Tofugu» Society A Japanese Language & Culture Blog Wed, 23 Jul 2014 16:00:58 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Gotta Catch ‘Em All: Karuta! Fri, 18 Jul 2014 16:00:58 +0000 Nintendo has been a household name in the world over for the last 30 years, and their Pokemon franchise took the world by storm in the 90s. But did you know that the multimedia Nintendo empire started out as a humble karuta company in 1889? That’s right, not 1989, 1889. Long before Mario and Princess Peach’s torrid love affair began, there was a type of Japanese playing cards called karuta (かるた or カルタ). Oddly enough, mastering karuta requires some of the same skills as mastering your average video game–a combination of lightning reflexes, memorization, and lots of time to waste. And for the Japanese language learner, karuta also offers the perfect blend of procrastination and productivity, a way to work and play at same time.

Clam Shells + Portuguese Sailors = Karuta


Photo by Scott S

Karuta, as it exists today, is the hybrid descendent of 12th century clam shells and 16th century Portuguese sailors. During the Heian period (794-1185), Kyoto aristocrats whiled away the hours with pastimes like writing elaborate poetry (read: passing gossipy notes back and forth that happened to be written in meter) and playing kai-awase (買い合わせ), a “shell-matching” game. The inner surfaces of clam or oyster shells were painted with matching scenes and/or poetry, a set of shells were laid face down, and players competed to see who could match the greatest number of shells in the shortest amount of time.


Photo by Sudare

Karuta’s second ancestor arrived through the port of Nagasaki in the mid-1500s. Here Portuguese sailors introduced the resident samurai class to European playing cards that they called carta. As filtered through Japanese ears, carta became karuta. During the ensuing Edo period (1600-1868), karuta fully evolved from a foreign Portuguese import into a distinct Japanese custom, combining traditional kai-awase gameplay with the European paper card medium. Although painstakingly hand-painted at first, before long karuta were being mass-produced via cutting-edge woodblock print technology. Now people from all walks of life could afford to buy their own deck, and oysters once destined to become kai-awase could breathe a sigh of relief.

How To Play


In order to get your game on, you’ll need to buy, borrow, or make your very own karuta deck (there’ll be more on that later). The standard way to play requires a “reader” or “caller” and two or more players. In any karuta deck there are two types of cards:


yomifuda (読み札): “reading cards” with written information on them

torifuda (取り札): “grabbing cards” with pictures and/or written language on them

Note: each yomifuda has a corresponding torifuda

Once armed with your deck of choice, you’re ready to play:

  1. Spread all the torifuda face up on a flat surface between the players.
  2. The “reader” randomly draws a yomifuda from the deck and reads it aloud.
  3. Players race each other to determine which torifuda corresponds to the yomifuda clue and then to touch/grab/claim the correct card first.
  4. Repeat steps two and three until no cards remain.
  5. Whichever player has the most cards wins!

Competitive Karuta


Now if you’re a casual gamer like me, you’ll probably be satisfied with the low-stress version of karuta described above. But if you’re the masochistic sort who likes their recreational activities to induce stress, you might want to try your hand at kyogi karuta (競技カルタ), or competitive karuta. Sure, a paper cut might be the most severe injury you can receive in a match, but competitive karuta is no joke. You’d be surprised at how intense the last few rounds can get–two formerly unassuming obaasan can morph into fierce warrior women before your eyes! The televised matches remind me of competitive poker–and strangely enough, karuta used to be a popular form of gambling.

The official karuta deck used in competition is also the most common (and/or popular): the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu Karuta, with 200 cards per deck (100 torifuda and 100 yomifuda). Each yomifuda showcases a complete waka poem (also known as tanka, a form requiring 31 syllables to be arranged in a 5-7-5-7-7 pattern) along with an illustration of the poet who wrote it. The corresponding torifuda list only the second half of the poem (the final 7-7 lines). (There’ll be more about this deck and others below.)

In competitive karuta, 50 randomly selected torifuda are split 50-50 between two competitors. Before the game begins, each player arranges his or her 25 cards face-up on his or her territory in any one of a number of strategic positions. A fifteen minute period is provided in order to memorize the position of his or her own (and his or her opponent’s) cards and a two minute period is reserved for players to practice striking at cards. When time’s up, the reader opens the game by chanting a poem that doesn’t appear in the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu deck. After that, the action starts–the reader sings out the first lines of the first poem while the players scramble to identify and then claim the torifuda card containing that poem’s last few lines.

This is where cat-like reflexes and a memory built like a computer’s hard drive come in handy. The keys to mastering competitive karuta are memorizing all 100 poems and honing hand-eye coordination, so that 1) within the first few syllabes of the yomifuda you know exactly which card you need and 2) the instant you’ve identified your target you’re able to swipe it. Watch these pros in action for an idea of just how competitive competitive karuta can be:

Since the mid-Meiji era, large-scale kyogi karuta competitions have taken place on a national level. The All-Japan Karuta Association (established in 1957) currently sets the standard for the official rules and format of kyogi karuta. The rules are more complicated than you might think–see for yourself here: English Kyogi Karuta Handbook. The media covers many of the tournaments sponsored by the AJKA, particularly the New Year’s national championship held every January at Omi Shrine in Shiga Prefecture. This is where the AJKA crowns the male and female Grand Champions as Queen (クイーン) and Master (meijin 名人). And as if that wasn’t hyperbolic enough, seven-time Grand Champions are bestowed with the title of Eternal Master (eiseimeijin 永世名人) or Eternal Queen (eiseikuin 永世クイーン). Just imagine how that would look on your resume.


Photo by 47 News

If you think you have what it takes, there’s a budding international tournament you can set your sights on. The first one was held in 2012 and competitors from the US, China, South Korea, and New Zealand showed up to show each other up. Hurry up and snag your trophies while you can, before they add karuta to the Olympics and everyone and their okaasan start competing for the glory.

That said, don’t worry if you feel unprepared to compete on the world stage. There are lots of levels on which to enjoy karuta. For over a century, a rousing game of karuta has been a staple of New Year’s celebrations in Japan. It can be enjoyed year-round at community centers (where members often create and use their own karuta with local scenes) or high school and college clubs devoted to studying and playing karuta. Karuta’s even made it into the curriculum approved by the Ministry of Education–studying and playing karuta is one of its recommended teaching materials. Karuta is also a media darling–there’s Karuta Queen, an NHK drama, and Chihayafuru, a wildly popular manga (and then anime) series that follows a school girl who takes up kyogi karuta.

Varieties of Karuta


Whether you want to brush up on your classical Japanese poetry, finally memorize the names and location of all 47 Japanese prefectures, or gain a questionably useful but unquestionably entertaining knowledge of traditional Japanese monsters, there’s a karuta deck for you. To give you a sense of the variety out there, here’s a sampling of some of the most popular and/or common karuta decks I’ve come across:

Hyakunin Isshu Karuta (百人一首かるた)


This is the most widely known and popular version of karuta, probably due to the fact that it’s the variety used in competition. This deck is based on a famed poetry anthology of the same name (which literally translates to “100 people, 1 poem”), a collection representing both male and female poets from the 7th through the 13th century. The 100 poems featured in Hyakunin Isshu Karuta are the same 100 poems selected and compiled by poet and court noble Fujiwara no Teika in the early 13th century. This is a great way to exercise your classical Japanese skillz, also known as kobun (check out Rochelle’s thorough and thoroughly awesome Introduction to Kobun Series if you need a primer.).



Poem by Koukamonin no Bettou
Translation by Clay MacCauley:
For but one night’s sake,
Short as is a node of reed
Grown in Naniwa bay,
Must I, henceforth, long for him
With my whole heart, till life’s close?


Poem by Sosei Hoshi
Translation by Clay MacCauley:
Just because she said,
“In a moment I will come,”
I’ve awaited her
E’en until the moon of dawn,
In the long month, hath appeared.

Iroha-garuta (いろはがるた)


This is the second most widely known and popular version of karuta, and it’s also more widely accessible than its poetic counterpart. Often used in conjunction with teaching children the hiragana syllabary, Iroha-garuta feature 48 proverbs (kotowaza). The proverbs vary according to the set but, in all cases, the full proverbs appear on 48 yomifuda while a corresponding picture and a kana with the first syllable of the proverb appear on 48 torifuda. While 48 might seem like an arbitrary number, it’s based on the number of hiragana syllables–each of the syllables is represented by a proverb beginning with that syllable. However, since no words begin with “n” in Japanese, the custom is to replace the “n” with the character kyo (京) for “capital” as a nod to the game’s origins in Kyoto.



Inu mo arukeba bou ni ataru (“A dog that walks around will find a stick”)


Issun saki wa yami (“An inch ahead is pitch-black”)

Obake Karuta (お化けかるた):


Photo by Kotonoca

These “monster” (obake お化け) karuta were created and popularized during the Edo period but remained common through the 1910s-20s. Charmingly creepy illustrations of 48 bakemono (monsters) from Japanese folklore slither, slink, and skulk on the faces of the torifuda cards, along with an accompanying hiragana character in the corner signifying the creature’s initial syllable. Clues to identify the monster appear on the yomifuda that correspond to each ghoulie, ghostie, and long-legged beastie. Hmm, a Japanese card game about monsters…sound familiar? It’s hard not to see Obake karuta as the grandaddy of modern phenomena like Pokemon and Yo-kai Watch.



Photo by Yomi Kikase

Obake names from left to right: Nopperabo, Rokurokubi, Karakasa, and Hitotsume Kozo

Regional Karuta (hougen karuta and kyodo karuta 方言かるた and 郷土かるた)


Photo by Sanzo Kuame

Tired of speaking plain-old, run-of-the-mill Japanese all the time? Want to know more about the unique and fascinating regions of Japan’s islands? Regional dialect karuta (hougen karuta) can arm you with the words and phrases you need to sound native whether you’re in Hokkaido, Osaka , Kyoto, or Aomori. And regional history cards (kyodo karuta) can introduce you to the local events, specialties, and historic sties of areas as far flung as Gunma (Jomo Karuta) and Hokkaido (Hokkaido no Meisho or “Famous Places in Hokkaido”). Tokyo’s not the only game in town!


Photo by Katoko

Translation of tsuppe (Hokkaido dialect): to tsuppe suru is to put a piece of tissue in your nose when you have a nosebleed


Translations of cards from left to right: “Gunma Prefecture, shaped like a crane in flight”; “The hot springs of Ikaho, among the best in Japan”

National Karuta


Karuta like Todofuken karuta (都道府県かるた) and Nipponichi karuta (日本一かるた) both fit under this category, since they represent all of Japan’s various regions in a single deck. Playing with Todofuken karuta can help you memorize the shape and characteristics of all 47 of Japan’s prefectures, while Nipponichi karuta will introduce you to a traditional folk craft from each of Japan’s prefectures via poems inscribed on the yomifuda. These decks are a great way to bust the myth of Japanese homogeneity and learn more about Japan’s internal cultural diversity–Nagasaki is not Gunma, just like Maine isn’t Alabama.



Nipponichi karuta: Here we have an homage to Nara’s luxury socks on the left and the tairyoubata (大量端) banners of Chiba symbolizing great catches on the right.


Todofuken karuta: Two sides of the pair of cards featuring Hokkaido (in this set, the torifuda and yomifuda are double-sided in order to pack in as much info as possible)

Shakespeare Karuta (シェイクスピアかるた)


This one’s a bit of a wild card. Similarly to Hyakunin Isshu Karuta, this Shakesperean variety features a poetic verse on the yomifuda and the last few lines of that verse on the torifuda. The twist, of course, is that Shakespeare’s Old English has been transformed into modern Japanese. If you’re a translation dork like me, this is the kind of stuff that gets you going–the opportunity to see how familiar English phrases like “To be or not to be” and “Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo” become retrofitted to an entirely different language and culture.


But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Hyakunin Isshu is almost like the original Monopoly, and like Monopoly with its twenty million variations, the karuta industry endlessly generates new variations on its centuries-old theme.

How to Catch ’Em All


Photo by Gilgongo

One of the best things about picking up karuta as a hobby is that it doesn’t have to break the bank. I picked up my first deck on a whim for 500 yen (roughly $5) at Daiso in Harajuku (a popular “100 yen store”). That doesn’t mean you can’t drop a small fortune, though–a single reproduction of the famed Ogata Korin Hyakunin Isshu set, elegantly hand-printed and highlighted with fine gold foil, goes for around 1,100,000 yen (roughly $11,000).

Though I haven’t yet been myself, the Okuno Karuta Store, established in 1921 and located in the Kanda-Jinbocho district of Tokyo, promises to be a karuta pilgrimage worth taking. On the first floor, the Okuno family sells a ridiculous array of karuta, including over 30 decks exclusive to the store as well as antique, hand-painted sets dating to the Meiji era. Having been in business for almost a century, the Okuno Karuta owners have curated some stunning collections over the years. These collections can be seen on the second floor (added in 2009), now the home of a minis-museum dedicated to traditional Japanese games with displays rotating on a monthly basis.


If you can’t afford to ship yourself to Japan and back again, you can always get karuta shipped to you instead. Online stores like Punipuni Japan, Rakuten, Japan’s, River Whale, and Discovery Creative all offer a wide selection of affordable karuta (including all the varieties listed above) for international shipment. And if you’re cramming for a test, head over to Gakken, a company that specializes in explicitly educational karuta–practice your Japanese while you memorize world geography or the elements of the periodic table.

If you’re not satisfied with the available decks, you can buy a stack of blank karuta cards (sold on Rakuten) to make your very own set on the topic of your choice. On the other hand, if it’s the cost that’s got you down, you can always use cut up your own blank card stock to create your own custom deck or recreate an established one.

Last but definitely not least, you can print out free downloadable karuta decks on sites like Happy Lilac and Nifty Kids–see for a Hyakunin Isshu set or for Iroha-garuta.

Get Your Game On


Photo by fdecomite

You might be thinking, “Alright, this could be funbut I don’t have anyone to play with!” Never fear! You’re not alone in your quest to master karuta on your own. A number of sets come with a CD-ROM that stands in for a reader, calling out the yomifuda for you so you can concentrate on grabbing those torifuda. The same principle works if you play via app (here’s just one version:

Another option (my personal favorite) is to just do the reading yourself. And hey, taking on both reader and player roles gives you the most language learning bang for your buck–combining reading, pronunciation, and listening practice. Just record yourself reading each of the cards as a separate audio file, import those files into a folder on iTunes, and let them play on Random mode to act as the reader while you play in real time as the player.

Whatever way you choose to play–solo or group, casual or competitive, IRL or online–you’ll be flexing your Japanese muscles, beefing up your knowledge of the deck’s topic, and exercising your memory all at the same time. That’s a lot of heavy lifting for a single deck of cards. So take a break from some other time wasters and give karuta a try–you’ll never become an Eternal Master by playing online solitaire, that’s for sure.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Is Japan Really “Conservative”? Fri, 11 Jul 2014 16:00:14 +0000 I don’t think that I’m the only one who has experienced this but I often hear the word “conservative” being applied to Japan. At first I just accepted it as being true – because Japan is very obviously conservative on many fronts. But after a while, I started having doubts – maybe “conservative” isn’t the best word to describe Japan.

I’m going to try to explore how “conservative” Japan really is in this article. But first a definition is in order. I think most people have a their own idea of what conservative means, so when I use the term in this article, I mean prizing the group over the individual, a rejection of change, and a preservation of social and sexual mores.



Photo by Joe Jones

Election campaigning truck from the conservative – and dominant – Liberal Democratic Party

Politics in Japan does show a conservative stance, certainly. This is seen firstly in how rarely the regime changes. Since 1955, Japan has had only had four changes in the main governing party with no change in the main ruling party between 1955-1993.

Secondly, the main and dominant party in Japan, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), has a conservative slant. For example, while most of the other major political parties support some legal recognition of same-sex couples, the LDP is strictly opposed to it. In addition, it has also traditionally and, especially recently, shown a nationalist stance involving efforts to revise the peace clause in the Japanese constitution, visiting the Yasukuni shrine, and so on.

But even so, there’s some qualifications to be made. The LDP for example, has also traditionally been heavily in favour of protectionism and wealth distribution from the cities to the countryside. Not very economically conservative then.



Photo by May S. Young

Conservative or not conservative, that is the question

Stuff is a bit mixed when it comes to society. It’s a bit “yes and no”. Let’s start with the “no” side.

Compared to other East-Asian countries, Japan is actually quite liberal on some issues. The Pew Attitudes Report, for example, notes that Japan is actually one of the few countries where there is a clear plurality (44% vs 28%) that views abortion as acceptable. Japan also has a relatively high acceptance for divorce, contraceptives, and homosexuality – especially when compared to other Asian countries.

Very interestingly, Japan has the fewest number of people who view alcohol use as immoral among all countries. And while I do agree with Japan’s stance on this issue…why am I not surprised?



Photo by

Entrance to Kabukicho, the most infamous red-light district in Japan

This is hard to talk about without overblowing all the sensationalist imagery with which Japan is associated – tentacles, kinks, and all.

What is clear, however, is that Japan has commercialised sex to an extent not often found in other societies. This isn’t just regarding their (in)famous pornography or how adult magazines are uncensored and right next to shonen-jump at convenience stores. Commercialised sex permeates Japanese society in a way which may appear very nonchalant to an outside observer.

For example, it is not uncommon for some very traditional Japanese companies to, after work, have a company nomikai (drinking party) at a strip-club. The little TVs in capsule hotels also will probably have one porn channel which anyone staying there can access. The size of Kabukicho (the most well-known red-light district in Tokyo) and how blatant it is – after all, it is but a few minutes from Shinjuku – may symbolise how ubiquitous and normalised commercialised sex is in Japan.

This often shocks outside observers, but I don’t think moral judgements on Japan are that easy to make in this case. After all, it’s not as if sex isn’t commercialised in other countries – it may not be as blatant, but it certainly happens. However, if one views commercialised sex as exploitative of women, this would be a problem.

Sex and Gender


Photo by OiMax

While there is certainly a degree of freedom in terms of commercialised sex, there are some qualifications and contradictions to be pointed out here.

For one, there is a permissiveness towards sex. But this does not mean that it’s talked about in an open manner – in my opinion, this is likely linked to a reluctance to discuss one’s private life and an avoidance of generally “serious” topics in conversation.

In any case the above applies to male sexuality – it won’t be mentioned in polite conversation but for a salaryman to go to a sex joint is perfectly “acceptable”. For a woman to do these things is frowned on much more.

This also shows some ways in which Japan appears to be very conservative – gender roles. While Japan scores well in terms of female health in international rankings, consider the following:

  • Politics – This is still pretty much a boy’s game in Japan. Only 8.1% of the lower house of parliament are women, according to this website. This is lower than the world average (21.9%) and is 132nd among 189 ranked countries.
  • Education – Differences are very clear when it comes to higher education. For example, the male to female ratio in the University of Tokyo is around 8:2. The number of male “ronin” (students spending an extra year to retake the University examinations) is around 3 times that of female “ronin”. Females also tend to apply for 2 year university courses instead of four year courses.
  • EmploymentThis article mentions some points about employment. In any case, the Japanese workplace is still quite gender unequal.
  • Society – If you go to a nomikai in Japan and, especially if it’s formal, it’s obvious that women at the table will be very attentive to the beer levels in everyone’s glasses. Once they hit dangerously low levels, women swoop in and pour. This perhaps emphasizes how there’s an underlying assumption that women are supposed to be subservient.

In Other Words…


So maybe “conservative” isn’t the right word to describe Japan. The word I’m thinking about is more along the lines of “change-resistant”, because very often things move slowly in Japan. This may be surprising to people who view Japan as a hyper-modern high-tech society with robots and such. But when you consider how change-resistant Japanese organisations are, how job and university applications are still done by paper, and how fax is still used in Japan, this needs to be qualified.

There are many reasons for this resistance to change, but here are just a few I could think of:

  • Adversity to Risk - Japan and the Japanese people are still very risk adverse. And this is pretty much visible in all parts of society. From the low levels of entrepreneurship, to low numbers of people going abroad, to the tendency to vote for the “safe” conservative political party. Take a look here for an article on Businessweek on this. In any case, without risk-taking, there won’t be as much change in society.
  • Hierarchy – When society is structured based on age with seniority the main criteria for “moving upward”, then it probably means that decision making is likely to be centered on a more change-resistant group of people.
  • Consensus - This isn’t exactly a bad thing but, stereotypically speaking, Japanese firms take much longer to make decision than, say, American firms. One reason is the cultural need to build consensus and ensure that everyone is on the same page before making that decision.

You can see how this can have its benefits. However, one downside to this is that decision-making as a whole is slowed down. In addition, I personally think that consensus also means that often the “lowest common denominator” decisions are taken – not exactly conducive for radical reform.

Yes and No


Photo by D. Julien

Obviously whether Japan is “conservative” or not really depends on the definition and what you’re comparing Japan to. However, in contrast with many other countries and many of Japan’s close neighbours, it certainly can’t be said that Japan is “extremely conservative”, even though it has its very rigid parts.

I’m now wondering if anyone else has heard any other “Japan is ________” statements that they feel are suspicious or worthy of examination. Leave your comments and suggestions below and I’ll see whether I can write another article examining these stereotypes.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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

She’s Not Foreign!


Photo by Dylan Raife

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

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

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

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

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

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


Photo by camknows

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

European and Not “White”


Photo by camknows

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

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

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

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

“What are you?”- The Rest of Us


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Noboru Iguchi: Master of Movie Mayhem Thu, 03 Jul 2014 16:00:45 +0000 The Japanese are no strangers to weird and wacky cinema, in fact, as most YouTube commenters are quick to attest , “OMG JAPANESE MOVIES ARE SO WEIRD!!!1” A host of cultural differences and an inclination towards the subversive tends to make many Japanese movies come across as strange and impenetrable to a Western audience—and then there are Noboru Iguchi movies. Directors like Iguchi go above and beyond the normal levels of weird to give viewers something truly, truly bizarre.

The Why of Weird


A popular social theory that many have used to explain wackiness in Japanese media is that Japan’s polite and often rigid society constricts so much that, in the areas where people get to take a break from the formality and let loose, like movies and television, they REALLY let loose. This seems to ring true with Iguchi, because his films incorporate very traditionally Japanese elements meshed with a vulgar and comedic mix of over-the-top visuals, a smattering of somewhat-deviant sexuality, and a heaping helping of violence and gore.

When Noboru Iguchi was asked in an interview with Twitch if there was a limit to the amount of blood and violence he was comfortable with putting in a movie, he had only one response: “not really.” This is indicative of the types of movies Iguchi wants to make. His personal philosophy stems from an idea that going to the movies should be a spectacle. He makes sure to pack his films to the brim with images that will entertain, confuse, and shock his audience. In another Twitch interview he stated some of his inspirations, “I was influenced by the ghost houses or freak shows at Japanese play lands. I was easily scared but loved those facilities since I was a little child. I always think a movie should [be] like that, as an entertaining tool. My policy of making movies is to surprise and entertain the people at the same time.”


Iguchi has had definite success creating the atmosphere of a freak show or a haunted house in his movies as they are often disturbing, yet strangely endearing. His films stem from a darker side of Japanese action and horror movies that were already hyperviolent. However, Iguchi’s innovation in his own words was that, even though, “very bloody films already existed, what was new about [our movies] was that we merged the gore with a funny action film, and we took it further from there in our later films.”

Not surprisingly considering the overt sexual content of many of his films, Iguchi got his cinematic start in the world of Japanese Adult Video. He was even given the 2005 Best Rental Video award for some of his work with a title I’d rather not drop in polite company.

During this time he worked on some rather fringe adult films, one of which featured a robotic girl with guns for breasts, and that’s when Iguchi met long-time co-conspirator and special effects make-up artist Yoshihiro Nishimura. The two of them have worked together on many films since and Nishimura even has had promising solo directorial releases, like “Tokyo Gore Police”.


Iguchi (left) and Nishimura (right) wearing fundoshi. Did I fail to mention they do Q&A panels wearing traditional Japanese loincloths? These guys rule!

The Insanity Sampler


Iguchi’s mainstream filmography (although mainstream might be overselling it) is a strange and diverse catalog, starting with “Machine Girl”, which incorporates elements and stars from his adult video past.


“Robo Geisha”, another evolution of Machine Girl’s premise, is a movie that I thought was entirely sure was fake when I first saw the trailer. I remember thinking, “no one would actually make this.” It was an international hit at film festivals and put Noboru Iguchi’s name on the alternative film map. The overseas success, Iguchi said, was due in part because, “things like ninja and geisha are actually not that popular in Japan. It’s mostly foreigners who really go for that.”


The delightfully demented and parodical “Mutant Girl Squad.” is number one for sheer entertainment value. I don’t think I can recommend this one enough.


The uproarious “Dead Sushi” features some truly bizarre scenes with evil flying sushi, rice zombies, fish monsters, and a completely unexpected amount of scantily clad women.

And these are just a few of his most well-known movies. He has also made forays into pure horror with “Kaidan Shin Mimibukuro Igyo”, the 9th installment in the Tomie series, “Tomie Unlimited”, as well as more conventional action films for wider audiences, such as “Karate Robo Zaborgar”, his highest budgeted film to date. Iguchi is never content to stay in one place, always tries to show his signature style in as many ways as possible, and doesn’t show any sign of slowing down. He has said: “I’d love to make very different kinds of films, from different genres. I want to try everything at least once. Actually I am a big fan of the Farrelly brothers and would really like to try making their kind of movie.” It’s hard to tell what else we will see from Iguchi over the years. Every time he announces a movie, it is a new surprise.

A Hidden Depth


It’s important to note that, despite the nature of most of his films, cinematically and thematically Iguchi is no slouch. His movies often retain an emotional core and a strong use of allegory even though the delivery method is typically wacky and unconventional. For example, “The ABCs of Death” is a film in which 26 different directors picked a letter of the alphabet and created a short film centered around death and their chosen letter. Iguchi’s piece entitled, of course, “F is for Fart” (considering his past and his other ‘F’ options, I like to think he was showing some restraint) is ostensibly about death by farting. But Iguchi has stated in interviews that a little more thought goes into it than just the juvenile surface level:

“Even though the theme this time was ‘death,’ I wanted to make a movie where no blood was spilled. I set out from the start to create a story about death that didn’t involve the kind of splatter I’d shown in films up to now. Instead, I wanted to draw a lyrical portrait of young girls who are fated to die. Because I tried to include some humor and some fetishistic aspects, it turned pretty substantially into a comedy. And because I also wanted to include the themes of the earthquake in Japan, along with a radioactive gas leak, the ‘gas = fart’ equation came together pretty naturally from within my own interests. Surprisingly, while making the film, I also found myself conscious of young people’s feelings and the current state of affairs in society. At least in the way people think about death, that was the case. If you compare it to Machine Girl, I found myself thinking at that time about the bullying problem in Japanese society. During Karate Robo Zaborgar, it was the problem of unemployed people. I think I always want to bring various problems in modern society to bear upon the plot of what, at first glance, seems to be a totally different subject within a genre movie.”

Wow! There you have it. A lot more thought goes into Iguchi’s films than your average genre film. I mean, my five-year-old cousin already pitched me the basic concept for “F is for Fart” a few years back, but in practice Iguchi has attention to detail and themes that far exceeds his subject matter. If you’re the kind of viewer that can look beyond the on-screen antics, you may also be able to take away more than you’d imagine from these bizarre flicks.

If you haven’t seen any of Iguchi’s movies and you don’t mind a little bit of ultraviolence, a little bit of fanservice, and a LOT bit of over-the-top shenanigans, it might be time to give these a try. If he did his job right, you will be shocked AND entertained. And trust me, both the shock and entertainment comes in spades.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Rice: The Crop That Sparked the Tokugawa Miracle Wed, 02 Jul 2014 16:00:36 +0000 It’s that glorious grainy excellence that let’s you know you’re eating an authentic Japanese meal. I’m talking of course about rice. At tables all across Japan, this sticky libation is a staple of the evening, afternoon, and, in some cases, morning meal. It’s so common that it’s easy to assume it’s always been a major part of Japanese life. Considering the crop’s history in Japan dates back 2500 years, that wouldn’t be an unfair assumption to make. However, there was a time when rice was more than just a staple at the table; it was the only thing standing between peasant families and a life spent entirely in hard labor.

In the Beginning, There Was Rice


Photo by Janine

Well, not the very beginning, but close enough to it. Archaeologists have placed the “birth place” of rice in the Yangzi region of China at about 7,000 years ago. The crop is believed to have arrived in Japan’s southern island of Kyushu at the tail end of the Jomon period (about 400 BC). It then slowly became popular throughout the rest of the islands. It doesn’t appear that rice was ever intended by the ancient peoples to be a staple in the Japanese diet but, as we will see, that attitude has changed quite a bit. Really, rice has been a part of Japan for so long, one could say it’s ingrained in their culture.

Peasants, Daimyo, and Samurai (Oh My!)


Fast forward about two thousand years to the Tokugawa period. Life in Tokugawa Japan went something like this (at least at the start of the period): If you were powerful, it was hard. If you were powerless, it was harder. At this point in Japan’s history, the country was completely isolated from outside influence, so even in the seventeenth century, feudalism was alive and well. The nation was separated into a couple hundred of state-like units called hans. Each han was ruled by a daimyo who pretty much had supremacy in that area. Under Tokugawa law, daimyos were required to build a residence in their respective han. However, they were also required to have a second house in Edo where their first wife and first son were required to live. On alternating years, daimyo would march with as many samurai as they could afford to take and move to Edo. They were also required to have a third house built in Kyoto. All of these were strategic decisions made by the Japanese government in order to prevent civil war and to keep even the wealthiest poor enough to rely on the Tokugawa shogunate.

As many restrictions as the daimyo and samurai were subjected to, there was still one group that had it worse. As my history instructor once put it, the peasants of Tokugawa Japan lived in “well regulated concentration camps” and it was the goal of those in power to make sure they “could neither live nor die”. Just as with the daimyos, the state was preventing any kind of uprising from the peasant class by ensuring they lived in constant poverty. Really, they did nothing but farm. All day. That might be kind of cool if we were talking about Harvest Moon, but we’re not. Their lives were nothing but back breaking labor. It was even against the law for them or their families to enjoy sake or tea.


The reason they had to work so hard was because, much like any economy, the working man was the backbone of Tokugawa Japan. The peasant population was responsible for providing the daimyo with funding for his trips to Edo, the food and living stipends of the samurai, as well as a flat tax for their use of the land. That’s quite a heavy price for one group of people to pay, even if they did make up the majority of the population at the time. However, it’s actually the taxes themselves that allowed the peasants to break out of this cycle of struggle.

Flat Tax = Cash Stacks


At some point the peasants got fed up with that whole constant poverty thing and decided to try to start making some real money. Some brilliant soul (whose name history has forgotten) realized that a flat tax rate would allow for plenty of surplus. Farmers began growing FAR more rice than they needed, so that when the time came to send the rice to Osaka that would pay their taxes, they had plenty left over. It would have been fine to stop there and simply have more money to work with in their community, but if nothing else, the Japanese are innovative. Instead of being content with the amount of surplus they were able to produce with their old farming methods, they used the extra money to research and develop more effective farming methods, thus allowing even greater surplus! One of the discoveries they made was the role of fertilizer in agriculture. On farms in castle towns (towns where daimyo lived), peasants would use their own daimyo’s excrement as fertilizer. Gross, but effective. They also made their own natural pesticides using whale oil.

All of these innovations meant a huge spike in the amount of rice each farming unit was able to grow. The arable land in each village as well as the population nearly doubled. This led to one last innovation, which was the introduction of commercialized agriculture. They could start growing things to sell as luxury items rather than just what was needed to maintain a substantial diet. They began to produce cotton, hemp, silk, and opium. However, none of these were the top-selling commercial crop in Tokugawa Japan. It was rice! Rice could be used in the production of sake, which has been in high demand in Japan since it’s invention. Through commercialized agriculture, peasants were able to become far richer than the samurai, despite being considered part of the lower class. It was an amazing rags-to-riches story.

Into the Future


Photo by Les Taylor

The accumulation of wealth by peasants continued throughout the Tokugawa period. This caused a lot of panic among the higher-ups. The peace and stability found in the Tokugawa period was largely dependent upon everyone knowing their place and not making attempts at social mobility. Obviously, things weren’t going to continue smoothly this way. Even though the peasants were making more money, samurai stipends didn’t increase to meet the resulting inflation, so naturally there was some unrest. Also, many richer peasant families began making deals with poorer families to combine their farms. This meant that some peasants were beginning to live like feudal lords themselves. The emperor took notice and declared that peasants ought to remember their place and live the simple life they were born into. By this time, though, it was too late. The economic boom had already come, and there was no stopping it. It was in this strong economic state that Japan entered the Meiji restoration. Japan’s isolation was over and it was becoming an economic force to be reckoned with.

The Rice of Life


It’s interesting to see how rice has become, in a way, the identity of Japan. Without it, sushi would be a very different dish, some major deities would not have been honored, restaurants would not have been founded, and, perhaps most importantly, Japan may not have gained the economic means to become a world power. The introduction of commercialized agriculture, as we have seen, allowed for a larger population and thus, more people in the Japanese workforce. A strong workforce creates a strong economy. Not only that, but it meant more people were buying luxury items and therefore the economy was spurred in that regard. None of this would have been possible were it not for the simple rice plant. Honestly, imagining Japan without rice means imagining a world without many of the modern comforts we enjoy from Japan, or at least a world where those things weren’t invented until much, much later.

So, tell me, are you going to hug a rice plant today?

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Special Education on Japanese Special Education Mon, 30 Jun 2014 16:00:27 +0000 An English teacher walks out of a classroom with two students with down’s syndrome, a student with polio, and two “regular” students. He asks a Japanese teacher why the “regular” students are in that class. The Japanese teacher replies, “She’s too fat. The other one is too shy.”

If you think that punchline was in poor taste, I have bad news for you: that wasn’t a joke. That was how one of my classes at a special needs school ended. As a person who got to teach those (honestly great) kids, I was actually quite offended. I know the teacher didn’t mean to be offensive, and that maybe what he was saying was the students’ parents’ reason for enrolling in a special needs school, but hearing it put like that was upsetting to say the least.

While Tofugu has talked a bit about how (Japanese) parents want their kids to be normal, the issue can also work in reverse. That is, their child is “normal,” but the parent seeks to shelter them. I use “regular” and “normal” here in quotes because what defines these words is relative, not only on a cultural level, but on a personal one as well.

Handicapped in Japan – An Overview


Photo by Trent McBride

Japan has an interesting relationship with handicapped people. On one hand, the country is notoriously unfriendly for those who are physically disabled, to the point that there’s a website specifically for those curious about how (in)accessible a location may be. Sorry, but the note on this site about Akihabara is quite an understatement. There are handicapped parking spaces in Japan, but they’re so rare that most blue and white marking I see on the road mostly signify as bicycle lane.

This isn’t all of Japan though, and Japan also does a lot of good for their handicapped. When some of the Tofugu members visited Japan last year, they mentioned how accessible it is, but this is mostly for the blind. What they didn’t mention is that even Japanese beer cans are accessible. I have witnessed several instances of crossing guards going the extra mile to help blind people cross the street, but kids who can’t walk seem to avoid some of the main roads in my neighborhood. While I am living in what seems like a textbook example of a city by American standards, anything outside of Tokyo is considered “inaka” (countryside) by many. So perhaps that’s the reason why I’ve experienced a little culture shock when dealing with disabilities issues in Japan, or students who are in special needs schools but lack disabilities.

To be frank, disabilities are still viewed negatively. Some people still dress it up, but one Japanese mother quite bluntly described her disabled children as “God’s defective goods.” While it may sound cruel, the woman is being very honest about her experience, and those who may wish to believe raising disabled kids is only a “blessing” would need to be dishonest with themselves if they could not at least admit that it is a difficult situation. That being said, the situation can be made easier. People with down’s syndrome can, controversially, receive reconstructive surgery, both for cosmetic and functional reasons. Naturally, the cognitive abilities of the patient may sometimes limit what can be done but, as I’ll discuss later, that doesn’t always stop parents from pursuing it.

Training for Special Education


Photo by Amy Watson

Being a developed country, one would expect good things from Japan in terms of taking care of their disabled. It is, however, a bit of a mixed bag. While there are some small schools for the handicapped in my prefecture, there is one quite large school that is a technological wonderland.

While my “normal” schools have teachers who have no idea how to use an overhead projector or believe the only tools worth using in the classroom are a blackboard and chalk, my special school had… well, everything. Huge televisions, automatic doors, toilets and faucets, washlets in every bathroom, an elevator with doors opening in the front and the back, Wii Sports Resort, and computers for the faculty. All the faculty. That might sound normal, but most teachers around here who aren’t full time employees are lucky if they can even borrow their own computer on a daily basis. At my old special needs school, every employee had their own. It’s also worth noting that there was one teacher for every student.

Let that sink in for a moment. Think about your own classrooms growing up. I was thrilled in college when I had a class with one teacher and eight students. Walking into some of the handicapped classes with a teacher literally holding each student was mind boggling, in a very good way. Not all classes were like this, but the classes were very small and always well supported.

However, that also had a down side which actually took a very long time for me to figure out. Despite the fact that this was a school for handicapped children– children with learning disabilities, physical deformities, blindness, deafness, etc– aside from the sign-language interpretor, these teachers were not properly trained for their work. It may be a bit ethnocentric, but that’s my feeling. While I’m no expert, I grew up in a school that had students with down’s syndrome and shared some classes with them and their personal teachers. I had to study special needs issues, particularly in their relationship to language learning, and some of the things that well meaning but ignorant Japanese special needs teachers said or did were often dated, to say the least.

Students with working hands and facial deformity learned to use a speaking computer rather than sign-language. Teachers talking to deaf students generally yelled, rather than (if they knew it) use sign-language or more clearly moving their lips at the absolute least. I was told certain kids would never understand Japanese, which, after triple checking with one of my former university teachers, isn’t true (grammar is difficult, but simple nouns and verbs are very possible). In fact, these same teachers would use complex grammatical structures when addressing kids and even said there was nothing they could do. Even after I tried showing them how a single word or very simple sentence (in my poor Japanese) repeated in different tones could catch a student’s attention and get them to focus on the most important part of your message, most teachers simply believed that I had some sort of gift. Only rarely did other teachers seem to employ these techniques themselves or pick them up from me.

I should have suspected something sooner, but it wasn’t until a rather unfriendly teacher at my academic high school was being transferred to a special school that I learned the truth: any regular Japanese teacher can be assigned to a special needs school. While I’ve had many teachers tell me that there is no training for this in Japan, it’s not true. It’s just very, very uncommon. The current generation of teachers do get some training when they enter the new school, but I’m told that is only a few hours or days. While some teachers seem like naturals, others are clueless and seem to have given up hope on the students, simply going through the motions as one might expect in a “regular” school.

Too Shy For “Normal” School


There was often a very clear line as to when I was able to teach and who I could teach to, but that didn’t make it easy. I had “students” who were hydrocephalics, with heads twice the size of their tiny four year old bodies. I had screaming students placed onto my lap that bit themselves out of nervousness till they bled. I had students who, just by seeing an adult male, would burst into tears. Some of the problems could be overcome, but others were impossible, at least for me.

Some students though, were quite normal. From what I understand, Japan’s official policy is to separate disabled students from “regular” classes, but it’s up to local boards of education to handle this. However, around here, a parent can get their way if they make enough noise. I know that might seem odd from the culture that constantly employs “the nail that stands up gets hammered down,” but it’s true. Many parents use their outspokenness to get their very normal kids placed in special needs schools.

One little rebel, for example, was supposedly in the special needs school because she had a “rough home life.” This child was stuck in a class with several down’s syndrome students and a few with handicaps that made it difficult for them to speak or write. And this girl certainly had an attitude! Most Japanese kids are thrilled to meet foreigners. While I could tell she was curious about me when I first came to class, she tried to pretend I was just another “useless” teacher. However, as lessons went by, I noticed she was whispering the answers to herself. I started asking her to help other students, both the ones who were unable to do anything on their own and the ones who, at the very least, seemed to understand the lesson but had disabilities that made expressing their thoughts difficult. This girl was smart and seemed to figure out when she was “helping” or giving her answers quite quickly. She started smiling more, and at one point, asked me to put some furigana above some lyrics she had printed out so she could learn to sing some songs she liked (curse you Lady Gaga and your use of French!). Last time I saw her, she had certainly grown, both in height and maturity. She was freely helping her classmates, always with a smile, and was patient with the ones who understood their situations but had trouble expressing themselves.

As for my students from the start of this article, they’re great kids. The kid who was “too fat” was a middle school student and understood English better than some of my high school students. In fact, most of the students in that class who didn’t have down’s syndrome understood English better than some of my high school kids. Her “too shy” friend was the same. The girl had a great imagination and was a good artist (I had thought she’d drawn some Pokemon I hadn’t seen before, but it turned out they were just her own ideas). The girl with polio? She might have had trouble walking, but she had her own way of running. All three girls were pretty happy kids, high functioning, and only limited by having to go at a slower speed because they were studying with classmates who had mental disabilities.

I did, however, have down’s syndrome students who, if it were up to me, would have been in a mainstream school. “Alex” (not his real name) was actually quite amazing. He was an elementary school student with not only down’s syndrome but another growth problem that made him much shorter than most kids his age. At about nine years old, he only stood maybe two and a half feet tall. Like many kids with his disability, he has a tongue that’s slightly too big for his mouth, so talking for him was more difficult. Somehow though, his English accent is quite good, even if he doesn’t speak more than perhaps three words at a time. He understands what’s being said and was able to play “Simon Says” quite well after only a few mistakes. He could even sometimes give answers his “normal” peers couldn’t. Teachers worried about him because of his height, but he was allowed to move around on his own and even led me to the teacher’s office by himself once. This kid was less disruptive and much smarter than the down’s syndrome kids I had classes with in “regular” elementary school.

Special Needs in “Normal” Schools


Photo by Angie Harms

I don’t want to demonize the special schools or “normal” students though. The situation is simply different, partially due to how people choose to raise their kids. There are kids who have real problems whose parents put them in regular schools. I had two students (in separate classes) in the same school who had aspergers syndrome. It wasn’t mild either. It was immediately apparent that there was something different with these students. Oddly enough, both loved English and would often be the loudest or most outspoken person in the class, but the similarities ended there.

One boy had friends, or so it seemed, since he lives in my neighborhood and I’ve seen his friends wave him over to join them. However, he craves attention, not just from his classmates, but teachers also. He studies a lot, but because of his condition, it’s obvious that some of the most important lessons he’s learning aren’t in his books. Being in a normal school has probably helped him a lot, yet he still misses a lot of social cues. He asks odd questions and takes things (at least in English) far too literally, which has caused some confusion and hurt feelings when he thinks another teacher or I are upset with him. Overall though, I think he’s having a good experience, and his parents made the right choice to keep him mainstream.

The girl, on the other hand, might need some more attention. While outspoken, she seems to fear her classmates at times, and her classmates are often silent if she says anything. For example, at the start of class, when the students are normally expected to greet me in unison, the other students are mostly silent and allow the girl to speak directly to me. Of course, she wants the teachers’ attention, but that’s not exactly seen as a positive attribute. There’s some giggling, but I haven’t seen people really try to hurt her beyond that. Other students seem to try to work with her in class, even if they think no one’s watching, but it seems like she’s more comfortable working on her own, even in group. If she thinks I’m upset with her, she’ll almost be afraid of me, sometimes for a whole month (and I only might see her once a week at most). A specialist might be able to help her, especially if she had some one-on-one time with someone at the school. I’m glad she’s not at a special school, but at the same time, it feels like our school isn’t quite equipped to help her.

Slightly related are my students who are in regular classes but deemed unfit for the classroom and sent to a different room for independent study. Some teachers will tell me the student has a mental disorder but have no name for it, while other teachers will tell me that said student is bullied and the disorder is a made up as an excuse to separate the child. One child studies alone, and I only see them when I have to give them a test, which they take in a separate room, sometimes with an off-duty teacher there to monitor them.



Photo by ykanazawa1999

Japan’s reputation for helping the handicapped is deservedly mixed. The blind and the deaf seem to be well taken care of, and those with certain physical handicaps are slowly getting more tools to help them. However, mental disabilities are still a very difficult topic. The line between who has a disability and who doesn’t is further blurred by social problems under the same category from my western perspective; problems ranging from weight to bullying. While there are employment opportunities for the disabled, financial independence is difficult for them. As the this article mentions, 30,000 yen a month really isn’t a living wage. No country’s perfect in their treatment of the handicapped, but the situation in Japan is overall different (not better or worse) than what we may be used to at home.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Omamori: Protecting Yourself in Little Ways Wed, 25 Jun 2014 16:00:32 +0000 If you’ve visited Japan you might have seen them tied to a child’s backpack or dangling from a car’s rear-view mirror. You might have seen them in anime. If you’ve been to a Shinto Shrine or Buddhist Temple you might have seen dozens of them, small bags in jewel colours lined up in rows, for sale. But what are these things? They are omamori, a Japanese folk tradition that is intertwined with Japan’s two major religions, and still very visible today.

It’s difficult to translate omamori (お守り) directly as they don’t have a clear equivalent in the English speaking world. You can think of them as portable personal protection amulets or charms. Mamori (守り) means protect, and the O (お) is a honourable prefix. They are a little like the Japanese equivalent of a lucky rabbit’s foot or a four leaf clover. Unlike those though, omamori also come not only in general “lucky” versions, but in a whole range of specific forms, from “cooking skill improvement” to “job hunting”.

Shinto, Buddhism and Omamori


Photo by Alan

The connection between omamori, Shinto and Buddhism is quite complicated – whoooo syncretism! The two religions overlapped and intermingled in Japan until they were separated legally in 1868. Omamori came out of a fusion of Buddhist amulet tradition, such as ones that are still popular in Thailand today, and Shinto charms, such as ofuda. Omamori in their current form became popular during the Tokugawa period in the 17th century. Today omamori can be bought at both Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. Omamori can act as a physical prayer for a mini-miracle as well as being an offering to a shrine or temple. The sale of omamori helps support shrines and temples.

In Shinto, the power of the omamori comes from the enshrined kami, goshintai 御神体. Buddhist omamori draw their power from a gohonzon 御本尊 (Buddhist image). Also, for a shrine or temple’s omamori to be popular, it should have an engi 縁起 or story of a numinous or miraculous occurrence at or near the site. For example, Sensei Temple in Asakusa, which claims to sell the most omamori in Japan each year, has an engi about a golden dragon who came out of the sea to bask in the sun at the site of the temple. I don’t know about you, but that makes me want to get an omamori there!

There is another component to the power of an omamori. That’s you! You can’t just buy an omamori and expect all of your problems to be solved. They serve to encourage and support you in your efforts. Indeed, there is one sect of Buddhism, Jōdo Shinshū, which doesn’t use omamori because you are supposed to give your fate and devotion entirely to Amida, while omamori expect you to contribute something to your own wellbeing.

Types of Omamori


Photo by Peter Theony

There are two main types of omamori. The first are talismans, which are rectangular and the most popular kind of omamori. These gain their power from words written on paper or wood. The words could be the name of the shrine, or a section from a sutra, or some other powerful words. The wood or paper is then sealed inside a cloth bag.

An important note: never open the cloth to see what is inside! It is disrespectful and the omamori will lose its power. Omamori draw some of their power from the concept of the power of enclosed places. The covering of the omamori encloses the sacred words and so puts them in a separate realm where they can be effective, much as Shinto shrines are set within a separate space marked by torii gates.


Photo by sepia salax

The second type are the morphic omamori. This means they are made in the shape of something. The traditional forms are the bottle gourd, the bell, and the mallet. Of these, the bottle gourd may be the oldest, appearing in many ancient folk tales as a symbol of health, vitality, and immortality. Each has ceremonial links to objects used in Shinto practices. Some shrines have very famous orphic omamori, such as the fox omamori at Inari shrines. Another common kind of morphic omamori are zodiac animals.

Modern Omamori



Photo by Meredith P.

Though their origins lie far back in Japan’s folk traditions, omamori are very much a part of modern Japanese culture. There’s even an omamori vending machine at Zenkoji Temple, Nagano. You can also find many omamori with cute characters on them. Some of these aren’t sold at shrines or temples, but just regular souvenir shops. Some Shinto and Buddhist organisations disapprove of this dilution of omamori. Others happily sell character omamori. My local shrine sells Rilakkuma omamori alongside the more traditional ones. You could even see the popularity of phone straps in Japan as a non-religious extension of omamori culture.


In the past, making omamori was a duty of the laywomen of the parish or Miko, the shrine maidens. These days most omamori are made in factories in Tokyo, Osaka or China, though they are still blessed by priests. However, some shrines continue to make their own omamori on site, such as Koganji Temple in Tokyo and the Grand Shrine at Ise.

How do I Choose an Omamori?


Photo by FrANK.H.^

With such a wide variety of omamori available, selecting the right omamori can be tricky. While some of the bigger shrines and temples will have descriptions in English, this is rare outside the big tourist hot spots. The first time I bought an omamori, I spent a long time looking at my local shrine’s website to work out which one I should get.

Although both Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples have no problem with non-adherents buying their omamori, remember they are more than just a simple souvenir. Omamori should be treated with respect. Part of this respect is making sure you’re not just picking the one you think is cutest, but choosing the one you need. Buying a childbirth omamori for your boyfriend, or a recovery from alcoholism omamori for your teetotaling great aunt is not very appropriate.

Omamori Buyer’s Guide


Photo by Sting Shen

But worry not! I’ve put together this guide to sort your anzens from your anzans. Different shrines have different styles of omamori and there may be some variation in the kanji. However, if you tell the attendants what you are looking for they will be able to help you.

Type of Omamori: Happiness

Japanese name: shiawase 幸せ (しあわせ)


Photo by Verity Lane

Let’s start off with a very cheerful omamori. These are meant to help you achieve happiness in life. Yay happiness!

Type of Omamori: Traffic Safety

Japanese name: kōtsū anzen 交通安全 (こうつうあんぜん)


Photo by Verity Lane

Originally to protect travellers, these are now the most popular type of omamori. They provide protection for drivers and vehicles. Recently traffic safety omamori stickers have become popular and are often sold in a set with a more traditional omamori. Makes a great gift for anyone who commutes a lot, or is a novice driver.

Type of Omamori: Romance

Japanese name: enmusubi 縁結び (えんむすび)


Photo by Chris Chan

There are two kinds of romance omamori. The first is for people seeking love. Get this omamori if you are longing for a partner. The second kind are for people in relationships who wish to stay together strongly. The way to tell these apart is that the first kind are usually sold singly, while the second kind are sold in pairs. Some shrines sell only one enmusubi omamori and the difference is simply whether you are buying one or two. A pair make a great gift for yourself and your significant other, or for newlyweds. Buying one is fine for yourself, but buying one as a gift for someone else could be a bit insulting, unless they asked you to pick one up for them.

Type of Omamori: Safe Childbirth

Japanese name: anzan 安産 (あんざん)


Photo by Wally Gobetz

This is for expectant mothers to have a safe and easy pregnancy and childbirth. If you know someone who is going to push another human being out of themselves soon (so hardcore), then you could get them one of these.

Type of Omamori: Avoidance of Evil

Japanese name: yakuyoke 厄除け (やくよけ)


This and the kaiun (see below) are probably the closest thing to general good luck omamori. They approach things from slightly different angles. This wards off evil. Buying these for yourself and others is a good idea. Everyone likes avoiding evil!

Type of Omamori: Good Fortune

Japanese name: kaiun 開運 (かいうん)


This is the more positive of the general good luck omamori and is probably the closest to a “lucky charm” of all the omamori. It draws luck to you. Again, it’s suitable for everyone. Who doesn’t like a little extra luck?

Type of Omamori: Education

Japanese name: gakugyō-jōju 学業成就 (がくぎょうじょうじゅ)


These are very popular omamori for students. They are meant to help both in studying and in passing examinations. I’ve often seen them tucked into student’s pencil cases, or being clutched just before a big exam. Parents often buy them for their children. If someone you know is studying hard in school or university, this would be a great thing to give them.

Type of Omamori: Good Health

Japanese name: kenkō 健康 (けんこう)

If omamori offer personal protection, then there can be few things more personal to protect than your health. These omamori are intended to be preventative and help keep you in good health.

Type of Omamori: Get Well Soon

Japanese name: byouki heyu 病気平癒鵜 (びょうきへゆ)

While kenkō omamori (above) encourage you to stay healthy, the byouki heyu omamori are to help you recover from sickness. They would make an excellent get well soon gift.

Type of Omamori: Prosperity

Japanese name: shōbai hanjō 商売繁盛 (しょうばいはんじょう)


Photo by Yuki Yaginuma

If you want your business venture to go well, or if you want to protect your financial affairs, then this is the omamori for you. Yellow is a colour associated with money, so look out for yellow omamori as well as owls, whose name (fukurō) sounds like the Japanese word for good fortune 福 fuku.

Those are the most common types of omamori. They are the ones you’re most likely to find at most shrines and temples. However, shrines are also responsive to the needs of local inhabitants. My local shrine has an omamori dedicated to fishing boat safety because my town is a fishing port. Some shrines, such as Aso Shrine in Kyushu, take surveys of locals asking about their concerns. If enough people have a problem, then an omamori will be produced to act on it. There are some shrines that sell over 70 different types, each dealing with a different problem. For example, the Konpira Shrine in Shikoku offers 77 kinds of omamori, ranging from winning elections to water purification. The world of omamori is vast and varied!

Unusual Omomori

Here are a few of the more unusual ones. You could find some of these at many different places across Japan, while others are found at only one shrine.

Type of Omamori: Digital Security

Japanese name: jōhō anzen kigan 情報安全祈願 (じょうほうあんぜんきがん)


Photo by Rye Nakaya

This omamori comes in the form of a blessed memory card. It helps you protect your digital information and keeps your technology working smoothly, proving that omamori are a living Japanese tradition, not just ancient superstition. It can be found at Denden-gu, a shrine to the spirit of telecommunications in Kyoto

Type of Omamori: Safety from Bears

Japanese name: kumajo 熊除 (くまじょ)


Photo by Hajime NAKANO

If you like hiking and want a little divine protection from Japan’s bears to go along with your other precautions, then you could get an omamori to protect you from them.

Type of Omamori: Pet Safety

Japanese name: Pet Omamori ペットお守り (ペットおまもり)


Photo by anko.gaku_ula

Humans aren’t the only ones who need a little help now and then. You can pick up an omamori to protect your furry, fluffy, feathery and scaly friends too.

Other unusual omamori include:

What to Do with an Omamori


Photo by A Shino

So you’ve bought your omamori. Now, what to do with it? The important thing about omamori is that they are personal and portable. So for it to work best, you should attach it to something appropriate.


For example, traffic safety omamori are often seen dangling from the rear view mirror, or attached to car keys. Form and function go together harmoniously in most omamori. Those intended to be attached to things have the appropriate attachment (for example a traffic safety omamori might have a key ring attachment or a suction cup so you can stick it to your windscreen.) Card type omamori are sized to be tucked into your wallet. They tend to be ones associated with wealth and business, so a wallet seems like a good place for them.

Another common sight is a safety omamori attached to a child’s backpack to protect them on the walk to school. A student might keep a study omamori in a pencil case, or hold it in their pocket during an exam .

Carry your omamori however feels right for you. As with many aspects of Shinto practice, many Japanese people often do not consider too deeply why they believe in the power of omamori. “Omamori work because omamori work” is about as much explanation as you are likely to get. The elusive nature of Shinto makes it at once fascinating and frustrating to try to understand.

How to Dispose of an Omamori


Photo by Cam Switzer

Omamori have a limited lifespan. They are usually considered only effective for one year, or until they become damaged. If something bad happened to the omamori, it breaks or gets destroyed, then it’s doing its job. Especially with migawari omamori, (身代わりお守り) which acts as a “scapegoat”, the thinking goes that the bad things happen to the omamori and not to you. Omamori should be replaced every year because otherwise they will absorb too much bad luck or run out of spiritual power. This ties in with Shinto beliefs about the importance of renewal. For a religion that tears down and rebuilds its most important shrine every 20 years, replacing a little omamori every year doesn’t seem like such an inconvenience.

You shouldn’t just chuck it in the trash. That’s considered disrespectful. Instead, you should take it back to a Shinto shrine, ideally the same one you bought it from. At larger shrines, especially at busy times like New Year, there might even be a disposal box or an omamori conveyor belt to take your used charm to be ritually purified and burned in a ceremony. Otherwise, just return the omamori to a shrine or temple attendant. They’ll know what to do. You can pick up a new omamori while you’re there.

If you don’t live in Japan, all this can seem rather daunting. Popping down to a shrine isn’t that easy. There is a Shinto shrine in America that will dispose of your omamori properly if you mail it to them. However, don’t get too worried about omamori disposal. Plenty of Japanese people keep them for longer than a year. One of my high school students still has the study omamori his mother gave him on his first day of elementary school. Some are even passed down in families. So if you want to keep your omamori, go ahead.

Omamori as Souvenirs


Photo by Lee Tzung-Tze

You don’t have to feel shy about buying an omamori. The shrine or temple attendants will likely be happy that you are interested in them. They don’t carry a heavy weight of religious demand. By buying one, you aren’t declaring your allegiance to Shinto or Buddhism to the exclusion of any other religion. Unlike many religions, both modern Shinto and Buddhism in Japan are generally comfortable with other religious practitioners participating, just as they coexist alongside each other, often sharing the same grounds.

Omamori feed the human need to look beyond ourselves for solutions to our difficulties, while still encouraging us to do our best. They are more like a booster than a total solution. When things are tough, it feels good to hold an omamori in your hand and hope for things to get better.

As such, omamori make great souvenirs. Japanese people also usually buy omamori as gifts. An omamori is a beautiful piece of Japanese culture, but it also expresses your wishes for the wellbeing of the person you give it to. What better souvenir of your trip to Japan could there be?

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

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

A Little Hikikomori History


Photo by Ben Seidelman

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

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

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

Here’s What We Do Know


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

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

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

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

Just A Japan Thing?


Photo by Jay Bergesen

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

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

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

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

Or Is It All In Your Head?


Photo by James Lee

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

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

The Invisible Hikikomori


Photo by Holly Lay

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

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

Treating Hikikomori


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Japan is Broke – But Maybe Things Aren’t So Bad… Mon, 09 Jun 2014 16:00:37 +0000 Just last month, the consumption tax (or VAT) in Japan rose from 5% to 8%, much to the horror of our wallets. However, public opinion was split and, while there have been worries about the impact on the economy, the current government’s approval ratings have not suffered.

The reason for this is that the Japanese public knows that the government is broke and national debt has already reached ridiculous levels. Action has to be taken or something will give way in the long term. But then, perhaps things are not as bad as they seem at first glance – Japan has not and probably will not have a public financial meltdown as was seen in Europe a few years back.

The Bad News First


Photo by Dick Johnson

Ministry of Finance, Japan

First things first: We have to look at the numbers.

Japan’s gross national debt has reached 214% of GDP as of 2012. This is the largest government debt as a percentage of GDP in the world. The second highest was Zimbabwe with 202.7% in 2012.*

Our Friends the Hondas: Imagine Japan as a family with the last name Honda. The Hondas will have to work for more than 2 years without spending anything (even on food) to clear their debt.**

Japan will borrow 41.2 trillion yen of the 95.9 trillion yen it will spend this year. This makes the bond dependency ratio 43%. This is after the tax increase as of April 2014.

Our Friends the Hondas: This year the Honda family will spend $95,900 this year, but mom and dad only earn $52,800 from their jobs. The other $41,200 they borrow from the bank. This is after a pay increase for dad in April this year.

Japan will spend 23.3 trillion yen of its 95.9 trillion yen this year on debt reservicing.

Our Friends the Hondas: Out of the $95,900 they will spend this year, the Honda family will have to pay $23,300 – or around a quarter – for their outstanding loans.

The amount of government debt per person in Japan is US$100,000 - in America it is $58,000 per person.

In short:

  • Japan has a ton of loans to pay off.
  • At the moment, it’s only earning half of what it spends.
  • The outstanding loans are already impacting government spending.

But Maybe It’s Not so Bad


Photo by Richard West

Some silver lining perhaps?

Despite these difficulties, Japan has not yet gone into full debt meltdown, at least for the moment. These are the reasons Japan has avoided the fate of Western Europe, courtesy of an economics lecture I attended.

Japanese debt is owned internally

Or, the Japanese government owes money to the investment firms and retirement funds within Japan. This means that:

  1. The owners of the debt, being Japanese, are less likely to pull their money out of Japan and self-destruct their own country. This is in stark contrast to foreign investors pulling money out of Western Europe.
  2. Since the debt has to be repaid in the longterm, the money will still technically be inside Japan. If it’s invested or spent somewhere, and not hiding under someone’s pillow, the money will still be circulating.

You can always raise the taxes more

Japanese taxes are still low compared to European standards. After all, even after the VAT tax raise, it’s still only 8%. Technically, if the government is really short of cash, it can raise the taxes more without reaching “ridiculous” rates.

The Japanese government still has quite a lot of assets

This is especially true in the post office system. The government can sell this and other things if it really goes broke. But this is a “solution” in the same way that Greece selling off historical buildings is a solution.

Low interest rates

A big debt will not crush you when the interest on it is low. Thus Japan, with its extremely low borrowing rates, gets much less pain from borrowing than other countries would get borrowing the same amount. However, as this article in the Japan Times points out, these interest rates are horrendously addictive.***

But in the long run…


Photo by Azlan Dupree

Something has to give. While the situation isn’t yet at a breaking point, it does not mean that this direction is sustainable.

For one, it’s clear that more debt right now means less spending in the future. Debt reservicing (repayment of current debt + interest) is already more than 20% of the overall budget, as noted above. So no matter how low the interest rates, what Japan spends today will be what it does not spend tomorrow.


Photo by Chris Gladis

Furthermore, Japan’s population is shrinking and rapidly graying. What this means is that Japan will have less people to pay off the current amount of debt, and fewer of those people will be actively producing. Unless specific retiree-oriented taxes are put in place, income tax receipts are likely to decrease.

In addition, Japan already spends about one third of its budget in social security (or welfare, in other words). With more elderly people, welfare and healthcare costs are expected to increase – meaning the government will have to spend more to maintain the same level of welfare.

Finally, the more debt Japan accumulates, the more likely the chance of a loss in confidence and a future financial crisis will become.

So, What Can Be Done?


Photo by Junpei Abe

Japan’s Parliament Building

As many countries in Western Europe have discovered, there really isn’t any easy solution to the situation. Here’s some possible solutions that Japan may employ, all with their own drawbacks:

Public spending is fundamentally the difference between spending and earning. Thus, logically speaking, the Japanese government is probably going to have to solve the problem through increasing earnings and/or decreasing spending.

So, on the spending side:

1.  Austerity

Ie. slashing government spending on public works, officials’ pay, welfare etc.

Drawback: The number of angry people in Western Europe speaks volumes about the dangers of this approach. Money that the government does not spend is money taken out of the economy – recession is a real risk when the government cuts spending.

In short: Angry voters. The economy may tank.

2.  Allowing Inflation

If inflation occurs and the value of money drops, the value of Japan’s existing debt similarly drops too. Thus, in real terms, the government has to pay less.

Drawback: Higher inflation often comes with higher interest rates. Thus, this doesn’t really help if Japan has to continue issuing new bonds (making new debt), which will be at the higher interest rate. Also, the amount of inflation that Japan can allow without causing uncertainty is limited.

In short: Japan would need to stop borrowing first before this has an effect. Plus, it will have a limited effect.

On the income side:

3.  Raise taxes

Drawback: Raise income and consumption tax and people spend less – and get angry. Raise corporation tax and you may make businesses unprofitable – and angry. Again recession becomes a problem.

In short: Angry voters. The economy may tank.

4.  Somehow make the economy grow.

This will automatically lead to the government earning more in tax. The government, through free trade and loosening some regulations, is probably aiming for this right now.

Drawback: This one is no east task. If it was, Japan would not have been in a rut for 20 long years and counting. Some concrete measures, such as deregulation also have their own drawbacks – free trade may, for example, damage the health of Japan’s agriculture – while others are hard to implement, such as having more women enter the workforce.

In short: Probably wishful thinking. Concrete actions also come with their own pain.

No Pain, No Gain


As you can see, Japan is probably in for some pain in the long run. Perhaps by some miracle the pain will be avoided, but for now this looks like more than a “when” than an “if”.

In any case, Japan is unlikely to go into full austerity mode (if ever) until 2020 because of the Tokyo Olympics. In the best scenario envisioned by the government, by the time 2020 rolls by, Japan will have all its growth engines kicked in and blazing forward – this would allow them to withdraw government spending and allow growth to continue.

But of course, that’s the best case scenario, which is not guaranteed. We’ll have to see how Japan advances from now on and dutifully pay our taxes in the meantime.

Extra Reading


* There are other measures of debt such as Net Government Debt in which Japan still fares very badly, but doesn’t end up at the very bottom.

** To compare, other country’s national debt: Greece – 161.3%, USA – 72.5%

***Comparison for 10 year bonds (the lower it is the cheaper to borrow):
Japan – lowest on list at 0.61%, USA – 2.65%, Greece – 6.46%


Bonus Wallpapers!

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5 Things To Know About Suicide In Japan Fri, 06 Jun 2014 16:00:57 +0000 If there’s one negative stereotype that you hear about Japan, it’s the supposed epidemic of suicides in this country and a whole lot of other ideas linked to it. This view has some merit, but there’s a whole lot of inaccurate information or ideas flying around out there.

This may be because when you put “suicide” and “Japan” in the same sentence and you’ll probably going to get two sensationalist images: 1) The kamikaze fighter and 2) Disemboweling samurai. This article is here to help debunk some of those myths.

#1: Japan is not the most suicidal country in the world


Photo by RageZ

Myth: That Japan is the suicide capital of the world

It may have been but it isn’t right now.

Wikipedia notes that because of problems with reporting, not to mention the difference in the years which statistics were reported, it may not be fair to compare suicide statistics across countries directly. That being said though, when addressing the above myth statistics are all we have to rely on.


Number of suicides per 100,000 people per country

Here’s some data that I tidied up from Wikipedia as you can see, Japan is rather far from being the top in terms of proportionate suicides with around one quarter the suicide rate of Greenland.

Even if you remove Greenland and consider it a part of Denmark, it’s still one third less than Lithuania. And while the numbers are still high, it would still it would be 8th place not the first.

The data may be distorted in various ways but this is more than ample grounds to doubt whether Japan really is the most suicidal country in the world. Plus, based on the data I found here the last time that Japan was at the top of the suicide tables for current OECD countries was back in the 1960s.

And poor Greenlanders!

#2: Actually Suicide Rates have been falling for quite a few years.


Photo by skyseeker

Myth: Suicide rates in Japan just keep getting worse and worse!

Every year the same sort of headlines come out: “Japan’s suicides top 30,000 people!” “Suicide in Japan is a huge problem!” … etc. While these headlines are technically true, they’re being sensationalist because the real story just isn’t as interesting. The fact is, Japan’s suicide rates have seen an overall decrease since the early 2000s, both in the total number of suicides as well as suicide rate. Japan’s suicide rates peaked in the late 1990s to early 2000s with the total number of people committing suicide crossing 30,000 people for the first time in history in 1998 and peaking in 2003 with 34,427 people (or about a hundred a day) committing suicide.

The graph below shows the change since then. (Data from Japan National Police Agency)


As you can see, stuff is improving with constant decreases from 2009 onwards. Maybe it’s because Japan’s economy has stagnated instead of worsening like in the 1990s. Or maybe it’s because the government measures (the Basic Law on Suicide Prevention and many other policies that were enacted in 2006-2007) are working. It’s hard to know for sure, but certainly something right is happening.

#3: Tokyo isn’t the most suicidal part of Japan


Photo by Vincent_AF

Myth: Suicides are mainly caused by city stress and overwork, thus Tokyo (especially from the view of Kansai people) is probably going to be the most miserable and suicidal place within Japan.

Tokyo prefecture’s suicide rates are actually below average. Let’s take a look at this table (Statistics for 2013 from the Japanese Cabinet Office).


Points to note:

  1. The prefecture with the highest suicide rate is Miyagi – possibly due to the effects of devastation from the 2011 earthquake.
  2. The top 5 (actually top 10 but not shown to save space) prefectures with the highest suicide rates are generally rural outside the immediate Tokyo-Nagoya-Osaka areas. Yamanashi (which borders Tokyo) is at No. 10 but it generally isn’t considered heavily urbanized nor a part of the Tokyo Megapolis.
  3. The prefectures with the highest number of suicides is Tokyo – but then Tokyo has the highest population of any prefecture. When considering it’s proportional suicide rate it’s less than the national average.
  4. Osaka is less suicidal than Tokyo – that’s at least one thing the Kansai people have gotten correct.

So we can see that actually, instead of the stereotype about happy people living in rural villages, there’s something else going on. In fact, it seems like the stereotypes are flip flopped from what they should be. As for why it’s opposite from what most people expect? Let’s take a look at Myth #4.

#4: Age and economics explain the pattern.


Photo by yuichirock

The above discrepancy between prefectures is explained by how most rural prefectures have more elderly people and worse economies compared to the big cities.

This site and this site point out the strong links between older age, unemployment and suicide. These, at least to me, are probably somewhat similar to the rest of the world too.

Economics: The Japanese wikipedia notes that there is a strong negative correlation between available job openings and suicides, and a strong positive correlation between the number of bankruptcies of small companies and suicides. The economies of rural Japan are generally worse than those of the main cities, so more people are likely to commit suicide as they are more likely to face economic problems.

Age: Age matters because of two reasons. Economic problems such as unemployment or bankruptcy and familial problems such as divorce are more likely to happen to people above 40. The higher the age of the population, the larger the number of people in this “danger zone”. Plus, the main cause of suicide for those aged 60 and over becomes health problems too.

Since young people tend to leave for the major cities for work, the people in rural prefectures tend to be older. This means a proportionally higher number of people in danger of suicide.

_#5: Throwing oneself in front of a trains is a choice not often taken.


And thank goodness! As if the Chuo-sen and Yamanote-sen aren’t delayed often enough!

Now, different countries have different patterns for suicide. The WHO notes that, for example, the USA has a disproportionate rate of suicide with firearms. Other more agricultural countries have high rates of suicide by using pesticide.

These are the most common ways for suicides in Japan. Data is from the Center for Suicide Prevention.


As you can see, by far the most used method of suicide is hanging, with some variation between the genders further down. “Tobikomi” coincidentally comes in at 6th for both genders.

“Tobikomi” literally means “to jump in” so this naturally includes trains. However, this also includes jumping in front of road traffic so when you total things up, committing suicide by jumping in front of a train is highly uncommon.

By the way, according to this article there have apparently been cases of the train companies (in this case JR Kyushu and JR East) taking the families of those who committed suicide to court for damages and lost income. This has most likely reduced the number of people committing suicide in this way, because many people would not want to bring attention and financial grief to their families due to their method of suicide.

Extra: Suicide websites


Aokigahara in Yamanashi – one of the most well known suicide spots in Japan

While doing research for this article I did come across many websites with some information on how to commit suicide. I didn’t manage to find any of the infamous “suicide pact” websites, so maybe they were taken down? But the websites that I did fine kind of boggled my mind.

Take for example this website (in Japanese). The title of the website is literally “The Encyclopedia of Suicide Methods” and it has suicide methods ranked according to criteria on how troublesome it is, how painful it is, how ugly it will be for bystanders and how “impactful” it will be. The description of suicide by jumping from a tall building goes like this:

What I really want you to know is that the minimum height needed is 20m … and another thing that I want you to know is that the ground should be concrete. If it is concrete, it seems that death will be possible in almost all cases … To prevent someone from discovering you immediately and sending you to hospital, somewhere secluded is preferable. Also, do not commit suicide where there are people around. It is not good to involve others and cause trouble for others.

But what boggles my mind is that despite doing all the detail, the website claims that its goal is to “let people know about suicide methods, and not to promote suicide”. The top page of the website also has a long philosophical explanation about how one must think about death to appreciate the wonder of living and stuff like that. But I don’t think I’m the only one here thinking that recommending the heights and floors of the locations to commit suicide is “thinking about death” in order to enjoy life.

This wasn’t the only website that I found boggled my mind. Another here advertises fortune-telling services. After a much less detailed description (compared to the previous site) it says: “before you give up everything, why not reset your future with a fortune telling”.

But it was this website which boggled my mind the most. While this website has lots on information on suicide prevention (hotline numbers, where to get help etc), at the same time it has also information about “how to hang yourself without pain” or “how to freeze yourself to death in Hokkaido” as well as a form to declare one’s intent of suicide.

The webmaster says in a part of his website:

I came with the understanding that “suicides in and of themselves are not bad”. Among all the people who are living, I thought that there ought to be people who “would rather be dead” and that these people ought to have a right to know some “painless ways of suicide”.

He also says that while the website was only about introducing suicide methods at first, he later added the information about prevention so that some people would be able to come to terms with and deal with their problems without killing themselves.

On That Pleasant Note…


Photo by Dom Crossley

Apologies for the morbid topic but I felt that this is a topic that had too many semi-factual stereotypes and myths around it.

I also thought about writing about the cultural / historical background and why Japan is (with reason) called a suicide-tolerant country. But maybe that’s for the next article.

So while Japan does have some issues with suicide, it’s not quite the “suicide-happy” country that many people make it out to be. In fact, it’s been improving, slowly but surely (actually, somewhat quickly if you take a look at those graphs earlier in the article). I hope that I could get you to change your mind a little bit, if you believed in any of these myths too. So what do you think?

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Japan’s Solar Revolution – The Sky’s (Not) the Limit Thu, 29 May 2014 16:00:47 +0000 My neighborhood is changing.

When you run everyday, you get to know your surroundings. You learn the locations of the essentials – water fountains, vending machines, and toilets. There are familiar faces and places. You remember which houses have dogs and learn alternate routes for when oncoming trains block your path. And you tend to notice even the smallest of changes- whether it’s the blooming of flowers, a new street sign, the disappearance of a building, or the appearance of a new one.

Years ago I marveled at the number of rice paddies replaced by housing units and convenience stores. Every month another paddy was filled in and construction began. But a new trend has gripped my neighborhood. Instead of buildings, rice paddies are being replaced by new farms – the type that yield energy instead of produce.

The first one appeared next to my apartment building. Next one sprang up by work. They built one by the river too. On a recent run I discovered one in the mountains. It didn’t stop there. They appeared on top of new houses as well. Even older buildings are fitted with them. The black solar panels are popping up everywhere.

Welcome to post-Fukushima Japan.

Wake-up call


The events of March 11th, 2011 forever changed Japan’s perception of nuclear power. Fukushima’s meltdown and the resulting radiation destroyed people’s lives and contaminated the surrounding area, rendering it uninhabitable for years to come.

Fukushima provided a wake up call to the dangers of nuclear power – the worst case scenario became a reality. Suddenly, anti-nuclear groups had a new cause to rally around. Faced with disaster, people on the fence swayed to oppose nuclear power. Those that never gave the topic thought were forced to consider it.


Photo by 保守

Protests sprang up almost immediately. USA Today reported on one protest that drew an estimated 20,000 people in Tokyo. The article went on to say, “55 percent of Japanese want to reduce the number of nuclear reactors in the country, while 35 percent would like to leave the number about the same.” Popular opinion forced pro-nuclear contingencies to regroup and weather the storm.

Whatever the stance, the dangers of nuclear power became an inescapable issue that forced its way into Japan’s consciousness. Three years later, the issue still weighs heavily on people’s minds and Fukushima continues to shape Japan’s politics and energy policies.

Nuclear Shutdown


Photo by Jihara19

Fukushima’s meltdown and the resulting outlash against nuclear power led to the shutdown of all of Japan’s nuclear reactors. Kanoko Matsuyama of Bloomberg reported, “Japan, which got about 30 percent of its electricity from nuclear power before the Fukushima disaster, now has all 50 of its operational reactors lying idle.”

With 30 percent of it’s power supply derived from nuclear sources, the shutdown had a significant impact on Japan’s energy production and economy. The country scrambled for alternatives.

Despite it’s large population, Japan is a small, resource poor nation. The Japan Times explains, “Japan has long been characterized as a nation with virtually no natural resources like oil, natural gas, coal, iron and copper.” As a result, Japan depends on foreign imports of raw materials and natural resources.

The nuclear shutdown forced Japan to find energy substitutes. How was the lost power production replaced? A look at an NBR report entitled Energy Mix in Japan Before and After Fukushima shows a renewed reliance on fossil fuels. In fact, according to Reuters, Japan’s imports of fossil fuels reached record highs after the 2011 disaster. But high prices, pollution, and dependence on imports make fossil fuels an unattractive long term solution.

What Alternatives?


Photo by Tnk3a

Aside from nuclear power and fossil fuels, Japan has limited options. Difficulties have prevented alternative power sources like hydroelectric, geothermal, biomass and wind power from making significant impacts.

According to The Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan, the country has already maxed out its large scale hydroelectric potential. Eric Johnston contends that high costs and environmental limits make small hydroelectric operations an unattractive investment.

Biomass (the incineration of organic materials and wastes) would utilize Japan’s trees, its most abundant resource. But as Sumitomo Corporation and Partnership for Policy Integrity explain, biomass’s energy output is inefficient and leaves a significant carbon footprint.

Geothermal energy faces its own share of problems. Deutshe Welle, a German news site reports that while Japan has enormous geothermal potential, “many in Japan are resisting the deep boring that is required to access geothermal energy.” Most raise concerns with the ecological impact. And since drilling time and steep development costs mean no short term profits, geothermal remains an unattractive investment.

Though supported by government subsidies, technological issues hamper wind power’s growth. The Japan Times explains, “Wind power has barely gotten off the ground… because installation costs for small-scale generators are still too high to be profitable.”

A lack of technology and affordability, and environmental limitations, have prevented alternative energy sources from impacting Japan’s power crisis. The FEPC reports that Japan’s renewable energy power percentage stagnated at about ten percent over the last two decades. But change is in the air, or more appropriately – the sky.

Why Solar Power?


Photo by Σ64

One of Japan’s remaining solutions leaves a limited environmental footprint, requires little investment, and sees almost immediate turnover in production. Unlike the alternatives, it doesn’t involve drilling or a long development time. Deutshe Welle points out it can return income in as little as 12 months. So it should come as no surprise that solar power is gaining a foothold in the Land of the Rising Sun.

Other countries have already embraced solar power. Cleantechnica explains that Germany became one of the first – thanks to its efforts to ease regulations, offer subsidies, and educate its public. Solar power became understandable and affordable and Germany came to dominate the world in solar installation and production.

Japan’s government followed Germany’s example – enacting tariffs to make solar panel installation financially attractive. The FEPC reports, “Electric power companies are required to purchase excess electricity produced by (solar panels) installed on ordinary houses at about twice the previous purchase price.” Thanks to the tariff, solar produced electricity fetches premium prices and leads to almost immediate profits. Equipment and installation costs pay for themselves making solar panels an attractive investment.

The Fukushima Effect on All Scales


Photo by CoCreatr

Japan’s policies have spurred grassroots solar power operations. Perhaps that’s why so many houses in my neighborhood are being fitted with solar panels. According to Cisaki Watanabe, even convenience stores are getting in on the act: “Lawson sells electricity generated from solar panels to utilities and plans to use the income for more energy-saving equipment.”

In fact, Japan has become a global leader when it comes to small scale solar installations. Solar Buzz reported, “Japan was the clear leader in the small-scale segment (in 2013) with almost 40 percent of the global demand (for solar equipment).”

The Fukushima disaster and booming global market have sparked Japanese businesses to invest in large scale developments as well. The Economist reports, “Sharp, Kyocera, Sanyo and Mitsubishi Electric are investing billions of dollars to double their (solar equipment) production… over the next three years. They expect an increase in demand owing to growing subsidies for renewable energy in America and Japan.”

Large solar plants are popping up across Japan as well. accounts for large-sale plants in Nagasaki, Okayama, Aomori, Hokkaido, Fukushima and Miyagi prefectures. “Instead of just lamenting the current situation, we wanted to take action to make Japan a better place,” Houtoku Energy President Takeo Minomiya, whose company supports large and small scale solar projects in Kanagawa prefecture, remarked in a Japan Times interview.

The Sky’s (Not) the Limit


Photo by NASA

The power crisis has even sparked some ventures that go beyond the ordinary. For example, Smithsonain Magazine reported on the Kagoshima Nanatsujima Mega Solar Power Plant, that sits atop artificial islands in the ocean. Solar Internation describes Hydrelio solar panels that seem tailor made for Japan. They float on water, protecting them from earthquake damage while preserving valuable farmland.

Another Japanese solar venture is literally out of this world. In his book, Solar Power Satellites, Don M. Flournoy explains that Japan was the first country to put hard money behind solar plants in space, offering rewards to corporations that can achieve the feat within the next thirty years. With Japan pushing the envelope, solar technology should enjoy significant progress in the decades to come.



Photo by mrhayata

Even before the March 11th, 2013 Fukushima disaster, Japanese national policy called for the abandonment of nuclear power by 2030. But The Japan Times reported a recent about-face by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. “The (Japanese) government will ‘promote reactivation of nuclear reactors’ if they clear the new safety tests.”

Why would post-Fukushima Japan consider going back to nuclear power? For profit, practicality, and necessity – at this point there just aren’t any realistic alternatives. However, the country is making efforts to change that fact.

Increasing large and small scale solar operations, including those in my neighborhood, are proof. And I’d rather see more solar panels than new convenience stores – how many of those does one town need? Although solar power may only make a small dent in Japan’s carbon and nuclear footprint, it’s a step in the right direction. And with demand spurring new technologies, Japan’s solar power looks to have a bright future.

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The Shopaholic’s Guide to Tokyo Tue, 27 May 2014 16:00:44 +0000 I have a confession that I’m going to make up front: I am a shopaholic. I’ve been to Japan three times, and shopping has been a high priority every trip. Needless to say, I’ve picked up some wisdom about where and how to shop in Tokyo, which I am now going to pass along to you. After reading this, you should be able to shop without dropping on your trip to Japan.

Where To Shop When You’re Not Sure What You Want


There are a few places that I hit up when I’m in Tokyo when I want to shop for nothing in particular. Tokyu Hands is a great destination for this. It’s a chain of stores that can be found all over Japan, with multiple locations in Tokyo itself. I’ve bought everything from cardboard boxes to board games and kitchen gadgets there. As they say on their English website, “From basic products that support the foundations of the customer’s life to products that provide pleasure and enrichment, Tokyu Hands handles a wide variety of merchandise that meets diversified customer demands.” Truth.

Japanese department stores (depaato) are also great places to go when you don’t have a particular item in mind. I don’t know what department stores are like outside Japan and the USA, but the Japanese depaato are awesome and quite different from their American counterparts. If you’re out and about and want to visit a depaato but have no clue where one is, look for a large train station, as stations frequently have department stores attached. How are these shopping plazas different from the department stores back home? Every one I’ve been in has been multiple floors – seven to eleven stories is not unusual at all. The basement floor is generally devoted to premade/specialty foods, while the top floor normally has restaurants. The other floors of the depaato will be devoted to a variety of goods; most will have a map in English letting you know what items are available on each floor. Don’t forget to visit the department store’s roof, which may have more shopping, special events, and/or spectacular views; in the summer, many depaato offer “beer gardens” on the roof.

Amped Up Shopping


Photo by Les Taylor

Like many visitors to Japan, you may be looking to score some electronics while you’re there. Head to Akihabara, the area of Tokyo known for electronics and maid cafes. If you’re in Akihabara but don’t know what you want, start at Yodabashi Akiba. If you’re in a store, ask the store employees for guidance (this does require finding a way around any language barriers). Finally, a bit of advice from one of my friends: do your research ahead of time and have a good idea of what you want before you head into Akihabara. That way you won’t get overwhelmed with all the choices. Finally, although it’s not in Akihabara, and probably not a great place for deals, I love visiting the Sony showroom in Ginza. They have all their newest and greatest gadgets on display, and you can toy around with most of them.

Trading Paper For Paper


Photo by Kyle Hasegawa

Another confession: I love books. I’ve yet to leave Tokyo without packing a suitcase or box full of books to lug back home. Some of my favorite places to shop for the printed word: Kinokuniya, Book Off, and Tsutaya. Kinokuniya sells new books and generally has a huge selection, Book Off sells used books (and other media), and Tsutaya’s main business model is rental – but they also sell books and other media. If you really love books and want a different fix than the above-mentioned stores can offer, wander over to Jimbocho, a Tokyo neighborhood known for its booksellers, publishing houses, and antiques.

Goodies For The Folks Back Home


There’s no need to do your souvenir shopping at the airport. You can find better stuff – at better prices – with a little bit of effort. If you’re strapped for time, my one-stop recommendation is the Oriental Bazaar in Harajuku. It’s a large store with a variety of lovely and traditional things at prices that should fit most budgets. If you have more time, Nakamise-dori, the street that leads to Sensoji temple in Asakusa, is lined with shops that sell everything from mass-produced tourist kitsch to toys to high-quality knives – and lots more in between.

Although prices may be higher than at the Oriental Bazaar or on Nakamise-dori, I’ve also had great success at museum gift shops. Even if you’re uninterested in the museum itself, many of the gift stores allow entry without paying for admission to the museum.

Everyone Needs Plastic Food Models And Other Neat Stuff


Photo by FunkBrothers

Okay, it’s possible that, in fact, pretty much no one needs plastic food models. But they’re awesome, and you can buy them – in everything from full size to keychain – on Kappabashi-dori, to the west of Asakusa. Several stores in the area sell them, as well as just about every other bit of Japanese kitchen equipment that you could ever want.

If kitchen equipment and plastic food models don’t make your heart race, but Evangelion merchandise and Sanrio products do, check out Kiddy Land, just down the street from the Oriental Bazaar (they have a few other locations as well). Kiddy Land sells oodles of toys, anime products, and adorable things.

If offbeat describes what you’re looking for, you should visit Don Quijote, a chain of stores known for selling a huge variety of goods. When you want something that makes the folks back home go “huh?”, Don Quijote is your one-stop best bet.

Another chain that you’ll find all over Tokyo is Condomania, a store that sells… condoms. Lots of condoms. They also sell lubricants and plenty of gag/joke gifts. Despite the racy name, Condomania has always seemed to me like a Spencer’s Gifts with less t-shirts and more prophylactics. This, of course, means that there are lots of options for slightly off-color gifts. Or maybe Hello Kitty condoms are your thing. I won’t judge. Much.

Finally, if you’ve been dying to dress like a Visual Kei superstar or are just curious about what Japanese teenagers are into, wander around Harajuku’s Takeshita-dori. Takeshita-dori and the streets surrounding it are the traditional mecca of teenagers in Tokyo, although this is slowly changing.

One Man’s Trash Is Great For You


Photo by takoto marui

Some of the best deals that you can find in Tokyo mean shopping second-hand. My absolute favorite second-hand store has already been mentioned: Book Off. CDs, books, and games can all be had for a fraction of their retail price at Book Off, which has locations all over Japan.

If you’re into retro gaming, a visit to Super Potato is an absolute must. They sell video games of all generations and platforms for reasonable prices (you’ll probably find cheaper prices at Book Off, but less selection). If you have the right group of friends, these games can double as gifts. I wrapped up and gifted out lots of original Final Fantasy games after my last trip to Japan!

Although it’s not quite as well used as it is in the USA, does have a site for Tokyo. Just like in the States, there are lots of people selling lots of things for much less than retail (or giving them away for free).

Tokyo also has multiple flea markets, frequently run by local temples. The JNTO has a list of some of them. If you’re just visiting Tokyo, these can be tricky to time but are totally worth it.

Life Lessons


Photo by Matt Watts

Finally, I’d like to impart some general Tokyo shopping advice to you. Most of this I learned the hard (or sometimes easy-but-random) way. No need for you to reinvent the wheel!

Duty free shopping is available at lots of bigger stores, including the Sony showroom, most department stores, Yodabashi Akiba, and Tokyu Hands. The procedure for how to buy things duty free will vary from store to store, but will always involve showing your passport to prove that you’re just visiting Japan. Ask an employee or check the store’s website to find out how to go duty-free in a particular store.

There are a few services that stores offer that you might want to consider taking advantage of, most notably mailing and wrapping. Some stores will mail things for you – maybe all the way back home or at least back to your hotel. Obviously, a fee will apply, but for bulky items, this is something that’s worth inquiring about. Japanese stores also tend to do a really nice job of wrapping your items, and if you tell the employee that the item is a gift, they’ll frequently do an extra nice wrapping job for free.

Another bit of wisdom: cardboard boxes are your friend. If you find yourself with more than will fit in your suitcase, invest in a cardboard box or two. Check your airline’s rules about how large/heavy a checked-in item can be, then buy a box that meets those guidelines. I’m sure there are multiple places to buy cardboard boxes in Tokyo, but I’ve gotten mine at Tokyu Hands – note that the staff is not used to tourists trying to buy cardboard boxes, so if you can’t find them on your own, ask someone for help and don’t be afraid to use pictures of cardboard boxes.

The public transportation system in Tokyo is awesome enough that you should never need to take a taxi somewhere, but don’t be afraid to use one when you’re laden down with your day’s purchases. Sometimes it’s absolutely worth it. Another note about getting things back to your hotel: the barrier guides in train stations are super useful. These will tell you where the escalators and elevators are located, which is awesome when you’ve been out shopping for ten hours and are carrying heavy shopping bags. The Tokyo Metro website also lists each station and whether escalators or elevators are present and where they are in the station. This information is currently available only in Japanese, so a physical guide may still be your best bet if you don’t read Japanese and aren’t comfortable poking around the website.

If you know you want a particular item but you’re having trouble finding it, don’t be afraid to use Amazon Japan. When I realized I needed a second suitcase my last trip (in addition to a cardboard box!), I hopped on Amazon, picked one out, and had it delivered to my hotel. It showed up the same day I ordered it for no additional cost. Of course, Amazon Japan will ship to your home country as well, but shipping costs are much, much higher.

This isn’t really advice, but Japanese shopping tends to be very seasonal. In autumn, you’ll find goods covered with leaves and other autumnal images. In winter, snowmen and winter-related things. So if you want something that’s seasonal, be aware that it may be hard to find out of season. Sometimes there are special seasonal shopping treats, like fukubukuro, a New Year’s tradition where merchants create mystery bags of goodies; the items inside are generally substantially discounted. You get a good deal and a (hopefully) pleasant surprise all at once!

Final Wrap-Up


Photo by Evan Williams

I hope the information here has left you better equipped to shop to your heart’s content in Tokyo. It’s a great place to shop, and I’m sure others have plenty of advice as well. One final piece of advice from me: if you have the time, venture off the beaten path (or my suggested path, at least). Some great shopping experiences can be had just by walking into a store on a whim. However or wherever you shop, I hope you have a great time and score some awesome goodies!

Bonus Wallpapers!

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