Tofugu » » People A Japanese Language & Culture Blog Wed, 01 Oct 2014 16:01:00 +0000 en-US hourly 1 So You Want To Be A Japanese Translator? Starring Susanna Fessler Tue, 30 Sep 2014 16:00:23 +0000 Here at Tofugu we get countless emails from people who want to be Japanese translators. While my own experiences are limited, I thought there would be no better person to ask than my former Japanese literature professor and university advisor, Dr. Susanna Fessler. She was nice enough to hop on Skype and answer all of my questions regarding literary and freelance translation, and interpretation. This is the written version of that conversation, so please pardon the casual tone and enjoy this unfiltered interview!

Q. What is your name and where do you currently work?

My name is Susanna Fessler and I’m a professor in the East Asian Studies Department at the University at Albany, I’ve been there for twenty years.

Fessler, Susanna_0149

Q. What kind of translation work have you done?

What I do is largely literary translation. I have done commercial, or what they call technical translation, it’s been a very long time since I’ve done it. I did it back when I was in graduate school on sort of a freelance basis. I can’t remember how many jobs I had – a few, I was in the midwest. And I also spent a summer being a technical translator in a car parts factory in Ohio for a subsidiary of Honda. They were just setting up production and they had a staff of about a dozen Japanese management and about a dozen Americans and they had a huge problem because the Japanese didn’t really speak English and the Americans didn’t really speak Japanese and they were trying to get their factory set up so they hired me to come in and both interpret and translate.

Q. How many years have you been working the the world of translation?

I guess all told, about twenty-five years, on and off since grad school.

Q. How did you become interested in being a translator?

Well, when I was doing technical translation I was in it for the money, I’ll just be perfectly honest about that (laughs). Technical translation is not something – I don’t know anybody who does it because they find it edifying – but it pays well. And what often happens is you’ll find that technical translators do that to put food on the table, but then they’ll also be really interested in literary translation because it’s the literary translation that is edifying.

Now in my case, I did the technical translation to make the money, and since I have pretty much stopped doing that. Sometimes I’ll get a query through the department or something but usually I’m not interested, or I can’t do it cause there’s a time conflict or something like that. So I just pass it on. But you’ll also find, if you talk to a lot of people who do translation, that in the world of,literary translation almost everyone, with maybe the exception of one or two people in Japanese to English translation, is not really a professional translator. They are probably like me; they are professors. They do translation on the side, so to speak. In academia, it depends on the institution but in a lot of places they kind of frown upon translation as research activity. They’ll say, Oh it doesn’t “count” – count toward the research portfolio that you have to build in order to get promoted and to get tenure. And so what pattern you’ll find is that a lot of literary translators start out as professors but they don’t really do literary translation until after they’ve gotten tenure. At that point they’re safe, that job is safe,  and they can go do that translation and it’s not going to be held against them when they come up for promotion further on. And I very much fit that pattern.


Photo by Guwashi999

So my first two books were monographs, and then I got tenure, and then I remember chatting with another professor, who’s been my mentor since I came here, and I said, you know I have this opportunity to do this literary translation, I really want to do it, but I know everyone says, oh translation doesn’t count, but he said don’t worry about it, you’ve got tenure now you can do whatever the hell you wanna do (laughs). So that’s what I did, you know, I did that translation. Then that led to the next project, which is another translation, which I’ve just finished, and I’m not sure what the next project’s going to be, I’m kind of torn. I was asked if I wanted to do another translation and I’m just not sure. Maybe that’ll be like, the project after the next project.

Q. What was the very first thing you translated?

That goes way way way far back. I translated a short story when I was a sophomore in college. It was a story by Enchi Fumiko and the title of it is “Korosu” as in the verb “to kill” and it was published in this rinky dink little publication that the East Asian Studies Department at Oberlin College puts out called Ao Tung. So that was my sophomore year and in a way it was kind of like what you were doing last semester. It was my first foray into anything like that, it was an independent study, they call it something different at Oberlin, but that’s what it was. And so I worked with a professor and you know, I picked out the short story, and then I spent the semester effectively with Nelson’s chained to my ankle (laughs) and just sat there and, you know, worked and worked and worked at it.

Q. What would you say someone needs to do to professionally translate literature? Do they have to become a professor to do it? Or is there a different path?

You know there isn’t something you have to do, there is that standard path that I just described, but there are some people who are not professors who translate. They’re few and far between, usually they’re independently wealthy so they don’t have to worry about it, right? Obviously, you have to develop the language skills and you have to develop the research skills. You have to be an excellent writer in your own language. If you’re doing Japanese to English, your English has to be really good. There’s a website – I was thinking about this as I was madly peddling home today – that I have passed onto a couple of different people and I can’t remember if I passed it onto you. It’s called something like, So You Want To Be a Translator. It’s written as part of a blog by a woman who does Japanese – English translation. I don’t think it would be too hard to find if you do some judicious googling. And I thought she had some really good advice, she had like four or five points about what you need to do, and I’ve already reiterated three of those I think, in terms of developing research skills and language skills, and I think one of the other things she points out is that when you translate something, you become an expert in it. Especially when you’re doing technical translation. So you actually have to learn about that thing. That really rang true to me too when I was working in the car parts factory, that was a factory that produced rack and pinion steering components. About which I knew nothing, absolutely nothing, right? I didn’t know the English for half the things in that factory, but I learned really fast. And so later on I knew a lot more about that production process. Or, I did a small job translating some newspaper articles from the industrial glass world. And I didn’t know anything about industrial glass production, but I learned a lot doing that too.


Photo by Roger Wollstadt

So for technical translation you do have to become that expert, but you know in literary translation you have to become an expert too, in that you have to find the voice of the author, and try and reproduce that. So you create a specific persona, or if it’s a work of fiction where you have dialogue and things like that, then you know the different characters have to develop that voice. You can’t just do a sort of mechanical kind of translation, it doesn’t really work very well.

There is at least one training road that one can take. That list of people that I contacted for you were all part of the British Centre for Literary Translation. I don’t think there’s anything like that in the United States. It’s located at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, in the UK. And every summer they run a workshop where they get people together who are interested in literary translation and they have different language groups each year. The year I went, which was about five years ago, there were, I think, six different groups and Japanese was one of them. In each group there were about ten participants, and in addition to the ten participants, this is the really cool part, they bring in contemporary authors. They have the author there, and they have someone who has worked with the author as a literary translator, and they run the sessions. So for a week, all day, everyday, you’re sitting in this room with a contemporary author and a bunch of other translators, and looking really closely at various passages that that author has written and deciding how it would be translated well into the target language, and in my case it was English.

The author that was there my year was Tawada Yōko, whose work I’m not a big fan of, I gotta say, but she is a very famous writer. And I met some really cool people, and had some fascinating conversations, and got to see other people’s methods and learning how to translate, or doing the process of translation. One of the things I learned that week was that there isn’t one method that’s right and we all have our different approaches. For me, it’s kind of, I don’t know what the right word is, it’s kind of organic. I do it sentence by sentence, I read a whole sentence, and I sort of turn it around in my brain or my gut, and then spit something out. Other people would mull over bits and pieces of sentences and then put them together. It really differed. And then we had all kinds of discussions about finding that voice, what I was saying earlier.

There were things I hadn’t anticipated, like in that room we had people from New Zealand, and the UK, and Canada, and the United States, and India, and we all had our own idea of what English should be. So what sounded natural to one person didn’t sound natural to the other one, and then all kinds of fascinating things came out of that session. So for example, I can’t remember if I told you this story or not, there was a passage where there was a noun, and of course in Japanese it’s just a noun, it’s not singular or plural, but in English we had to make that decision – whether it was singular or plural, and it made all the difference in the world. It was one of those discussions that could have gone on forever, except that the author was sitting right there! She said, “Oh that’s an interesting questions I never thought about it that. Like mm, what if I made it this way-” No no no, you can’t change your mind you have to just tell us what you intended (laughs).

So anyway, to my knowledge thats one of the few actual training places that one can learn literary translation. I have noticed the phenomenon of courses at the university level being taught on translation increasingly in the world and I have no idea how that works, because they’re not language specific. I can’t imagine how I would teach that class. I know people are interested in the topic, but I think it has to be language specific, and it would really have to be a very high level course to fly, I think. You know, you can’t have people who are in first year language or second year language struggling with texts.

Q. So what does a recent grad do to become a translator? You’ve just graduated and you have all this language knowledge that’s kind of there, how do you get where you need to be?


Photo by Jessie Jacobson

Well if what you want to do it be a literary translator, then you go participate in the BCLT thing in the summer maybe (laughs). And if that’s all you want to do then, either you’re going to have to live hand and mouth, or you have to be independently wealthy for a very long time before you can get your foot in the door. Because in the literary world most publishers these days are not interested in publishing older stuff, they only want to publish new stuff. So I can’t say, oh I just discovered this new novel, or this novel by Natsume Sōseki that nobody knew existed and let’s publish it. People would say, forget it man, the guy died in 1916, who cares? Even though he was one of the great writers of his generation.

For the most part you’re working with authors who have current contracts with publishers, and so you have to work with the publisher and the author. So the authors get a say in who they want to translate their work and sometimes that goes really well and sometimes it just doesn’t. And the more famous the author is, usually the more cantankerous they are, you know, they can be really picky. If there is somebody who isn’t really well known, then they’re probably going to be more flexible.

Sometimes presses can be friendly and sometimes they can just be kinda standoffish. Most of the presses that do literary translations are university presses. And so if you’re competing in that pool, you’re competing with professors. There are a few presses, like Kodansha has kind of pulled out of the game, but for a long time Kodansha International was sort of one of the key players, Tuttle, obviously, is also still there, does a lot of translation. But they often let stuff fall out of print, and then it might just die a quiet death.

I work with a publisher – it’s a one man gig – so there’s one person working in the office and he does most everything. He lives in Fukuoka, and his love is books, and so he just wants more stuff to be translated. So he’s got a nice website and he’ll say if you’re interested in translating they actually have a process that you can go through. They have an application if you’re interested in publishing with them, and they will ask you to pick one of, I think it’s ten different things they have on their website to translate, and send it in as a sample. If they think you’re competent and there’s hope there, then you can start talking with them about it.

The guy’s name is Edward Lipsett. I don’t know how Edward deals with current authors. In my case, the guy I translate is dead, and has been dead for more than fifty years, so everything is public domain, we don’t have to worry about copyright or anything like that. But when you’re working with more current authors, then that’s where the publisher has to get involved. But Edward, I think he tries to contact the authors and says, you know we have somebody who’s interested in translating your work, would you be interested, or he talks to the publishers of the original Japanese and then tries to get them onboard. So there’s a big negotiation process, but you kind of have to, as the translator yourself, you have to first show that you’re competent, that you have something to offer, and getting to that point isn’t super easy.

Now, how do you get to that point? One way is by doing technical translation, and getting comfortable with that process. How do you do that? Well, it’s like looking for any job. You have to send a resume out to a whole bunch of different places. It’s like opening the phone book and looking under translation, because most technical translation is done through an intermediary, middle-man party. So Company A needs a document translated, they contact the translation office, and then the translation office farms that out to the appropriate person. So it’s never a full time job, where you get a salary. Unless you’re one of the very few people who does it full time, for say, Toyota is always the example we use, it’s not only Toyota, but you know huge companies like that actually do employ a few people full time. But often those people they employ full time are specialized, like they do law, or something like that. I would never take a law job. It’s too scary. I don’t know that vocabulary and I can’t learn it fast enough to be safe. Like, I don’t want to expose somebody to a lawsuit (laughs).

Q. So if someone wanted to work for one of those big companies, they should definitely have some kind of specialization. Like if you want to work for an automotive company you should know about that? Or medicine, etc.?

Right, so that’s one way to get your foot in that door. Talking to some of the people at the BCLT event who actually have worked for Toyota in the past, they say that what often happens is you simply do a couple jobs, a couple freelance jobs, and they really like your work, and so then you’re their go to person, and the middleman maybe gets cut out or something like that. But it takes a long time to be that go to person.

And the competition is, well Japanese to English not as great as lots of other languages, but it’s still there. One of the problems with translation, if you move out of the sort of musty world that I’m in and into stuff like video games and manga and anime, is that there is a large crowd of people out there who are willing, and who do, translate game scripts and web pages and all those kinds of things for free, for fun. And you know, you can’t compete with free when you’re talking about what you’re going to charge for something. So that’s why I keep saying it’s just not lucrative. I think in total I’ve made like, maybe $150 from my translation (laughs), from the book that I published in 2009. And I’ll probably make about that much money from the one that I’m publishing right now. So I just do it because I enjoy it, and it’s a fun, fascinating challenge, and it dovetails with my research.

Q. So it really has to be something that you’re passionate about, that you want to do because you want to do it, and not, “I want to be rich, I’m going to translate,” that’s not going to work out for you?


Photo by epSos .de

I don’t think anybody gets rich doing it. At all. I’m curious, so for example, Jay Rubin, who is now retired, who’s my daisempai, if you will. He had the same advisor in graduate school as I did, he was the first generation and I was the last generation, We both worked under McClellan, and McClellen was, you know, one of these demigods of translation. So a lot of the students that he produced then went on to do translation. So Jay did a number of different translations and now in his glorious retirement, is one of the go to people for translations of Murakami Haruki. So Murakami Haruki has two translators and Jay is one of them. I’m not sure how much money he makes on that. I don’t think he does it for the money, I’m sure he has a nice pension (laughs). But I’m sure he’s making more, because Murakami Haruki, I’m sure he’s making more than I am. No question about that.

Yeah, if there’s a name that everyone knows now, it’s Murakami Haruki.

Yeah, exactly, well those books sell. I mean the reason I don’t make money is because my books don’t sell. Quite literally every year, maybe two or three copies sell, and that’s okay, I don’t care. But you know, I don’t depend on it to make money, that’s for sure.

I should also say, the cousin of translation is interpreting.

Q. Have you ever done interpreting, or do you stay away from it?

For the most part, I stay away from it, but at the car parts factory I did it. But it was exhausting, it was absolutely exhausting. Translating I can sit and do all day, I mean I get tired, but the mental work involved in interpreting, especially because I was a first year graduate student, and at that point I had been studying Japanese for six years, on and off, and there was just a ton of stuff that I didn’t know. So it was really very nervous making too. There was a lot of zangyō because they were just setting up everything, you know. And inevitably, half the time you ran overtime. And it was an hour commute one way, in summer, in a car that had no air conditioning. It’s the one time in my life when I’ve come close to falling asleep at the wheel.

But after three months I was so glad that it was ending. I was just exhausted. I wanted to go back to school and do something different. I can’t imagine interpreting for a long period of time, unless you were raised bilingually. It’s just really hard.

Q. What exactly did you do? Did you follow some people around and help them talk to each other?

Yeah, basically. Like I said, they were setting up the production line, so I would go and interpret for, usually it was the management, who was explaining to the Americans what needed to be done. Or it was an assembly line and they were doing it according to this sort of long standing Japanese tradition where you train everybody for every station, so that if someone’s out sick one day, production doesn’t stop. So they had to train all the Americans in all the different stations. Like okay, today we’re doing chrome plating, or whatever.

So there was stuff like that, and then I would kind of follow people around. One day we had someone come, an American subcontractor who needed to check out some of the air conditioning units that are on the roof of the factory, it was a flat roof, right? So the management was really funny, it was almost all men in this factory, there were like two women in the office, and then everybody else was male. And then there was me. They realized that they needed help with this and they said well, we’re not going to ask you to climb up on the roof and I said why not? I’m not afraid of heights (laughs). And so I just followed them up the ladder, and you know, did whatever I could do to explain things.

You’re just going to have to be intrepid about it, and say okay, I’ll take this challenge or that challenge. But they were nice, they realized that I had my limitations as somebody who’d only studied the language for six years, but my price was right. I was only charging – this was 1988 – I was only charging $10/hr, well 10 to 15, it was cheap compared to anybody else. I think they felt like they were getting their money’s worth, and I felt like they were getting their money’s worth too, so I didn’t feel too bad about it. I wasn’t like, oh my God, I’m an impostor I don’t really speak Japanese (laughs). That kind of thing.

Once in a while the department, even now gets a call, they’re looking for, and the people, they’re like folks over at RPI or whatever, they’re always looking for interpreters. They’re never looking for translators. And often its legal or court proceedings or some management muckity muck is coming into town and they need someone to help in a meeting, and I just think, no I’m not going there. You know? I would mess that up. If it were a hundred year old Meiji Japanese maybe, but I don’t know that stuff, right? So I just kind of pass it on.

Q. So from when you started learning Japanese to when you got your first job, it had been six years?


Q. Was that off and on studying or was it hardcore, everyday studying?


Photo by Nomadic Lass

Well my first year I was a high school exchange student, so I lived with a host family in Kyushu, and I attended a regular school, and I went with no Japanese whatsoever. So that was a really inefficient but intense learning experience. And then I returned to the United States and studied Japanese at college for two years and then I went back to Japan for my junior year abroad, again another study abroad program living with a host family. That one was a little more like the UAlbany program, so I was attending language classes but then English language classes on Japan at the same time. So it was less intense than my high school experience.

Then I came back to the United States and there was really nothing, there was no Japanese left for me to do in my last semester. I graduated mid-year in January because I’d brought in some credits when I first went into college, so I wasn’t doing Japanese that senior year in any serious way. I was tutoring some undergrads, but that was about it. And that was a year that I studied Mandarin. Then the year after I graduated I went to China for a year and I was teaching English and studying Mandarin, but my roommate was Japanese and she doesn’t speak any English, and she had no interest in learning English. So actually I got to use a lot of Japanese that year that I was in China, so I sort of still consider that a year of study.

Then I came back to the States, I’ve lost track of how many years I’ve covered now, and I spent a year in graduate school in Ohio State in Japanese Languages and Literatures. It was the summer after that year that I had the job at the car parts factory. So, what is that, six or seven years.

Q. Our readers really want to know what level of the Japanese-Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) you need to be able to pass before you start being a translator.

You know the JLPT is one piece of the bigger puzzle. So just because you pass JLPT 1 does not mean that you’ll be a good translator and just because you failed JLPT 1 doesn’t mean that you can’t be a good translator. Because translating is deliberative. JLPT is timed and restrictive – you can’t use a dictionary, you just have to read and spit, or listen and spit, right?

The skills the JLPT tests are really not the same skills as translating, so I could give some kid in EAJ202 (Intermediate Japanese) who’s motivated, a bunch of dictionaries and a page of Japanese, and I could expect that person to produce something. It might even be something really good as long as they’re not too stuck on a particular grammar point, and it’s not in classical Japanese or anything like that. If I give them as much time as they need, and all the reference works, that’s a really, really different mental process.

You know if you walk into a situation where you’re trying to sell yourself as a translator and you say, well I passed the JLPT 1, people are just going to look at you like “so what”, I think. They’re going to ask you to produce an example of your work. That’s really sort of the first key thing.

I had a student who, two years before he graduated, somebody asked me, a friend of a friend, asked me if I could help with a translation, Japanese to English, and I thought, you know, I don’t want to work for the friend of a friend – it was actually the boyfriend of a friend. Like that could be good or it could be really bad. And so I said, how about I just give this to an advanced student, what do you think? He said I don’t care, he was not ready to pay the professional going rate, which is like $30/hr, it’s just ridiculous how much the super professionals do for technical translating. So there’s sort of this sub-world where if you’re not super professional but you’re good enough and you charge less, then you know, maybe you can get that job.


Photo by Nic McPhee

So anyway I knew this student was looking for translation work and he didn’t need anything full time, so I asked him if he was willing to give it a shot, and he said well yeah, sure what the heck, right? And he just knuckled down and actually ended up working with one other student because it was a rush job, but they got it done and the guy was happy. It wasn’t perfect, but it was what he needed. They were actually translating a patent, again law stuff, God I hate that, so boring. So they translated the document. He was happy and the student was happy and the student emails me and says, “Uh how much am I supposed to charge this guy, I’ve never done this before” (laughs). And I said oo, well uh… (laughs).

Anyway how did I get there, where was I going with that? Oh! Right, what are your skills. So this student at the time was, he had tried to take the JLPT, just 2, and just barely didn’t pass. But does that mean that he couldn’t do that job? Absolutely not. He had the document, he had dictionaries, he had the research skills that he needed because he’d taken 205 (Japanese Research and Bibliographic Methods) and he just, you know, he did it. I think those skills have continued on for him in, at masters program too, but going back to that webpage I was mentioning earlier you know, So You Want To Be a Translator, I think that woman also mentions that just having a language skill – it’s part of what you need but it’s not the answer.

So I would hesitate to tell anybody that, oh you have to do JLPT 1 or something because I worry that people are going to bust their butt to pass JLPT 1 and then they’re going to discover that there’s no golden path down to Emerald City. And they’ll feel very betrayed and angry and unhappy.

Q. So if people say, but no, there’s gotta be something you have to pass, there really isn’t anything?

That’s right, I mean it’s really establishing a good reputation, doing good work, doing it in a timely fashion. Um.. what else..

So starting off as a freelancer so that you have something to build up a resume with -

Exactly. You can say, here is an example of the work that I did for, you know, building a portfolio for this company or for that company. You might say how long it took you to turn it around. You want to think about how much you’re going to charge as a freelancer. Those rates change over time because of inflation. You don’t want to undercut the whole market and then try and raise your prices because people will freak out about it, and you’ll kind of get a bad reputation. But like I was saying earlier, you kind of want to charge what you think is the right value for what you’re producing. So if you don’t have confidence about your Japanese then don’t feel bad about having a lower price (laughs).

One of the other things is that translators have to be good communicators not just in the process of translating but also in working with the clients because clients often will come to you – they’re blind, right? – they have this document that they can’t read, it just looks like chicken scratches to them, but they think the document’s important. And you’d be surprised how often it isn’t. When you’re doing a freelance job you’re usually charging by the word, that’s usually how they do it, 10 cents, 15 cents, 20 cents a word, something like that, right? Which I like because it means there’s no time pressure, you’re not charging by the hour, it’s not like a lawyer. But in any event, if you discovered that the document is not what the client thinks it is, and you go back to them and say, you know I don’t think you want to pay me for this, then that puts you in a really good place. Okay, maybe you lost that job, but they’re really happy that you were honest about it. Because the other option is that you translate the whole thing, and then you charge them out the wazoo for it, and it’s a piece of crap for them. They’re never going to come back to you because they’ll think, ah we wasted so much money.


Photo by reynermedia

I’ve had that happen twice. I was asked to transcribe – well, I was sent an audio recording of a meeting. It was a meeting that had taken place, I think in Detroit, and most of the meeting was in English, because it was between two Americans and two Japanese. But in the course of the meeting the two Japanese guys occasionally said something to each other in Japanese and the American’s were like, convinced that they were sharing like industry secrets or something like that. So they wanted a translation of what these guys said so they sent me the audio tape and the first fifteen minutes of the meeting there’s no Japanese at all, and I’m sitting there listening, like when’s it going to show up, what’s going to happen? And then when they did start speaking a little bit of Japanese, it had absolutely nothing to do with the content of the meeting. It was stuff like, I wonder when lunch is going to be, or I need to use the bathroom where do you think it is? You know, stuff like that. And so as soon as I realized that I contacted the translation agency and I said, we can’t charge these people for this. I’ll be perfectly honest, I’ll tell you, I’ll summarize what it is, I’ll sign off on it that that’s what it is and I’m not trying to cover anything up, but it would just be wrong Because I would have ended up charging like $500 for, “Where’s the bathroom?” (laughs) “Are we allowed to smoke in here?”

So I think it’s really good reputation builder as a translator to provide that kind of evaluation service – to look at the thing you’re asked to translate and verify yeah, it really is worth your money for me to do this. You don’t get paid for that but it’s easy to do. It’s easy to glance at a document and, translating it take a lot of work, but just glancing at a document to say okay I know what it is.

The one exception I suppose was when I was working in the glass industry, industrial glass production, that was also in Michigan, and they would occasionally send me newspaper articles from a trade journal and ask me to translate what was in the articles. And I did that, this is where I learned, for example, what float glass is. I didn’t even know what float glass was in English. I’d look at it and think, there are no industry secrets here, just none. Like I don’t recognize anything here that looks like it’s a gem, but the American’s were so concerned that the Japanese glass industry was doing stuff that wasn’t coming through the language barrier. So they just wanted to keep their finger on the pulse of what was being published in those Japanese trade journals. I said okay fine, I don’t see why you want this translated but it’s your money, you know? Whatever, I’ll translate it.

Q. Is there anything when you’re translating that is particularly difficult or you dislike coming across?

Certainly when you’re interpreting you don’t have any leisure time to think about what you’re going to say. And I was never trained as an interpreter, I always found taking on the voice of the person when I was interpreting really hard, so I’d always end up doing something awkward, like, “He says, yadayadayada” as opposed to just “yadayadayada”. But that’s interpreting it’s not translating.

Um, translating. God, I wish I had been a translator in the age of the internet. So many things… Because if you were caught without your dictionary, there was nothing, you know? There was no internet, there was no wikipedia, there was no google. And you just kinda have to fly by the seat of your pants.

And then dialect can be frustrating.

Q. We did have some people asking how you’re supposed to prepare yourself to translate dialect and colloquialisms without going to Japan and living in the areas that use them.


Photo by Luke Ma

You really can’t. If you’re translating, you have to learn that dialect or read it a lot and get a feel for it. Nowadays you can google a lot of stuff so it makes it much easier. It used to be you had to buy a specialized dictionary.

Another thing that I ran into in the car parts factory, and I never would have anticipate it, was a generational difference. So the younger managers tended to use gairaigo (外来語) and the older managers would use some sort of, you know, hyōjun (標準) something. So for example, we had the chrome plating, right? Of the rack and pinion steering components. The younger guys called it pureteingu (プレーティング), and the older guys called it mekki (鍍金), which is the Japanese word for chrome plating. So in a way I was kind of learning two different vocabularies within the Japanese realm because there was that generational difference.

The thing is, when you’re translating you can’t be a word connoisseur, you have to kinda be a word garbage disposal (laughs). You have to take whatever is thrown your way and you can’t say, well people don’t say that, or whatever. Whatever is there on the page, you’re responsible for rendering in the target language, so you can’t get indignant about it. You can get frustrated (laughs), but you can’t get indignant about it.

It’s a lot easier now I think, because media has made language so much more standardized. Television and the radio and the internet. So if you’re dealing with someone from, you know, your generation from Hokkaido, you’re probably not going to run into big language differences compared to somebody from Kyushu. You’re all going to have the same slang because you’re all in the same generation and you’re all looking at the same media. And when those older generations die out, then those old differences I think will lessen to some extent.

So I guess the good news is, it’s getting easier. It’s not impossible to do those things without the internet but it’s just much more time consuming. I think translation has become a much faster industry now, because we can find the answers to things so much more quickly.

Q. One person said that they don’t know whether to translate literal meanings or cultural equivalencies and what situations would be better for one over the other.

I would tend to agree with translating the cultural thing and not literal. Literal sounds bad and awkward, so to me the best translation is something that does not read like a translation, and if you’re just doing literal stuff, you can’t get there. This is one of the reason’s that I love McClellen’s translation of Kokoro, because it really reads as if the novel were written in English in the first place. And a good example kind of a cousin of that, if you will, is Memoirs of a Geisha. Have you read it? I tried to read it, I couldn’t get past page three (laughs), but I guess the reason I didn’t want to go past page three was because as I was reading it, you know, ostensibly it’s supposed to be translation, but as you’re reading you know it isn’t. It’s just, there’s so many places that are not a translation.


Photo by Norio NAKAYAMA

That’s neither here nor there, but anyway you want to represent the culture but you don’t want to get too slangy, or too specific to your own generation. So if I am reading along in a translation and I see a expression like “It’s the bee’s knees” I think to myself, well you know my grandparents might have said that, but nobody said that anymore (laughs). There was probably a better choice than doing that.

Now technical translation, yeah, absolutely just be technical. But literary translation, it’s a whole other situation. Somebody’s not paying you just to get the meanings of the words, someone’s paying you to transform a work of art. So what you produce should be artful, it shouldn’t be clunky.

There is an article I wrote, originally for the journal that the BCLT produces, about the challenge of translating catholicism and catholic terms in that translation that I did in 2009. So you’ve got somebody who is a scholar of Buddhism, but it’s somebody who was very well versed and familiar with the catholic tradition, but he had to convey specific ideas to his Japanese audience, and so he had to decide what words he was going to use. And then when I was translating it back into English I had to decide how specific I wanted to be or how general, because he’s never super specific. There’s this huge vocabulary associated with catholicism, and I wasn’t raised in a catholic tradition, so this was a big learning experience for me. Thank God there’s a catholic dictionary, and thank goodness Professor DeBlasi, who was raised in the catholic tradition, has his office right next to mine so I was constantly asking him for answers.

So when Anesaki was trying to convey these ideas in Japanese, he would do so but not with these really specific terms that got only used in catholicism. It seemed wrong to me to use those specific terms when I was translating in English, back into English. But you know I had to put some thought into it, so you can look at that article and you’ll see specific examples of choices I had to make. What do you call the Virgin Mary, how do you translate that? That kind of thing.

Q. How long did that whole book project take?

A book like that takes me about four years. I don’t remember exactly when I started Hanatsumi Nikki, but Teiunshū, which is the one I just finished, I know I started that in the summer of 2010. To be honest, it was largely done by the summer of 2013, but then it had to go through the copy editor and then back to me for changes, and we’ve been piddling around on this thing since last October. But just today I got the postcard in the mail that I’m going to scan and send a digital copy of to my editor in Fukuoka and that’s going to be the cover of the book, so that’s the last step. He said as soon as you get that to me, we should be able to get it up on amazon.

Ooh, exciting!

Yeah, it’s like, I came home today and I looked at the mail and I was like, yes! It’s here, I gotta scan it!

So it took… yeah, but you’ve got to remember, I’ve got a day job, right? So the really active time that I spend working on the project most certainly was not three or four years. Really active time, I would say a year, and actually, I asked Jay about this, Jay Rubin, how long does it take you to do a Murakami Haruki novel, now that he’s retired and had no other day job to do, and he said it’s about a year.

Wow, they’re so long though!

I know! But if you’re not doing anything else, you know.

Yeah, I guess so, but doesn’t he want to sit around and smell flowers or something? Like enjoy his nice leisure time now that he’s retired?

Well, you know translating for me, and I think a lot of people, is the kind of mental activity where you have to get into a zone. You can’t just pick it up for ten minutes and then walk away. It’s not like answering your email, something you can do while you’re standing at the airport gate, or whatever. So for me the summer is the best time to get that work done, cause I’m not teaching.

Q. So if someone had a really hard time concentrating and prefers to be doing twenty different things at once, this probably wouldn’t be the best thing for them?

Right. Technical translating, not so bad, cause who cares if you have a consistent voice or anything like that, right? But especially a sustained piece of fiction, or a sustained narrative, there’s all kinds of stuff, not just the voice that you have to keep in your head, so details that were six chapters earlier, specific terms that might get used, or whatever. You have to keep all that in your head so that you’re consistent later on. Cause as a translator you’re constantly making decisions, how am I going to translate this particular word? And then once you decide it, it’s a little bit like that lecture I did in 205 when I was talking about style, and I said you know, you can choose whatever style you want, but once you choose it, you have to stick with it. You have to be consistent, you can’t change midstream. That’s a lot of what translating is like, and I know from personal experience, I’ll work really intensely on something over the summer and then I’ll have to set it aside for a couple months and getting back into it is really hard. Then I’ll discover, as I have in the past few months doing fine copy editing and things like that, that there are places where I was not consistent. Thank goodness for search and replace, because then you can go back and fix stuff. But only when I’m reading it in one sitting do I catch those inconsistencies, and I don’t sit down and reread the whole thing every time I want to work on it. It’s only when I’m doing the copy editing that that happened.

Q. Do you have any fun stories about when you were translating and you made a mistake or something like that?

Let’s see, when I was doing Hanatsumi Nikki, it was right at the very beginning, in the opening pages. He’s in Switzerland, and this was before I’d done a lot of research on him, I hadn’t been looking of photographs of him or anything like that. He’s in a carriage, this is like 1908, there’s no automobiles, there’s horse carriages. He’s in a horse carriage in Switzerland and he’s going through the Gotthard Pass and they hit a rock or something and the carriage topples over and he falls into the snow, and he laughs about it. He says, oh I had all this snow on my hige, and I translated hige as beard.


Photo by warrenski

It wasn’t until much later, I was looking at photographs of him and then looking back at my translation and I realized he never had a beard, he only had a mustache. Ever. In his life. Of course, hige can mean mustache also, right? So I wasn’t really sure (laughs) but then I fixed it and I thought, well I’m glad I caught that, cause somebody else would say, what? Beard?!

Okay, two more stories. When I started that project I had read Hanatsumi Nikki in order to do part of my second book, and that’s how it got on my radar in the first place. I was really just not familiar at all with Anesaki’s work, but I put it on the back burner and thought I gotta come back to that, so then I come back to it and if you look at the kanji that he uses to write his name (姉崎), it could be Anezaki or it could be Anesaki. So it’s a difference between a Z or and S, and I just thought Z sounded a little more like what it would be, and I hadn’t done due diligence to make sure that was right. So it’s still the beginning stages of this research project and I can’t remember if I posted it to H-Japan, somehow I got involved in a listserv discussion and his name had come up.

Eventually, I got an email from somebody who provided some answers and then said, oh by the way the name it’s not spelled with a Z, it’s definitely spelled with an S. I thought, oh how do you know? And then the next sentence said, “I know this because he was my grandfather.” And I thought, holy shit! (laughs). So then I felt like this punk, this irreverent punk, you know? I wrote this very polite, very nice email, and actually I still correspond with that grandson, and another grandson, I met another grandson in Japan. There’s more than that in that generation, but those two are both former professors, retired professors and have shared a lot of family knowledge with me about Anesaki, which has been great, but I was just so surprised when I got this email, like oh yeah he was my grandfather. Wow okay, you’re absolutely right, I’m not going to argue with you about that one. So that was that.

What was the third story… oh, this is an example, it kinda goes back to what I was saying where you catch things only if you’re looking at the full project. This happened two weeks ago. The very last changes I made to the manuscript before I said to the editor, please, please just publish the damn thing cause I could keep changing it for the rest of my life.

In the original, he visits all kinds of churches in Europe and when he’s describing the architecture, he uses the word (塔), the one that gets used for stupa, like in a Buddhist temple. So he uses that kanji 塔 for everything in the architecture, the physical architecture of buildings and I never thought about it until I was rereading it for the umpteenth time that a on a church could be a steeple, but it could also be a tower, like York Minster. One of the reasons I went to England last summer was because I wanted to see in person a lot of these places that he had visited in England. So York Minster, for example, does not have steeples, it has two towers. So first of all, we’ve got that problem of steeple versus tower, and the other problem is , as I was saying earlier, you know it’s not singular or plural, it just is.


Photo by andy

I suddenly realized that I had translated as steeple for a building that didn’t have one, it only had a tower The only reason it all came together for me is because we had finally finished the layout and we had put the photographs where they belonged in the manuscript, and there’s the photograph of the church building and it’s clear there’s no steeple. So in that context, it looks like I’m an idiot because I’ve translated it as steeple. I had to do a search and replace and make sure that every building that where I had said steeple, there really was one, thank God for the internet again because I could go and I could find photographs of these building and also make sure that singulars and plurals were correct. Sometimes there’s one tower, sometimes there’s two towers.

So now that’s all been cleaned up, but that goes to that point that when you’re translating, you have to do a lot of research. Because authors, they kind of assume that you know what you’re doing and they also, they’re not responsible for the problems of your target language – like it requires singulars or plurals, and they’re not responsible for those cultural differences, like the difference between a steeple and a tower, right? But in English, if you don’t fix that, if you don’t specify, it’s just wrong. So you have to provide – to answer to that other question – you do have to provide that cultural stuff. You know, what if I just called a a tower every single time? That’s going to be an awful translation and it’s going to be inaccurate.

Especially if you have a picture reference right there for them to see.

Yeah, so there was another case in a scene where Anesaki says that a priest is wearing the hat of a priest, and my editor, who was very persnickety, said oh well it should be called a miter, cause that’s the hat that priest’s wear. And I got back to her and I said that’s a good point, but you know what there’s more than one priest’s hat in catholicism, it could be a miter, it could be this other thing, we don’t know, we’re just going to have to leave it as a priest’s hat (laughs). So you’ve got to do tons of research.

I’m reminded of a conversation I had with a former classmate of mine in graduate school, he’s now a professor at Binghamton, David Stahl. When he was a graduate student at Yale, he helped out a friend, a Japanese friend of his, who had gotten a contract to translate from English to Japanese a Stephen King novel. Now, I’m not a huge Stephen King fan, I don’t read Stephen King, I don’t know if you do, but apparently these novels are just chock full of all kinds of cultural references. This poor person in Japan was struggling, and so she would do a basic translation and then she’d send Dave all these questions, what does King mean about this, what does this mean in English, what are all these things? And Dave said half the time he didn’t know even though he’s a native English speaker.

So when you’re the translator, the text is unforgiving, you can’t fudge it, and literary translation frowns upon footnotes. Now mine have footnotes because it’s an annotated translation, but that’s a very small wedge of a bigger world. In most cases translating presses don’t want footnotes, so you don’t have that as an out, you have to figure out how to do it in the translation itself.

Which can be so hard if something isn’t clear.

Yes, exactly.

So you have to think in your head, I have to make this clear, but how can I do that? I can’t leave it out either.

Right. You have to say, I have to make it clear and what that requires, more often than you’d like is you and only you are stuck having to make a tough decision. You have to say, okay, I’m just going to pull the trigger on this one, it’s singular, or something like that. Or, I’m going to pull the trigger on this one, it’s a beard not a mustache, because there’s nobody there to answer that question.

I think especially when we come out of being a student, we’re so used to saying “I don’t know the answer I’ll go ask somebody else,” and once you get into that world you can’t do that anymore. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat at my desk and thought, who can I ask- I can’t ask anybody (laughs). I just have to make this decision myself.

You know what was really good training for me was being department chair and then later university senate chair because you’re in a lot of situations like that where you consult with folks but eventually you are the one that has to make a decision and you just have to be comfortable with doing that. It’s not always the right decision, but you know, you do it, and you own it.

Q. Would you say that you enjoy what you do? And what kind of person would you say you need to be to enjoy translating works of literature?

I do enjoy it. It’s like a big mystery puzzle. Not all of it is fun, I hate copy editing, I’m so glad it’s over now, but the initial process is really cool, it’s like writing a book, actually, in that you have this really big project with lots of moving parts and I find putting it all together really satisfying. I like organization, I like being organized, I like organizing stuff, and I love reading a sentence in Japanese and rendering it into English that sounds natural. There’s something really organically pleasing about that and the more you do it the more comfortable you become with that process.


I guess the only frustrating thing about it to me is that sometimes people will say, how do you do that?, and I don’t know how to teach how to do that. I try, you know, I teach EAJ410 and I teach EAJ411 (Readings in Modern Japanese Literature) and we talk a lot about translating, thats the main focus of those courses, but I still don’t feel like I know how to teach somebody how to do it. So I guess that’s the hard part for me. I wish I could, because I enjoy it, but I guess not everybody would. Not everybody would find that fun.

I wouldn’t be a professor of literature if I didn’t enjoy language and the beauty of language, and sometimes I’ll read a poem or a passage that I just find really moving and wonderful. So that’s the cool stuff, that’s the really cool stuff.

So other than just being passionate about literature, it helps if you like organization and those types of things?

Yeah, I mean one of the problems with the younger generation, my kids are such great examples of this, is that they live in a world of thirty seconds. My youngest son has a disgusting addiction to youtube and if he watches too much youtube, he starts to act like youtube. In other words, he can only stay focused for a very short period of time. You know, my generation, the people would complain about the kids watching too much television and having short attention spans, but I think it’s sort of accelerated right now, and the process of translating anything, even a short story, it’s not a short focus thing. It’s a project that requires serious attention and concentration and kind of getting lost in that particular text and I don’t think people do that very much anymore. I don’t see very many folks in the classroom who love reading, there’s a few, but most of them see reading as a chore, and I don’t think they get lost in a book the way that I like to do.

My kids, I don’t want to trash them too much, but they’re not here, they’re off at boy scout camp enjoying the rain, and not playing on youtube which is wonderful (laughs). My kids can get lost in a book and it’s fascinating because they’re very critical of their classmates who don’t read and who can’t find pleasure in reading. So I’m glad that they’ve discovered that but I think those concentration skills that you need for translation are closely associated with reading a longer text.

And if someone wants to translate they should probably already be reading that kind of stuff all the time. If you don’t like reading, there’s no reason to want to be a translator.

Oh, definitely. When I was started working on Anesaki I started reading more history of the early twentieth century and also trying to read fiction from the early twentieth century just to get a feel for how people spoke. One of the things that I didn’t do until later, but I did do it was, Anesaki also published in English, so I wanted to read his English writing to get a feel for what that sounded like, although I wasn’t absolutely sure that would be right, because of course you would have an editor. So what you see on the page might not exactly be what he would have been writing in the first place, it was his third or fourth language. Turns out his English actually was excellent. I went into the Harvard archives two months ago and found some letters that he had written to a former Harvard professor and the English is almost flawless, it’s fascinating.

Q. Last Question! Is there anything that you’d like to say to someone who wants to be where you are today? Or if a student came up to you in school and said, I want to be just like you, help me, what do I do?


Photo by takako tominaga

Uhm… It’s hard because I do have students who come and they want to translate, they want to be in Japanese studies, but their incentives are never the same as mine. In other words, they’re not interested in Meiji literature, they’re interested in anime and manga and video games, and I’m not really sure what the path is to get into that realm. I think it’s tough, I think it’s really tough. It’s not super easy in Meiji literature either, but I think it’s different in anime and manga.

I guess the advice that I have for people who, if they want to go into academia, I usually say, well first of all, be absolutely sure that’s what you want to do. Understand what it involves, how much time commitment there is, understand what your life will be like, because you see me in the classroom, but you don’t see the other two thirds of my life as a professor so here let me tell you what that’s like. And you really have to be the person who loves books and who loves being surrounded by books. You know, sure I watch TV and movies, I’m not some sort of nun or something (laughs), but you do it because you enjoy it, not because somebody gives you those assignments. You also absolutely have to be a self-starter. I think as an undergraduate you become very used to being given assignments, because that’s how we structure undergraduate education, but if you move onto graduate school and beyond there, then you absolutely have to be a self-starter. You have to be the kind of person who can set personal deadlines and meet them, because otherwise it’s just not going to happen.

I think a lot of people want guidance, there’s nothing wrong with wanting guidance, but in the world beyond that undergraduate education it may not be there. You’ll get advice, but you’re not going to have someone saying you have to do X, Y, and Z.

It’s not like becoming a doctor or a lawyer. It’s not like there’s translation school. It’s not medical school, it’s not law school, it’s not professional guild. There’s a couple fringe organizations on those sorts of things but that’s it. This is not systematized.

Another thing for people who are interesting in translating is to join organizations like that, especially if they’re free, what have you go to lose? If they publish a newsletter, absolutely read those newsletters. If it’s literary translation, then the British Centre for Literary Translation’s journal, I think would be really helpful because it raises all kinds of interesting issues and problems with literary translation. It’s not going to get you a job, but at least it’s going to get you familiar with the industry and know what the professionals are talking about. It’s a pretty small world, they actually kind of get to know each other.

There’s also a few translation prizes. There is one that kind of comes and goes. It’s actually sponsored by the Ministry of Education in Japan. They provide a list of works that they would like to see translated and they’re always current fiction, and the languages that they’re interested having it translated into, and people submit their translations and then there’s a small cash award. It’s like $2000 or something like that to the winner, and then they list the winners every year and then those works actually get published.

So entering contests like that may also help people get a feel for the process, they’re probably not going to win, but at least get a feel for the process and then when the contest is over, they can compare what they produced to whatever the winning translation is and probably have a much better feel for what is considered a high quality translation. They’re not usually super widely advertised, the trick is finding them. I bet if you googled “translation prize” and then threw in Japanese, you might find some other stuff.

Even Kurodahan doesn’t do it every year, there were a couple years where they didn’t do it. What happened with MEXT, with the Ministry of Education, they got some big government grant that paid for the whole thing. I’m not sure how long that grant ran, that’s why I said it comes and goes, I’m not sure if it’s still active right now. It’s usually a short story that you’re translating, it’s not a novel or anything like that.

The stuff that, for example Kurodahan has, they say all translators are required to translate at least one sample from our trial translation, and then they provide you with a PDF of those. And I’ll tell you that Edward chose those things carefully, it’s not random stuff, each one, I think there’s thirty one pages in that PDF, I don’t know how many works there are. Each one presents it’s own challenges, so older vocabulary that might be a little trickier to parse, for example, dialect, in some of them. You get a choice, you have various things that you can translate, but they do it so that they can kind of weed out the riffraff, if you will (laughs). I’m lucky I don’t have to mess with it because I’m already a known entity with them. I can just call Edward and say, I want to publish this, publish it.

Well I think that’s it. Thank you so much for answering all of our questions!

You’re welcome! It was fun!

Works by Susanna Fessler:

Want to know more about translation? Check out our other interviews.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Interview with Medama-Sensei: The Racism-Battling Monk of YouTube Thu, 25 Sep 2014 16:00:48 +0000 “In a couple of days, I will be gone for 1 year to become a buddhist monk in a forest monastery” is the Twitter post from last year that explained why one of my favorite Japan-video-makers had been absent on Youtube for a while. His name is Miki Dezaki, or Medama-Sensei online, and he made a variety of videos, mostly during his time as an ALT in the JET Program. You’ve probably seen his stuff – a lot of the videos are funny, some of them are serious, and one even brought a bit of nasty attention from right-wing Japan nationalists.

The JET Program is a career option many Tofugu readers consider and pursue, and we write about it a lot. Since Miki spent five years on the program, as well as a bit of time in the international media spotlight, his insight seemed like something worth sharing. Also,going from the JET participant to monk-in-training is a rare career shift, and I wanted to hear how that went. I learned a lot from his experiences and I think you will too.

Some Background


The interview questions and some of Miki’s answers will make more sense with a bit of background, so let me tell you, in short, about Miki’s career.

Miki went to university in the U.S. as a physiology pre-med student. Seeing stressed-out doctors in his field of interest, he took up meditation during his sophomore year. Meditation changed his outlook on life and made him consider becoming a monk.

He studied abroad during his junior year at Hiroshima University and eventually decided not to go to med school. He applied for and recieved JET placement as an assistant language teacher (ALT) in Yamanashi prefecture, and after a few years transferred to an Okinawan school system.

Inspired by his experiences in Okinawa, Miki made youtube videos. His ‘Racism in Japan’ video sparked the attention of a persistent group of Japanese nationalists and brought him a lot of attention, even internationally. Shortly thereafter, he pursued his plan of training to be a monk in southeast Asia. Earlier this year, he returned to the U.S. to be with family and is contemplating grad school in Japan.

The Interview

I interviewed Miki over Skype, so the Q&A content is very conversational.


Q: What made you decide to apply for JET?


I lived in Hiroshima for a year– decided I wasn’t going to go to medical school because I’d already decided to become a monk. I was going to give myself five years, see if after five years I was still interested. You know, if I didn’t meet an amazing girl or find my passion in life, or something else that would pull me away from being a monk. On top of that, it was a good time to pay off my school loans.

And, I was super interested in teaching Japanese kids. I love Japan, I love the Japanese students, I love Japanese people… and that’s why it killed me so much to teach there. Because it almost feels like the school system’s failing them. I’m sure I would feel the same way if I were teaching in America. It’s just, you see it so clearly. You’re like, okay, this teaching methodology is not working. Why are we doing this? Why are we wasting our kids’ time? Seeing a lot of that stuff, it really kind of– I was actually depressed for a whole year, the first year I was in the JET program. I was in a kind of hard school –Everybody’s school is different –but I was in a hard school because the teachers were really domineering… I didn’t like that. I didn’t like seeing that. They were yelling at the kids all the time.

If you teach on JET, I recommend trying to get into elementary or high school– I’ve taught at all levels. Elementary school tires you out, but you get so much energy from these kids. They are so happy, and the place is so wonderful– it’s so bright. High school is great because it’s like, people starting to move towards their actual futures. They have a lot of dreams and hopes and stuff like that. But the junior high school is like… it was hard for me. Basically, I chose to be a JET teacher because I wanted to teach Japanese kids stuff I’ve learned. I saw them strugglling so much. I thought I could help them a lot. In the end, I think I did help as much as I could. I did my best.

Q: What are your thoughts on English curriculum and the education system?

The way I see it is, the Japanese government doesn’t care if Japanese people can speak English. They use English as a measuring stick to get people into college, basically, and their efforts to help English education by making it more mandatory …  It’s so half- what would you say- half-ass or, chuto-hanpa, is what we say in Japanese.

So, it’s like it doesn’t help at all. In my mind, everything that the Monbu-kagaku-sho does with English education seems to be just like tatemae. It makes the parents talk about it and say, “Oh, look, our government’s trying to really help us.” And I was like, no they’re not. They don’t care, to be honest. And that’s my opinion, but I can say that, now that I’m not a JET.

So if you’re thinking of trying to change the Japanese education system, you’re gonna be really depressed like I was. [laughter]


Q: You made the Racism in Japan video at the end of your JET experience. What made you want to create that video?


[The] last lesson [I taught in] my JET career was racism and discrimination in general, and I used examples from Japan so that it hit home to them. [Japanese people] always think it’s an American problem, so the only reason I used those examples for the students was just to get them to feel like, “Oh okay, this is something that is close to me.” Especially because I was in Okinawa and this really was close to them, and they didn’t even realize when they hear these stories about their grandmother and grandfather being treated poorly by the Japanese soldiers and stuff like that, they didn’t make the connection that that was discrimination. When I said that to them, they were like “Whoa, okay,” you know?

So, I did that lesson, and I was really shocked because the kyoutou sensei (教頭先生, vice principal) came in and watched. After the lesson, she was like, “This lesson should be taught to every single kid in Japan.”  That gave me so much confidence. I got to teach it to all students in the school –to 900 students.

Basically the lesson was how discriminatory thoughts are developed through the media and your parents and wars and stuff like that. Then I gave examples from Japan and America, and I talked about how we could possibly make this better. The examples I gave in the Racism in Japan video– That was probably like a 4-5 minute video. That’s all I talked about as far as examples in Japan in my class. So I talked about those things and the rest of the 45 minutes I talked about discrimination in general. So people thought I was saying that Japan is the worst country in the world. People thought my lesson to the students was about criticising Japan and teaching my students how bad Japan was, or how discriminatory and racist it was, whereas that was like five minutes of my whole lecture.

So anyway, I did the lesson, it was really successful, everyone loved it, no complaints from parents or anybody. The students would come up to me and be like, “That was amazing, Thank you so much, that really opened my eyes,” because not only did I cover skin color discrimination, I covered discrimination based on sexual orientation and I showed them my “Gay in Japan” video.

Have you seen the Ohayou Ojisan video? He is basically a super famous guy but all he does is say hello to people, and people think he’s like the biggest weirdo in the world. I interviewed him and he was  really intelligent and speaks really good English and everybody was so shocked by that. I was like, “Look at how much you’ve discriminated against this guy without even ever talking to him. You’ve only heard stuff about him, ” and so that was a big lesson to them. They were like “Yeah, we totally did. We thought that he was a total creep and weirdo, because my mom told me that,” and when you see him on screen, he seems like the nicest guy in the world. So that was my lesson.

Q: So when did you make the video? And how did the attention, especially the negative attention, affect you?

I go home to America, feeling pretty good, and then I felt like I just needed to share this with the world because it got such a good response. I released that video Feb 14– I left to be a monk March 1. Between those two weeks, I did not sleep at all. I was trying to respond to people who were commenting, who were super angry, getting emails. Every morning I would get a couple emails from my past coworkers telling me to take the video down. People were saying things like, “The Kyouikuchou (教育長, Superintendent of Education) is super pissed, he’s coming to the school. The government might cut the JET program because of this.” And I was like, what? Just from my video? They were like, “This is serious. We’re getting calls every single day from these nationalists, telling us to take down the video.”

And I was online, looking at all these blogs the nationalists were posting, and it was all my information, where I worked, where I lived, really kind of creepy stuff. Meanwhile, I’m working full-time, trying to close up shop, pass my work on to someone else, and packing my life for a year to be a monk in Asia. I was the most stressed out person in the world in those two weeks.

As a monk, I realized how jaded I had become by it. I had grown this thick skin… somehow it really kind of deeply affected how I could feel — I didn’t feel innocent anymore. I didn’t have this innocent joy anymore. It was like, “Man this is hard. Life is hard.”

I felt a little betrayed by the teachers who were doing this to me. Like, “Okay, you guys are willing to call me and stress me out, and it’s all because of these people you don’t even know, these crazy nationalist people … and you guys can’t stand up for what you believe in at all just because you don’t want to deal with it. And I would tell them, look as teachers, as educators, I kind of expect more from you, to be honest. To try to censor another person’s voice is not a good message that you’re giving to your students.

Q: I hear that it takes a lot of work to be a teacher in Japan– I thought it’s supposed to be a really respected position.

They’re so afraid, I don’t understand why, but they’re so afraid of causing any more trouble, I guess. They’ll wait until other people get my back, and then they’ll go in. Even if they want to, they’re hesitant to do that first.

I had a very strong kind of belief that freedom of speech is very important and I don’t know if they believe that.

Q: If people can celebrate that ideal– freedom of speech– shouldn’t it be okay to disagree?

But Japanese culture is a lot of keeping secrets and “We shouldn’t talk about those things,” like, “Let’s not talk about all the war atrocities we’ve committed, we’ll just forget about ‘em, it’s not a big deal.” It’s bad to generalize, but people don’t want to talk about that stuff. I understand that, it brings up a lot of guilt and past emotions. It’s like, what can you do about it? You’re gonna talk about it now and what’s gonna happen? Nothing; it’s in the past. That’s their mentality about it and it kind of makes sense too. Why keep opening the wound? I mean, Americans love to do that. I think, we expect something like what Germany did– where they’re  totally super sorry. But that’s not gonna happen with Japan.

In the Ministry of Education there is a man who was actually one of the high officers that conducted all the tests in Unit 731. So obviously, he doesn’t want that stuff in the textbooks. I know that sounds like conspiracy stuff, but it’s true.

Can I recommend a documentary? The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On. It’s amazing. It’s about this other thing that just shows you the Japanese attitude about war and about what they did and how they’re dealing with it now. They’re like, “Oh that’s just in the past, let’s not talk about it.” I think every Japanese person should watch it.

Readers, I watched it and learned a lot. That link has English subtitles (CC), by the way.


Q: As a monk, you had a very established physical location to do your meditations. How do you do that in other places?


My technique is – it’s not my own creation, you know, people have known about this for centuries. It’s more of a mindful living type of technique. I still do sitting meditation and walking meditation, but I think the most useful practice that you can have is being mindful all the time. And what I mean by that is, as I’m talking to you, I am aware of my feet, I’m aware of how my hands are moving right now, I’m aware of, you know, how my voice sounds right now and how my chest feels and my stomach… This is the type of awareness that you try to develop, so that you can be aware all of the time. And watching your mind as you’re doing this stuff, so not only are you feeling the sensations in your body but you’re also aware of the thoughts in your mind as you’re doing anything.

I think it’s a very difficult practice and I’m not a master at it — it’s something that I’m constantly trying to develop more and more because it’s so easy to get distracted by things in daily life. So when I was a monk, yes, I sat in meditation for probably like –when I wasn’t doing intensive meditation– a regular day was probably like seven or eight hours of mediation.

Q: Continuously?

No no no, like one hour, then break, and then one hour and then break. But in between those breaks, a lot of people just, “Psh!”, let it go- but the most important thing is, from the time that you stop sitting mediation to the next sitting meditation or walking meditation you are trying to keep that continuity of mindfulness or awareness. So, that’s what I’m doing, since the time I left the temple. I’m trying to keep that continuity of awareness even as I’m helping my father or talking to you or whatever. That, I think, is my main practice. Sitting meditation is important, but this kind of meditation is much more important to me. Not only does it help you to become aware of your surroundings and what’s happening but it helps you to make better choices in your life and actions and stuff like that.

One very important aspect of this practice is mindful speech. So, I really try not to say harsh words now, like cuss words. I really try not to gossip, I try not to criticize, you know. And this is all very difficult for an American person, especially for [me, being] very analytical. So this is just being aware of that stuff, and it’s a very difficult practice.

Q: In an interview with the Yoshi Didn’t podcast, you said that becoming a monk was something you’d thought about doing for five years. How did that decision process work?

Five or six seriously, but I had been meditating for ten years. When I was a pre-med student, I met a lot of doctors, and I could see how stressed out they were, so I was like, “Okay, I need to learn how to deal with stress.” It just so happened I found this “Free Meditation for Stress” class at my university. It was like once a week. And you know, at the beginning, you just kind of like, just sit and kind of relax, I guess.

And then… at one point, probably like two months after I started, I had this incredible experience. I was just doing breathing meditation and all of a sudden my whole body like disappeared basically, and my ego and thoughts just went away, and I was like the embodiment of love and compassion. It was the most amazing, happiest moment of my entire life. After I came out of the meditation, I was like, “This is what, not only am I looking for, this is what everybody in life is looking for,” I think. I was so content. I was 100% content. I didn’t need anything at that point. I was full of love and I loved everything – you know, not just my family, but every thing, every being. And the more I did meditation, it kind of developed. It just kind of made sense to me: if I had the capability to love everything, then why not become a monk?

Q: So it wasn’t a faith-based decision?

Maybe I should consider myself a Buddhist, because I was a monk, but I don’t have that much faith, you know? There are people that have really strong faith; they almost look up to the Buddha as a god, which — he wasn’t meant to be that way, but some people take him that way. For me, it’s more like this super interesting journey into my mind and to learn about myself. And I really believe if you have inner peace, that will permeate and radiate out of you and you can affect people that way. I don’t think you can fight for peace when you’re super pissed off at other people.



Photo by Scott Lin

After the interview, I contacted Miki again for updates. There was one: “I reached out to some of my former co-workers,” he wrote, “and I am really happy to say that we were able to put this stuff behind us and continue our friendship.”

Again, I write a big thank you to Medama Sensei for taking the time to share his experiences: THANK YOU!

I’m on the JET Program now and can concur, from my limited experience, that racism definitely seems to be an “only outside of Japan” problem in the minds of many Japanese people I’ve met, children and adults alike.

Thankfully, the atmosphere around English education, at least, is an ever-evolving part of curriculum policies — not just in Japan –and so I’m having a much more optimistic experience on that front, and so are most other ALTs that I know. If you’re considering using English-teaching as a career ticket to Japan, the good news is that you will definitely learn about Japan if you get that job. In doing so, however, you may be challenged in a lot of the ways this interview brought to light. I hope this Q&A has been informative and helpful, but if it wasn’t, I hope you’ll leave your questions or thoughts in the comments section to help bring everything together!

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The Japanese Name Satou And Its Rise To #1 Wed, 24 Sep 2014 16:00:00 +0000 I’ve written quite a lot about Japanese family names recently. However, simply learning the kanji or pronunciation of names is quite boring, so I thought I’d write an article with the stories behind the most popular family name in Japan. Each name, however, has quite a long story. So today, we’re just going to explore the most popular one: 佐藤 (Satou).

You will learn not only what the root of Satou is and how it became the most popular in Japan, but also what people with the family name Satou think about their name as well as their experiences with their family name. Please note that learning the history of Japanese family names is essential to fully understand the stories in this article, so I suggest that you read the previous articles first.

If you are not that picky, or have read all the other articles already, then we are all set to go. Let’s talk about Satoooouuuu!

How 佐藤 (Satou) Became #1


Photo by Emran Kassim

The most popular family name in Japan is Satou. You’ve probably gathered that already. According to 名字由来net, around 2,055,000 Japanese people have this family name. Its most common way of reading it is さとう (satou), but there are others as well, such as さどう (Sadou), さとお (Satoo), さと (Sato), さいとう (Saitou), そとう (Sotou), さふじ (Safuji), and さとを (Satoo). Confusing, right? Welcome to Japanese names, I guess.

Satou used to be the second most popular name in Japan, but once computers started being used, more samples were able to be collected and this name was proven to be the most common. When people had to collect the samples manually, it must have been very difficult to gather and keep all of this information in an accurate way. Is it possible that a whole prefecture could have been missed? The name Satou is found in its highest concentration in rural Tohoku, in Northeastern Japan. When looking at the most popular name in each prefecture, it usually comprises 1-3% of the population. However, the name Satou in the Tohoku region (specifically Akita and yamagata Prefecture) is comprised of approximately 7% of the population. Why is it so surprisingly high? To reveal this mystery, we have to take a look into the roots of the name.

The Origin Of 佐藤 (Satou) Actually Begins As Another Name?


The origin of 佐藤 (Satou) is actually found in another family name: 藤原氏 (Fujiwara-shi). As explained in the family name history article, an incredible number of people used 藤原 (Fujiwara) in the Heian period. It was inconvenient to call everyone Mr. Fujiwara, so people started making their own more distinctive family names by combining 藤原 (Fujiwara) with the name of the region they lived in or their occupation. 佐藤 (Satou) was one of them. In other words, it can be dismantled like this:

佐 + 藤原

If that’s the case, what is this 佐 kanji? Actually, there are two meanings for 佐, and one is a job title and the other a regional name.

Job Title Satou

Let’s learn the roots of the job title first. Under the Ritsuryo Code in Japan, there were 4 main types of job titles in the provincial government: Kami, Suke, Jou, and Sakan. For some reason, each provincial office used different kanji for these titles, and 佐 was used in some offices for the position called Suke. Therefore, a person with the name Fujiwara at this position used “佐藤 (Satou)” as their name.

There was also a governmental post called 左衛門尉 (Saemonnojou) at the time, and a person with the name Fujiwara at this position combined 左 + 藤原 and named themselves 佐藤 (Satou).

Regional Name Satou


Photo by no prev

As a regional name, there are several places tied to 佐. The most well known of these places is 佐野 (Sano) in Tochigi prefecture. A Fujiwara who lived here combined 佐 with 藤原 and called themselves 佐藤 (Satou). This place is also known for the legend in which 藤原秀郷 (Fujiwara no Hidesato) killed a giant centipede. It’s said that one of his grandchildren, named 左衛門尉公清 (Saemonnojou Kinkiyo), was the first person to use the name 佐藤 (Satou). His descendants all worked for the Imperial Court until 佐藤義清 (Satou Norikiyo) suddenly left the house to become a monk at the age of 23. He turned into quite the famous poet and renamed himself Saigyo Hoshi, but he ruined his family. Although his younger brother inherited the name 佐藤 (Satou), the lineage sank into history and became an unrecognized family.

The reason why so many 佐藤 (Satou) are in the Tohoku area is said to be due to 奥州藤原氏 (Oushuu Fujiwara-shi), a.k.a. the Northern Fujiwara. Oushuu Fujiwara-shi was a Japanese noble family that ruled the Tohoku region of Japan from the 12th to the 13th centuries as if it were their own realm. Some of the descendants that remained in the area are still known as Satou. Also, the Satou that were the descendants of the Oushuu Fujiwara-shi family based out of the 信夫 (Shinobu) region (currently Fukushima City in Fukushima prefecture) were so many in number that they needed to be called 信夫佐藤 (Shinobu-Satou). The Fujiwara family that lived in 佐渡 (Sado) in Niigata prefecture also started calling themselves 佐藤 (Satou). As you can see there are a lot of regional origins for the name Satou, but this doesn’t even scrape the surface. There are so many more (though you’ll just have to imagine them now).

Randomly Named 佐藤 (Satou)

Despite the the many various forms of Satou that there are today, not all of them came from the Heian Period. In Japan, people who didn’t have a family name during the Meiji era were forced to decide on their family name. At that time, Satou was one of the most commonly selected names.

So, whether it was from job titles and regional references, or just a bunch of people choosing Satou because they weren’t sure what to pick, Satou became the most popular Japanese family name of all time. With so many people having the same family name (who aren’t even related by blood), what do they think of their name? Are they proud? Let’s find out.

What People Named 佐藤 (Satou) Think Of Their Name


According to みんなの苗字あるある (minnanomyoujiaruaru), people whose family name is 佐藤 (Satou) are proud that their name is the most popular in Japan, but they also encounter problems due to the fact that there are so many.

Since there is usually more than one Satou at school, most of them were distinguished by being called by something other than their family name. Many of them agree that being called by their first name is the best, but sometimes we are called 佐藤-A (Satou-A) or 佐藤-B (Satou-B). What’s worse is that people often distinguish us in ways like 頭良い方の佐藤 (Atamayoihouno Satou), which means “Smarter Satou” and “Not the Smarter Satou”, or 格好いい方の佐藤 (Kakkoiihouno Satou), which means “The Handsome Satou” and “Not the Handsome Satou”.

Many Satou have also experienced hearing someone shout, “Hey! Satou!” and when they turned around to respond, “Yeah?” they realized it was intended for a different Satou. Due the frequency that this happens, some Satou say that when they hear their name, they’ll wait to respond for a moment just to see be certain.

As some of you Japanese learners have probably already realized, 佐藤 (Satou) is the same pronunciation as sugar 砂糖 (Satou) in Japanese. Therefore, Satou people tend to be made fun of with puns on the word sugar. Some Satou say that they learned how to deal with other really lame jokes directed at them because of this. Speaking of puns, since the number 310 (San-tou) sounds similar to Satou, some 佐藤 (Satou) are very happy whenever they find the number alignment.

So, it’s all been about Satou today. I’m certain that the Japanese family name Satou has been carved into your memory by now. My family name is 鈴木 (Suzuki) used to be the most common name in Japan before computers messed everything up. So, I’m a little jealous of Satou now. Perhaps to make up for it I may explore the story behind Suzuki’s origins, but we’ll see. Until then, I’ll keep talking about how “sweet” the name Satou is.

What is the most common name in your country and what is the story behind it? Have you met someone named 佐藤 (Satou) before? Whatever you may have that relates to 佐藤 (Satou), please leave it as a comments below! Thank you and bye for now.

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The In-between Island: Tsushima and the Sō Pt 2 Mon, 22 Sep 2014 16:00:40 +0000 If you haven’t read Part 1 in this series, make sure to go back and read it, before starting this one. Part 2 will make more sense and you won’t be missing out on all the cool drama, intrigue, cultural faux pas, and international conquest from Part 1!



In 1592 the invasion of Korea began. Ships set sail from northern Kyushu and stopped at Tsushima for final preparations. The Sō, having difficulty raising the 5,000 man quota Hideyoshi placed upon them, impressed a number of Koreans into service. On May 23, 1592, the first division of Hideyoshi’s army landed at Busan, commanded by Konishi Yukinaga and Sō Yoshitoshi. These 18,700 men were later joined by the other divisions, for an army totaling over 158,800. During the early stages of the campaign, the Japanese swiftly cut a swath through the Korean peninsula as they made their way to Seoul, defeating the Koreans at every turn.

Japan’s early success in the campaign could be attributed to a few factors. Firstly, the Japanese armies were more experienced and more efficiently organized than their Korean counterparts. Secondly, the Japanese were also much better equipped than the Koreans. Their melee weapons and armor were of a higher quality than the Koreans’, and more importantly, they possessed firearms.


Photo by alisdair

As mentioned in the last article, during one of the diplomatic missions prior to the war Sō Yoshitoshi had given the Korean king the gift of a musket. To their disadvantage, the Koreans chose not to try and replicate it. Though the Koreans did utilize a few types of cannon, the muskets used by the Japanese allowed for firepower combined with much greater mobility. When Chinese forces later joined the war, their use of muskets greatly enhanced the Koreans’ fighting capacity.



Photo by Feth

The one major advantage held by the Koreans was their navy. Had they been able to bring it to bear early on they might have prevented the advance of the Japanese. Unfortunately Korean politics once again hindered their military. However, after some time a resourceful Korean admiral named Yi Sun Sin was able to strategically bring their navy to bear. He used Korea’s superior ships (particular the famous armored turtle ships) to disrupt the Japanese supply line and occupy their forces long enough for Chinese aid to arrive.

Korea was a tributary state to China, but that relationship generally did not extend to military aid. Nonetheless, on this occasion China did eventually send in troops. Despite their initial successes, after the first year, the Korean campaign became a long, tedious occupation for the Japanese. Many commanders did not wish to remain in Korea, but dared not oppose Hideyoshi, whose power was well consolidated at home in Japan. With Hideyoshi’s death in 1598, his generals were finally free of their obligations and the processes of withdrawal and negotiation began.

A New Order


When Hideyoshi died, Japan was divided between those who supported his family and those who supported the Tokugawa family. The conflict culminated in the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600. The victorious Tokugawa clan became the ruling family of shoguns for the next 267 years.

Following the battle, they divided the various lords of Japan into three categories, from most privileged to least: shinpan daimyo (those related to the Tokugawa), fudai daimyo (those who allied or fought with the Tokugawa at the time of the Battle of Sekigahara), and tozama daimyo (“outside lords” who fought against them or did not ally with them prior to the battle). The Sō clan did not take a side during the battle, and was thus placed in the third category. Although being an outside lord was a disadvantage, by repairing their relations with Korea, the Sō were still able hold a uniquely powerful position.

Repairing Relations


Photo by blmtduddl

The Sō were able to repair their damaged relationship with Korea rather quickly. Though their first envoy following the war, sent in 1599, never returned, subsequent negotiations fared much better. In 1600, Yoshitoshi, returned 300 Koreans who had been held captive, as a goodwill gesture. Seoul responded by sending representatives to open talks. The Tokugawa tried to distance themselves from Hideyoshi’s invasion, saying they had never sent a single soldier overseas (technically true, though Tokugawa Ieyasu acted as a military advisor to Hideyoshi back home). The Tokugawa sent Yoshitoshi and the monk Genso to Korea on their behalf in 1603, after which several hundred more Korean captives were repatriated. By the following year Tsushima was once again trading (on a limited basis) with Korea.

Between 1601 and 1605 around 5,000 Korean prisoners were returned home. Throughout these negotiations, the Korean court dealt mainly with the Sō family and not the shogunate, once again highlighting the clan’s importance. One of the final conditions for restoring normal relations was official recognition from the “King of Japan,” by which they meant the shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu. Titles were often a sticking point throughout the history of Japanese international diplomacy. “King” was the title by which the Chinese court generally recognized leaders of other large countries (Korea included), but by accepting that title the shogun would also be accepting that his status was lower than that of the Chinese emperor. When the Sō got word of this condition they knew it would be a problem, and they took the risk of forging letters from Ieyasu to the Korean king. It would seem that somehow they were never found out.

In 1609, the Treaty of Kiyu was signed, which allowed for limited trade with the Tokugawa under Sō supervision at Tsushima and Busan. In 1617 formal relations were established. Thus, the Sō recovered from the war, and became stronger than before.

Politics, Parades, and Profits


Photo by PHGCOM

Once again, the Sō clan were gatekeepers of all official trade between Japan and Korea (and a lot more unofficial, but legal trade). Their position became all the more lucrative due to Tokugawa changes in foreign policy. By 1639 the shogunate had closed off most foreign trade. There were a few exceptions. One Dutch ship per year was allowed to dock at the tiny island of Dejima, off the coast of Nagasaki. Some Chinese ships were also allowed into Nagasaki. The Satsuma domain traded with the Ryukyu Kingdom (modern day Okinawa). However, Tsushima was the only route for Korean trade.

Another aspect of relations between Korea and Japan was occasional Korean processions to Edo. There were twelve such processions during the Edo period. The first procession in 1607, and the two that followed were at the invitation of the Japanese and included the repatriation of Korean captives from the war. The fourth was a celebration of prosperity, and the fifth a birthday celebration for the shogun. All those that followed were to celebrate the succession of a new shogun. As they say, “Ain’t no party like a shogun succession party.”

Processions departed from Busan, crossed the sea to Tsushima, then Kyushu, where they slowly made their way up to the capital, Edo. There were hundreds of people in the processions, many brightly costumed, playing music and dancing. The processions were quite the sight and attracted many spectators, most of whom would never have seen a foreigner before. Getting a foreign court to pay its respects to the shogun also boosted the prestige of the shogunate and of the Sō family.

Cutting Out the Middlemen


All good things must come to an end, and with the fall of the Tokugawa shogunate in 1867 and subsequent restoration of the emperor to power, change was on the way. After a bit of shuffling around, Tsushima became a part of Nagasaki prefecture in 1872, which it remains to this day. Like many former daimyo families the Sō were made members of the new peerage kazoku 華族. Under the usual standards, the head of the family should have been made a viscount due to the small income of Tsushima. However, in recognition of Tsushima’s special role in Korean relations, the head of the Sō family was given the higher title of count.

Still, with the introduction of steam ships and later, airplanes, Tsushima’s position became less and less valuable. What exactly became of the Sō family was unclear from my research. One of the last references to the family I found was to Count Sō Takeyuki, who was married by arrangement to Deokhye, the last princess of Korea, in 1931. The marriage was an unhappy one, and they divorced in 1953.


For a few years following World War II, Korea disputed Japan’s control of Tsushima, but then relinquished their claim. It is true that over the centuries the people of Tsushima had adopted a number of customs and a few words from Korea. However, their language had always been Japanese. Their lords had received seals and investiture from the Korean court it’s true, but if that constitutes a claim to the island, then by that logic Korea should belong to China.

Though Tsushima always played both sides to their advantage, they seemed to favor Japan a bit more. If nothing else, the history of Tsushima and its lords attests to the ambiguous nature of national identity in pre-modern East Asia.

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  • “Tsushima Island.”
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A Long History Of Japanese Names, Part II Wed, 17 Sep 2014 16:00:00 +0000 In the the previous Japanese names article we learned the history of Japanese family names and about the complicated 氏姓 (Uji-Kabane) naming systems. Do you recall my mention of a new naming system, 名字 (Myouji/Azana), used by the samurai? Today we will be focusing our efforts on that particular naming system, which will cover the remainder of Japanese family name history. Are you ready? Okay, let’s set sail for the second part of our journey!

What’s in a 名字?


名字 means family name in Japanese and in modern times is pronounced “Myouji”. In the past, it was pronounced “Naazana”, which is believe to be a type of 字 (Azana in Japanese / Zì in Chinese), which was a formal nickname, of sorts. Historically in China, people had three elements to their name: 姓 or 氏 (family name), 諱 or 名 (First name – a.k.a. “true name”), and this 字 (Formal Nickname).

If you’re wondering why there would be a formal nickname, here is a brief explanation:

Since it was customary in ancient China to avoid calling a person of nobility or a deceased person by their (諱 or 名) true name, an 字 (Azana) was formally given to adult men and used instead of their given name. Originally, there was a difference between the kanji 諱 (Imina) and 名 (Na). The former was used for the dead and the latter was for the living. Later on, imina started being used for the living as well, but it was still the name a person had in death, so calling a man by his imina was considered extremely rude. All people practiced that courtesy, except the parents of that person, or that person’s lord/monarch/sovereign. Other than those few exceptions, people used another name, an 字 (azana), to refer to someone.

That custom was introduced by China to the other kanji using countries of Eastern Asia, including Japan.

The Beginning Of the 名字


As mentioned in the previous names article, after the Ritsuryo code began, 氏姓 (Uji-Kabane) gradually faded from use as family lineage and status became more important than the social status of the clan as a whole. During that time, 名字 (Naazana) started being used to distinguish the smaller groups within separate clans. For example, even if two people belonged to the clan 藤原 (Fujiwara), different levels of power and influence existed between the different lineages, such as the 藤原北家 (Fujiwarahokke) and the 藤原式家 (Fujiwarashikike). Moreover, even among the same lineage, some factions were born under influential lineages, such as the 道長 (Michinaga)-line and 頼通 (Yorimichi)-line inside the 藤原北家 (Fujiwarahokke). The names that people began using to differentiate themselves from others in the same clan are believed to have been namesakes from the places in which they were born.

When naazana began being used, it was called 号 (Gou) and was actually only used for one generation, meaning that it was not passed on to children. However, people eventually came to realize that calling a family by their actual family name was very practical. Thus, in the late Heian period, the naazana started being passed down to descendants as well. Different from the Chinese usage of official nicknames, which were used as replacements for first names, in Japan naazana were official nicknames used to replace a family name. There was an official nickname for first names in Japan, called 通称 (Tsuushou) which were used by the Samurai, but nobles just continued using their 諱 (Imina), which was their true first name. (By the way, the word nickname nowadays in Japan is pronounced as あだな (Adana) which is believed to have come from 字 (Azana).

Samurai And Their 名字


In the meantime, the Ritsuryo system collapsed and Samurai groups (known as 武士団/bushidan) started forming in order to manage the manors of noblemen, or even to protect the lands and assets that they had earned for themselves. In order to claim the right to own such lands, those samurai groups started using the land name as their naazana alongside their ujikabane, or clan name. In time, these naazana started being passed on to family members as well.

In the Kamakura period (1185-1333 AD) as the regions held by Samurai groups expanded, some powerful samurai groups found themselves in control of multiple territories. At the time, many samurai started dividing their assets to distribute to their children. Even if an illegitimate child inherited a territory from the family that it was not originally from, they changed their naazana to the name of the territory. Furthermore, they cultivated new lands and the overall area that was inhabited increased. Once they settled down in a particular place, they started using the name of the region as their family name. This caused the number of naazana used by the samurai to increase.

And, just as a reminder, they still had ujikabane at this time, too. For example, 新田義貞 (Nitta Yoshisada) and 脇屋義助 (Wakiya Yoshisuke) are brothers. Although they both have different naazana – 新田 (Nitta) and 脇谷 (Wakiya), their ujikabane was 源 (Minamoto). So their official names were 源義貞 (Minamoto-no-Yoshisada) and 源義助 (Minamoto-no-Yoshisuke). Since the ujikabane name was still considered to be their official name, it started being called 本姓 (Honsei), meaning true family name, around the Kamakura period.

Maybe you picked up on this already, but when a true family name was provided by the emperor, they added a の (no) between the official clan name and their first name. This way of reading them has been the same since the ujikabane system began. In other words, someone was only allowed to add the “no” in between their names if it was provided by the emperor. The naazana that people gave themselves, the ones that derived from the region they lived in, were not permitted this distinction.

名字 Comes To The Forefront

As stated above, samurai had official nicknames. Unlike the nobles, they tended to use that rather than their actual first names. Because of this, samurai had four parts to their name: a true family name (their clan root), and official family lineage name, an official nickname for their first name, and a first name.

When the Edo period came about (1603-1808 AD), the ways in which a true family name was used became very limited. They only used it on the occasion when they formally received an official rank by the emperor. They barely used it in their daily lives, though. So, the naazana that people used in that time began functioning in much the same way that our family names function today. During this period, the kanji 苗字 (myouji) assumed the role that the kanji 名字 used to serve because 苗 better signified the idea of a family blood line.

Since naazana were not names given by the emperor, anybody could have one, including commoners. This was true until the Edo Shogunate decided to disallow common people from having naazana, except for a few prominent families. Therefore, commoners entered another long period in which they were only allowed to have a first name.

Family Names In Meiji Period


For a while, the Meiji Government followed the Edo Shogunate’s ruling regarding myouji, yet their decisiveness on many policies often swayed. In 1868 the Meiji government decided to revoke the names that only a select group of commoners were allowed to have and banned them from having family names. In the same year, they also banned the Shogunate from bestowing family names to feudal lords or other people under their influence. This was done was to prove a point to the Shogunate. After this, they again allowed the policy to be open to interpretation and informed commoners that the government could issue them family names if they were to render their services to them.

When the Boshin War between the Shogunate and Meiji Governement ended in July of 1869, lands and people were returned to the Emperor. Accordingly, they reverted back to the former system of family naming, going from 苗字/名字 (Myouji) to 氏姓 (Ujikabane/Shisei) a.k.a. 本姓 (Honsei) . However, most of the people who were originally part of nobility became 藤原 (Fujiwara) and most of the people who were originally part of the samurai became 源 (Minamoto). Amazingly, 86.4% of Japanese family names became one of four names: 源 (Minamoto), 平 (Taira), 藤原 (Fujiwara), or 橘 (Tachibana). This system was not at all practical and it also didn’t fit with the times. It was revoked very quickly.

Establishing The Modern Legislation

In 1870, being led by the Ministry of Finance who was trying to modernize Japan, the policy for family names started to change course. The 平民苗字許可令 (Heiminmyoujikyokarei), which was a law allowing commoners to have family names, was officially announced on September 19. However, a lot of people were very suspicious of the law. It’s said that a common belief at the time was that they might have to pay tax if they decided to use a family name. As a result, very few people opted to have a family name. Monks also refused the policy claiming that by entering into priesthood they didn’t need a family name. Because of that, a law called 住職僧侶名字必称義務令 (Juushokusouryomyoujihisshougimurei), which forced monks to have a family name, was enforced in 1872.

Even after that, common people still hesitated to use family names. In response, the government created another law, 平民苗字必称義務令 (heiminmyoujihisshougimurei), which forced everyone to have family names and that went into effect February 13th, 1875. Due to having a family name being a kind of “duty”, we now have a “Family Name Day” in Japan (苗字制定記念日/Myoujiseiteikinenbi), which means “Commemoration Day for the establishment of family names.” Of course, this is celebrated on February 13th each year.

Between the two laws above, there were also some other changes to family name policy. For example in 1871, another law called 姓尸不称令 (Seishifushourei), was issued which banned the use of ujikabane, aka honsei. All the terminology was very confusing too, so they categorized 本姓 (Honsei) as “姓 (Sei)”, 氏 (Uji/Shi) and 名 (Naazana/Myouji) as “苗字(Myouji)”, and lastly, 姓 (Kabana) as “尸 (Shi).”

Furthermore, according to 太政官布告 (Daijoukanfukoku), which means Proclamation by the Grand Council of State, legally registered names became very difficult to have changed. Because of that, people questioned the government about the right to change their wife’s family name after marriage. Changing a woman’s family name to that of her husband’s family name was tradition at the time. In 1876, in response to this debate, the Daijoukanshirei decided that wives and husbands must keep their own family name and it can’t be changed following marriage. The system of husbands and wives keeping separate family names lasted until the 明治民法 (Meijiminpou – Meiji Civil Code) was enforced in 1898. At long last, we have reached the system of family naming that is used today.

The kanji for Myouji was 苗字, but after the simplification of the Japanese writing system following WWII, 苗 didn’t find itself on the new list of kanji, and 名字 became the popular usage. However, all four kanji 名字, 苗字, 氏, and 姓 are still used to indicate family names today. For example, as a legal term 氏 is used since it’s used in the Family Registration Act by the Ministry of Justice. In the education system, 名字 is used since the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, and Science decided to use it. In fortune telling, usually 姓 is used as a family name.

And Here We Are

Before the Meiji period, some people had family names passed on from their ancestors and others adopted the same family name as the most influential regional family. So entire communities actually shared the same name, but they did not share the same blood. After the Meiji period, people were suddenly forced to legally resister their family name. Some of them changed their traditional family names to one they favored, while others just made up their own names. Among those that were created, some of them were simply taken from a historically famous family, whose origins date back to ancient Japanese, so even if you encounter someone with a family name of a seemingly ancient past, it’s very likely that there are no blood ties.

Anyways, that right there is the long and complicated history of Japanese family names. Now that you know about it, it becomes no surprise that such a vast variety of names exist. I presume it’s very difficult to read or memorize Japanese family names for many of you, but don’t fret. It’s actually the same for us, native of Japanese. Just remember common family names and make an effort to remember the more unique ones whenever you come across someone with one. Before starting out on this article, I had no idea how long and rich the history of Japanese names was, but I’m certainly happy to have researched it. I found it fascinating and I hope you did too.

Do any of you have an interesting story that follows your family name, or its meaning? If you do, please share your story in the comments. Thank you!

Bonus Wallpapers!

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The Island Inbetween: Tsushima and the Sō Family Mon, 15 Sep 2014 16:00:55 +0000 You may have never heard of the island of Tsushima, but for hundreds of years it was the door between Japan and Korea. Tsushima’s location was ideal for international trade, situated roughly fifty kilometers from the Korean peninsula and one-hundred and forty-seven kilometers from the Kyushu port of Hakata (today’s Fukuoka). For over four centuries, that trade was controlled by the ruling samurai family of Tsushima, the 宗.


Beginning in 1392, the Sō acted as intermediaries between the Korean court and Japan’s Ashikaga shogunate. In much the same way that Japan at some times in history sent missions to China, exchanging gifts and engaging in trade, so too did the Sō send missions to Korea. From the Korean point of view this made Tsushima a tributary of their court, just as Korea was a tributary of China. Whether or not the Sō viewed the relationship in that way is unclear, but they were at least content to let Korea continue to think so. Typical items imported from Korea included skins, ginseng, honey, and cotton cloth.

Pirates and Peace


During the feudal period piracy was a problem. Though many pirates that plagued Korea and China did not come from Japan, some did, and they were called wakō 倭寇 (“Japanese pirates”) by their victims. In 1419, Korea sent a force of 17,285 men to Tsushima to eliminate a pirate base there. The Sō convinced them to leave when their mission was over, and restored relations with Korea. From that time, Korea left the responsibility for controlling such piracy in the hands of the Japanese. The Koreans also realized that while protocol might force them to deal with the Ashikaga shogunate, the piracy problem was better directed to the Sō. This is indicative of just how little authority the Ashikaga had left. By 1467 Japan had fallen into samurai civil war that would last for a century.


The Koreans managed to reduce piracy by legitimizing trade with not only the Sō and other Japanese daimyo, but with pirate leaders as well. In fact, the line between larger pirate fleets and those of lords was often quite blurred. On the Chinese tributary model, the Koreans endowed these leaders with titles and copper seals, and made trade agreements. The Sō benefited greatly from this system, becoming the channel through which all official Korean-Japanese trade passed. All ships on their way to Korea were required to stop at checkpoints on Tsushima, and any ship caught without the proper paperwork from the Sō were considered pirates. The Sō themselves were usually allowed to send fifty ships per year, received a large stipend from the Korean court, and were able to levy duties and fees on the ships and goods that came through Tsushima’s ports. This went on uninhibited until the 1580s when the unifier and leader of Japan, Toyotomi Hideyoshi (c. 1536-1598) planned to invade the mainland. It’s easy to see why the Sō were unhappy with this.

Sō Much for Diplomacy


The reasoning behind Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s decision to invade the mainland remains unclear. His ultimate goal was China, but the “easiest” way to China was through Korea. To begin with, Hideyoshi tried a diplomatic approach, hoping that Korea would join him in his conquest of China. However, Hideyoshi’s attempts were not particularly tactful, beginning with a letter sent in 1587 requiring Korea’s submission and the dispatch of a “tribute mission” to Japan. This message was sent via Tsushima daimyo, Sō Yoshishige (1532-1588), who softened the tone of the message as much as possible into a request for a “goodwill mission.” Knowing that the message was still likely to incense the Koreans and wishing to distance his family from it, Yoshihige did not deliver the message personally.

Instead, it was delivered by a retainer of the Sō, Yutani Yasuhiro, whose diplomatic skills were lacking. As he made his way up the Korean peninsula to the court in Seoul Yasuhiro loudly demanded the best room in every inn. Furthermore, when some men assembled with their spears along the roadside, a long-standing custom meant to display Korea’s military power, Yasuhiro laughed at the shortness of their weapons. Finally, while dining at Sangju, “Yasuhiro commented on his host’s gray hair, wondering why a man who had never seen battle, but whiled away the hours with music and dancing girls, would ever turn gray.”

Needless to say, the mission was a complete diplomatic failure. Hideyoshi was so angered that he ordered the execution of Yasuhiro and his family. Unfortunately, Sō Yoshishige was also unable to escape Hideyoshi’s wrath. He was relieved of his position as lord of Tsushima, which was then bestowed upon his adopted son, Sō Yoshitoshi (1568-1615). Yoshitoshi was also the son-in-law of one of Hideyoshi’s top generals, and thus deemed more trustworthy.

A Fresh Approach


Sō Yoshitoshi was only twenty when he was sent to deliver a letter from Hideyoshi to the Korean court and request that they send envoys to Japan. He was described by Yu Sŏngnyong (1542-1607), Korean prime minister, as “young, sharp, and ruthless.” Because of this “the Japanese who accompanied him were very afraid of him.” The Koreans requested the extradition of some of their countrymen who had traitorously helped pirates before fleeing the country and getting captured by the Japanese. Yoshitoshi did not object, and had a dozen captives delivered. The king was pleased with this response, and rewarded Yoshitoshi with a horse from the royal stables and a large banquet, and eventually envoys left with Yoshitoshi in April of 1590.

Before departing, Yoshitoshi presented the Korean court with the parting gifts of two peacocks, a spear, a sword, and the first musket to come into Korean possession. Why the Koreans chose not to attempt to replicate the musket was unclear. It was unfortunate; as such firearms would come to be vital assets to the Japanese forces during the war to come. As Yoshitoshi and the Korean envoys made their way to Hideyoshi’s court they stopped at Tsushima, Yoshitoshi’s home.


Yoshitoshi insulted his guests by arriving late to a banquet, and by riding his palanquin all the way to the steps of the hall, rather than getting out at the gate. Yoshitoshi apologized by decapitating his palanquin bearers and presenting their heads to his guests. It was unclear whether Yoshitoshi committed this faux pas intentionally or accidentally. Most likely this was a cultural difference and Yoshitoshi had unknowingly made a mistake. Whatever the cause of the incident, Yoshitoshi was quick to rectify it. The episode shows how seriously Yoshitoshi took his family’s relations with the Korean court. He was probably even more careful considering that he was bringing the envoys to Hideyoshi, himself a man not above ordering the execution of those who failed him.

The Final Straw


Photo by soul_flow

Unfortunately, Hideyoshi was not the most diplomatic individual, and the meeting that followed reflected this. The envoys were impressed with neither the simple meal they were given, nor the lack of decorum. They were even less impressed when Hideyoshi left the room and returned carrying his infant son, who proceeded to urinate on Hideyoshi. With that unceremonious ending, the audience which the Korean envoys had crossed the straits and then waited a further five months for, concluded. They did not even receive the letter from Hideyoshi they had been sent to acquire. For this, the envoys were forced to wait for some time. When Hideyoshi’s letter did arrive, the envoys were disturbed by its content.

“My object is to enter China, to spread the customs of our country to the four hundred and more provinces of that nation, and to establish there the government of our imperial city even unto all the ages. As your country has taken the lead and visited Japan, thus displaying deference, you need have no anxiety…On the day I enter China, I shall be leading my soldiers and shall review my military headquarters; then we shall renew our alliance. My wish is nothing other than that my name be known throughout the three countries [of Japan, China, and India].”

Though the envoys wanted a revised and rewritten letter, eventually they were convinced to return to Korea with the one they had been given. At the time there were two major political factions within the Korean court, each of the two envoys belonged to a different one, and unfortunately they let their alliances dictate their reports to the court. One advised that Hideyoshi was a serious threat, the other that he was not to be feared. The latter opinion was favored, and as a result little was done to build up Korea’s defenses. King Sonjo sent a reply to Hideyoshi declining to help any invasion of China and chastising him for such a reckless plan.
Sō Yoshitoshi tried three more times to convince Korea to allow the Japanese passage to China, but was unsuccessful. Soon the invasion of Korea was underway.

Next time! Invasion, reconciliation, peace, and an end to the role of the Sō as gatekeepers.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Becoming a Child in Japan: Learning Through Curiosity and Humility Fri, 05 Sep 2014 16:00:01 +0000 If you’re an adult in your home country, you have an idea of who you are, how others see you, and how to act in a way that reflects how you want to be treated.

However, when living abroad in a country whose language and culture is foreign to you, you almost become a child again. Things you could do on your own become difficult. Actions that once might give subtle hints at your personality can be interpreted in vastly different ways. It’s difficult to express yourself in a way that reflects how you want to be seen. Even people who master the language may lack cultural knowledge to make that language work for them. And that’s just the start. Sometimes, your own body may not act the way you’re used to due to the climate or new diet.

In short, you become a child again.

While some people cling to their old culture and reject the thought of starting anew, others embrace it and foster their foreign-self, cultivating their foreign identity. You can get mad and throw fits like a real child, which works in getting your way sometimes. We all want to be more mature than that though and to become mature in Japan, you have to become a child.

Accepting You’re a Cultural Child


I hinted at this article before, but let me be up front again: I hate asking for help or explanations. In my home culture, I may still ask for advice, but in general, people tend to come to me. I can interpret complex legalese, offer help with editing, do simple home repairs or know someone who can (thanks Dad!).

In Japan? I struggle with getting people to believe I only need one bag for the souvenirs I’m buying. I’m asked to participate in cultural events and practices I don’t understand. I have to play games to get co-workers to cooperate. It feels like everyone has to teach me or explain things to me so I can function in this society.

And that’s the key to building up your foreign-self: admitting that you’re a child that needs to learn.

In Japan, I know I come off as a child because I’m always asking why. Why do we celebrate this holiday? Why doesn’t anyone look at the person who is speaking? Why is the whole meeting being read off a sheet we can read ourselves? Often, people just say, “That’s how it’s done,” or, if I’m lucky, “Oh, I never thought about that.” Clearly, I’m asking things that most people see as natural at this point in their life. In this sense, my foreign-self is a child, and I’m usually comfortable with that. However, there was a point that this wasn’t the case, and it took some major puking to get me comfortable with my childlike foreign self.

When I first moved here, I thought I was a healthy adult and could adapt to anything that happened. I could find a way to be me all on my own. I didn’t need help, especially with something as basic as dealing with a new climate.

I was horribly, horribly wrong. Over the New Year holiday break, my health situation came to a head.  I’d been sick in Japan before, but luckily it was just something on the weekend, or during an extended break. I usually bounced back. In the states, getting sick was easy for me to cope with, and usually something minor I could even go to work with. However, this time, I was in a foreign country with severe vomiting (from both ends) in a busy train station, with no toilet paper or tissues.

It’s embarrassing to not have full control over your body when you’re an adult, and the idea of having issues I usually associated with children was deeply shameful. I had a very real need to grow up, but that deep sense of shame had been preventing me from addressing it.

Letting Go of Your Shame


Photo by Steve Hunt

At some point, you’ll be faced with a decision: embrace your foreign self, admit that part of it needs help developing, and begin working on it. OR! Hate the country you’re in, scream that the culture is weird, and ignore the fact that you are perceived in a different way due to your foreignness and surrender that identity to the masses trying to come to grips with who this foreign person is and what they think they’re doing.

I was faced with this decision in Osaka station on December 30. My Japanese had failed me several times that day, or people had gotten suddenly shy on me. I was having an off day, and then the sickness happened. I didn’t call home or tell anyone though. I just popped some American medicine and thought I could last the rest of the day on my own.

There I was, alone in Osaka with what I thought was just a stomachache. Again, I’m very private, I hate attention, and I hate feeling vulnerable, but my situation quickly developed in a very obvious manner. What took me 10 minutes walking when I was healthy suddenly took an hour going from bathroom to bathroom down the street, trying to empty out all I could in order to hopefully just “be normal” for a train ride home. I got on the first train, took some medicine, and got off at Osaka station. I thought I was fine. I was going to make it. I’d just go home and sleep it off and no one would know what happened. They’d just think I was tired. And that’s when it all hit me at once. 

I felt “the urge,” the need to be in the bathroom right then and there. I was lucky enough to be a few feet from one, but not lucky enough to choose the right stall. Despite how busy it was, the sound of me emptying my body from the top and bottom was morbidly obvious. The terrible echo of my body’s cries for help (or so it seemed) began to drown out the formerly bustling restroom, making things comparably dead silent for a busy station. I felt a little relieved at first, and thought my ordeal was at an end. That’s when I realized my error: the stall had no toilet paper.

Bathrooms in Japan usually have a second roll right next to the first one, just in case something happens. That roll was empty. In Tokyo, people are always giving you free samples of tissues, but I’d used the ones I’d amassed before coming to Osaka when I’d cleaned my face from a few earlier “incidents.” I was paper-free, but in dire need.

This was my moment, and I pray that, when yours comes, it’s not nearly as embarrassing. After spending a day severely questioning my Japanese skills, I realized I’d have to shout for toilet paper in the crappy Japanese that was either failing me or causing Japanese people to fear me. I had seriously thought about just waiting until “stuff” dried so I could limp back to my family friends in shame, but wasn’t sure I wanted to do that in quite so pathetic a manner.

There are other times you may experience something similar. Moments where your adult self is challenged by the way people view your underdeveloped foreign-self. I’d had students openly disobey me in the classroom, staff ignore me and panic in Japanese while I was speaking Japanese to them, or, as I’ve said, had people question my perfectly understandable Japanese because it was at odds with their cultural knowledge of what people usually do. Heck, I found out that lying could be the best (and most appropriate) way out of certain situations.

Now, I could have gotten angry every time this happened, including when I had to shout for toilet paper and hope that “shy” Japanese people would understand my pain. It might have even worked for some occasions. However, for the most part, what worked was reminding myself that I was the different one. I was the foreigner, the cultural child, and I had to learn the right way to do or say something. That meant I had to ask for help, and while I could do it for some situations, it was still one thing that I really hated doing, particularly for such a personal topic.

Embracing Your Foreign-Child Status and Learning to Adapt


Photo by David

So you let it happen. You do what’s super embarrassing. You ask how to say, “condom” in Japanese. You ask how to get students to listen to you in class. You yell and ask for toilet paper in a super busy train station until you either said things in a way correct enough to get help or shouted when the right person was nearby. It doesn’t matter. What matters is you ask for help. You show you are vulnerable and, especially in Japan, you get help.

In Japan, being a foreigner, even a foreigner who knows the language and culture, you’re afforded the right to ask for help. The Japanese do the same with their “onegaishimasu.” People debate about the Japanese being child like, but it doesn’t matter. What matters is that, in my experience, even when it may seem overbearing or racist, Japanese people want to help.

When you’re ashamed or embarrassed, ask a question you know is rude but need answered. The lesson will stick. “Toire peipaa onegaishimasu” will get you TP. I won’t forget that. Tattling on a rude student will get that kid chewed out. And, well, “sukin” (skin) can certainly have a different meaning in Japanese I won’t be forgetting.

A Curious Kid


Photo by philHendley

Not all the situations I learned from were terrible. Several of the articles I’ve written here have come from my extremely rude questions about how and why things work in Japan. I can ask these questions because, like a curious kid, Japanese people want to educate me. Even though I get some conflicting information, it’s okay. Like the adult I am in my own culture, I know I have to sift through my experiences and use what seems to be the most common, most effective, and most trustworthy.

This article isn’t a hard and fast set of rules but a guide, a plea to listen and ask questions before you judge or react. Doing that, and applying it to my daily life certainly helps make me not only seem like less of a man-child, but helps me build my adult persona in Japanese society. 

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Ghibli’s Uncertain Future, Post-Miyazaki Thu, 28 Aug 2014 16:00:00 +0000 I think it’s safe to say that Studio Ghibli films have played an integral part in my childhood. Maybe they were part of your childhood as well.

Back in the day, my family owned VHS tapes of Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata’s works, and we replayed them over and over again every year. I learned from their thematic movies the issues behind technological progress, environmental destruction, and human greed. I hailed Totoro as my hero and Cat Bus as my dream “car”.

So, yes– I’m a big fan of Ghibli. And when their most recent film Omoide no Marnie came out in July, I jumped on board and saw it on its opening day.


Ghibli’s infamous use of girls as a main character… But a double lead for this new movie

Marnie garnered some attention even before it was released– it was made without involvement by Miyazaki and Takahata, the two primary directors at Ghibli. Many became a bit confused about the film after the release of a very interesting (perhaps suggestive to some) trailer. Moreover, with Miyazaki declaring his retirement from feature films after The Wind Rises, many began to debate about Marnie and Yonebayashi as potential “successors” to the animation giant.

After seeing Marnie in theaters, I thought it’d be interesting to discuss Ghibli’s future a bit, by discussing how Marnie faired (in my opinion), the future of other prominent animators from Ghibli (namely Miyazaki’s son, Goro), and where Ghibli might be headed for in the long run, after rumors arose that it was going to stop production of new movies.

Marnie– A New Beginning for Ghibli?

Omoide no Marnie, or “When Marnie was There”, is Studio Ghibli’s most recent work following Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises and his intent to retire from making feature-length animation. Marnie was directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, who has been involved in Ghibli works and directed The Secret World of Arrietty back in 2010.


They say Miyazaki used him as inspiration for No-Face from Spirited Away… see any similarities?

Marnie marks somewhat of a new beginning for Studio Ghibli, as it was created without the involvement of Miyazaki and Takahata, the two giants at the studio. With Miyazaki retiring from directing movies after the release of his last film, The Wind Rises, a lot of people had mixed anticipations about Marnie. What will Ghibli create next, now that Miya-san was gone? How will Yonebayashi try to recreate the world of Marnie, originally a British childrens book? How will he try to localize it to fit Japanese animation? Will it, if ever, live up to the quality of Miyazaki and Takahata’s works?

Since I never read the book that it was based on, I was pretty clueless and didn’t know a thing about what the movie was going to be about. For the longest time, I relied on the short snippet found on their home page, which mentioned the movie being about a friendship between two girls. Okay, so two heroines instead of one. That’s about all that I grasped about the movie.

I was pretty surprised when the first poster came out– with a fair-skinned, blond-haired girl in the poster with the phrase, “Anata no koto ga daisuki.” on the side. The phrase can loosely be translated as, “I really like you”.


Was this film going to include elements of romance? The only available summary found on the movie homepage indicated that it was about a girl, who travels to Hokkaido to recuperate from her illness, while meeting a mysterious girl, Marnie, at a deserted mansion across the marsh.

And then the official trailer came out.

Japanese people online were taken back by the rather touchy-feeliness between Anna and Marnie– Anna can be seen blushing from time to time, while at a certain point they seem to declare their love and affection for each other. Is Ghibli making a movie with homosexual elements in it!? Japanese netizens started commenting all over the interwebs on threads and discussion boards, like the following…

If Omoide no Marnie is a lesbian-themed movie! Then I’m going to go see it by myself! I won’t go see it with my parents!

Marnie’s a lesbian film? Now I gotta go see it.

Omoide no Marnie isn’t a lesbian-themed movie, right? Ghibli won’t make a lesbian movie right? “I really like you” (on the poster) just means as friends, right? Right!?

Some of these comments, in my opinion, got out of hand and were just too exaggerated– some even seemed upset as if Ghibli was setting their foot into some terrible taboo. Some comments were just, to put it simply, homophobic. Japanese netizens sounded worried that Marnie was going to be about a lesbian love between Anna and Marnie. Though some of these comments found online were questionable, it grabbed the attention of others who now really wanted to find out what the film was about.

Marnie– Treading New Waters Away From Magic

I went into the theaters knowing very little about the original book it was based on and having read some reactions by Japanese netizens online about the trailer. All in all, I enjoyed and loved the movie, though I do think it swayed far from the themes and styles of past Ghibli films.

It’s a touching movie, and in my opinion I think Yonebayashi did a great job building up sentiments throughout the film. It was mysterious, and I got confused, then emotional, sad, happy– warm and fuzzy feelings took over when the end credits rolled and Priscilla Ahn’s soft melody began to play. I got teary eyed, so did my friend who came with me, and an old gentleman next to me was sniffing up a storm.

However, Marnie is no ordinary Ghibli film. In the past, Miyazaki’s films appear to have had shared thematic elements, like environmentalism, the greed of mankind, coming of age, and loss of innocence. His movies were widely known by many for its fantasy-feel, a whole different kind of world with magical creatures, cities, and people interacting on the silver screen.

But one of the reasons why Marnie felt so different was that it lacked that fantasy feel; instead, the world that Marnie takes place in is very raw and realistic. Anna, one of the main characters, is a teenage girl, and like any teenage girls she carries a myriad of issues, worries, and frustrations. Her background is quite complicated, which strains her relationship with not just her family but friends and others around her. I found myself reflecting about my own teenage-hood, and to a certain extent, I think she’s a character that many people- adults included- can relate to. Though it might not be all magical, Marnie does have elements of reality blurring in it with the “dream world”, but it doesn’t go overboard to cover up some real-life issues and problems that the characters like Anna face throughout her life.

A good movie to watch before going into Marnie is The Secret World of Arrietty, also directed by Yonebayashi in 2010. Arrietty in a way follows Miyazaki and Takahata’s concept of magic and fantasy; the film’s meticulous and beautifully-detailed animation and background artwork sweeps the audience right into the world of the borrowers. I watched the film right before I went to see Marnie, and the contrast between the two was quite vivid. To put it simply, Arrietty is magical, but Marnie more grounded on real-world situations and issues.


I bet if she went to college her dorm would be voted the best decorated.

And the whole spiel about it being about a “homosexual romance”? I think netizens failed to understand yet another concept that I think exist across most Ghibli films– the idea of love- whether it be romantic, or friendship and affection- transcending a certain barrier. For Princess Mononoke, affection between Ashitaka and San transcended something close to identity and affiliation. For Spirited Away, Chihiro and Haku transcended dimensions between the real and spirit world. For Ponyo, well… species I guess! A similar idea can be seen in Marnie, with Anna and Marnie’s love transcending time. I’ll just leave it there since I don’t want to spoil too much of the film!

Meanwhile with Goro…

Meanwhile, someone else that had affiliation with Ghibli before he was engaging himself in a different challenge.

Goro Miyazaki, the son of Miyazaki himself, has recently started working on a TV-animation series titled Sanzoku no Musume Ronia, or Ronia the Robber’s Daughter. Like Marnie, it’s based on a children’s book by Astrid Lindgren, who also wrote other prominent works like Pippi Longstocking.

But Goro isn’t just doing something new. His Ronia is made using 3D CG animation.

It was Toshio Suzuki, the producer at Ghibli, who suggested Goro take a leave from Ghibli a bit and produce something different– to challenge himself and to prove that he was capable of creating good quality animation. The new TV series is created with the help of Polygon Pictures using 3D CG animation– something that hasn’t been done by Studio Ghibli. On the most recent Ronia website, Suzuki notes:

Ronia the Robber’s Daughter is a project we debated multiple times at Ghibli. Can Goro do a goob job away from Ghibli and his father? I think we’re all interested to know that. After all, I’m the one that recommended that he do so.

Goro, who worked as a landscape architect, joined his father’s industry when he was asked to direct Tales of Earthsea in 2006. Perhaps you can see this from some reviews on websites like Rotten Tomatoes, but Goro’s first work was not exactly the best. Tales of Earthsea disappointed a lot of Japanese audiences, who perhaps anticipated too much that Goro would have inherited his father’s skills. His second work From Up on Poppy Hill definitely faired A LOT better, but perhaps his father’s role as screenplay writer for the movie may have played some role in salvaging Goro from the splat he made in his first work.


Like father, like son? Not quite.

Though Yonebayashi might have earned enough credit and respect for people to consider him as the next leader of Ghibli, it’ll be interesting to see how Goro’s new TV series will turn out, and if he’ll ever make another feature-length film.

Taking a Break

Though Yonebayashi and Goro have been working hard creating new works, Ghibli faces yet another problem– whether or not to continue producing works.

A rumor arose recently that Ghibli was going to shut down its productions segment– and unfortunately, parts of it came true.

Suzuki announced publicly on a TV news segment that while Ghibli was not completely shutting down, it was going through a process of restructuring. Suzuki commented that although they were going to take a leave from making feature-length films for a while, they were considering creating short-animation films.

But for Ghibli fans like myself, them taking a leave poses a lot of questions– will Ghibli ever come back to make feature-length films? Who’ll take the helm that time? Will Goro ever come back to Ghibli to make a feature?

Only time will tell…

So… Where to From Here?

In the end, it looks like we’ve avoided the worst, which was Ghibli shutting down completely. Though the most successful animation production company in Japan will continue to be around, it looks like they’ve hit a point of no return– restructuring is necessary, especially when Ghibli films are extremely pricey to make. After all, they don’t outsource their animation work to places with cheaper wages, which makes it costly for them to produce each film. Telegraph commented that The Wind Rises has “yet to turn profit” and Takahata’s recent work Tale of Princess Kaguya was considered a “flop” because of how expensive it was to produce.

On the other hand, Suzuki has also mentioned some optimistic news for all– though Miyazaki retired from making features, he was still interested in making and producing something new, perhaps something along the lines of short-length movies for their Studio Ghibli Museum.

With Marnie’s release, it’s become evident that various people within Ghibli are now heading off to do creative new things– Yonebayashi created a Ghibli film with a different touch, Goro was off doing his own thing away from his father, while his father apparently expressed his intent to create something again. With different people from Ghibli going off in various directions and challenging themselves in unique manners, it’ll be quite interesting to keep an eye out on Japan’s most infamous animation house and what they’ll churn out next.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Badass Chicks in Japanese History: Murasaki Shikibu Tue, 26 Aug 2014 16:00:03 +0000 Second in a series chronicling—you guessed it—female badassery in Japan.

As you might have guessed from the inaugural article in this series, the sword-slinging samurai Tomoe Gozen seems like a tough act to follow. That said, I don’t think Murasaki Shikibu has anything to worry about. This 11th century wordsmith single-handedly wrote her way into history as the world’s first novelist and one of Japan’s most-celebrated cultural heroes. At a time when paper and ink were precious luxury items, people were scraping together every scrap available just for the chance to read her scribbles. If the pen is indeed mightier than the katana, Murasaki could have kicked Tomoe’s ass.

Cutthroat Court Life in the Mid-Heian Period


From 794 to 1185–almost four hundred years—the hip and happening city of Heian-kyo (modern day Kyoto) acted as Japan’s imperial capital. It was also Murasaki Shikibu’s hometown. As the center of the Japanese universe at the time, Heian-kyo lent its name to these four centuries in Japanese history, known as the Heian period (平安時代). Heian-kyo was THE place to see and be seen–anybody who was anybody could be found strolling through those streets (or, more likely, being carried through them on palanquins). When the Fujiwara family dominated court life (from the mid-9th to the mid-11th century), aristocratic government and culture was at its peak. Court members led lives of luxury funded by their estates in the countryside while they looked down upon “the little people” outside the capital. If this sounds a little like our own starstruck Hollywood, it kinda was—with all the glitzy glamour and cutthroat competition that that implies.

So how did Heian courtiers go about trying to win the popularity contest that was daily life? Screw math, science, and standardized tests—an aristocratic education meant learning musical instruments, perfecting your calligraphy, and—most importantly–honing your poetic genius. During the Heian period, poetry was your ticket to both romantic and bureaucratic success, the language of courting lovers and courting imperial sponsors alike. And in their quest to make life imitate art, courtiers followed a cumbersome beauty regimen that turned them into living dolls—in fact, their likenesses live on in the annual nationwide “Doll Festival” (hinamatsuri) featuring replicas of Heian courtiers. Men and women alike painted their faces white, blackened their teeth (that’s right, blackened, not whitened), fastidiously styled and scented their hair, and meticulously dressed according to complex color combinations that symbolized everything from social status to weather to season. Basically it was very easy to spend more time getting ready to go out than the time you actually spent out. Sometimes I can barely bring myself to throw on jeans and a t-shirt before leaving my apartment.

On the one hand, these aristocratic families and their pursuit of aesthetic refinement in all areas of life had a positive and permanent impact on the content and quality of Japanese arts and culture. But on the other hand, being constantly pressed by the stringent demands of the courtly cult of beauty must have felt like living in a tabloid. The imperial city was like the red carpet on Oscar night, where the slightest fashion crime or lackluster rhyme could turn you into a royal laughingstock. Foolishly wearing last season’s color combinations to this season’s party could make you wish you were dead. There was constant scrutiny, judgment, and petty gossip. There was marriage politicking, cutthroat social climbing, and competition for rank at court. There were scandals and drunken revelry galore! Merely falling out of favor with the imperial powers could get you kicked out of court. Rubbing an important someone the wrong way could get you either exiled or banished to the countryside (which were equally terrible fates in the eyes of the courtiers).


All this drama gave capital dwellers a lot to write about—and write they did. It was during these linguistically fertile centuries that both kana systems were developed, radically transforming the course of written Japanese. While Chinese continued to act as the official written language of government (also known as “men’s letters” or otokomoji), women churned out reams of kana (also known as “women’s hand” or onna-de) that collectively created the first indigenous Japanese literature. Even though Chinese characters would never fully disappear, the kana were here to stay and make all of our lives easier—radically reducing the number of kanji necessary to be literate and completely eliminating the need to use Chinese grammar. So we Japanese language learners have the female nobility to thank for the fact that we don’t have to learn Chinese in order to write Japanese. Huzzah!

Murasaki Shikibu From Birth To Death


Roughly around the year 978, Murasaki Shikibu was born into a lesser branch of the sprawling Fujiwara family tree. Her mother passed away not long after she was born, leaving her father Fujiwara no Tametoki (a scholar and minor bureaucrat) to raise his children as a single dad—a highly unusual upbringing at the time. But that was just the beginning of Murasaki’s unconventional (at least by Heian aristocratic standards) life. Her insatiable intellectual appetite led her to not only become extremely well-educated, but also to master what was then considered an exclusively masculine subject: literary Chinese. As she reveals in her diary, this skill made her father “sigh and say to me: ‘If only you were a boy how proud and happy I should be.’” On top of that, she spent most of her life as a single woman even though the vast majority of women of her status got married at puberty. She also accompanied her father to his four-year governorship posting in “distant” Echizen. What was then a five-day road trip from the capital might seem like no biggie now, but engaging in that sort of long-distance travel was unheard of for aristocratic women at the time. And when she finally did tie the knot, that marriage lasted all of two years (from 999-1001)–an unsurprisingly short period of time considering that she married an elderly cousin destined to die.


This unconventional life culminated in unconventional success. Despite Murasaki’s refusal to participate in marriage politics and social climbing, in either 1005 or 1006 Murasaki was invited to become a lady-in-waiting at court to serve Empress Shoshi as a Chinese tutor and resident writer. Residing at court was every little aristocrat’s dream, but Murasaki seemed less than impressed with life there. She moved out to a mansion near Lake Biwa with Empress Shoshi in either 1010 or 1012. Most scholars assume that she died around 1014, but there’s a contingent that argues she was alive and well in 1025, having retired to a nearby convent at age 50 or so.

Basically, Murasaki Shikibu was too busy being a badass to be normal. Whether she died in 1014 or 1025, Murasaki Shikibu must have had her nose to the inkstone during the majority of her forty or fifty years on earth. Most of what we know about her life comes from her three-year diary and a collection of 128 poems that she left to posterity.


And then there’s Genji. All 54 chapters and 400-plus characters of it. Murasaki’s masterpiece The Tale of Genji (or Genji monogatari) is also known as the world’s first novel and the “greatest work of Japanese literature.” Part-soap opera, part-existential poetry, The Tale of Genji tells (surprise!) the tale of Genji: the fictional son of an emperor and a dead concubine. Genji woos his way around the court like a Japanese Casanova, until karma comes to bite him in the ass and he is exiled to die in obscurity. (belated spoiler alert!)

What sets the story apart from One Life To Live is the narrative’s lush descriptions, psychological complexity, and insightful observations of nature and the human condition. Or, as Japan scholar and translator Helen McCollough puts it, the universal appeal of The Tale of Genji, “transcends both its genre and age. Its basic subject matter and setting—love at the Heian court—are those of the romance, and its cultural assumptions are those of the mid-Heian period, but Murasaki Shikibu’s unique genius has made the work for many a powerful statement on human relationships, the impossibility of permanent happiness in love…and the vital importance, in a world of sorrows, of sensitivity to the feelings of others.” Doesn’t sound too bad, eh?

Murasaki Shikibu’s Many Afterlives


It didn’t take long for Murasaki Shikibu and her writing to reach celebrity status. Before the days of instant online publishing and New York Times’ bestseller lists, popular books had the rarity and appeal of rock stars. The Tale of Genji was rabidly popular from the moment it was completed in 1021, obsessively hand-copied and distributed through the provinces within a decade, and hailed as a timeless classic within the century. To get a sense of just how gaga for Genji every literate person was, one 11th century writer wrote a whole passage in her diary about her lust for the copies of Genji in the capital and longing to visit someday, somehow just to get the chance to read it in person. Ever since then, Murasaki and her masterpiece have been compelling audiences to read, study, and write about her life and her art. She’s also been inspiring artists to imitate, illustrate, and innovate in new works of their own. As Japanese literature scholar Haruo Shirane observes, “The Tale of Genji has become many things to many different audiences through many different media over a thousand years … unmatched by any other Japanese text or artifact.” Don’t quite believe him? Well, here’s a brief timeline of some of Murasaki and Genji’s highlights over the centuries:

12th century

One hundred years after Murasaki’s death, The Tale of Genji has basically become required reading for any literate Japanese person. Meanwhile, artists and calligraphers collaborate to create the picture scroll known as the Genji Monogatari Emaki, a very fancy picture book version of the tale that is now officially recognized as a National Treasure of Japan. Four scrolls with 19 paintings and 20 sheets of calligraphy (about 15% percent of the original) still survive and are currently housed at the Gotoh Museum and the Tokugawa Art Museum.


13th century

Another crew of artists and calligraphers get together—this time to commemorate Murasaki’s own life by illustrating her diary in the Murasaki Shikibu Nikki Emaki scrolls.


Fujiwara no Teika also compiles the Hyakunin Isshu poetry collection (destined to become the star deck in competitive karuta), including this poem by Murasaki Shikibu:


Mishi ya sore tomo
Wakanu ma ni
Kumo gakure nishi
Yowa no tsuki kana.

I wandered forth this moonlight night,
And some one hurried by;
But who it was I could not see,—
Clouds driving o’er the sky
Obscured the moon on high.

(Translated by William N. Porter)


14th century

Murasaki’s fictional creations start living and breathing in three-dimensional Noh plays. Aoi no Ue (or “The Lady Aoi”) was the first of many plays to be based on characters and events from Genji. Aoi no Ue itself continued to have a life of its own, reinventing itself in the 20th century as a “modern Noh” play written by the infamous Yukio Mishima in 1954 and then a wacky avant-garde mash-up by Kara Juro in 1979. Apparently watching a female shaman exorcise the spirit of Lady Rokujo from the near-dead Lady Aoi never gets old.


16th century

Acclaimed artist Tosa Mitsunobu churns out 54 paintings revolving around Genji themes in a collection now known as the “Tale of Genji Album.”


17th century

Confucian scholars declare that not only is Genji a fun way to waste time, if you read between the lines it’s also a self-help manual that contains all you need to know to live like a good little Confucian. Prominent scholar Kumazawa Banzan prescribes a dose of Murasaki to everyone in Japan, especially the wimmins!

17th and 18th century

From byobu-e (screen paintings) and hanging scrolls to lacquer boxes, all things Genji become powerful status symbols, cultural caviar that everyone wants to display in the parlor.


18th and 19th century

The less wealthy samurai and commoner classes don’t want to be left out of the Genji craze, but can’t afford all that fancy pants lacquering. But no matter! Just like cubic zirconia can make-do as fake diamond, inexpensive ukiyo-e woodblock prints stepped in to supply the Genji demand. Not everyone was kissing Genji’s boots, though—Ryotei Tanehiko penned a parody called Nise Murasaki Inaka Genji that’s been translated as “A Fraudulent Murasaki’s Bumpkin Genji.”


20th century to the present

The rest of the world finally discovers Murasaki Shikibu, and with that discovery comes a flood of translations into dozens of languages (including English).

Genji and friends find themselves suddenly on the silver screen (including the 1951 Tale of Genji, Sennen no Koi: Hikaru Genji, and Genji Monogatari: Sennen no Nazo), on living room television sets (in NHK dramas and anime like Genji Monogatari Sennikki), and in comic book panels (at least 5 manga versions, including the widely popular Asakiyumemishi and Miyako Maki’s Shogakukan Manga Award-winning adaptation).


In 1991, the Murasaki Shikibu Prize for Literature is established, and is granted annually to one lucky female author who then receives a bronze statuette of Murasaki along with 2 million yen (approximately $20,000).

In 2008, Japan celebrates the 1000th anniversary of Genji with a year-long string of events and exhibits in Kyoto. And in Japan, of course, you’re not really famous until there’s a robot version of you. So the festivities included the unveiling of a mini-Murasaki-bot capable of reciting her namesake’s poetry and fiction, making her the most ridiculously advanced audio book ever.

Over the last century it’s become harder and harder for Japanese citizens to escape Murasaki Shikibu’s clutches. Look up and there she is in the sky—Genji is the official name of a crater on near-earth asteroid 433 Eros, where all the geographical features are named after famous lovers. Look down and there she is on the ground—the flowering “Purple Gromwell” is called murasaki in Japanese in honor of the author. Retreat into the nearest building to escape from her gaze and there she is staring at you from your wallet—the 2000 yen note commemorates Murasaki and her novel. She’s a popular lady, to say the least.

Where to Meet Murasaki Shikibu

In addition to all the Murasaki media mentioned above, there are some permanent pilgrimage sites in place that you can visit.

Ishiyama-dera at Lake Biwa

Legend has it that Murasaki was first inspired to write Genji while on a retreat at this Shingon Buddhist temple in 1004. While moon-gazing on an August night, inspirational lightning struck and she busted out a chapter on the spot. Regardless of this story’s relation to fact, the temple has embraced the legend. There’s a statue of Murasaki and a moon-viewing platform on the grounds, as well as a “Genji room” in the temple complex, complete with a life-size replica of Murasaki at her desk.


Photo by jpellgen

Murasaki Shikibu Park in Echizen

Echizen is where Murasaki traveled to and lived with her father upon his government appointment to the region. The park here is modeled after Heian-style shinden garden landscaping with a golden statue of Murasaki incorporated into the design. And the rest area serves free tea!


Rozanji Temple in Kyoto

This site was once Murasaki’s home, the mansion where she was born and raised. Unfortunately the residence was destroyed by fire long ago, and the temple that now occupies the grounds also had to be rebuilt over the centuries. A single roof tile from the original mansion remains. Attached to the site is the “Genji-niwa” Zen garden.


Tale of Genji Museum in Uji

Opened in 1998, this unique museum features full-scale models, images, and exhibitions of Murasaki’s life and the world of Genji, along with a library devoted to Genji-related books and documents.


Photo by Irina Gelbukh

Your local library

Alright, so now that you’ve heard all about it, are you ready to tackle the tale yourself? Reading Murasaki’s writing is one of the best ways to experience her legacy first-hand. Students in Japan slog through selections of the linguistically archaic original Genji monogatari in class, but unless you’ve got a masochistic hankering to tax the limits of your classical Japanese knowledge, there are much less painful routes to take. After all, Murasaki’s vocabulary and grammar was already obsolete just one hundred years after she wrote with it—language evolves pretty damn quickly. Most educated Japanese people couldn’t hope to get through the original without a heavily annotated and/or illustrated version, so don’t feel too bad about yourself if you can’t either. You know that “summer reading” you’ve been meaning to get around to? Well, here it is!

If you consider yourself to be an advanced Japanese speaker/reader, you might want to crack open one of three modern Japanese translations of Genji. Akiko Yosano, Tanazaki Junichiro, and Enchi Fumiko are all well-regarded authors who went toe-to-toe with Murasaki in order to make her work more accessible to the 21st century Japanese speaker.

But if you’re not quite ready for a full-fledged Japanese version, you won’t be wasting your time with one of the three full English translations. (To help you choose, I’ve excerpted the same passage from each translation for ready comparison.)


Arthur Waley’s 1935 Translation. This one’s a very free translation and omits a few chapters. It’s also the one that first introduced the wonders of Murasaki to the English-speaking world. For 21st century readers, it’s very obviously written in the early 20th century, which can be a good thing or a bad thing depending on your tastes.

Excerpt of the first paragraph of chapter two:

“Genji the Shining One…He knew that the bearer of such a name could not escape much scrutiny and jealous censure and that his lightest dallyings would be proclaimed to posterity. Fearing then lest he should appear to after ages as a mere good-for-nothing and trifler, and knowing that (so accursed is the blabbing of gossips’ tongues) his most secret acts might come to light, he was obliged always to act with great prudence and to preserve at least the outward appearance of respectability. Thus nothing really romantic ever happened to him and Katano no Shosho would have scoffed at his story.”

(P.S. Katano no Shosho was famous for his romantic escapades.)


Edward Seidensticker’s 1976 Translation. This one was an attempt to more faithfully translate the original while still maintaining its general readability. (Disclaimer: this is my personal favorite)

Excerpt of the first paragraph of chapter two:

” ‘The shining Genji’ : it was almost too grand a name. Yet he did not escape
criticism for numerous little adventures. It seemed indeed that his indiscre-
tions might give him a name for frivolity, and he did what he could to hide
them. But his most secret affairs (such is the malicious work of the gossips)
became common talk. If, on the other hand, he were to go through life
concerned only for his name and avoid all these interesting and amusing
little affairs, then he would be laughed to shame by the likes of the
lieutenant of Katano.”


Royall Tyler’s 2001 Translation. This one made a very conscious attempt to mimic the style and conventions of the original, regardless of their intelligibility to the average American reader. To make up for this possible confusion, there’s a bunch of explanatory footnotes! Its considered the closest to the original so far published in English.

Excerpt of the first paragraph of chapter two:

“Shining Genji: the name was imposing, but not so its bearer’s many deplorable lapses; and considering how quiet he kept his wanton ways, lest in reaching the ears of posterity they they earn him unwelcome fame, whoever broadcast his secrets to all the world was a terrible gossip. At any rate, opinion mattered to him, and he put on such a show of seriousness that he started not one racy rumor. The Katano Lieutenant would have laughed at him!”

But don’t forget about Murasaki’s diary and poetry! Richard Bowring’s 1982 translation titled Murasaki Shikibu: Her Diary and Poetry Memoirs brings the master’s personal life to light. And then there’s Liza Dalby’s historical novel The Tale of Murasaki, weaving Murasaki’s poetry and diary tidbits with an imaginative reconstruction of her life in Heian society.



Yeah, yeah, so this chick wrote a book about a playboy that a lot of people like. What’s so great about that? Well, as you might have guessed by now, over the centuries Murasaki Shikibu became much more than an author—she became a cultural icon for the Japanese language itself, much like Shakespeare has for English (pushing the limits of the expressive power of English, adding hundreds of words and expressions to the language, providing tropes and quotes that gained lives of their own, etc.).

Murasaki Shikibu was instrumental in developing Japanese as a written language distinct from Chinese, transforming the spoken vernacular into a written one. In addition to strongly influencing later generations of Japanese writers who looked to her writing for stylistic and linguistic guidance, her works had a permanent impact on Japanese aesthetics within the culture at large.

Not that she did it alone—in fact, Murasaki was one of the many hyper-talented Heian court women who wrote some of the earliest and best literature of the Japanese canon, making her merely representative of Japan’s long tradition of powerful female writers. Individually and collectively, their badass achievements transcended gender. With nothing more than an inkstone and some paper, they set the blueprint for a language currently spoken by 120 million people as well as all of us struggling to join those ranks.

Essentially, Murasaki Shikibu was such a badass that 1000 years after her death, here we are still talking about her. Samurai swords rust. Emperors come and go. But Genji is forever.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Peace and Japan Part 2 – Japan’s Current Military Fri, 22 Aug 2014 16:00:28 +0000 In the first article “Peace and Japan: How The Militarization Of Modern Japan Keeps Marching On“, I explained the constitution, the history behind Japan’s current situation with and how the Japanese Self Defense Forces (JSDF) have developed after creation, after the Second World War. This includes their most recent and controversial change, which gives them the right to a collective defense.

But, there is one important thing that we haven’t discussed yet: the Japanese military itself. And, given how the current debate has been framed in the context of regional security fears, it is important to take a closer look at the Japanese military, the capabilities that it has, and what the public thinks about all of these things.

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In terms of my own personal views? I’d say that saying Japan is “militarizing” is highly inaccurate – but for two very contradictory reasons.

First, the word militarizing makes it sound as if Japan is building up stockpiles of weaponry and conscripting people. It is not. Plus, its forces remain constrained in many ways.

Second, the word “militarizing” makes it sound as if Japan is currently a country with a weak military, and that Japan is now ditching its “unarmed ways.” This too is false. Unlike what many people think, Japan already has a very capable military force, thus it is already militarized.

It’s Not Militarizing: The GDP Argument

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Japanese fighters in flight at Nyutabaru Airbase Aviation Festival

As I mentioned in the previous article, this move towards a “collective self-defense” has not come with a visible increase in the Japanese Defense expenditures. This has been kept at 1% of the GDP, just like it has been for a long, long time. What does 1% mean? Of course, it depends on several variables. Let’s take a look.

1% of a country’s GDP for military is actually really low when compared to other countries. Most spend much more. The CIA puts Japan’s military expenditure as a percentage of GDP at 103 in the world, at least in 2012.

Furthermore, this website states that the total number of active military personnel in Japan is around 247,000 people which is number 22 in the world. That still seems rather high, but when you consider it as a proportion of the total population (2.5 persons active in the military per 1000) the number is exceedingly low in the world.

Furthermore, one also has to take into account the type of military Japan possesses. The constitution prohibits the possession of force for purposes of attacking another country. So for example, Japan has a lot of fighter jets but no strategic bombers, etc.

It’s Not Militarizing: The “It Already Is Militarized” Argument

The other side of the coin is that people tend to underestimate the Japanese military and tend to think of Japan as not having a military presence. This is false for a few reasons.


Photo by dragoner_JP

The JS Izumo, which caused controversy after its launch in 2013 due to its alleged resemblance and convertibility to an aircraft carrier

While I did say that Japan does not have a strong offensive capability, a gun is a gun is a gun is a gun. And, to defend oneself militarily, one must shoot at someone else. The point is, while Japan may not have equipment that is explicitly offensive, there is quite a bit of crossover in terms of what is defensive and what is offensive. That is to say, it’s hard to pretend that Japan has zero offensive capability. A lot of what they have for defense can easily become offensive as well.

Secondly, while it is clear that Japan does not spend much and has way fewer people in the military for a country of its size, this does not mean that in absolute terms the Japanese military is not sizable. As noted above, it is, in terms of active personnel, #22 in the entire world. Sizable, but nothing that big and certainly smaller than its neighbors China, North Korea, and South Korea, which are first, fifth, and sixth in the world respectively.

However, 1.0% of the third largest economic power in the world is very clearly a sizable amount. Japan, as of 2013, spends around $50 billion USD on its military each year – roughly 50% more than what South Korea spends. In addition, Japan has the 7th or 8th largest military budget in the world depending on the source. With the above, it is clear that Japan has a sizable, modern and professional military.


Picture of a portion of the US 7th Fleet, based in and stationed in Yokosuka Naval Base

Thirdly, one must also note the sizable number of American forces (38,000 according to the United Forces Japan website) stationed in Japan which certainly hold sizable offensive capabilities. Most of the time, these are stationed in out-of-sight, out-of-mind locations (unless you’re living in Okinawa). However, just one hour from Shinjuku, and entirely within Tokyo prefecture, is Yokota airbase in Fussa city. Similarly, an hour from Yokohama is Yokosuka naval base.

This also means that even if they are not Japanese, Japan has signficant forces stationed on its soil which can use Japan as a staging area in the case of a military conflict. And while Prime Minister Abe says that the US needs Japanese consent for any deployment, the US has already historically used Japan as a basing ground in the Korean war and the Vietnam war.

So What do the Japanese think of their own Military anyway?


Newly selected Japanese officers at a ceremony

Now let’s take a look at public perception? I’ll be addressing the arguments about the constitution etc. in the next part but I’m going to focus on the perceptions of the military here now.

1) The Japanese public has gradually come to accept the defense forces as a being normal.

As you can imagine, Japan after World War II was heavily traumatized, and many blamed the military for the mess that Japan found itself in. This is why especially in the immediate decades after the war, the military was treated with heavy suspicion. In contrast to that, a survey by the Japanese government released in 2012 states that 91.7% of the Japanese population have a positive impression of the JSDF.

That has changed gradually as fears that of Japan being dragged into another conflict were realized. Up until now, no Japanese self-defense forces had been involved in any armed fighting – at most it was involved in back-end support (see previous article) and/or peace keeping operations overseas.


Photo by ChiefHira

Ishinomaki, Miyagi. JSDF forces doing disaster relief in the wake of the 2011 Earthquake/Tsunami disaster.

In addition to this, the Self-Defense Forces also play an important role internally in terms of disaster management. The Self-Defense Forces were deployed to Tohoku after the earthquake / tsunami disaster of 2011 and in that sense, they clearly do play at least some positive role within Japan. It is because of all this that the JSDF has become a gradually accepted part of the nation of Japan.

2) The Japanese public heavily underestimates the strength of their own forces.

This article provides a very good explanation of this – most of the Japanese population (actually I think it’s fair to say most of the world population) views Japan as without a “true” standing army with minimal defenses.

To the typical Japanese person, the JSDF is not an “army” – it is a “self-defence force” and nothing more. And as the article above notes, this underestimation may be a reason for why the Japanese are sometimes bewildered by their neighbours’ complaints about its military power.

3) The self defense forces are not exactly prestigious

As a reflection of the above, the JSDF isn’t exactly prestigious – Japan does not make movies like Black Hawk Down or Saving Private Ryan. And while being in the Marines in the US is highly respected and military service considered to be “service to the nation”, there is no equivalent that I know of in Japan.

Wikipedia has a nice write-up about this. Basically, according to the article, the JSDF gets its recruits from poorer rural areas and top university graduates tend to stay the hell away. No doubt the Japanese do thank the JSDF members for their service – it just isn’t as venerated as in some other countries.

All that being said…


Photo by the United States Army

Japanese Self Defence Forces during a visit by an American General

So I’ve taken a look at Japan’s military strength and this idea of “Militarization” that’s floating around. The point is that, in my view, there’s a lot of overestimation going on. This includes current changes (see previous article) and Japan’s actual military strength, which is nothing to scoff at.

Now that you know about the Japanese military and what it has, we will be looking at “who is saying what” about militarization, Article 9, the arguments for and against the Japanese military, as well as some deeper analysis around what people are actually saying about the current changes instituted by the Abe cabinet.

So stay tuned for next week when we wrap things up and learn what’s really going on with Japan’s army and where they will go, perhaps, in the future.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Gaki no Tsukai And The Living Legends Of Japanese Comedy Wed, 20 Aug 2014 16:00:00 +0000 When I took my first shot at learning Japanese, nothing stuck. I would learn new kanji or grammar, then it would fly out of my head in a week. It took me three months to realize I had to escape my bubble of textbooks and memorization and experience some Japanese in the wild. Unfortunately, I lived across from a cow pasture in South Carolina, so I couldn’t just find some place where people spoke Japanese. Instead, I decided to watch a comedy show called Gaki no Tsukai ya Arahende.

In my home office, on the wall, you can find the Hall of Fame for the Best Decisions I Have Ever Made. I keep track of all my best decisions there, on fake plaques printed on A4 paper. Near the very top, just below “Decided Not to Go to Grad School,” you can find “Decided to Watch the Best Comedy Show of All Time and Learned Japanese While Doing It.”

I bet you can guess what show I’m talking about?

What is Gaki no Tsukai?

Downtown no Gaki no Tsukai ya Arahende!! is a Japanese comedy and variety show which has been running since 1989, producing over a thousand episodes. It has been a massively influential show in Japanese comedy, to the point that the main duo’s Kansai accent and dialect are the unofficial sound of comedy in the country. If you want to become a Japanese comedian, you better learn to talk like you’re from Osaka.

The show’s influence has even creeped just across the Pacific Ocean, with one fantastic Gaki no Tsukai segment called Silent Library being adapted into a full show on MTV. Virtually everyone will tell you that the original was better, but don’t let that stop you from watching Justin Bieber smell a durian. The original product is embedded below:

You can find all sorts of comedy under the Gaki no Tsukai umbrella: from old-fashioned “Who’s on First”-style manzai dialogues to sketches, game shows, cooking segments, public stunts, and the physical comedy that Japan is famous for. Gaki no Tsukai is especially famous for its batsu games: devilish and sometimes intricate scenarios in which one or more of the performers are comically punished for losing a competition, a bet, or just because it’s New Year’s Day. Gaki‘s New Year’s 24 Hours No Laughing specials are hours-long batsu games in which the comedians are forced to endure increasingly bizarre and hilarious scenarios with the caveat that they will be beaten if they laugh out loud.

Here’s a famous segment from one of the 24 Hours No Laughing shows in which returning character Jimmy Onishi does his very best to teach an English lesson. You can see the Gaki no Tsukai cast being constantly pulled away and hit when they laugh.

Just watching the video, I can tell you that I wouldn’t come out of it alive if I were in any one of their shoes.

Studying Japanese With Gaki No Tsukai


Gaki no Tsukai is worth watching for anyone with an interest in comedy, but it’s especially useful for students in the early stages of learning Japanese. There is a vast library of Gaki clips, episodes, and specials online which have been subtitled by fans, allowing anyone to watch and start to absorb the language in-between study periods. And thanks to the habit of the show (and all Japanese television, really) to put a lot of the spoken words on screen in text to highlight punch lines, you can almost match spoken words with Japanese text with English text all at once, which was helpful to me very early on in learning the language.

And because Gaki no Tsukai is largely a physical comedy show, you can make do without subtitles altogether without being afraid that you won’t have any idea what’s going on. Once you get much stronger with your language ability, there is a large and friendly fansubbing community that can help you practice the language as you subtitle clips and episodes on your own (and trust me, you can’t do much worse than some of the translations that are already out there). As you improve in ability, there is a very natural progression of Gaki no Tsukai clips that can help reinforce what you learn when you study, and even start to get your feet wet in the translation world if you are so inclined.

It makes for a step-by-step process:

1. If you’re a complete beginner like I was, watch the show with subtitles between study sessions. Usually, punch lines will be written out in big Japanese text on the screen, so you can practice reading katakana and hiragana, and test your kanji if any simple ones happen to come up. It’s useful to have Japanese spoken words, Japanese text, and English text on screen all at once when you’re just a beginner. If you’re doing it right, your brain should hurt after you’ve watched an episode or two. That means you’re getting some value out of your leisure time.

2. If you know a little bit of the language, be brave and watch the show without English subtitles. Especially if you’ve already seen an episode or two, missing a sentence here or there won’t hurt your enjoyment of this physical comedy-heavy show. I’ve found it important to immerse myself as much as possible as my language skill got better, and this is an easy place to start.

3. And if you’re really starting to know your stuff, Gaki no Tsukai is a friendly place to dip your toes into the world of translation. There is a huge community of people who watch subtitled Gaki no Tsukai content online, and in a show with 1,213 episodes, there is always more material to translate. By either learning to subtitle video yourself or working with another fan who wants to be a timer, you can start to subtitle Gaki clips and publish them online, trying out all the joys and pains of translation before turning it into a paying gig.

Introducing The Comedians

The core cast of Gaki no Tsukai is comprised of two separate comedy duos and… another guy. “Downtown” are the senior duo who introduce the show and have been with it from the start. “Cocorico” are a duo who joined in 1997, and Yamasaki Hosei (who recently changed his name to Tsukitei Hosei) is the solo act.


hamada-masatoshiHamada Masatoshi

Hamada is what is known in the Japanese comedy world as the tsukkomi. In the Anglo-American comedy world, this is what’s known as the “straight man.” Not the full-on no-jokes straight man a la Zeppo Marx, but the dominant, smart member of the comedy duo with Matsumoto.

It’s all based around the core interaction of Japanese comedy that you might recognize from any other video game, comic, or movie with elements of comic relief: Matsumoto is the funny man, so he acts like an idiot. Hamada is the straight man, so he yells at Matsumoto and hits him for being so stupid. Hamada plays a sadistic, mean, and almost evil character that is perfectly matched to Matsumoto’s goofier nature.

Among Hamada’s running gags: He always gets stuck wearing women’s clothes, and the other members of the group take every opportunity they can to compare him to a gorilla. He’s also… not a great artist.

matsumoto-hitoshiMatsumoto Hitoshi

Matsumoto is the elder statesman of Japanese comedy and the boke to Hamada’s tsukkomi. He’s taller than Hamada, he’s balder, and while he has the same temper, he doesn’t have the mean streak to back it up. He’s the funny man, and in the few times that the comedy isn’t physical, he tends to land the punch lines. Recently, Matsumoto has started a career in directing and writing movies, including two that made it Stateside in limited release: Big Man Japan and R100.


tanaka-naokiTanaka Naoki

Cocorico (sometimes spelled “Coq au rico”) are a much younger duo, and while their characters within Gaki no Tsukai aren’t so fleshed out as Downtown, they still play huge roles throughout the show. Tanaka is the boke and he’s a tall, thin, gentle-hearted guy who is perhaps best known for dropping immediately to the ground whenever he’s even remotely startled.

endo-shozoEndo Shozo – Endo is the tsukkomi, but despite being the more serious member of the duo, most of his running gags on Gaki no Tsukai revolve around his being kind of an airhead. Sometimes the team will make him read something full of slightly obscure kanji just to watch him try to figure them out.

He’s also punished on the show for his semi-scandalous private life, and his ex-wife (the singer Chiaki) is often brought on to the show to create awkward situations for him.

Some other guy named Hosei

hoseiYamasaki or Tsukitei Hosei

Yamasaki recently changed his name to Tsukitei just to make things difficult for someone trying to write a Gaki no Tsukai intro piece, but more importantly he’s the chubby underdog of the group. His punch lines never land and he seems to always take more physical abuse than anyone else, but he’s visibly trying his hardest to live up to the comedy standards of the others around him.

Yamasaki isn’t actually an unfunny comedian by any means, but he plays one on TV, and his character is supposed to be bad at his comedy job. In the last seven or so of Gaki no Tsukai’s New Year’s specials, some sort of unfortunate mix-up or other gets Yamasaki viciously slapped by the pro wrestler Masahiro Chono, one of the most popular running gags in the show for the way that Yamasaki tries desperately to escape his punishment.

Now Go Watch It!

Now you should be ready to dive into the hundreds of online clips of Gaki no Tsukai and start to love Japanese comedy. And if you’re like me, you’ll move on to Lincoln, and Million Kazokuand on and on, looking for that next comedy fix until you’re desperately walking into another DVD store, looking for a rakugo scene you’ve never watched before while knowing you won’t find it. You’ll be living in a batsu game of your own creation, and there’s no escape.

Until that happens to you, though, I’d like to provide you with some of my favorite Gaki No Tsukai clips to watch.

Matsumoto’s Pie Hell” is one of my favorite moments from the show. After losing a bet on the Japan Series, Hamada and the rest of the team subject Matsumoto to a full simulated day of pie attacks. Matsumoto must do everything the narrator tells him to do and pretend this is just a normal day, without reacting to the constant barrage of pies.

The “5 Rangers” clip below is a positively ancient Gaki sketch about a Super Sentai or Power Rangers team who fail to coordinate their outfits for the day. It’s a simple premise that has led to maybe a few dozen segments on the show, but I laugh every single time. This segment predates Cocorico and Yamasaki, but you should start with the original before you fast forward a decade or two.

The “Kiki” series is one of my favorite segments from the show, in which the cast taste something blindfolded, then try to pick it out from a table of alternate brands of the same thing. You can see them taste-test curry, instant miso soup, and even cigarettes and beer, but you should start with the first Kiki game: canned coffee.

And Gaki no Tsukai has another fantastic food segment called “Absolutely Tasty,” in which the cast cook some, uh, inventive food items along a common theme then try them out together. The finished products can range anywhere from delicious recipes you’ll want to try at home to horrifying, borderline inedible creations.

Before Gaki did 24 Hour No Laughing games every year, they had a different endurance challenge: A 24 hour game of tag. While the cast were trying to sleep, men would occasionally burst into the room and start chasing them down, with whoever is caught being subjected to some kind of punishment. In this clip, it’s a Scorpion Death Lock wrestling move, but Tanaka has a special strategy for avoiding it.

I couldn’t get away without including what I will politely call “The Butt Game.” This used to show up on those “weird Japan” shows and websites, and you’ll see why shortly. Matsumoto and Yamasaki work together to answer trivia questions. If they get one wrong, the producers’ three quarters-naked butts get moved inches closer to their face. The highest of stakes.

In this clip, the team try to order Napolitan, the Japanese pasta dish, using similar-sounding words, starting with “Napoleon” and working all the way down to “Tamori-san.” If they receive what they ordered, they win.

This clip introduces you to Heipo, a popular side character who is afraid of absolutely everything. The comedians take turns scaring him with increasingly simple techniques.

I couldn’t possibly link enough videos to show you the depth and breadth of Gaki laughs out there, but this is a start. So do what I did years ago: Pull up a chair and a laptop to watch the show, and maybe some headphones so you don’t bother the people around you, and a second, smaller laptop with open on it, and a bag of kettle corn, and some kind of wipe to get the kettle corn off your hands before you touch your keyboard, and enjoy Gaki no Tsukai ya Arahende. And maybe you’ll learn something while you do.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Peace and Japan Part 1: How Japan Got Militarized. Again. Fri, 15 Aug 2014 16:00:37 +0000 Some of you who have an interest in Japanese current affairs may know about what the current Liberal Democratic Party has put in place regarding Japan’s armed forces, which allows the right for a collective self defense (more on that later). These have attracted controversy from both within and outside of Japan. There have been large protests and even one person set himself on fire in Shinjuku to show his resolve against the changes. Worldwide media has also picked this up, with some people describing Prime Minister Abe’s “nationalism” (which I find accurate) and Japan’s “militarization” (which I don’t find accurate).

In short, I feel as though Japan is heading in a nationalist direction. But, it must be laid clear what this change means and what it does not. This idea of “militarization” also strikes me as very strange because it makes it sound as if Japan is Costa Rica without a professional army, which it already has. This article is going to try to explain the whole history, background and development of Japan’s military – and clarify some things about the current changes (or mess depending on your point of view) in Japan.

The Constitution


Original Copy of the Constitution of Japan with original signatories
Image from the National Archives of Japan

Firstly, all of the problems and controversies regarding the armed forces in Japan need to be taken in light of Article 9 of the Japanese postwar constitution (established 1947) – which states:

“ARTICLE 9. Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes. (2) To accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.”

Nationalist groups say that the constitution is fundamentally not valid given how the constitution was “forced” on the Japanese people by the occupying/American forces but that’s an entirely different debate and mess. As you can see from the above, there is a problem with ambiguity.

Does the constitution prohibit all forms of armed forces and “war potential”? Or does it prohibit “war potential” only when it is used “as a means of settling international disputes”? And if so, where does one draw the lines between what conforms with such a condition and what does not?

These are ambiguities which have surfaced and resurfaced every time there’s a debate about the military in Japan. But the fact is that from the defeat of Japan things have changed massively. Aside from the legal debate which is perfectly open to interpretation, one has to look at how it has been interpreted and how that interpretation has changed.

History Timeline

I’ll make things easy and do a timeline-ish thing detailing the major events concerning the history of Japan.

1947 – Post-war (Showa) Constitution Adapted

  • At this point Japan has no army and the constitution is interpreted as prohibiting one.

1950 – Start of Korean War


Transport ship leaves Yokohama for America, carrying the first Korean War dead
Image originally taken by C.K. Rose and can be accessed here.

  • Japan and the US start to get jittery on how Japan is virtually defenseless. Not only are there allied forces in Korea, but there was also the possibility of a communist victory on the Korean peninsula.
  • Creation of the lightly armed National Police Reserve.

1954 – Promulgation of the Law of the Self Defense Forces

  • National Police Reserve reorganized into the Japan Self Defense Forces (JSDF) with the Land Self-Defense Forces, Naval Self-Defense Forces and Air Self-Defense Forces clearly demarcated.
  • Interpretation of Constitution: That self-defense actions and having a minimum force for this are legal but that, for example, the “right to join a war (交戦権) involving attacking an enemy is not”.

1959 – Sunakawa Incident

  • Tokyo regional court rules that American forces on Japanese soil was illegal.
  • Supreme Court of Japan overturns the decision saying that the 9th article of the constitution is applicable to Japanese forces but not to foreign (American) forces in Japan which have offensive capabilities.

1960 – Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan


Anti-US-Japan Security Treaty Protesters in 1960
Photo in commons here

  • Basically, an amending of a treaty first signed in 1952. Both parties agree to help each other however Japan is not allowed to send forces to the US in the case of an attack due to article 9.
  • Also allowed the US to place bases in Japan.
  • Massive student and left-wing protests with more than 100 thousand surrounding parliament.
  • Cabinet resigns to “take responsibility” but the treaty goes through.

1960s-1980s - The above set the tone for the next few decades as Japan and the Japanese government avoids contentious military issues and focuses on the economy. Some points to take note on:

  • Japan has kept, with few exceptions, a cap on military spending at 1% of GDP per year.
  • The principle adopted is the pretty much holding the minimum amount of power and using it at the lowest possible level to ensure Japan’s defense – It has also created and followed its set of “Three Non-Nuclear Principles” – Not making any, not having any, and not importing any. (American troops on Japanese soil are a different issue)
  • As WWII draws even further away, the JSDF become more and more accepted.

1992 – Peacekeeping Operation Cooperation Law passed


Ground JSDF in Indonesia, 2006
Image by Japanese Ground Self-Defense Forces

  • Law passed allowing the dispatch of the JSDF to peacekeeping / humanitarian operations after increasing questions about Japan’s contribution to the international community – JSDF dispatched to Cambodia in same year.
  • Marks a clear departure from the only-in-Japan policy of the JSDF.

2001 – Invasion and Occupation of Afghanistan

  • Naval JSDF dispatched to Indian Ocean to assist supply operations – the first deployment of the JSDF at a time of war (even though it was not directly involved in it).

2014 – Further change of Interpretation of Constitution

  • Abe Cabinet changes interpretation to such that a “collective self defense” is allowed (explained later).

What Can We Say From This

A few clear and obvious patterns can be seen here:

1) In the beginning there were legal challenges regarding the very existence of the armed forces and the military was viewed extremely suspiciously by the public.

2) As time went on the status quo became more and more accepted. Firstly because memories of the war were dimming, but also perhaps because the JSDF was helping society through disaster relief, etc.

3) Legally, the boundaries of what the JSDF can do has been widened gradually, culminating in the current controversy.

What does the current change mean?

So what does this “collective self defense” mean then?

Video on the protests against the changes to the interpretation

Before the current change, Japan considered coming to the aid of an ally an act which Japan had the right to do, but which would exceed the definition of “minimal use of force necessary for Japan’s defense”. In a more concrete fashion, if Japan were to be attacked by X country, America would have every right (and obligation) to come to Japan’s aid militarily. However, if America were to be attacked by X country, Japan would not be able to intervene militarily to aid America because that would be using Japan’s military force in an excessive way and not for the benefit of Japan’s defense.

The Abe cabinet has changed this interpretation to say that yes, it is within the “minimal use of force necessary for Japan’s defense” to send military forces in aid to an ally which has been attacked. In explanation, this is what the prime minister said in Parliament: (my translation)

“A condition for the use of the right to collective defense is that Japan, or a close ally of Japan, is attacked militarily. Furthermore, this must pose a danger to the Japanese people. The right to collective defense is a last resort, and shall be used with the minimum amount of force necessary [...] The right to collective defense is, in the end, a means to protect the Japanese people and thus, it cannot be used to protect the citizenry of other countries even if our countries have close relations. Furthermore, we maintain our stance of exclusive defense (senshu boei) – pre-emptive strikes are not permitted.”

So if we are to believe his word (whether he is believable or not depends on the person) there are these criteria (which are certainly subjective and up to interpretation) which must be fulfilled before the right can be used.

So what does it not mean then?


Ministry of Defense, Japan

What it does not mean, however, is that Japan would be able to attack a sovereign country by itself or launch an attack on another country in the name of self defense. Nor does it mean that Japan will be able to join another country in a preemptive strike, nor an invasion or another country. Supply support assisting other countries (as can be seen in the case of Afghanistan in 2001) seems to be perfectly fine though. But it does not mean a “rearming” of Japan because there haven’t been any clear reports of an increase in military spending – the limit of 1.0% of GDP seems to have been kept steady, so far.

Article 9 of the constitution still remains in effect and has not been repealed, even though the current prime minister would probably have done so if he could. Unfortunately for him, a change in the constitution requires a two-thirds majority in both the lower house of parliament (which he has), the upper house of parliament (which he does not), and a national referendum. And according to surveys, the public is both opposed to the current move toward allowing the right to collective defense, and certainly even more to the revision of article 9 as a whole.

So until that is changed, Japan’s military policy is legally restricted by the constitution even though, as we can see, that is liable to reinterpretation.

Regarding the next part

There are lots of things which this article hasn’t covered – the stuff I’ve covered here are pretty much more of the logistics and the history behind the JSDF. There is much more to the subject, but I’ll be continuing that in another article (coming out next week). This one will look directly at the JSDF, what the public thinks about it, and whether or not Japan really is “militarizing” or not.

Stay tuned.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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