factory in Gujo Hachiman.

The story of Iwasaki’s crucial moment of inspiration in 1932 Osaka is often retold, and for something that didn’t happen all that long ago, there’s surprisingly little agreement on the details. But the more I looked into it, the more I realized that actually made sense – the story turns out to be a bit of an origin myth, so the tale has been romanticized to sound better.

One version, on an episode of NHK English TV’s Begin Japanology, relates that his wife was sick, and he couldn’t pay the electric bill, so they had to use candles, which Iwasaki would gaze into late into the night. One evening he picked off a piece of melted wax and saw his fingerprint imprinted. He let wax drip on the tatami and saw how the pattern of the ridges was precisely reproduced. An acquaintance asked if he could make model food samples and despite having no experience, he was sure it could be done with wax.

Or if the leap from wax fingerprints to food doesn’t sound convincing, how about this: On the company’s web page, an introductory video says Iwasaki let wax drip in the water and it formed the shape of a beautiful flower on the surface. Years later, after a lot of testing and trials, he created the first omelet food model.

Who Invented The Food Model? The Not-So-Pretty Story


I sort of wish I had believed those romantic stories and left it at that, because when researchers look deeper, it gets a little unappetizing. In fact, there were actually wax food models before 1932. Yasunobu Nose, a journalist who wrote a book about the food sample industry, says the first one was made in 1917 by Soujiro Nishio of Kyoto, who made anatomical models out of wax: “The original craftsman was working for doctors and making models for pathological studies, such as skin diseases and human organs, before he was asked to make food samples for a restaurant.” Yum!

Other writers have added that detail into Iwasaki’s moment of inspiration: “images from anatomical wax models displayed at Japanese apothecaries collided with memories of a wax flower arrangement,” or a combination of “anatomical models, imitation food used in nutrition lessons, and watching wax from a candle drip onto tatami.”

Did a wax flower arrangement really enter into Iwasaki’s inspiration? Had he seen anatomical models of skin disease or was a fingerprint in wax the only body part involved in his inspiration? I don’t know. But I suspect that the stories are all slightly fictional because maybe there wasn’t really a single mythical moment. Although Iwasaki may have been the father of the industry, it seems probable that he didn’t come up with the idea out of the blue. For instance, if he didn’t know of the guy who made them in 1917 in Kyoto, they were also in use in the 1920s in Tokyo. Apparently in that decade there was a huge boom in eating out, and department stores were opening cafeterias to cater to office workers. There were complications trying to satisfy large numbers of people unused to eating out, and perhaps unfamiliar with city cuisine. Letting people see the food in advance was a way to let them know exactly what they were getting. The first department store to try this was Shirokiya in Tokyo, where they had the idea to display a serving of each dish. But real food could attract bugs and get sad-looking in other ways by the end of the day, and making the food and throwing it away every day wasn’t without expense.

So someone had the idea of asking Tsutomo Sudo, a anatomical model maker in Nihonbashi, to make models of food. Made with a mixture of paraffin wax, stearate, and vegetable tallow, his first piece is said to have been tuna sashimi.

Did someone in the department store know about the models made by the anatomical model maker from Kyoto, or did they come up with the idea on their own? Had Iwasaki seen or heard of these prior models, and was the whole wax-dripping-from-candle story an invention? There’s probably no way to know. It wouldn’t be the first great idea that several different people came up with independently. He was definitely the man who made a huge business out of it, though – and his company reportedly still has sixty percent of the market. So that’s enough of an accomplishment that I guess he earned his romanticized origin story.

Making Food Models, Old-School


Photo by henry…

Food models are no longer made of wax – it was replaced by more durable plastic in the 1970s. But you can still see how wax models are made, and in fact try your hand at it at workshops for the public held at various food model stores and factories. The typical demos are of making a head of lettuce and tempura. To make lettuce, they pour layers of white and green wax into a water bath, lift out the resulting sheet, scrunch it up, and cut it in half. It’s pretty remarkable how realistic it looks.

Here’s the lettuce:

And here’s some tempura:


Photo by Shoko

To make tempura, wax is dribbled in to look like tempura coating, then a separately made food model, like a shrimp, is wrapped in it.

Making wax lettuce looks like fun, but it doesn’t seem to be all that representative of how most models are made nowadays. It seems to rely on the natural randomness of squishing the wax layer being a lot like the natural randomness of the lettuce leaf ridges. Most of the processes rely more on precise reproduction both of the real foods and sometimes even the actual preparation methods for the real food being duplicated.

Making Food Models Today


Photo by Tokyo Times

Wax was more long-lasting than food, but today’s materials are way more durable than either. Models are made of plastic, using silicon molds that retain the finest details of the real food. And we are talking real food: a mold for a piece of tuna sashimi, say, is made by pressing an actual piece of tuna into a layer of silicon. The silicon is left for a day to set and then liquid colored plastic is poured in to make many little copies of the original piece of fish.


Photo by Shoko

There are still tricks for some individual foods that molds aren’t suitable for, like ramen noodles made by covering string in liquid plastic. Some foods are reproduced using similar techniques used in preparing the real dish. Sushi is made by taking individual mold-cast plastic rice grains, mixing them with an adhesive, and then shaping them by hand. Real chef’s knives are used to chop, and a sandwich is made whole and then cut into pieces just like the real thing.

Although already-made models are sold, companies also do custom orders and pride themselves on precisely replicating the exact dish as made by a particular restaurant. And while saying that molds are used may make the process sound mechanical, there’s clearly a lot of craft involved. Since real food isn’t one solid color like plastic, the molded items needed to be individually colored realistically, using both hand paintbrushes and airbrushes.

And there’s apparently still work to be done on perfecting particular items. Uncooked natural food is said to be the hardest to imitate, and one employee of Iwasaki told a reporter that his greatest achievement was making a realistic Japanese leek, or negi. This is a vegetable that’s sort of like an American scallion or green onion but somehow, subtlely far more awesome. You see it chopped up on top of ramen and many other dishes, so it’s needed for a lot of food models, but apparently past versions were not very convincing. Made of a thin layer of white plastic rolled up, when sliced, they looked like, well, white plastic rolled up and sliced. This man’s achievement was not only to reproduce the yellowish-green shade in the middle of the negi, but to make it act like negi when sliced – the layers come apart, and the fine strips droop naturally.

Fake Food Travels


Photo by Shoko

If you’re visiting Tokyo and you’re interested in food models, Kappabashi, the famous street full of kitchen supply stores, is the place to go. They cater to tourists as well as the restaurant trade, because the industry has caught on to the fact that there are ways to make these things into perfect souvenirs like magnets, cell phone charms, stands, and so on.


Photo by Shoko

The small stuff is reasonably affordable, and if you’re like me you’ll be sorry when you get home that you only bought one tiny grilled squid fridge magnet, so learn from my mistakes and don’t be stingy.

A couple of the stores have websites, in Japanese:

The latter also has a souvenir shop in Tokyo Skytree if you don’t make it to Kappabashi.


Photo by Shoko

In Osaka, the mythical birthplace of the food sample, there are shops in the Doguya-suji shopping street. For a real pilgrimage, though, you need to head to Gujo Hachiman, Iwaskaki’s home town, where there are ten food model factories. Apparently there’s room for so many because they specialize in certain items – I guess this means that when someone like the guy we met earlier creates the ultimate fake negi, everyone doesn’t steal his idea, which is a nice thought.


If you just want to sit and home and shop on the Internet, though, I’ve spent a ridiculous amount of time on the website of FakeFoodJapan coveting a USB drive pickled plum ($35.15), a business card case covered with red bean rice ($21.48), and a fridge magnet of boiled fish paste ($8.79). They’re a company whose noble mission is “to give people spanning the globe the opportunity to own and enjoy for themselves this Japanese time-honored craft of producing the most authentic looking fake food known to man.” I’ll drink a foamy-headed, 7,000-yen totally convincing fake mug of beer to that.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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How To Speak Beautiful Japanese: An Interview With Yomiuri TV Announcer Naomi Uemura Tue, 13 May 2014 16:00:24 +0000 I know most everybody here loves to watch Japanese television. That’s why I thought it would be interesting to interview somebody who was actually on Japanese TV. I was surprised when I heard back from Yomiuri TV’s 25 year veteran announcer Naomi Uemura, who I’ve respected for a long time. She is one of the most popular announcers in Japan, especially so in the Kansai area (Yomiuri TV is located in Osaka and serves the Kansai region). Honestly, I never thought this would work out the way it did, considering I watched her on TV all the time when I lived in Japan. However, she is an incredibly kind person and I was so pleased when she (and Yomiuri TV) politely accepted the offer and agreed to answer our questions.

“But why an announcer?” you might be asking. First of all, she’s someone I’ve been a fan of for many years, so this is a lot of fun for me. But, I also thought that someone who is an announcer could also help all of you who are learning Japanese. Part of their job is to speak beautiful Japanese, after all! We’ll get to that part later in the interview.

So, a very special thanks to Naomi Uemura and Yomiuri TV, once again. I’m sure all of you will like it because she shared her great experience and provided us with some great advice. Don’t miss it!

1. Uemura-san’s Details

Let’s take a look at her details first. This way you can get to know her a little bit before the interview starts!

Name: Naomi Uemura
Born: December 27, 1966
Graduated: Sophia University Faculty of Literature (Major in Philosophy)
Occupation: Yomiuri TV Announcer
Length of Announcing Career: Since 1989; 25 years
Main TV Programs She’s On / Appeared On

  • “NNN naomi-uemuraNews”
  • おはようドクター” (It’s airs Sunday at 5:50 a.m.)
  • おはようニュースマガジン
  • ザ・ワイド
  • ミヤネ屋
  • おもしろサンデー
  • ニュース・スクランブル
  • テンベストSHOW
  • マルバレ
  • リーダース・アイ
  • 極上の散歩道
  • 読売新聞ニュース
  • ザ・サンデー
  • サンデー・ドクター
  • ダウンタウンDX
  • BLT
  • 11PM
  • and more!


Note from Uemura-san: I believe that the meaning of the word “announcer” in English isn’t exactly the same as in Japanese. In Japan, the word announcer refers to various roles, whereas in English there are specific terms used to denote the people working in those roles. For example, in English there are news anchors, broadcasters, reporters, talk show or game show hosts and narrators of documentaries. Everyone who does these kinds of jobs would be called “announcers” in Japanese. My work calls for me to take on all kinds of such roles.

2. The Life And Work Of Naomi Uemura

Q. Why did you want to become an announcer?

What made me decide to become an announcer was a summer part time job that I had when I was in university. I was offered an MC position at a sporting event and I worked as a vendor in a sports drink tent where people threw a die and the number rolled indicated the number of free sports drinks we would give away. The event was held for about a week, but within a couple days some people from the neighborhood, from children to grandfathers to business men, became regulars of mine and came to my place every day. I hosted the dice show with a funny story and managed to create a great atmosphere. When I teased the audience, they quickly reacted with hearty laughter. It was very fun and interesting for me to see how the crowd swung from joyful laughs to empathetic sighs all because of what I said. Because of that, I thought I would seek a job in something that involved this type of talking.

Q. What was the most difficult thing about becoming an announcer?

Actually, I had almost no difficulty. When I was in my 4th year of university, I went to a job interview and just popped into Yomiuri TV. The difficult thing was…well, when it comes right down to it, the interview may have been the most difficult part because I was the only one chosen out of over 2000 applicants. At the time, going to job interviews was basically my hobby as I had interviews with more than 40 companies. Most of the companies had several rounds of interviews for applicants to go through until they were hired. There were even companies that had up to nine interview stages. My calender looked like it had been painted black due to all those interview appointments.

Q. What was it like to be the only female announcer in the company? (There weren’t any female announcers when she entered the company at least, but there had been a few before her)

In the Kansai area at the time, female comedians were very popular and because of that, jobs such as reporters and assistant hosts on television shows were often reserved for those female comedians. At that time, however, there were about 20 announcers on Yomiuri TV in 1989 and they were all men. Since they were all male, they were accustomed to changing their clothes in the announcer room without hesitation and, strangely enough, my new presence there did not change this. The pin microphone position in the news studio was standardly set to fit to the left lapel of a man’s jacket, so I was scolded when I changed it to fit to mine, the right lapel of a woman’s jacket. It was tough that there weren’t any female announcer superiors to consult with, as well. As for the job, there weren’t any positions for female announcers, as I mentioned above, and we had to obtain them from female comedians one by one. In order to do so, I worked hard and brushed up my announcing skills and expressiveness to appeal to the merits of using a female announcer. Now, out of the 20 announcers in the company, 10 of them are women. Those women undertake the announcing positions that are reserved solely for females. My first job involved creating something from nothing and doing it from the ground floor.

Q. What are the differences between when you started announcing and today, in terms of being a female announcer?

Nothing really.

Q. What was your greatest / most memorable moment in announcing?

Announcing is not a job that helps someone directly. It’s a job that requires the delivery of information to a camera and then through the TV screen. So, it’s rare to find yourself with an opportunity to help someone else. However, when the Great Hanshin earthquake occurred in 1995, I was actually in Ashiya, which was right in the center of the affected area that got a 7.2 magnitude earthquake. Fortunately I lived, so I reported what was actually happening in Kobe day to day through live news feeds and interviews with the perspective of the victims.

One day, after finishing a live news feed as an on-scene reporter, a man approached me to tell me that his life was saved by me. A lot of questions burst into my mind like, “Why? What did I do? Where were you? What do you mean I saved your life?” I then asked the gentlemen why he thought so and he began his story.

“I ran a photo shop in Kobe, but the photo studio, which was also my house, was completely demolished by the earthquake. Additionally, my wife passed away as a result of being trampled by a stampede of people. I lost not only my job, but also my family. After the earthquake, I got stomach cancer because of the stress. When I found out the only life I had left from the earthquake was disappearing, I began to wonder what I was living for. During that time, on the way to the hospital in Kobe, I got into an interview with you. You and I talked about the harsh times I had encountered and about how sad I was. I told you everything. You listened to my story with a full heart and burst into tears with me. Before that moment my sadness had nowhere to go and I had been struggling with the pain of my new life, but you accepted all my feelings and cried with me.

Upon the realization of that, the burden on my heart went away. In that moment I was able to think that if I continued to live, something good might happen. I was actually contemplating suicide, but a ray of light plucked me out of the darkness and and I knew I could hang in there.”

One day, by chance, we ran into each other in the effected area again, and told me that story and how “his life was saved by me”.

Hearing those words was the greatest and most memorable moment of my career.

Q. What is the funniest thing that happened to you while working?

In 2000, I bought an apartment for the first time in my life. At first, I took out a 35-year mortgage, but I would pay it back partly when I saved up some money. It is called “kuriage-hensai” (繰り上げ返済) which means pre-payment in Japanese. It was very fascinating for me that the mortgage term was shortened by about 10 years after “kuriage-hensai”, even though it wasn’t a lot of money. Shortly afterwards, I was obsessed with it and repeated the ‘kuriage-hensai’ as soon as I saved up even more money. Saving money kind of became one of my pastimes.

Meanwhile, Kyosen Ōhashi, who served briefly as a member of the House of Councilors in the Diet of Japan, resigned from his political position. On the evening news, I happened to report this story and during that piece I said, “Due to the resignation of Mr. Kyosen Ōhashi, Mr. Martti Turunen was”kuriage-hensai“-ed.” Of course, I didn’t intend to say “kiriage-hensai”, but “繰り上げ当選 (kuriage-tousen)”, which means to win an election as a result of the death or disqualification of one of the winners. All the staff members who knew that I liked paying “kuriage-hensai” were shaking their shoulders to prevent themselves from bursting out laughing. It was a news cast, you know, so they couldn’t laugh out loud. I didn’t even realize that I had made that mistake, so it turned out to be a funny story after the show ended. On the other hand, who knows, Mr. Martti Turunen may have been paying kuriage-hensai as well, so it might have not been a mistake after all….as if. (She chuckled)

Q. What is the most difficult thing about being an announcer?

[The most difficult thing] is the action of “conveying”. I’ve worked hard for 25 years to properly convey the news to people, but the fact is it’s still difficult to convey stories exactly as I want to. Sometimes, even though I think I conveyed things properly, it didn’t come off to the audience the same way as I thought it should have. Things like the environment that someone grew up in or the books they have read, there are so many factors that contribute to making the mind of an individual different from the next. Even if I say the same thing, whether it was to someone who just lost their loved ones, or to someone whom just had just seen their baby come into the world, my words would be received differently and it’s no wonder. Even for the expression “thank you”, some people may feel that it sounded “pushy” or “sarcastic”, whereas others may meekly consider it to be an expression of gratitude from the bottom of someone’s heart. After all, to convey something exactly how you want is such a difficult thing, and perhaps that is the reason why this is a job that I will never lose interest in.

Q. What is required to become an announcer like you?

Please graduate from a university and come to an interview here at Yomiuri TV. Try to habitually take interest in various things and convey that interest to as many people as you can. Attempt to feel various emotions, understand them, and learn how great it is to convey your feelings to other people. I’m looking forward to seeing you all.

Q. Do you think a foreigner could do that and become an announcer in Japan?

If the person could speak Japanese properly and have a lot of knowledge and insight, then I’d say why not?

3. Advice For Japanese Learners

Since Uemura-san is a professional at speaking, and since many of you would like to speak Japanese better, here are some questions that will help you with that!

Q. Being able to speak clearly and nicely is important to learning a language. How did you train to improve your voice to speak such beautiful Japanese?

I trained with abdominal breathing and pronunciation drills. I’ve been doing them since the beginning of my career.

Q. Could you talk more about the abdominal breathing?

In order to produce a beautiful voice, you have to inhale a lot of air into your lungs. To do so, you need to expand the space surrounded by your ribs. The only thing you could do for that is either to throw your shoulders back or to lower the diaphragm. However, if you strain your shoulders, it will strain your neck and your throat will constrict, so it won’t help you find your beautiful voice. So, to create a beautiful voice, lowering your diaphragm is the only way. For that, you have to train your abdominal muscles and try to learn how to move your diaphragm up and down. That is abdominal breathing. You become able to do that type of breathing once you get strong abdominal muscles.

Q. How about the pronunciation drills?

In Japanese, there are basically only 5 mouth shapes, which are the shapes when you say vowels “あいうえお” and the unique consonant “ん”. You can make 50 different sounds just by adding a consonant to the beginning of those 5 vowels. You can easily make consonants sounds with your tongue, but you have to properly shape your mouth when you pronounce vowels. Once you can make good shapes, your pronunciation will be proper and beautiful. So, pronunciation drills for proper mouth shape are very important. I still practice these at least once a day in the studio.

Q. What’s the difference between speaking Japanese and delivering what you think in Japanese”?

To read scripts in a beautiful way, to speak, to communicate, and to deliver are all different. Even though you pronounce words perfectly, without an accent and speak in fluent Japanese, sometimes what you want to say doesn’t come off as you intended. In order to have a better delivery, you may try changing the tone of the word you want to emphasize, to higher or lower, or you may change the volume of it, either louder or quieter, or you may even want to whisper. On top of that, a change of tempo might be called for, either slower or faster. You need to get a little creative and make all kinds of efforts. Put yourself in the frame of mind that you want to deliver the story in and think about what you could do to delivery that story to the people in the most effective way, and then talk. That’s the way to improve the skill of “delivering what you think”. I think it’s the same whether it’s Japanese, English, German, or French.

Q. What do you think is the most important thing to practice or learn if you want to speak “good Japanese”?

This doesn’t just apply to Japanese but to any foreign language, and the fastest way to improve your skills in another language is, I think, to make friends who speak that language. If you listen to that language with your ears and speak it from your mouth every day, then you’ll naturally learn new Japanese phrases, the way to say things and how to deliver what is said.

However, even if you become a fluent speaker of Japanese, I’d say that writing is a whole other monster. Unlike the alphabet, there are so many characters in Japanese with the incorporation of Hiragana, Katakana and Kanji. So I believe it would be much more difficult to write a letter in Japanese than it would be to recite what is written in the letter.

Q. When the news is delivered, I think it’s constructed to be easier for people to understand. How can we make “easy-to-understand” Japanese?

This is again not only for Japanese, but information given through speech is “easy-to-understand” if you focus on the base formula of communication – That is “5W1H”: Who, When, Where, What, Why, and How. If your message is compact and consists of these elements, it will be “easy-to-understand” in any language. Whenever you talk to your friend (or whoever), be aware of how you are delivering what you’re attempting to communicate and afterwards try to recall whether or not you’ve contained each element of 5W1H. It’s a great training method and you’ll end up being able to speak “easy-to-understand” Japanese if you focus on this.

Q. Do you have any other advice for Japanese learners?

The Japanese language might be difficult if you study its grammar. Yet, it is a great language for you to deliver and create sentimental expressions and atmospheres. You may like Japanese more if you not only study the Japanese language, but also Haiku or Tanka poems. In Japanese, it’s also common that the words from other countries find their way to Japan and settle in as a part of the Japanese language. Words such as 金平糖 (konpeitou), which means “confetti” which is Portuguese, or マネージャー (manger), which comes from English, are two of hundreds. Since ancient times, Japan has adopted many elements of foreign cultures and it even shows in its language as well. Japan has accepted many foreign things throughout it’s history, with Chinese influence being the most resonant of them, as Japan adopted techniques, social behaviors, Buddhism, ideas, customs, and kanji characters from China. The language is, in part, a demonstration of the country’s culture. When you study a language, try getting interested in its history, background, and culture. As you learn more, you may also enjoy learning more.

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Sailor Moon: Positive Female Role Model Since 1992 Mon, 05 May 2014 16:00:35 +0000 Chances are, you have heard of Sailor Moon. Her unique dango hairstyle and ultra leggy sailor outfit are hard to forget. Sailor Moon, also known as Usagi or Serena (depending on what language you read/watch), is the main character of said shoujo manga and anime. She likes boys and sweets, hates homework, is often clumsy, and occasionally extremely selfish. Oh, and she fights evil with her friends using magical makeup and accessories. Cute, right?

But have you ever thought of Sailor Moon as a form of empowerment for girls? Even though it’s a cartoon, Sailor Moon is all about kicking butt, friendship, and using your femininity as a source of power. You may not see it yet, but trust me. Sailor Moon is oozing with girl power!

Naoko Takeuchi: The Woman Behind It All

naoko-takeuchiNaoko Takeuchi, the beloved creator of Sailor Moon affectionately dubbed “goddess” by her fans, was already a popular up-and-coming shoujo writer when she began work on Sailor Moon. Unlike her previous shoujo mangas, Naoko wanted to deviate from strictly romantic stories toward self-contained fights between good and evil, as seen in super sentai shows. Naoko’s intention wasn’t to make a “feminist” manga. She simply wanted to tell a story that readers, especially females, could relate to, all while tying in friendship, action, romance, and fantasy into one glorious package.

Naoko herself said she was inspired to create Sailor Moon based on her experiences in junior high. When she first pitched the idea (then titled, Codename is Sailor V) to her editor, he said he wanted her to put the hero in a sailor outfit. She ultimately turned this idea into a powerful symbol for the girls reading her comics. As you may already know, sailor uniforms are familiar in Japan as the typical girls’ school uniform, and Naoko liked the concept of such a recognizable symbol for young girls.

Despite the cute and innocent image of the sailor style uniforms, Japanese middle school girls have quite a rough time. Academics become increasingly important, which leads to added stress and (surprise, surprise!) bullying. In an interview from 1992, Naoko confides that she drew inspiration from this time in her life because she believes it is one of the most difficult times for girls. Rather than make an ideal hero, Usagi/Serena was created to be an average girl that was sometimes lazy and boy-crazy. Contrasting her normal student life and her alter ego, Naoko made a character that readers could relate to, while including the fantastic elements they craved.

Usagi/Serena represents an everyday Japanese girl and isn’t a perfect role model. Watching her mature is one of the strong points of the series. Ultimately, we watch her grow from a clumsy 14-year-old girl into a capable young woman with a solid group of friends. By series’ end, Usagi is a loving wife, caring mother, and supportive friend.

Sailor Moon was groundbreaking for its time, thanks to Naoko’s unwillingness to back down and tailor the story to her editor’s liking. She mentions in a 2013 interview with ROLa Magazine that many older male workers at Nakayoshi Magazine tried to dictate her characters’ appearances and attributes. In her own words, she exclaimed that she wouldn’t let “old men” decide how a story for young girls should be written. (Really, what would they know about shoujo?) It was obvious, she added, that they did not respect female authors in the first place. One of the biggest disputes arose when the male editors did not understand why Naoko wanted to make all the girls beautiful. Instead they wanted the characters to fit into typical manga stereotypes (an obese character, a nerdy character, etc.), because that is how fighting squadron series are usually formulated. Instead, Naoko followed her gut and infused each heroine with femininity and grace for her revitalization of the magical girl genre.

Magical Girls…So What?


The fact that Sailor Moon is still extremely popular, both in Japan and internationally, is a big deal. What’s even more exciting is that it is getting a revival, 20 years after its initial release! How many series can brag about that? Beyond that, how many shoujo manga can you think of that don’t mainly focus on romance? This shortens the list considerably.

What’s more, the acceptable mainstream manga adored by both male and female fans tends not to be shoujo manga— they are almost always shounen. This is why it is such a big deal when a shoujo manga does makes such a splash. It shows girls that there is no reason why things considered “girly” shouldn’t be popular, and their representation matters.

Transforming Gender Identity

Perhaps one of the most recognizable bits of animation in Sailor Moon is the girls’ transformation into sailor scouts. I’ll admit, it’s a bit risqué for a kids’ show. They are basically are naked (which is not shown of course— they become sparkly outlines with huge anime eyes) and magically wrapped in ribbon that transforms into their boots, uniform, and gloves. The fact that the girls get their power from magical makeup doesn’t exactly seem empowering, either. But, before you judge, hear me out.

Japanese society is still deeply segregated by gender. Even female politicians experience the pressure of expected gender roles placed upon them. Even with their powerful occupations, they feel the need to subvert that power by adopting preconceived gender identities, such as housewife. What I’m saying is that even though these women are important figures, even they try to downplay their power so they seem less threatening. It’s sad, but true.

In contrast, you have Sailor Moon and her friends using makeup to gain magic powers, and, damn, are they going to look cute while kicking some ass! Sailor Moon and the rest of the Sailor Scouts use their gender identities as a source of power instead of using femininity to seem less threatening.

The Power of Friendship!


Sailor Moon’s friendship with the other Sailor Scouts is one of the most important aspects of the show. Though the plot in the series is generally very consistent, the heroes’ backstories and friendships are explored in depth throughout the manga and animated series. In a 1996 interview with Animerica Magazine, Naoko states that she saved all of her love for the girls and rarely expanded her male characters (with the exception of Tuxedo Mask).  She wanted to show that their friendship matters the most and is the core of their group dynamic. Using friendships, she demonstrates that girls are strong and powerful and can be independent and happy, whether they have boyfriends or not. Usagi and Rei’s friendship in particular is very interesting as it starts off with the most turbulence. Often squabbling over petty issues, they eventually become quite close and loyal to each other. Even Naoko explained that they squabble like this because they are so close and comfortable with each other, perhaps insinuating that she, too, has a friendship like this.


One of the most notable relationships is between Sailor Neptune and Sailor Uranus. Much to Sailor Moon’s initial confusion, Sailor Uranus is a girl despite her androgynous appearance. Haruka, or Sailor Uranus, is described as having the powers of both sexes. She is physically strong, which is taken as a male attribute by Usagi. At one point in the manga, Haruka challenges Makoto, Sailor Jupiter, to a friendly judo match and overpowers her. Usagi and her friends believe that Haruka should have gone easy on Makoto because she is girl, not realizing that Haruka is also female. Naoko highlights that, even though males are biologically stronger than females, it doesn’t mean that all females are physically weaker than their male counterparts. Haruka does traditionally male activities and she is the best at what she does, beating all the boys at their own game.

The relationship between Haruka and Michiru (Sailor Neptune) is also widely discussed. Naoko is often asked about their relationship and confirms that they are indeed romantic partners. Naoko’s decision to include Haruka and Michiru’s homosexual romance was a surprisingly progressive move for a manga intended for young girls. In general, homosexuality still isn’t widely discussed, supported, nor recognized in Japan. Yet, even back in 1996, Naoko decided to include Haruka and Michiru’s romance.  What is even better is that their sexual orientation doesn’t dominate their whole personality— it is merely a facet of their characters. In an interview with Kappa Magazine in 1996, Naoko explains that Michiru and Haruka’s relationship was meant to show that strong friendships can be and are essential for love and that heterosexual love is not the only type of love.

Love is in the Air


Naoko has stated that she is a shoujo manga artist, so romance is an important aspect of her series. The main romance in the series is between Usagi (Sailor Moon) and Chiba Mamoru (literally means World Protector— best name ever, right?). They start off as playful teenagers, constantly teasing each other. Mamoru, who doesn’t know he is the reincarnation of King Endymion (or Tuxedo Mask), is kidnapped and brainwashed more often than any other character in Sailor Moon. For once, it is up to the girls to save the guy. Yet, Mamoru isn’t a bumbling idiot. As Tuxedo Mask, he often helps the girls, while looking really cool and mysterious with his endless supply of roses. Throughout the series, as his relationship with Usagi grows, Mamoru protects and respects her, showing a healthy, happy relationship. Though Naoko conveys that the girls are independent and “don’t need boys”, that doesn’t mean they can’t choose to be in a relationship. In the series, we see Mamoru and Usagi become parents of their daughter Chibi-Usa. Usagi becomes a homemaker, despite being a powerful protector of the Earth, and that is perfectly fine.

Fighting Evil By Moonlight


Next time you see Sailor Moon, think of all the girl power that is behind that cute sailor uniform and magic makeup. I’m not saying that it is the perfect example of feminism. That was not Naoko Takeuchi’s intention— the girls fight evil in mini skirts, for Pete’s sake! On top of that, there’s hardly any diversity among the girls’ appearances, and they occasionally even voice fat-phobic statements. So no, Sailor Moon is not flawless. But it does happen to hit a lot of the right notes.  It teaches girls to be proud of who they are, find power in their femininity, and make choices that build healthy relationships.  All that coupled with action and romance makes Sailor Moon an amazing series that offers a lot to its target audience.  And that’s more than can be said for most media aimed at young girls.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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