Tofugu » Society http://www.tofugu.com A Japanese Language & Culture Blog Fri, 03 Jul 2015 14:39:33 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=4.2.2 A Japanese Citizen Studying “Abroad” in Her Own Country http://www.tofugu.com/2015/07/03/homesick-during-study-abroad-in-japan/ http://www.tofugu.com/2015/07/03/homesick-during-study-abroad-in-japan/#comments Fri, 03 Jul 2015 13:00:00 +0000 http://www.tofugu.com/?p=52955 Just a couple weeks ago, I graduated college. I’ve been going through a whirlwind of emotions, good-byes and transitions into the “real world.” At the same time, I’ve been reflecting on my past 4 years as an undergrad. There are a lot of things that college grads easily remember. The friends we made, the countless all-nighters, silly (and perhaps stupid) shenanigans. But for […]

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Just a couple weeks ago, I graduated college. I’ve been going through a whirlwind of emotions, good-byes and transitions into the “real world.” At the same time, I’ve been reflecting on my past 4 years as an undergrad.

There are a lot of things that college grads easily remember. The friends we made, the countless all-nighters, silly (and perhaps stupid) shenanigans. But for some, study abroad tends to be the most memorable and most life-changing experience. I’m included in this. I studied abroad in Tokyo, Japan. Or as my friends call it, I “studied at home.”

I am Japanese. I was born in Japan and raised there for part of my life. I speak the language fluently and visited my home country countless times. So why did I decide to study “abroad” there?

Why Study Abroad in Japan?

chiyoda-cherry-blossoms-boats-on-a-river-study-abroad

I originally planned to study abroad in China. I wanted to continue working on my Chinese and take classes related to international affairs. A visit to Tokyo during my spring break in 2013 changed this.

My family often visits Japan during the summer or winter. So it was the first time in 12 years that I was going to see Japan in its springtime glory.

And boy, was it amazing.

It was probably the weather– scratch that, it was the weather. There was something so memorable about the sunny days with cherry blossoms in full bloom. The locals hosted ohanami (cherry blossom viewing parties) everywhere. Everyone looked happy, basking in the sun, drinking and enjoying themselves under the pink-petaled flowers so iconic to my country. Everything looked and felt so different. This wasn’t the “hot, humid and sticky summer” Japan or the “cold, icy winter storm” Japan that I was familiar with.

Springtime Japan gave me the idea, “why not study here?” My writing and reading skills definitely needed intensive work. I rarely wrote Japanese, aside from the text messages I exchanged with my parents. Aside from occasional glances at the Japanese news, I rarely read Japanese in college. I had also received approval to pursue my thesis research on immigration in Japan. Why not conduct field studies during my time abroad?

Last and most importantly, I had the strong desire to explore and see Japan beyond the concrete, busy metropolis of Tokyo.

Enamored with spring and filled academic goals, I decided to change my study abroad destination to Tokyo. My parents were pleased to have their daughter back in her birthplace and studying her own language and culture. As the day of departure approached, my head was filled with all sorts of dreams about exploring Tokyo, and going beyond the city to other regions of Japan.

But things didn’t go as planned.

Homesick During Study Abroad in Japan

sad-dog-study-abroad

Photo by Tracy Lee

Most study abroad programs (if they’re anything like my university’s) are full of orientations. Each session consists of discussion on everything and anything we might need to know before we leave. Once we get to our destination, they orient us even more. Much of it is very necessary, like understanding the school system, knowing what to do if you get sick, etc. Our Tokyo study abroad group had an extensive session on the psychological aspects of study abroad. Specifically, the struggles of adapting to a new environment and the homesickness that often comes along with it.

I’ll be completely honest here: I was naive when it came to these homesickness orientations. I am Japanese. I speak the language fluently, and had visited Japan many times. Homesickness was the last thing on my mind. “Why would I feel homesick in my own country?” I thought to myself. “There’s no way I could feel confused.”

Looking back, I want to slap that clueless girl in the face and tell her to straighten up. In reality, I felt like a total foreigner in my own country, for at least the first month of my study abroad.

Lifestyle changes hit me hard, both physically and mentally. As I commuted an hour and a half to get to school, shifting through the crowded streets of Tokyo, I began to question the mass media harping on about Japan’s population decline. I was physically and mentally exhausted by the hustle and bustle. How did locals manage to live with this every day? After a few weeks of post-arrival euphoria, I was sick of being in the concrete jungle.

Communication Struggle

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I never imagined communication would be an issue. I understood what everyone was saying, and I was able to ask for help whenever I needed it. But for the first couple weeks, I couldn’t communicate “smoothly,” for a lack of better term.

Conversations felt strained and misunderstandings were common, especially with other Japanese students my age. Perhaps this was because I was unaware of how Japanese young adults talked with each another. For much of my life, my parents were the only Japanese people I spoke the language to.

There was a particular time when I was speaking with another Japanese girl in a club I had joined. I was speaking formally with everyone, ending all my sentences with “~desu” and “~masu.” Finally, the girl looked a bit offended and asked, “Why are you talking like that?”

I didn’t know that speaking formally is weird when the other person isn’t your sempai. She and I were in the same grade, and I created a weird “wall” between us. All because I didn’t know how to converse with people my age.

Because I was raised in the American education system, the concept of sempai-kouhai was hard for me to grasp. How do you determine if someone’s a sempai? Is it physical age, or is it grade? Is it the amount of experience they have on a particular activity? Or is it the position within a specific organization (i.e. clubs)?

Can’t I just talk formally to everyone? Oh wait, that builds an “invisible wall” around you. So why can’t we just talk informally to everyone, then?  Right, because it’s disrespectful.

Identity Issues

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Identity issue was a little more complex for me to dissect and understand. It bothered me for weeks. Whenever I interacted with other Japanese students my age, they were confused.

“So you’re American?”
“No, I’m Japanese. I was born here, but raised there.”
“So you’re Jun-Japa?! (純ジャパ) Why are you studying here then?!”

At various school functions where local and international students interacted, many of them regarded me as an “American student.” But once we began to converse in Japanese (as any study abroad student should), they began to question my real identity. To them I was what they call a Jun-Japa (純ジャパ)– pure Japanese. But this Jun-Japa was NOT speaking and acting Japanese.

At times, I think this dual identity strained conversations and relationship-building. There I was, a Japanese national, who spoke and understood Japanese. But I didn’t look or act the part.

I spoke English better than Japanese, and donned the typical American college kid attire of T-shirt and jeans. I looked so different from the local Japanese girls and their impeccable appearance.

Maybe the “American side” of me was coming out a little strong in Japan, confusing both me and everyone else.

I also had trouble communicating with Japanese people outside school. Should I act American or Japanese? How do Japanese people my age act anyway? What does it even mean to be American?

Figuring It Out

shoko-study-abroad-who-am-i

I didn’t think it was be possible. But there I was, completely lost like a stranger in my own country. As exaggerated as it sounds, I began questioning my identity. Was I too Americanized to be considered as a “Japanese girl?”

Looking back, I realize that I was comparing Japan to the country that I visited when I was younger. Visiting Japan for just a month is far different from actually living and studying there for 4 months.

Perhaps it was because I didn’t take the thought of homesickness seriously. Maybe it was because I was reading Murakami’s Norwegian Wood (the most depressing sh*t ever). Nothing made sense and I became sad at the most random moments. Within weeks of starting my study abroad, I was missing the comforts of California, my university, and my friends and family. I quickly became frustrated, sad, and angry.

Shaking It All Off

fugu-study-abroad

Photo by きこう

For me, the first step to overcoming this sense of frustration was admitting I was naive. Yes, Japan was my birthplace. But for a girl who’s lived over half of her life abroad with little contact to a large Japanese community, Japan was a brand-new country. I had to take it in little by little, and stop comparing it to the country I had visited so often in the past.

I had to think about why I was struggling to live in Tokyo. I had to consider different approaches. I was tired of the concrete jungle, yes. But I hadn’t considered Tokyo to be more than it’s famous locations. Shibuya, Shinjuku, and Ikebukuro can be fun, but I hadn’t given other neighborhoods a chance. I ended up exploring the less-crowded spots, like quiet residential neighborhoods and the homely shitamachi (下町) areas. I often found solace just walking around these areas and finding little new things here and there.

I found great relief in talking about my issues with other study abroad students. It turns out most of us had felt pretty “out of place” at certain times during our time in Tokyo. We shared about times we felt bad, times when we felt good, and how we adjusted to the society. Just talking with others and learning that I wasn’t the only one feeling like total crap was reassuring.

I decided to go beyond my school’s campus and meet Japanese people doing interesting things. I took an internship at a journal publisher. I learned a lot from the editor-in-chief and other Japanese interns. I got a sense of what it was like to work along other Japanese people.

I even managed to catch up with some old friends– including ones I haven’t seen in 14 years! I also got to meet with students from other universities doing some really interesting projects.

Besides these, time and a whole lot of napping helped. There would be days I felt super energetic and ready to go explore. And then there were days when I felt too frustrated and just wanted to go home and nap.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what made it go away. But little by little the feeling of being “lost” dissipated. It took time to come to terms with all the different people, sites, and ideas that I was seeing every day. But eventually I felt pretty situated in the country I once called “home.”

Rewards from the Journey

shoko-from-mt-fuji-study-abroad
Me at the highest point in Japan, Mt. Fuji

Everything got better after the initial “slump.” And looking back, there’s a whole lot I have to thank Japan for.

My writing and reading definitely improved. I was surrounded by the language wherever I went. Not only was I speaking Japanese on a daily basis, but I was writing and reading a lot in class. I read Japanese newspapers daily. I was surrounded by Japanese ads on the trains and came home to a share house where Japanese was the common language. The effects of daily language engagement are still with me. It’s overstated, but being completely immersed in the language kicks up your skills.

I think the people I met and befriended, whether they were Japanese or from other countries, my time abroad special. I encountered people of all ages, employment, and personal backgrounds. It was always interesting to see how they viewed Japan, how they viewed America, and exchange thoughts on all kinds of topics, silly and serious.

I got to travel and explore Tokyo and beyond. I think I had somehow always tied “Tokyo=busy” and “Japan=Tokyo” to my psyche. But Japan can’t be defined by its capital alone. In a sense, I got a better view of the country in its entirety, not limiting myself to certain ideas or images that I grew up with.

But most importantly, I learned how the “familiar” can feel “foreign.” I realized my identity was not something that could be clearly defined. I was Japanese by citizenship and ethnicity. But because of my upbringing, I can’t completely associate myself with Japanese culture. All in all, I got comfortable living in this “gray” zone, mixing languages and cultures of the two countries that are a part of my identity.

In a sense, my time abroad gave me an idea of what it really means to be “open-minded.” We all claim to be welcoming of new ideas, people and values. But it’s not until we’re placed in a foreign situation that we realize how capable we are of embracing “foreignness.” For me personally, it turned out I was a little more stubborn than I thought. It took a little more time and thought for me to accept the ways my own country.

This summer, I’ll return to Tokyo, this time for an indefinite period and to work as a shakai-jin (社会人, “Member of society”). Hopefully I’ll be a little wiser this time around. Though I’ll expect to feel like a “stranger” sometimes, perhaps I’ll learn to move better with the pushes and pulls and find my place in this crazy but amazing country.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Ashigaru – Japan’s Overlooked And Underappreciated Warriors http://www.tofugu.com/2015/06/29/ashigaru-japans-overlooked-and-underappreciated-warriors/ http://www.tofugu.com/2015/06/29/ashigaru-japans-overlooked-and-underappreciated-warriors/#comments Mon, 29 Jun 2015 13:00:00 +0000 http://www.tofugu.com/?p=53480 Samurai get too much credit. Japan’s foot soldiers, the ashigaru, started as nothing more than farmers pulled from the fields to swell a daimyo’s army. Yet as time passed they became a professional fighting force included in the samurai caste. Stories like to depict Japanese wars filled with samurai sword duels. But the truth is that […]

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

The Origins of Ashigaru

ashigaru-peasant-farmer

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

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

The Shady Years

ashigaru-kyoto-onin-war

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

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

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

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

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

An Upwardly Mobile Class

ashigaru-Battle-of-Nagashino

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

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

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

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

Ashigaru and Guns

taneshima-gun-used-by-ashigaru

Photo by PHGCOM

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

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

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

The Ashigaru Who Became Master of Japan

ashigaru-toyotomi-hideyoshi

Photo by Victor Lee

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

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

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

The Rise to Samurai

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

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Sources:

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The Epic Diplomacy of Winter Sonata in Japan http://www.tofugu.com/2015/06/26/epic-diplomacy-winter-sonata-in-japan/ http://www.tofugu.com/2015/06/26/epic-diplomacy-winter-sonata-in-japan/#comments Fri, 26 Jun 2015 13:00:00 +0000 http://www.tofugu.com/?p=52909 It’s no secret that Japan and Korea have a strained relationship. It wasn’t even 20 years ago that Korea lifted their ban on Japanese media (it was partially lifted in 1998, and fully lifted in 2004). While they aren’t the best of friends at present, they have definitely warmed up to each other. Kind of. Politically, […]

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It’s no secret that Japan and Korea have a strained relationship. It wasn’t even 20 years ago that Korea lifted their ban on Japanese media (it was partially lifted in 1998, and fully lifted in 2004). While they aren’t the best of friends at present, they have definitely warmed up to each other. Kind of.

Politically, Japan and Korea are still at a stand-off, disputing island territories, bemoaning past colonization, and inflating their nationalistic tendencies. The recent China-Japan-Korea talks are attempting to put bandages on historical wounds. Many were surprised that the meeting was planned at all.

Yet, culture-wise, Korea is making waves all over Asia, especially Japan. Where traditional politics failed, Korean pop culture has succeeded. K-dramas have persuaded Japanese people to take an interest in Korean history and culture. This “Korean Wave” all started with a love story and an actor named Bae Yon Joon.

The Beginnings of the Korean Wave in Japan

Winter Sonata in Japan

After a devastating civil war and rough transition into democracy, South Korea wanted to boost its economy . Through various government-aided plans, Korea began developing its soft power in the forms of technology and pop culture. The country was very successful, exploding in popularity in all of Asia and even as far as Iran and France. Yet, Japan still wasn’t on board. There were two reasons for this:

  1. The aforementioned frostiness between the two.
  2. Japan was not interested in Asian pop culture. They aligned themselves more with Western pop culture and found their fix with American, French, and Italian imports. They just weren’t interested in the rest of Asia.

Japan didn’t want what Korea was selling and, conversely, Korea wasn’t selling. Winter Sonata, in particular, was actually aimed at the Filipino audience.

On top of this, Korea’s grudge against Japan gave them no incentive to market to them. Their wartime past led to Korea banning all forms of Japanese pop culture until 1998. They wouldn’t even allow children to use Japanese mechanical pencils.

Despite all this, Winter Sonata was released in Japan. And it took off big time. Yoon Suk Ho, director of the drama, was stunned. Japan had a nationwide crush on the male lead. Japanese women were suddenly convinced that Korean men make good boyfriends. Interest in Korean culture and history spiked.

It was so popular that it even got adapted into an anime, manga, and two separate musicals. The anime was voiced by the original cast (in Korean) with Japanese subtitles. Later a Japanese version voiced with Japanese actors was made. A musical adaptation toured throughout Japan in cities like Tokyo, Sapporo, and Osaka before heading to Korea. For the 10th year anniversary, a new musical was created by prominent Korean musical theatre stars and composers, renewing the Winter Sonata fervor.

Bae Yon Joon, the male lead and superhunk from Winter Sonata, created a $2.3 billion rise in business between Japan and South Korea. Tourism from Japan to Korea rose 40 percent. Even the Japanese Prime Minister, Junichiro Koizumi said, “I will make great efforts so that I will be as popular as Yon-sama.”  You know you’re popular when a PM wants to be like you.

The Winter Sonata Breakdown

winter-sonata-on-bike-junsang-yujin

To understand why Winter Sonata was a success in Japan, you have to know the plot. Japan took an interest in Korean culture and Korean family politics because of how vital family structure is to the Korean household. Japan has a similar family structure, a familiarity which helped the show succeed. Seeing Koreans place importance on values that Japanese people also hold dear highlighted the similarities between the two cultures.

Furthermore, the romance in Winter Sonata is chaste, with only 2 kisses (closed-mouth!) in the whole series. The drama centers around the idea of a first love. Many claim that Winter Sonata’s nostalgia factor led to its popularity with middle-aged Japanese housewives.

The Bae Yon Joon character was also pivotal for the show’s success. He was seen as manly, yet sensitive and caring. He had deep affection for his love interest and respect for his mother, but was also intelligent and successful in his career.

Below is a spoiler-laden synopsis for those who want to better understand the story’s effect on Japan without sitting through 20+ hours of show:

Jun-Sang (played by Bae Yon Joon), the main character, moves to a rural city in South Korea. He is a talented, introverted student and is welcomed by his classmates. His mother refuses to tell him about his biological father and he begins to to have an identity crisis.

Jun-Sang develops a friendship with his classmate Yu-Jin. The friendship soon turns into…romance! Suddenly, Jun-Sang gets into a terrible accident, suffering brain-damage and memory loss. His mother, upset by the pain her son has suffered, takes him to a psychologist who erases the memories of his painful childhood. She renames him Lee Min-Hyeong, telling everyone that Jun-Sang passed away. They move to the United States and Min-Hyeong becomes a successful architect.

Min-Hyeong’s work takes him back to Korea where Yu-Jin sees him on the street, thus igniting the feelings of her first love. Min-Hyeong has no memory of his life in Korea and therefore doesn’t recognize Yu-Jin. This sets up the rest of the drama and suspense, as Min-Hyeong recovers his childhood memories and falls back in love with Yu-Jin.

Japan, Post-Sonata

kcon-korean-wave-fest

Photo by Peter Kaminski

After Winter Sonata, the Korean Wave, which was already going strong in the rest of Asia, finally took off in Japan. Interest in Korean restaurants boomed. Travel to Korea from Japan increased. Winter Sonata’s filming locations enjoyed special attention, of course. Korean language schools received record numbers of members. There was an estimated $4 billion increase in trade between Japan and Korea. More and more Korean celebrities became famous in Japan, a market that is usually off-limits to foreign talent.

Kpop groups like Big Band and 2NE1 gained superstar status. Dramas like Coffee Prince, Brilliant Legacy, and You’re Beautiful followed Winter Sonata’s legacy and became hit TV shows.

However, after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, nationalism took root in Japan. Korean pop culture began disappearing from the mainstream. Although the programs and hype had fallen to a whisper, fans remained.  The Korean Wave became a niche interest amidst the nationalist movement. The Dokdo/Takeshima island dispute only further riled up the nationalism within Japan and Korea, thrusting politics upon celebrities and placing Korean idols in an awkward position. Either they distance themselves from the dispute and anger their Korean fans (and “betray” their roots) or side with Korea and Dokdo and no longer be marketable in Japan. Seriously, no win-win situation. World War II disputes (especially the heated topic of comfort women) flared up again, raising tempers and reigniting decades-old tension. Anti-Korean protests took place outside Fuji TV station and there was a decrease in the availability of Korean programming. The Korean wave seemed to slow to a mere trickle.

But after a few years lying low, the wave began to surge anew. In 2014, a Korean drama went primetime in Japan for the first time. Iris broke out of K-drama’s daytime TV status, and competed with primetime Japanese shows.

Just a few months ago on April 22, 2015, KCON The Korean Wave Fest was held in Japan with over 15,000 in attendance. This is the first time such a large celebration of Korean culture was held in Japan. The audience, primarily young people, celebrated Korean food, cosmetics, fashion, tech, and industry. Fans took part in mini dance competitions, copying idols’ iconic dance videos. Attendees learned Hangeul (the Korean writing system) to make signs for their favorite stars. Fans were even allowed to leave letters and notes in boxes for performers.

The Winter Sonata in Japan Continues

winter-sonata-pachinko-machine

The cultural exchange between Japan and Korea has done wonders for the relationship between the two. A decade ago, Korea had just fully lifted the import of Japanese products. Now they are hosting a Korean culture convention in Japan with thousands of attendees. Healthy tourism, business, and entertainment trade continues to strengthen the soft power of their relationship.

The Korean Wave is not just about pop culture and trading fandoms. It influenced the politics and attitudes of entire countries. Most importantly it improved the relationship of two nations whose animosity seemed too deep to overcome. Such wonderfully positive things springing from middle-aged Japanese women and their crush on a hunky actor.

Bonus Wallpapers!

KoizumiWinterSonata-1280
[Desktop ・ 5120×2880 / 1280×720] ・ [Mobile 1 / 2]

Sources:

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What Is a Butsudan? And Why Are People Paying $630,000 for Them? http://www.tofugu.com/2015/06/24/what-is-a-butsudan-and-why-are-people-paying-630000-for-them/ http://www.tofugu.com/2015/06/24/what-is-a-butsudan-and-why-are-people-paying-630000-for-them/#comments Wed, 24 Jun 2015 13:00:00 +0000 http://www.tofugu.com/?p=42268 Have you ever been to a temple in Japan and thought, “I wish I had some of this amazingness in my house?” Then the Japanese butsudan (仏壇) is for you. A butsudan is a small, household Buddhist shrine. Its exterior often resembles a simple cabinet, with two outward opening doors. Of course, they can also exhibit more […]

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Have you ever been to a temple in Japan and thought, “I wish I had some of this amazingness in my house?” Then the Japanese butsudan (仏壇) is for you.

A butsudan is a small, household Buddhist shrine. Its exterior often resembles a simple cabinet, with two outward opening doors. Of course, they can also exhibit more elaborate and elegant, designs.

The inside is what makes the butsudan so special. It houses a religious icon, namely a Buddhist statue or image. The name-tablets of one’s ancestors are harmoniously positioned alongside it. A plethora of religious items called butsugu are also arranged inside.

The butsudan is actually unique to Japan. No other Buddhist countries partake in this practice (except some Mongolians). Because there are so many temples in other Asian countries, people don’t need to make altars in their homes.

Wait a minute. There are a lot temples in Japan too! Why do Japanese people need an altar in their own homes? When did this custom start? Let’s uncover the mystery of the Japanese butsudan.

What Is a Butsudan?

japanese-emperor-tenmu

The butsudan actually has its origins in ancient India. Practitioners of early Buddhism made a platforms of mud and venerated gods there. It wasn’t long before roofs were added to shelter the platforms from rain and wind. It’s said that this is the origin of temples.

Buddhism eventually made its way to Japan via China, where it took off.

On March 27, 685, the Japanese Emperor Tenmu issued an edict. It stated that each family in every country (pretty presumptious of him, eh?) must make a Buddhist altar that holds a statue of Buddha and the Buddhist scriptures and conduct prayer and memorial services in front of it.

The 27th day of each month was designated as “Butsudan Day” by the Zen-Nihon-Shuukyou-Yougu-Kyoudoukumiai (全日本宗教用具協同組合), which literally means “Japan’s Religious Utensil Dealer Cooperative.”

And that’s where butsudan came from. Right?

Wrong!

The current butsudan is not directly descended from the above-mentioned imperial edict. So how did the current butsudan come to be? There are actually two theories.

#1: The Nobility’s Private Buddha Statue Hall

byoudouin-phoenix-hall

Photo by 663Highland

Some of the nobility had their own 持仏堂 (jubitsudou). This a private place where a Buddha statue and ancestor tablets were kept. During the Nara period, the arrangement of items was set up in a small building outside of the house. However, it only began to be placed inside the house during the Heian period.

For example, Fujiwara-no-Yorimichi (藤原頼通, 992 – 1074) had Byoudouin-Hououdou (平等院鳳凰堂, Phoenix Hall of Byodoin temple). Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (足利義満, 1368-1394) had Rokuonji (鹿苑寺, Kinkakuji temple). These massive complexes acted as their own personal jibutsudou.

According to famed historian Takeda Choshu (竹田聴洲, 1916 – 1980), the above mentioned jibutsudou was  eventually made into the smaller butsuma (仏間), which means “a room for Buddha.” It was further reduced into what we now know to be a butsudan, so that it could be put indoors.

#2: Soul Shelf

soul-shelf-what-is-a-butsudan

Photo by kani kani

Tamadana (魂棚) literally means a soul shelf. In practice, it is an altar to greet spirits of ancestors and the recently deceased during Obon. While its shape varies by region and period, one example is a board affixed to four upright corner pillars made of bamboo or wood. With this image in mind, it’s not surprising to learn that people often used tea tables instead.

The father of native Japanese folklorists, Yanagida Kunio (柳田國男, 1875 – 1962), claims that the tamadana birthed the modern bustudan. It transitioned from its temporary Bon festival usage to a place of permanent installation and eventually became the butsudan.

Although there are two theories, the first theory is regarded as the more likely of the two.

The Spread of Butsudan

rennyo-the-creator-of-butsudan

Photo by Joe Jones

In the Muromachi period (1336 – 1537), the eighth head of Hongan-ji temple was named Rennyo (蓮如).  He restored the Jodo Shinshu sect and gave his followers scrolls with the script namuamidabutsu (南無阿弥陀仏), which is an homage to the Buddha of infinite light and life. He encouraged them to enshrine the scrolls in their own butsudan.

When they made their own butsudan, they imitated what was found in the head temple of their respective sect and made it out of gold. This paved the way for the current kin-butsudan, which literally means golden butsudan.

The Jodo Shinshu sect set many standard rules regarding the butsudan. Even now, the sect says the principal image of a butsudan should be a hanging scroll acquired from the head temple of a family’s ancestral temple.

Eventually, butsudan spread outside the Jodo Shinshu sect as family mortuary tablets became common.

In the Edo period, the Shogunate created a system called terauke-seido (寺請制度 ) in which a Buddhist temples certified people as members of their temple. This new system forced individuals to choose a specific temple for their family and support it. To demonstrate membership to the temple, each family had to install a household butsudan for morning and evening worship. Additionally, they were asked to invite a family temple priest to hold memorial services to commemorate the anniversaries of their ancestors’ deaths.

This custom became widespread among commoners and the butsudan became an integral part of Japanese family life.

What Goes in a Butsudan

butsudan-in-a-home-gold

The arrangement and types of items in and around the butsudan vary depending on sect and the size of butsudan.

A butsudan usually has doors with an embellishment of a temple gate and three stairs. The highest stair is called shumidan (須弥壇) and is reserved for the most important butsudan item, specifically a Buddha statue. The area above shumidan is called kyuuden (宮殿) and is considered the holy place. It is the area within the butsudan that must be occupied by the Buddha statue, which tipically rests on the shumidan. Alternatively there could be an image of Buddha placed on the back wall of the butsudan, occupying the holy place.

An accompanying statue or image of Buddha is placed on one side of the butsudan and the founder of the respective sect is placed on the other side. There is a vast array of items (butsugu) that could be placed in the butsudan. But it would take up a lot of space in this article, so I’ll skip those today.

What Doesn’t Go in a Butsudan

no-lottery-tickets-japanese-in-the-butsusdan

While there are many things inside a butsudan, there are also some things that don’t belong.

“Officially,” photographs should not be placed inside. Neither should certificates, trophies, or lottery tickets because a butsudan is not a place to expect benefits. Despite this, many people put these things in their butsudan. In fact, my family in Japan places stuff like this in their butsudan all the time.

I once asked my mom why we place things like that in our butsudan, and she said it was to let our ancestors know how we are doing. Although I’m not sure if my ancestors can actually see that stuff, I guess it can’t be completely wrong since the butsudan is used to pray to your ancestors anyway.

How Much Does a Butsudan Cost?

japanese-kinbutusudan-butsudan-buddhist-alter-in-japan-gold

Photo by Gnsin

According to research conducted by いい仏壇.com in June, 2011, most people pay between 100,000 to 500,000 yen for their butsudan (about US $1,000 – $5,000). While not the majority, a staggering 20% people paid over 500,000 yen for theirs. Even more impressive is that 1.2% of the people paid over 2,000,000 yen.

Niconico Douga’s Butsudan Incident

niconico-official-logo

Considering only one percent of people pay more than 2 million yen for a butsudan, 63 million yen seems completely ludicrous!

Someone on Niconico Douga, a Japanese video sharing website, bought a butsudan for 63,000,000 yen (about $630,000)!

This incident occurred on August 7, 2008. It went for a price never before seen. Before this, the product which made the most money on the Niconico Douga online market was Hatsune Miku vocaloid software which sold for 28,900,000 yen. Of course, this is an aggregated price of everyone who ever bought that product, so naturally it would be that high.

The butsudan not only broke the record and doubled that number, it did it with one sale. Everyone thought that the overpriced butsudan was a joke. More surprisingly, the exact same butsudan was sold again the next day for the same price!  This, of course, became huge news.

Niconico market only counted it as a sale after the product was shipped. This was to make sure it wasn’t a fake order. Letting the time lapse on the site’s cancelation/shipping agreement makes this a possibility.

Once it was shipped, the sale of those two butsudans was finalized.

On August 11, one more was sold, as well as a 62,000,000 yen butsudan. On August 15, another one was sold. The world never ceases to amaze.

However, on August 18, the butsudan shop which originally posted the butsudan in question, announced they filed a police report about fake orders. They wanted to identify the criminal and demand compensation. The following day, two more 63,000,000 yen butsudan were sold. The butsudan posting was deleted on August, 24th. It seems likely that they could have all been fake orders, but nobody knows if every single one was. It’s possible that some of them were jokes and others, likely fewer, were real. At any rate, even if one was real, buying such an expensive item online is pretty ridiculous.

Best Place to Buy Butsudan?

butsudan-in-a-home-expensive

No matter the price of the butsudan, buying one online is pretty crazy. We’re talking artisan craftsmanship here. These things are gorgeous and ornate. Not something you really want shipped in a box.

There are lots of places to buy butsudan in Japan. But probably the most unique is in Kanagawa. You can buy butsudan in a drive-thru. No, マクド didn’t start selling butsudan. This is a real place where you can shop for butsudan from your car.

I went there to explore this unique butsudanery (not a real word, but it sounds nice). Check out the travel post later this week. Until then…

Bonus Wallpapers!

Butsudan-5120
[Desktop ∙ 5120×2880 / 1280×720] ∙ [Mobile 1 / 2]

Sources:

  • 国史大辞典編集委員会 『国史大辞典』第7巻、吉川弘文館、1986年
  • 日本歴史大辞典編集委員会 『日本歴史大辞典』第5巻、河出書房新社、1985年
  • 「お仏壇とは」(鎌倉新書サイト)
  • いい仏壇.com
  • ニコニコ大百科
  • Niconico Market Listings

 

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Jet Program Culture Shock Part 1: Defining Culture Shock http://www.tofugu.com/2015/06/23/jet-program-culture-shock-part-1-defining-culture-shock/ http://www.tofugu.com/2015/06/23/jet-program-culture-shock-part-1-defining-culture-shock/#comments Tue, 23 Jun 2015 13:00:00 +0000 http://www.tofugu.com/?p=53317 As you get ready to depart for JET, you’ll be researching a lot of things. Preparing for a new life takes a lot of work. In articles, handouts, guidebooks, and seminars you’ll come across a scary term: culture shock. You’ll definitely be told that it’s unavoidable and not very fun. Let me tell you two things: It’s […]

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As you get ready to depart for JET, you’ll be researching a lot of things. Preparing for a new life takes a lot of work. In articles, handouts, guidebooks, and seminars you’ll come across a scary term: culture shock.

You’ll definitely be told that it’s unavoidable and not very fun. Let me tell you two things:

  • It’s unavoidable
  • It’s not very fun

Now let me tell you a third thing:

  • It’s manageable and beneficial

Educating yourself about what culture shock is, preparing for it, and coping with it makes the situation a lot easier. Today we’ll start with defining culture shock.

What is Culture Shock?

Jet-Program-Culture-Shock-apartment-in-japan

Culture shock is often described as a “personal disorientation” that accompanies transition into a new culture. This is technically accurate, but it makes the experience sound like something felt after getting off a carnival ride. Disorientation implies a feeling you can identify, whereas culture shock usually arises unnoticed and fades over time.

Put simply, it’s the stress of transition. But the transition is taking place in nearly all areas of a person’s life at the same time.

Symptoms of Culture Shock

jet-program-culture-shock-sad-dog

Photo by Tim Dawson

Recognizing culture shock is one its major challenges. Even self-aware people can have trouble. Symptoms are a major clue. These are things like:

  • Anger
  • Boredom
  • Irritability
  • Anxiety
  • Intense homesickness
  • Panic attacks
  • Loss of motivation
  • Excessive amounts of time spent on insular activities such as sleeping or watching TV
  • Loss of self-confidence
  • Feelings of helplessness or hopelessness
  • Associating only with other JETs or foreigners
  • Withdrawal
  • Compulsive behavior
  • Suicidal thoughts

Though this may look like a nightmare list from a pharmaceutical commercial, don’t fret. Few JETs will experience all or the most severe of these symptoms. Though the majority experience several symptoms at one time.

Symptoms can happen gradually, increasing in intensity. Also, you’ll experience cultural frustrations. These may feel the same as culture shock, but the feeling dissipates when the cause of the frustration is resolved. Because of this, culture shock is hard to self-diagnose.

The Two Components of Culture Shock

jet-program-culture-shock-alleyway-in-japan-japanese

Photo by mrhayata

Dr. Bruce La Brack has an excellent explanation as to why culture shock occurs:

Culture shock arises as a result of cumulative, largely puzzling encounters resulting in equally negative perceptions. For that reason, the “shock” is deceptively gradual. Those who enter another country with an attitude of what anthropologists call “naive realism” the view that everyone sees the world essentially as they do are susceptible to being quickly disabused of that idea as reality sets in. If the naive realist also holds an ethnocentric belief that his or her cultural ways are preferable and superior to all others, the likelihood of some kind of conflict escalates enormously.

From this description, we can break down culture shock into two ingredients:

  1. The cultural values of the JET, which they use to assess communicative acts.
  2. The cultural values of the host nation which are used in all communicative acts, including those received by the JET.

We all use our own cultural values, preconceived notions, personal attitudes, and other ideas to determine how to react in a given situation. The majority of the time, this is easy in our home countries. The messages we receive from people, media, and even the physical landscape at home tend to agree with our cultural values.

Sometimes though, we encounter a situation that doesn’t agree with our cultural values, and we have to choose how to react. These are misunderstandings.

Consider how often misunderstandings happen between people of the same culture. How much more will they happen between people of different cultures? The low number of matching cultural values causes the likelihood of misunderstanding to increase.

Recognize, however, that misunderstandings come in all shapes and sizes. They range from severe to benign. Many JETs spend years in Japan and only encounter a few severe misunderstandings. So the shock doesn’t come from a few horrible catastrophes. The awesome KumamotoJET website posits that it’s more like a continuous drip. A JET encounters the same benign, but possibly annoying or inconvenient cultural differences over and over. The shocks accumulate. This is why negative culture shock doesn’t happen right away. The amount of shocks needs time to build before entering the second phase.

Phases of Culture Shock

jet-program-culture-shock-roller-coaster

Photo by elston

Culture shock is usually broken down into phases. Depending on the source, it can be between 3 and 5. The most commonly used breakdown has four:

  • Honeymoon: This is the phase experienced when you first arrive in Japan. Everything is new and exciting. Even the smallest things seem fascinating. Those who have been to Japan before still feel excitement about their new life and job.
  • Frustration and Hostility: This stage is what people call “culture shock.” Though in reality it’s the low point of the culture shock cycle. Eventually the newness of exciting things runs out. You are left with the newness of different things, but no excitement. The situation may not necessarily be good or bad, but its differentness presents a challenge as you try to adjust. This adjustment naturally includes miscommunications, mistakes, roadblocks, and frustrations. These events tend to highlight the difference between Japan’s way of thinking and doing things and your own. All these differences and transitions introduce the symptoms listed above.
  • Adjustment: Gradually you adjust to the differentness of Japan. After passing through a lot of new and difficult situations, you learn how to navigate them better the second and third time around. This forms routines like those you had in your home country. Soon, many of the negative symptoms of culture shock disappear.
  • Accommodation and/or Biculturalism: This is an ambiguous and debatable stage. It’s a stage beyond adjustment in which you feel at home in Japan. When it happens is hard to say, because the four stages of culture shock tend to repeat. The term “biculturalism” seems to suggest a personal achievement of balance between integration into Japanese culture and retention of your personal identity.

Since culture shock is different for everyone, it’s hard to know when you’ll experience what stage. Many factors are involved, like how much you prepared beforehand, your personal values, your preconceived ideas about Japan, the negative experiences you face in Japan, and much more.

These four stages are actually a cycle. Many who have lived in Japan (or elsewhere) for 10 to 20 years report experiencing stage 2 symptoms of culture shock from time to time. Is it always as severe as the first time around? That depends on the person, but more than likely not.

The reason for culture shock’s cyclical nature has a lot to do with the foreign experience. A visiting person has many things to learn when integrating into a new culture. At the same time, it’s necessary to retain parts of their identity. Adjusting to a host culture means becoming as like the host people as possible. The immigrant has to craft a new self. But the old self is still an important part of them. It would be unhealthy to deny or suppress where you came from.

Thus, living in Japan for many years can still present frustrations. Even though your new bilcultural self accepts the new home, there will always be your old self that clashes with certain aspects of it. There’s nothing wrong with this. It’s just the nature of being a bicultural person.

You’ve Experienced Culture Shock Before

jet-program-culture-shock-moving-truck

Photo by The Muuj

Hopefully all this hasn’t gotten you apprehensive about your new life in Japan. Culture shock is nothing to be afraid of. In fact, you’ve probably experienced it before. Maybe you just didn’t have a name for it.

Culture shock is actually a subset of a larger idea called transition shock. It has the same stages and symptoms as culture shock, but it’s felt in varying degrees depending on the transition. Because of this, I think it’s fair to call any transition a “culture” shock. Most transitions involve lifestyle changes and new groups of people with which to integrate.

  • If you’ve ever moved to a new place, you’ve experienced culture shock.
  • If you’ve ever changed schools or gone off to college, you’ve experienced culture shock.
  • If you’ve ever started a new job, you’ve experienced culture shock.
  • If you’ve ever met a group of people you didn’t know before, even that is a type of miniature culture shock.

Though you may not have noticed or don’t remember, you probably experienced a brief period loneliness, nervousness, self-consciousness, or even depression during a transition. These times might have been easier to deal with than moving to a new country because your language and cultural structure didn’t change.

But even with a new language and culture to learn, the basic idea is still the same. You need to adjust and adjusting takes time. In Japan it will take more time than it did during other transitions, but it will happen. You’ve done it before. You can do it again.

JET Program Culture Shock Defined. Now What?

jet-program-culture-shock-light-outside-door

Photo by Montaplex

As you get ready to leave for JET, prepare for culture shock but don’t fear it. Treat it the way you would (should!) treat failure. Not something to loathe, dread, or hate. But rather something to learn from. Steer into it. This may seem scary, but it ultimately offers a lot more control. Like losing control of your car on ice, steer into the slide rather than away. Instead of losing control of the vehicle, you get it back. It may not be the kind of control you’d prefer, but it’s a better and more resilient control than you would have otherwise.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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

Sources:

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Emoji – Japan’s Talking Pictures http://www.tofugu.com/2015/06/18/emoji-japans-talking-pictures/ http://www.tofugu.com/2015/06/18/emoji-japans-talking-pictures/#comments Thu, 18 Jun 2015 13:00:00 +0000 http://www.tofugu.com/?p=52841 Confession: I am an emoji hipster. Before your mom was sending you grinning emoji or that cute boy was texting you heart-eyes emoji, my study abroad friends and I were using our 2009-era SoftBank phones to send each other long, complicated rows of emoji, most of which involved the poop emoji. (As one does.) But […]

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

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

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

Pre-Emoji Emoji

smiley emoji koamoji emoticon

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

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

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

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

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

Made in Japan

docomo-phone

Photo by Mytho88

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

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

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

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

Gaining a Foothold

old-emoji-moons-from-the-old

Photo by wackystuff

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

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

The Journey West

smiley-on-the-escalator-emoji

Photo by TaylorHerring

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

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

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

Decoding Emoji 

emoji-typewriter

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

There are a ton of Japanese food emoji, like:

  • 🍡 Dango

  • 🍱 Bento

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Making Faces

new-yorker-emoji

Photo by Fred Benenson

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

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

Bonus Wallpapers!

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

Sources:

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The Secret Japan Air Self-Defense Force Gundam – And Other Stories http://www.tofugu.com/2015/06/09/the-secret-japan-air-self-defense-force-gundam-and-other-stories/ http://www.tofugu.com/2015/06/09/the-secret-japan-air-self-defense-force-gundam-and-other-stories/#comments Tue, 09 Jun 2015 13:00:00 +0000 http://www.tofugu.com/?p=42430 In August 2014, Japan’s defense ministry announced a new “Space Monitoring Force.” It will utilize personnel from the Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF), the country’s air force. This new team is supposed to become active by 2019. Russia beat Japan to the punch by establishing the Aerospace Monitoring Forces (AMF) on April 1, 2015. But in […]

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

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

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

What Is the Japan Air Self-Defense Force?

jasdf-gundam-f-15-

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

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

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

The History Of Japan Air Self-Defense Force

jasdf-gundan-aotaka-patrol-craft

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

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

What Do They Do?

jasdf-gundam-training-exercises

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

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

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

The Real Ability And Cooperation With U.S.

jasdf-gundam-us-and-japan-cooperation-handshake-military

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

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

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

JASDF in Film, TV, and Anime

jasdf-gundam-godzilla-destroyah-plane-attack-poster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How suggestive is that?

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

Up in the sky!

jasdf-gundam-blue-impulse

Photo by nubobo

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

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

Bonus Wallpapers!

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A Day in the Life of a Japanese Monk http://www.tofugu.com/2015/05/21/a-day-in-the-life-of-a-japanese-monk/ http://www.tofugu.com/2015/05/21/a-day-in-the-life-of-a-japanese-monk/#comments Thu, 21 May 2015 13:00:00 +0000 http://www.tofugu.com/?p=45497 Last year I wrote an article called “The Real Japanese Monk’s Guide To Buddhism In Japan.” At the end of it I said that we would one day explore a real Japanese monk’s day-to-day life. It took a while, but that day has finally arrived. We are finally diving into the intricacies of a the monk life in […]

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Last year I wrote an article called “The Real Japanese Monk’s Guide To Buddhism In Japan.” At the end of it I said that we would one day explore a real Japanese monk’s day-to-day life. It took a while, but that day has finally arrived. We are finally diving into the intricacies of a the monk life in Japan.

I interviewed the same helpful monk from my article last year, Yugaku Ikawa of Daihisen Tatsunoji Temple in Yagyu, Nara. He belongs to a Japanese group of Shingon Buddhists from the Koyasan Shingon-shu sect. The lives of monks from different sects will differ. Even monks from within the same sect are likely to take slightly different paths because each region often has different habits, and monks who have different ranks and/or titles have different responsibilities. Even so, this interview is a great way begin understanding the lives of Japanese monks. I hope you enjoy it!

A Note from Yugaku Ikawa

There are three different types of temples: 観光寺 (かんこうでら/kankou-dera), temples for sightseeing, 御祈祷寺 (ごきとうでら/gokitou-dera), temples for praying, and 檀家寺 (だんかでら/danka-dera), temples for supporters. My temple is a danka-dera. To wrap your head around the idea of danka-dera, imagine Twitter. My temple is a twitter account. I have some followers who like my temple. They are called 檀家 (だんか/danka) or 檀家さん (だんかさん/danka-san) and they provide support to maintain my temple. In return, I assist with their worship for their Buddha and ancestors’ souls.

With this in mind, I’ll walk you through my life as the monk of a danka-dera.

An Ordinary Day

Morning

buddha-statue-altar-of-worship

Photo by kumazoo_jp

5:00am

Good morning! I get up around 5 am, then worship. I read sutra to the Buddha statue in my temple and pray for the peace of the day. It’s like a greeting to Buddhist Gods.

6:00am

I clean my house and altar room.

6:30am

I offer rice and tea to the Buddha statue.

7:00am

I eat breakfast and prepare for the day. My breakfast is usually a banana and yogurt, since my stomach is not that strong. But in principal it should be shojin ryori (monk’s vegetarian diet). Although it’s vegetarian, there are five vegetables called 五辛 (ごしん/goshin) or 五葷 (ごくん/gokun) that are prohibited for monks to eat: green onions, garlic, Chinese chives, scallions, and hajikami, which means both ginger and Japanese sansho pepper. Why? Because they act as aphrodisiacs and are too good for building energy. We are supposed to be calm all the time.

Daytime

HOUJI-SERVICE

Photo by S.R.I.M.I.N.

If there are no funerals that day, I visit the homes of my danka-san (supporters) for worship. There are two types of worship. One is called 月参り (つきまいり/tsukimairi), which is a monthly worship on monthly anniversaries of each family member’s death. I usually visit five to ten places for tsukimairi in a given day. Each tsukimairi usually takes about 10 minutes. The other is called 法事 (ほうじ/houji), which is a Buddhist memorial service which almost all family members attend. These is conducted on the first, third, seventh, thirteenth, seventeenth, twenty-third, twenty-seventh, thirty-third and fiftieth anniversary of a family member’s death. Each houji memorial service takes about an hour.

At a houji memorial service, I not only do worship but also preach a Buddhist sermon. Then I visit the grave and worship there too. When I offer houji memorial services, I usually eat lunch with the family while remembering the deceased and sharing stories about them. At these times, I eat meat and drink alcohol if they are offered because it is rude to refuse.

Evening

shojin-ryori

At whatever time I return from my day’s activities, I start the evening worship. The length of the worship is about a half hour to an hour. Afterward I clean for about twenty minutes. When all the work is done, I have something tasty for dinner though originally monks are supposed to fast during this meal.

Overall, I do 法務 (ほうむ/houmu), which are Buddhist clerical duties, early morning and evening. Later on I do 檀務(だんむ/danmu), which are worship services for the temple’s supporters, during the day time.

Wakes and Funerals

buddhist-wooden-grave-markers

Photo by Tod McQuillin

When somebody passes away, I get a phone call. It can be midnight or early morning. When I get the phone call, I visit the home of the deceased to offer Makura-kyo (also referred to as makura-gyo), which is one of the services held immediately after a person’s death. This is done to offer the first sutra chanting for the first time after death in order to keep the soul of the deceased from wandering before the funeral ceremony starts. Even if I already have other plans for the day, the funeral takes priority, so I ask those involved with my predetermined plans to kindly reschedule. If there are two funerals happening at the same time or some other unavoidable circumstance comes up, I will ask another monk from a different temple to help. Private plans are of course cancelled.

After finishing the makura-kyo ceremony, I have a meeting with the family about how they wish to conduct the wake (viewing) and the funeral and what kind of worship they would like to be performed. The wake is sometimes held the night a person passes, but it can be the next night too. Before the ceremony, I have to write 塔婆 (とうば/touba), which is a wooden grave tablet, and 墓標 (ぼひょう/bohyou), which is a grave-postmark. After the funeral, the family cremates the body and I go with them for a memorial service there, but I leave before they collect the bones. Finally, the family buries the remains on a later date, usually on the forty-ninth day after the person’s death, which is when the Buddhist services for the repose of soul are held.

Obon And Ohigan

obon-lanterns

Photo by Matthew Hine

Obon is the Japanese ritual ceremony that welcomes the souls of ancestors from heaven and to sends them off again. Ohigan is a equinoctial week in which Buddhist services are performed. There are ohigan in both spring and autumn.

I always do the early morning and evening worship and cleaning, but the daytime shift is very different and much busier during these seasons. At these times, all of the supporters want worship services so I have to visit a lot of places. I usually visit about 30 to 40 places a day, and sometimes up to 50. I get so busy that I can only offer 5 to 10 minutes of worship during this season, though I wish I could offer longer ones.

My area is a small countryside town, so my temple’s supporters are all in the same area. The supporters of city temples could be all over the place, so they probably wouldn’t be able to visit as many supporters as I do (probably 10 to 15 places a day). For both ohigan, I also hold memorial services for the people who died during the war on top of the memorial services held at each house.

And We Do It All Again Tomorrow!

And that’s an average day in the life of a Japanese monk! Did you find it interesting? Did you find any parts that you want to learn more about? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below!

Bonus Wallpapers!

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BAKA! Japan’s Most Popular Profanity http://www.tofugu.com/2015/05/11/baka-japans-most-popular-profanity/ http://www.tofugu.com/2015/05/11/baka-japans-most-popular-profanity/#comments Mon, 11 May 2015 13:00:00 +0000 http://www.tofugu.com/?p=50563 “Baka” is the most commonly used Japanese swear word. It usually means foolish or stupid, but can take on a whole range of meanings depending of context, relationship, and various other factors. In kanji, it’s usually written 馬鹿. When separated, the literal meaning of those kanji are 馬 (horse) and 鹿 (deer). These kanji were selected simply […]

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“Baka” is the most commonly used Japanese swear word. It usually means foolish or stupid, but can take on a whole range of meanings depending of context, relationship, and various other factors. In kanji, it’s usually written 馬鹿. When separated, the literal meaning of those kanji are 馬 (horse) and 鹿 (deer). These kanji were selected simply because of their sounds “ba” and “ka”, but there are several other combinations that would have served the same purpose, such as 母娘 (Mother-Daughter), 馬娘 (Horse-Daughter), 破家 (Broken-House), 莫迦 (Trillions-Beautiful voice), 馬稼 (Horse-Earning money), and 跛家 (One foot-House).

It’s also commonly written in Hiragana as ばか or in Katakana as バカ. On the internet, it is sometimes written as “ヴァカ” or “βακα.”

Although baka can be used in several ways, there is certainly a negative connotation attached to it (it is a swear word after all). Thus it’s not typically used in public or legal situations.

For example, if you say “baka” to a subordinate in your company, you may have to spend some time in HR watching videos on an old VCR for a few hours. There is a certain amount of caution that needs to be exercised before pulling this puppy out of your Japanese language arsenal.

Therefore, we are going to study the word “baka” so as not to be 馬鹿 by misusing it.

The Origin Of Baka

horse-and-deer

Photo by GalaxyFM

There are several theories on the origin of baka, which regrettably means we can’t be sure which one is correct. The oldest written usage of baka is in Taiheiki (a Japanese historical epic said to have been written by Kojima Houshi in the 1370s). At the time the word was not 馬鹿 but 馬鹿者 (ばかもの / stupid person). So the theories which take into that 馬鹿者 was the first usage of the term are more believable than others. There’s a multitude of interesting theories but today we’ll focus on just five of them.

#1 A Story from the Shiki (The Records of the Grand Historian from China)

During the era of the second emperor Kogai of the Qin dynasty, his eunuch Choko planned a rebellion in an attempt to usurp his power. He wanted to find out which courtiers were on his side and came up with an idea. He brought a deer to the Imperial palace, offered it to the emperor and said, “I’ve brought you a very rare horse”. Understandably, the emperor got confused and asked, “Isn’t this a deer?”

With a divisive line drawn, Choko then moved towards the courtiers asking, “This is most certainly a horse, is it not?” Those who were afraid of Choko replied, “Yes, this is a horse” and those who did not fear him answered, “No, it’s a deer”. Choko later killed the courtiers who answered deer. From that, the phrase “指鹿為馬” (しかをさしてうまをなす / Pointing at a deer, calling it a horse) arose to describe using power to insist that something is one thing though it is clearly another.

It’s believed that baka comes from this story and this theory is actually the most widely accepted. However, one inconsistency is that the ‘ka’ part of ‘baka’ is actually a Japanese reading and wouldn’t have been read this way in Chinese.

#2 The Sanskrit Word “Moha”

Another word that can be read as “baka” is the kanji 莫迦, which is from the Sanskrit word “moha”, meaning “ignorance” and “illusion”. In this theory, it’s theorized that monks began using baka esoterically and it came into common usage later on. This theory was put forward by an Edo period Japanese scholar, Sadakage Amano, and is used in most major Japanese dictionaries, including the Kojien. However, some studies question this theory since “ignorance” was not among the meanings for baka when it was first used.

An interesting addition to this theory is that in Bengali, the official language of Bangladesh which has its origins in Sanskrit, the word “baka” means “stupid person”.

#3 Wakamono (Young People)

In Japanese “若者” (wakamono) means “young people”. In this theory, the “w” of wakamono was for some reason changed into a “b” when referring to young people as stupid and, thus, “馬鹿者” (bakamono) came into being .

Kunio Yanagida, the father of Japanese native folkloristics, said that the editor of Kojien, Izuru Shinmura, presented this theory but didn’t leave any documents supporting it when he died. So the truth of this theory is still uncertain. What is known, however, is that Shinmura was unwilling to accept the Sanskrit theory of “Moha” for the Kojien.

#4 Bankrupt Family

The word “破家” (baka) in the Zen Buddhist scripture means ‘a family bankrupted’ and it’s said that “馬鹿者” (bakamono) came out of this to refer to a person as “someone that is so stupid that they could allow their family to go bankrupt”. This theory was presented by a professor at Tohoku university, Kiyoji Sato, and adopted by a Japanese dictionary 日本国語大辞典 (Nihon Kokugo Daijiten).

#5 The Family Name 馬 (Horse)

In Bai Juyi’s poetry anthology 白氏文集 (Hakushi Monju), there is a poem about a wealthy Chinese family with the name 馬 who spend all their money on stupid things and eventually go bankrupt. It’s considered 馬鹿者(bakamono) was born as a 馬家者(bakamono), which can be broken down as 馬(Horse)-家(Family’s)-者(Person). This theory was presented by Osamu Matsumoto in his book “全国アホ・バカ分布考” (Zenkoku Aho・Baka Bunpu Kou).

How To Use Baka #Nuance

baka-sticks

Though we can’t be sure how it came into being, we know that baka eventually emerged to take its place as the nasty little word we know and love today. That said, let’s go over how it’s being used presently and learn how to “mind your Ba’s and Ka’s”.

The often observed implications of the word are “insufficient knowledge”, “insufficient thoughtfulness”, “insufficient understanding”, or “abusing the stereotype”. The meaning changes depending on the person who says it, the person/object/situation it is directed towards, and the situation in which it is used.

I know that sounds confusing. With so many possibilities, surely you’ll have trouble knowing exactly when to use it. However, unlimited possibilities mean you pretty much can’t get it wrong. The beauty of the many nuances is that you can just blurt out ばか at any random time and people will automatically correlate the meaning most suited to the current situation. You (mostly) can’t lose!

Be aware though that its usage is quite different regionally. For example, in Kanto (Gunma, Tochigi, Ibaraki, Saitama, Tokyo, Chiba, and Kanagawa), baka is generally used for mild ridicule, whereas it’s the go-to word when you really want to curse someone out in the Kansai region (Mie, Nara, Wakayama, Kyoto, Osaka, Hyogo, and Shiga). Thus, it’s important to note that people take this word very differently depending on where they’re from.

If you know a bit of a certain dialect, you may have heard the synonym “阿呆” (あほ / Aho), which is the most commonly used profanity in Kansai. Although both are very similar words, there are slight differences between them. Baka is often used when someone’s will or effort to understand is lacking, whereas aho is used when someone’s ability to understand is completely lacking. So aho is generally the more nasty of the two.

The place where one must practice the most discretion though, is Hokkaido. People from all over Japan have moved to Hokkaido so there is no way of immediately knowing which side of the Aho / Baka fence someone might fall on. The nastier of the two words may differ depending on the area of Hokkaido you’re in. Hokkaido-ans also have their own regional version of baka, which is はんかくさい (Hankakusai) or in the old dialect たくらんけ (Takuranke), but more on that later.

How To Use Baka #PositiveMeaning

tsuribaka-movie

Baka is often used to mock someone, but it can also be used in a good-natured way. Like the English word “silly”, it could express stupidity, foolishness, and irrationality, but can also describe ridiculousness, an inebriated state, or even feelings of endearment for someone. If you tell that beautiful woman walking down the street or the handsome guy from accounting that they are baka, you’re not likely to get a phone number. But watching how baka is used between people can reveal the kind of relationship they share.

Someone who is really into something can also be called baka. In this case, “baka” means that you are so keenly interested and involved in something that your attention for other people or other things is lacking. For example, there is a famous movie called “釣りバカ日誌” (つりばかにっし / Tsuri-Baka-Nisshi / Fishing Fool’s Diary) in which the the main character is a salaryman whose top priority is fishing. This particular meaning is often self-appointed and sometimes denotes a sort of respect.

Some more examples of this usage are: 野球馬鹿 (Yakyu-baka) meaning someone who is really into baseball. If you are really into learning Japanese, you might call yourself日本語馬鹿 (Nihongo-baka).

Baka can also be used for someone who works so diligently and purposefully towards a sole endeavor that they become a master of that one thing. For this type of 馬鹿, there is another expression, which is “愚直の念” (ぐちょくのねん / Guchoku No Nen). 愚直 means simply and stupidly honest and 念 refers to a sense or feeling. An example of this usage is the title of the manga『空手バカ一代』(からてばかいちだい / Karate Baka Ichidai / A Karate-Crazy Life).

How To Use Baka #Combination

chewbacca

The most common word paired with 馬鹿 directly translates as something you might have combined with the phrase “dummy” or “meanie” when you were three. 大 (おお / oo / Big) is commonly added to the beginning of baka and is used when someone is being really stupid, or大馬鹿 (おおばか / oobaka ) a “Big Stupid”.

This is also used when somebody goes a little kooky. Instead of using 大, young people often add激 (げき / Geki / Intense) or 超 (ちょう / Chou / Very) which form to become激馬鹿 (げきばか / Gekibaka / Intensely Stupid) or 超馬鹿 (ちょうばか / Choubaka / Very Stupid). It’s not the exact same pronunciation as the character Chewbacca, but it’s good way to help you remember.

Another common word paired with 馬鹿 is 馬鹿野郎 (ばかやろう / bakayarou / stupid man). I supposed the equivalent in English would be something like “dude”, as 野郎 (やろう / yarou) is slang for ‘man’. However, unlike dude, it can take on a bad meaning like jerk, schmuck, or other more inappropriate names. Combining 馬鹿 with such a word can come off pretty strong, but if you’re through the roof 馬鹿野郎 is not strong enough. For intense situations you need the big guns.

If you add 大 in front like 大馬鹿野郎 (おおばかやろう / oobakayarou / Incredibly stupid person) then you’ll definitely cut the offending person down to size.

Sometimes, 野郎 (Yarou) is replaced with a neutral word, such as 者 (もの / mono / person), or with a more nasty word like たれ (tare). When you add 小 (こ / ko /small) instead of 大 in front of 馬鹿, as in 小馬鹿 (こばか / kobaka), you get the meaning of ‘to look down on someone’.

Examples of Usage

few-screws-loose-screws

Photo by Andrew Dobrow

To get a better idea of when and where you should use each instance of baka, I’ve put together some situations so you use the right baka at the right time.

#1. To rail at someone who made a mistake or did something stupid.
“ ばか!” “ばかもの!” “ばかやろう!”

#2. To regret that you or someone else did something stupid.
“馬鹿なことをした” (I/You/He/She/They did such a stupid thing.)

In this case, you can add a suffix like 馬鹿なことをしたよ(yo), 馬鹿なことをしたな(na), 馬鹿なことをしたね(ne), 馬鹿なことをしたもんだ(monda) to the end for adding some more specific nuance. As for ね (ne), here is the explanation what kind of meaning it will add.

#3. To look down on someone who doesn’t know something you consider to be common knowledge.
“〜も知らないの?馬鹿だね” (You don’t even know ~? You are such a simple minded person)
“テストで0点取ったの?馬鹿だな” (You got a score of 0 on the test? You must be pretty dumb.)

#4. Someone who can’t think objectively or rationally about something.

“親馬鹿” (おやばか) – 親 (おや- Oya) means parents and combines with baka to become 親馬鹿 (Oyabaka) means ‘overly-fond parents’. In this case, a parent loves their child/children so much that they can’t think objectively or rationally when it comes to them.

#5. Someone who is only well learned in one subject and lacks common knowledge. In this usage, the meaning of baka is similar to otaku.
あいつは数学馬鹿だから。(あいつはすうがくばかだから) (He is crazy about math.)
あいつは野球馬鹿だから。(あいつはやきゅうばかだから) (He is crazy about baseball.)
あいつはサッカー馬鹿だから。(あいつはさっかーばかだから) (He is crazy about soccer.)

#6. Something that is useless or broken.
ネジが馬鹿になる。(ねじがばかになる) (The screw loosened and won’t fasten anymore.)
嗅覚が馬鹿になる。(きゅうかくがばかになる) (Your sense of smell has become stupid.)

#7 Used as a prefix to express something extraordinary.
馬鹿正直 (ばかしょうじき) (Super honest)
馬鹿デカイ(ばかでかい) (Super big)
馬鹿騒ぎ (ばかさわぎ) (Party out)
馬鹿受け(ばかうけ) (Super funny, Very popular)
馬鹿売れ (ばかうれ) (Sold very well)

Baka Dialects

godzilla-makes-a-plan

I briefly mentioned the Hokkaido dialectal differences for baka earlier, but why not learn each prefectural dialect, as well? Some places just use ばか and don’t have dialectical variation, but most have fun ways to call people stupid. (Note: Some regions in the prefecture may use different expressions. The Japanese dialects are not perfectly divided by the prefectural boundary.)

Okinawa: ふらー
Kagoshima:ばか
Miyazaki: しちりん
Oita:ばかたん
Kumamoto:あんぽんたん
Nagasaki: ばか
Saga:にとはっしゅ
Fukuoka:あんぽんたん
Kochi:あほー
Ehime:ぽんけ
Kagawa:ほっこ
Tokushima:あほ
Yamaguchi:ばか
Shimane:だらじ
Tottori:だらず
Hiroshima:ばか
Okayama:あんごー
Wakayama:あほ
Nara:あほ
Hyogo:だぼ
Osaka:どあほ
Kyoto:あほ
Shiga:あほー
Mie:あんご
Gifu:たわけ
Aichi:たーけ
Shizuoka:ばか
Fukui:あほ
Ishikawa:だら
Toyama:だら
Niigata:ばか
Nagano:ぬけさく
Yamanashi:ぬけさく
Kanagawa:ばか
Tokyo:ばか
Chiba:ばか
Saitama:ばか
Gunma:ばか
Tochigi:うすばが
Ibaraki:でれ
Fukushima:ばか
Yamagata:あんぽんたん
Akita:ばかけ
Miyagi:ほんでなす
Iwate:とぼけ
Aomori:ほんじなし
Hokkaido:はんかくさい

Which one is your favorite? Mine is にとはっしゅ in Saga. It sounds cute, doesn’t it?

Conclusion

dunce-parade

Photo by Steve Voght

Harlan Ellison once said “the two most common elements in the world are hydrogen and stupidity.” With so many ways to be stupid, we humans need just as many ways to call it out. So study up on these variations of “baka”, so you’re ready for whatever dumb situations life throws at you, or so you can accurately describe yourself when you absent mindedly find yourself in baka whirlpool of your own making. Whether talking about your love of fishing or blowing off some steam with some casual Japanese swearing, be sure to use 馬鹿 responsibly, effectively, and maybe even a little bit foolishly.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Japanese Civic Duty: A Look at the Responsibility of 日本 http://www.tofugu.com/2015/04/22/japanese-civic-duty-look-responsibility-%e6%97%a5%e6%9c%ac/ http://www.tofugu.com/2015/04/22/japanese-civic-duty-look-responsibility-%e6%97%a5%e6%9c%ac/#comments Wed, 22 Apr 2015 13:00:00 +0000 http://www.tofugu.com/?p=50884 So after exploring how conservative and hardworking the Japanese are, let’s look at another related topic. The (very condensed) logic goes like this: Fact 1: Japan’s streets are really clean. And the Japanese don’t really seem to litter. Fact 2: Japan is (generally) safe and there’s usually no problem with walking around at 2 am. Fact 3: […]

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So after exploring how conservative and hardworking the Japanese are, let’s look at another related topic. The (very condensed) logic goes like this:

Fact 1: Japan’s streets are really clean. And the Japanese don’t really seem to litter.
Fact 2: Japan is (generally) safe and there’s usually no problem with walking around at 2 am.
Fact 3: Japan is orderly. You probably heard of the neat lines at disaster camps immediately after the 3/11 earthquake of 2011. Looting would most likely have occurred elsewhere.

Conclusion: The Japanese are responsible.

This isn’t as common a stereotype as the previous ones I’ve talked about, but I still do hear about this from time to time. Variations of this include statements that the Japanese are civic-minded or mature.

To me, responsibility has two parts. There’s the follow-the-rules part which the Japanese excel at and which is clearly reflected in the general peace that tourists observe in Japan. However there’s a more proactive element to responsibility too – the part which requires that people not just follow the rules but make new ones when those existing don’t work anymore.

This is where the Japanese come a bit short.

Good at Following Rules

To the left, to the left.

Photo by Dom Pates

If you’ve been to Japan you don’t need me to say much about this. You probably noticed the very clean streets despite the fact that there are hardly any trash bins around. Indeed the Japanese do hold on to their trash until they reach home or the nearest combini. You also may have noticed a very low (not zero) crime rate and it’s not as if there’s that particularly strong a police presence on the Japanese streets anyway. Heck, they peacefully ride their bicycles around and will even help you – very nicely – if you’re lost and ask them for directions. It all leaves the general impression that everyone is law-abiding.

The statistics back this up. This website, calculating a “crime index” score based on various statistics, puts Japan as the country with the 8th lowest score in the world. This is furthered by this table which notes Japan’s very low homicide rate – outranked only by countries such as Liechtenstein, Singapore (yay!) and a few others.

Of course crime statistics only reflect crimes that are actually reported. But I can’t think of a reason why Japanese people are less likely to report homicide and robbery than people in other countries. Distortions arise when it comes to crimes which have a certain “shame” element – we’re talking about molestation, domestic violence, and rape – but this alone doesn’t fully account for the gap in statistics. The Japanese are indeed less likely to cause violent crime than people from other countries.

Some rather interesting incidents follow from this. People who have lost their phones and wallets in Japan will likely tell you about how a very kind Japanese person returned it to the nearest police box. And I have to say I don’t know any other country where this would happen so commonly. Another example – a friend of mine, as what occurs in many other places in the world, torrented a textbook for class. He then posted a status on Facebook offering his coursemates a copy – just message me.

Bad move. What came after was a hail of universal castigation and horror and sonna koto shicha dame yo. Perhaps unthinkable anywhere else and very “only-in-Japan,” but this certainly fulfills the definition of “responsibility”.

A Cultural Grounding?

Photo by Jun Seita

So what makes things this way? I don’t have a concrete answer but there’s a few explanations that people point to.

Firstly some cultural explanations: this article raises a few (and some limitations to Japan’s crime-free image). Maybe there’s something in Confucian cultures and “shame societies” that explains why Japan fits within the wider pattern of low crime in East Asia.

In addition to that there’s another layer of the Japanese concept of “meiwaku” (to trouble someone else). The Japanese themselves go through pains to avoid “meiwaku o kakeru” (troubling other people) so perhaps this layers on top of the Confucian culture stated above. Many people also refer to the state of the Japanese classroom – that it is the kids and not the janitors who are in charge of cleaning the classrooms. Also it is the students who distribute school lunches. The conclusion therefore is that these tasks have instilled a sense of duty in them. Some others refer to Japan’s low gun ownership for low violent crime levels.

Other explanations refer to economics – pointing out that Japan has a much lower rate of inequality compared to, for example, the USA. But this argument doesn’t make much sense given the other East Asian countries with similarly low crime rates but with much higher levels of inequality (eg. Hong Kong). Maybe there’s something to be said about the Japanese culturally-speaking being more rule-abiding.

The Other Side of the Coin

Photo by Moyan Brenn

You may have noticed that so far I’m deliberately avoiding the words “responsible”, “ethical” and “civic”. The first reason is that while everyday crime may be low, this doesn’t stop Japan from having big scandals very contrary to public interest. A short list to refresh your memory:

  • The Fukushima disaster and clear lapses in public accountability from all sides.
  • Environmental disasters in the period of rapid growth (see Four Big Pollution Diseases of Japan) – clearly there was nothing intrinsically cultural back then to stop companies from acting in this manner.
  • This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Tokyo Sarin Gas attacks – the perpetrators were Japanese. The cult was founded in Japan and many of the members were actually members of the Japanese elite. The victims were of course Japanese.

So there are quite a few examples of Japanese irresponsible behavior, but in what ways is this irresponsibility expressed?

Responsible – but to Whom?

The Minamata disease was one of the Four Big Pollution Diseases which involved both corporate and government cover-ups of mercury pollution. Photo by Marufish

The above examples show that in Japan, loyalty and following the group’s orders sometimes overrules responsibility to society. But then again this is no different from any other part of the world – sub-prime loans and the banking crisis a few years back being an example.

The more peculiar point in Japan’s case is that people may need to be more responsible to themselves instead of the social groups and institutions they belong to. Karoshi (death from overwork, see this article for more info) is the most obvious example. Besides this example, perhaps it would be better if the Japanese sometimes don’t do the “endure-and-sumimasen” which you see quite often. Certainly this is linked to the Japanese idea of humility – When you see an angry old Japanese man berating some shop staff for something which really isn’t her fault, you might think that maybe she shouldn’t apologize so much.

What About Rotten Rules?

One part of responsibility involves not breaking rules. The other part is actively contributing to society, which can sometimes mean not blindly following outdated/unfair/unnecessary rules.

The second point requires a proactive attitude which isn’t that strong in Japan. Consider the following:

Japanese people spend around the same time volunteering as those in other OECD countries. This book notes that Japan has a very small professional civil society sector. That is, Japanese people take an active role in, for example, neighborhood associations and Parent Teacher Associations (which partly function as social gatherings). However, when it comes to NGOs which actually require full time employed staff – that is to say, those which are more likely to be tackling actual social problems and involved in advocacy – the number of employees is extremely low compared to other developed countries. This in turn suggests weak cash flows, limited scope of activities, and a weak and small civil society within Japan.

This article also ranks Japan as number 120 in 153 countries on a “world giving index score”. According to the study,

  • 17% of Japanese have given money to charity in the last month (tied with 8 other countries at 107th place)
  • 23% of Japanese have volunteered at an organization last month (tied with 4 other countries at 49th place, but note problems stated above)
  • 25% of Japanese have “helped a stranger in the last month” (145th place)

The last one is problematic, since it’s self-reported, and the Japanese may not feel like they’re helping others when they are, and vice-versa for those in other countries. The question is whether this is enough to explain Japan’s low ranking in these statistics.

Political participation is another topic which is more ambiguous. Japan doesn’t actually have that low of voter ratings (around 52.6% in the most recent year vs. 54.9% 2012 US presidential elections). What is unambiguously discernible though is that the young are extremely disengaged. This article provides a nice summary of the issues. Japanese youth tend to think, in comparison to other surveyed countries, that their actions do not make much of a difference, which is reflected in low voting and political participation rates.

“Citizenship”

Note that Japan has faced quite a few changes regarding how “responsible” their citizens have been. Japan, like most of the developed West, was also caught up in a wave of militant student activism in the 1960s which died down very quickly in the 1970s. On the other hand, it was the 1995 Hanshin-awaji earthquake which is considered to have brought out a “volunteer revolution in Japan”. On that note however, the earthquake 4 years ago has not galvanized civil society as much as one might hope, as explained in this article. This (very dense) article explains the history of it – that having an active citizenry (civil society) only became a trending idea after the Hanshin-Awaji disaster, but citizen activism was seen suspiciously in the context of left-wing agitation due to 1960s student movements.

What’s important to recognize is that there are different aspects of what makes a responsible citizen. Yes, a responsible citizen respects the rules of society, sorts out their trash and returns lost cellphones and wallets. The first two are performed very well by the Japanese while the third makes them (in my view) exceptional. And I don’t mean to say that this isn’t important but as I’ve argued in the second half of this article, when it comes to an “active citizenry,” Japan looks relatively weak. This is ironic because it’s not like Japan has a lack of social problems which need attention.

In the end, it looks like an imbalanced picture for the Japanese – responsible in following the rules and decorum, but not so much when it comes to pushing for change and trying to solve problems in society.

Bonus Wallpapers!

JapaneseCivicDuty-1280
[Desktop – 5120×2880 / 1280×720] ・ [Mobile]

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Staying Safe in Japan http://www.tofugu.com/2015/04/15/staying-safe-japan/ http://www.tofugu.com/2015/04/15/staying-safe-japan/#comments Wed, 15 Apr 2015 13:00:00 +0000 http://www.tofugu.com/?p=44060 During my eight years in Japan, I’ve been to my share of conferences and they’ve covered all sorts of topics. Some are repeated every year – like “Successful Team Teaching” and “Fostering Student Communication.” A few topics provided life-saving information like how to perform CPR, use an AED, and prepare for an earthquake. Others pointed out the obvious, like not destroying hotels rooms or driving under the […]

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During my eight years in Japan, I’ve been to my share of conferences and they’ve covered all sorts of topics. Some are repeated every year – like “Successful Team Teaching” and “Fostering Student Communication.” A few topics provided life-saving information like how to perform CPR, use an AED, and prepare for an earthquake. Others pointed out the obvious, like not destroying hotels rooms or driving under the influence.

One crucial topic remained curiously ignored, however: staying safe in Japan.

But Japan ranks as one of the world’s safest countries! Home to an incredibly low crime rate! The chances of anything bad happening are slim to none, right? Why worry?

Ironically, Japan’s reputation for safety gives the issue even more importance. Don’t get me wrong, Japan is safe; safer than the countries most foreigners in Japan hail from. But that feeling of safety makes it easy to grow too comfortable, too complacent. And that’s where danger lies.

Japan’s crime rate may be low, but crime still exists. The special circumstances foreigners in Japan face as unique individuals in a homogenous society make the topic all the more important for visitors and ex-pats alike.

But fear not! An ounce of prevention can be all it takes to avoid becoming part of the small percentage of victims.

Japan’s Safe Reputation

children-on-phone-alone-in-japan

Photo by Arria Belli

A 2014 Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development study ranked Japan as “the safest country in the world.” The country touts “the second-lowest homicide rate after Iceland and the second-lowest assault rate after Canada.”

So it’s no surprise that people in Japan feel safe. Nationmaster.com, a site dedicated to statistical information of countries around the world, lists Japan as number one in people feeling safe walking alone at night. In overall worries about being attacked, Japanese citizens ranked third least worried. Living in Japan offers the undeniable luxury of safe feeling.

Rocketnews24 seconds that notion. In a poll ranking “the top ten instances people feel thankful to be Japanese,” public order and safety ranked second behind Japanese food. One participant commented, “I can sleep on the train in peace, and even if I walk alone at night, it’s not as dangerous as it is overseas.” Interestingly, that comment was made by a 23-year-old female, a member of one of the most at-risk demographics.

The media, both in Japan and abroad, promote this safe, worry-free atmosphere. To people overseas, Japan’s low crime rates seem like an amazing oddity. Children walk home and explore shopping malls with no adult supervision. Lone women stroll back allies and dark streets in both populated and unpopulated areas. People leave bags unattended while going to the bathroom.

I’m not alone in these observations. Lucy Rodgers of BBC News explained, “I had been informed that Japanese people did not lock their doors, left their cars running with the keys in the ignition and would never rip you off.”

Japan’s lack of crime and worry in everyday life shocks visitors used to caution as an everyday practice. Unaccompanied children riding the subway astounded Michael Weening in his article entitled “Is Tokyo Really Safe?” His blog continued the tale of how a man came to Mr. Weening’s aid when he had lost his way in the mountains. His reply to the title question: “The answer is yes, (Tokyo) is that safe.”

Anecdotes like that are common. An internet search brings up stories of lost wallets being found and returned with money intact, bicycles and even homes being unlocked with no negative consequence.

Japan’s lack of crime makes headlines, impresses tourists, and provides a point of pride for the country and its citizenry. Japanese citizens worry about crime less than any other people in the world. The message is clear – Japan is safe.

But examples of safety are just that, examples. Remember, a low crime rate doesn’t mean crime doesn’t exist. That fact is key to avoiding victimization.

Foreigners’ Special Circumstances

foreign-man-anime

In a homogenous country like Japan, physical differences stand out. Size, hair-color, eye-color, skin color, and language all highlight the fact someone is not “Japanese.” Foreigners stick out as exotic exceptions to the average Japanese build and appearance.

Considering the permeation and popularity of western culture and the English language, this can attract both wanted and unwanted attention. Lucy Rodgers explains,”There is a certain fascination – which may have something to do with how foreigners are portrayed on the TV – and you are probably the closest thing some people have to meeting such people, particularly in more rural areas.” Any foreigner asked to take photos with random bystanders can attest to feeling like a pseudo-celebrity.

The less foreign people in a particular area, the more one stands out. This is particularly true for foreigners in small towns and secluded areas, where your name, address, and job become common knowledge. Random people might (think they) know your favorite foods, the onsen you frequent, your hobbies, or your love life.

Those with an interest in English may seek you out, hoping to practice. Some even go as far to make you feel it’s your duty to provide such services – you know, being a foreigner in Japan and all.

Usually it’s just fun, innocent gossip. Local foreigners provide an exotic flavor to everyday life and a chance to learn about life and culture beyond Japan. But occasionally those with an interest in foreigners, particularly of the opposite sex, aren’t so innocent.

Holly Lanasolyluna of The Japan Times writes, “In a way, white women become plastic here: imports without feelings — strange, exotic dolls. And if we are dolls, perhaps the groping, leering, stalking and attacking is somehow justified in the perpetrator’s mind as a game rather than a crime.”

Despite the feeling of safety, people can feel reluctant to get involved, even when a crime is taking place. Holly Lanasolyluna reveals the details of an attack that occurred in Osaka. It was 10am when a stranger overpowered her and dragged her towards a love hotel.

Our struggle went on for at least 10 minutes, and none of the many onlookers helped or even appeared concerned. Finally, I saw a police officer down the street and screamed at my attacker, “Look! Look! It’s the police!” That seemed to frighten him, and at that point he walked over to a nearby vending machine, bought me a water, said “gomen nasai” (sorry) and walked away.

Perhaps the language barrier is partially to blame. Even police officers fear dealing with communication difficulties. Attackers can feign ignorance if faced with charges. Add a culture of looking the other way to the mix and you have ingredients for disaster when the rare attack strikes.

“I now know I can’t rely on the goodwill of strangers, as I have in the past when I was verbally harassed in countries such as Mexico,” Lanasolyluna admits.

But just how rare are these kinds of attacks?

Women’s Special Circumstances

women-in-kimono-in-japan

Photo by Shadowgate

Holly Lanasolyluna‘s police officer blamed her for the attack, “You’re a young girl, and maybe you shouldn’t be out by yourself alone at night.”

“No details about the incident were recorded,” she reveals, “Not only had every bystander ignored my pleas for help, but the police had also given me a terribly disappointing response – basically, ‘Shō ga nai, ne?’ (What can you do, eh?).”

Confused and ashamed, Lanasolyluna took the situation to the internet. The results were disturbing.

I posted a description of what had happened on Facebook and asked if people had had similar experiences. The response was overwhelming: stories of being attacked while jogging, being stalked by male and female students, being groped on the street in broad daylight, men masturbating on trains, attempted kidnappings. All of these stories came from strong women who put up a vicious fight but still walked away with psychological (and sometimes physical) injuries. In all of these stories, the victims had been in a “safe” public place but no one tried to help them or call the police. If this is so common, why does Japan maintain a reputation for being so safe? And is this image of safety actually facilitating these incidents?

She’s not alone, Vivian Morelli of Japan Today writes:

Over my three years living all over Japan, I can recall numerous incidents involving a stalker, or a “chikan” (groper) on crowded trains or empty streets. Those Japanese men are usually curious or obsessed with foreign women, they’re mentally unstable, and the experience is terrifying and unsettling.”

The harsh reality is, women experience a greater rate of attacks no matter the location. In The Gift of Fear, Gavin de Becker explains, “Women… live with a constant wariness. Their lives are literally on the line in ways men just don’t experience… At core, men are afraid women will laugh at them, while at core women are afraid men will kill them”(77).

Although these personal accounts don’t represent the norm, it’s important to take them into consideration. When it comes to one’s safety, it’s better to err on the side of caution.

Is Japan safe? Yes.

Is it one hundred percent safe? No.

Is it as safe as Japan would like us to believe? Apparently not.

The Horrible Truth

japanese-police-officers-on-motocycles

These accounts add suspicion to the growing evidence of police misappropriation of data in Japan. As a result, crime rates are higher than “official” reports would lead us to believe. By ignoring or failing to report crimes, particularly “unsolvable” crimes, Japan’s law enforcement agencies keep crime rates low and success rates high.

In 2014 Asahi Shinbun broke news on police data manipulation in Osaka.

Osaka police have admitted they did not report more than 81,000 offenses over a period of several years in a desperate bid to clean up the region’s woeful reputation for street crime. The revelation came earlier this week when embarrassed authorities said they had kept the data out of national crime statistics between 2008 and 2012… The vast majority of covered-up crimes were for theft… but hundreds of more serious offenses such as muggings and even murder may have been omitted from official crime data.

Havard Bergo of Nation Master Blog writes, “Former detectives claim that police (are) unwilling to investigate homicides unless there is a clear suspects and frequently labels unnatural deaths as suicides without performing autopsies.”

Bruce Wallace of the Los Angeles Times blames a taboo in regards to handling the dead, but criticizes instances of falsified autopsies.

Forensic scientists say there are many reasons for the low rate, including inadequate budgets and a desperate shortage of pathologists outside the biggest urban areas. There is also a cultural resistance in Japan to handling the dead, with families often reluctant to insist upon a procedure that invades the body of a loved one… (But) police discourage autopsies that might reveal a higher homicide rate in their jurisdiction, and pressure doctors to attribute unnatural deaths to health reasons, usually heart failure, the group alleges.

Instances of falsified data force us to view crime rates with a shrewd eye and remind us not to grow too complacent. Perhaps Japan’s crime rate statistics are too good to be true.

Too Comfortable

orange-leaves-in-kyoto

Photo by akira535

After the attacks, Holly Lanasolyluna reveals,

Interest from strangers that I could have dismissed as innocent curiosity a few years ago now gives me the chills… When I first moved to Japan, I tolerated the staring, following and persistent nampa (pickup artists), but after being assaulted twice in public, they have taken on darker undertones.

Lucy Rodgers admits growing too comfortable after her arrival in Kochi, a rural prefecture in Shikoku. But a highly publicized attack changed Rodgers attitude. The lesson learned is one that anyone visiting or living in Japan should take to heart. Rodgers explains, “The incident was an early warning to all of us that Japan may not be as safe as it first appeared.”

When we constantly feel and are told we are safe, we start to believe it and drop our guards. We might leave a bicycle unlocked one day. Then a second. Then it becomes a habit until one day the bicycle disappears.

Lucy Rodgers puts it best, “There are always exceptions to the rule, and you need to remember that.”

Strategies to Stay Safe

danger-sign

Despite Japan’s ranking as the world’s safest nation, crime happens. Women have the most to fear, but everyone can benefit from learning safety measures and taking extra precaution. The following strategies can get pretty heavy and might leave you feeling paranoid. My intent is not to instill a sense of fear but a sense of preparation, understanding, and even confidence. We are not helpless and being proactive can reduce the chances of falling victim in Japan, or anywhere.

Understand Who the Criminals Are

one-piece-criminals

Since crime and violence involve perpetrators, it’s important to realize who the potential criminals are. Few criminal lineups feature men in trench-coats with eye-patches, facial scars, and hook hands. How many times has the news reported, “He seemed like a normal, polite guy that liked to keep to himself”? As mild acquaintances often attest after the fact, criminals appear to be normal, even kind and friendly people.

Anyone can be a criminal.

In his book, The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals that Protect us From Violence, violence prediction and management expert Gavin De Becker explains, “When we accept that violence is committed by people who look and act like people, we silence the voice of denial, the voice that whispers, ‘this guy doesn’t look like a killer.'”

Acknowledge Intuition

ookami-san-anime

By gaining a greater understanding of criminals, criminal tactics, and human nature we can gain an edge against potential crime.

De Becker explains that nature has armed us with a very powerful safety tool – intuition. De Becker describes intuition as a useful, smart, intuitive impulse. He writes, “Intuition heeded is far more valuable than simple knowledge… Trust that what causes alarm probably should, because when it comes to danger, intuition… is always a response to something and always has your best interest at heart.”

Intuition usually comes as a “gut feeling” based on subconscious environmental cues. But intuition differs from ordinary worry. De Becker explains, “Worry (is an) habituated, often projective and pointless activity that just makes us needlessly paranoid in situations where we don’t have to be.” Intuition, on the other hand, occurs out of the blue, often times without discernible reason.

If a situation doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t, even if you can’t figure out why at the time.

Pre-Incident Indicators and Criminal Strategies

everyday-justice-book

Photo by umjanedoan

But how should we react when facing confrontation? De Becker presents Pre-Incident Indicators – or PIN’s – to help avoid falling victim to violence. The first step is accepting that anyone has the potential to commit crimes. The second is being aware of criminal strategies.

  • Forced Teaming – When someone attempts to establish a connection, making us feel like we’re facing a similar problem. Usually it’s a simple statement to make us feel like “we’re in the same boat.” De Becker gives an example of a conversation between two strangers seated together on a plane that set off his alarm. The man commented to the woman, “I hate not having a ride.” The woman responded, “Wait you don’t have one either, shall we get a cab together?”
  • Charm – Motivated niceness. “To charm is to compel, to control by allure or attraction” (De Becker). Charm is difficult to overcome because we want to trust kind, charming people. Remember that acting nice can be a strategy to make us feel safe and open up. No matter how charming or engaging someone appears, “you must never lose sight of the context: he is a stranger who approached you.”
  • Too Many Details – “When people tell the truth, they don’t feel doubted, so they don’t feel the need for additional support in the form of details.” Liars and criminals say too much in an attempt to prove they’re trustworthy. Be wary of strangers that offer too much information.
  • Typecasting – A man labels a woman in a critical way (maybe even an insult), hoping she’ll feel compelled to prove him wrong. Statements like, “You’re probably too cool for a guy like me,” are actually accusations used to create a sense of guilt. It’s safer to live with the guilt than to prove yourself to a potentially dangerous stranger.
  • Loan Sharking – A criminal wants to help you “because that would place you in his debt, and the fact you owe him something makes it hard to ask him to leave you alone.” Beware of helpful strangers, particularly when they wear out their welcome.
  • Unsolicited Promise – Criminals often try to strike deals to get closer to victims. “If you just talk to me for five minutes, I’ll leave you alone, I promise.” De Becker points out, “There’s no compensation if the speaker fails to deliver.” Be wary of coercive deals and promises.
  • Discounting “No” – “No” is a word that must never be negotiated. “The person who chooses not to hear it is trying to control you…. With strangers… never, ever relent of the issue of ‘no.’ ” Once you say “no,” do not bend. It sets a dangerous precedent (that persistence will overcome) that you can be coerced.

By assigning labels to “approach strategies,” De Becker makes them understandable, easy to discuss, and (best of all) memorable.

Ignore Empathy

shin-sekai-yori-anime

Don’t worry about angering or disappointing a stranger who approaches you. Anyone with good intentions will understand that receiving the cold shoulder from a stranger is a natural reaction. If the person does become upset or angry, all the more reason to avoid them.

Appear Strong

the-knight-in-the-area

Never appear weak to a stranger or potential attacker. Stand straight, look them in the face, appear strong and able. De Becker explains, “It is better to turn completely, take in everything, and look squarely at someone who concerns you. This not only gives you information, but it communicates to him that you are not a tentative, frightened victim-in-waiting.”

Treat Japan as Everywhere Else

cromartie-high-school-panel-bike-safety

Although Japan might feel safe, always maintain the same habits and caution you would in your home country. Vivian Morelli of Japan Today suggests, “It’s fundamental to not put yourself in situations that could potentially be dangerous: walking alone at night in sketchy areas, taking dark roads/streets, not locking the door, or going inside the house of someone you barely know. NEVER, EVER do that.”

Falling victim to crimes often follows committing actions, habits or feelings that defy logic. “He wouldn’t do something like that,” “She seemed so nice,” or “It wouldn’t happen here,” are excuses on the road to ruin. Morelli continued, “People forget and think they feel safe, but they may not be and it can end tragically.”

English teachers best heed extra caution. Take prudence when dealing with customers, students, and coworkers. Morelli explains, “If you give private English lessons, NEVER go to their house, only meet in a crowded cafe.”

Tell Someone

hyouka-anime

If something worries you don’t keep it secret. Tell your friends, trusted coworkers or the police. Keep important contacts at hand at all times. Don’t worry about overreacting. It’s better to feel silly afterwards than to become a victim.

Morelli writes:

Avoid any situation or place where he might try to approach you. Take the women-only car in the train at rush hour, even though lurkers sometimes find their way in. Most importantly, live in a safe neighborhood and building, know your neighbors, and always be aware of your surroundings.

Now That We’re All Feeling Grim…

Of course not everyone is out to get you, although these strategies (and reading The Gift of Fear) might leave you with that impression. Since I started writing this piece, even I’ve been feeling a bit on edge.

The challenge lies in balance; being careful but not allowing worry rule your life. When dealing with new people, use extra caution. Until you’ve gotten to know someone well, limit activities to crowded places at reasonable times of day. Try not to allow feelings to overwhelm logical decision making. In the end, hopefully you’ll separate the keepers from the riff-raff.

Remember, these tips and techniques apply anywhere, not just in Japan. We are not helpless. By taking extra precaution, acknowledging intuition while overcoming illogical feelings of obligation, empathy, and fears of overreacting we stand a better chance at avoiding victimhood.

Please Stay Safe and Enjoy Japan!

shibuya-at-night

Photo by Guwashi

My arrival in Tokyo in the summer of 2007 coincided with one of Japan’s most intense manhunts. Lindsay Hawker, an English teacher, had been murdered by one of her male students. The haunting wanted posters served as a reminder that even in a country as safe as Japan, we should always be cautious.

Yet, amidst all the media coverage and activity, the issue of safety was never brought up in work related meetings, lectures, or events. Hopefully it’ll never be necessary, but The Gift of Fear inspired me to write this piece, thinking it might help someone, someday.

Japan is an amazing place with amazing people. Despite a higher crime rate than official data implies, it’s still an astonishingly safe country. The Japan Times points out, “Even though the economy has been in the doldrums for two decades, the crime rate has not risen the way it often does in countries facing tough times.” But even if Japan was as safe as statistics imply, it’s still best to use caution.

Like CPR, AED, and earthquake lectures, I present this article hoping to offer useful, empowering information without any intent to fear-monger or victim-blame. And please remember, there is no fool-proof way to avoid crime, but learning a few strategies can help prevent the worst.

“I would have gone anywhere and done anything,” Lucy Rodgers admits. “Especially where I was in rural Japan, but also in the big cities, everyone is so generous and friendly, you forget about safety issues. You don’t have the radar for it (danger) anymore.”

Please take caution, keep your danger radar turned on and protect yourself. Enjoy everything Japan has to offer, but never lose sight of possible dangers.

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Becoming a Father in Japan http://www.tofugu.com/2015/04/01/becoming-a-father-in-japan/ http://www.tofugu.com/2015/04/01/becoming-a-father-in-japan/#comments Wed, 01 Apr 2015 13:00:00 +0000 http://www.tofugu.com/?p=50088 Her water broke at three o’clock in the morning. I’d been born two weeks early myself so I expected this. I put on yesterday’s clothes and picked up the suitcase that was waiting in the corner. We had to be prepared since Japanese mothers are usually expected to provide for themselves (toiletries, towels, pajamas, etc.) […]

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Her water broke at three o’clock in the morning.

I’d been born two weeks early myself so I expected this. I put on yesterday’s clothes and picked up the suitcase that was waiting in the corner. We had to be prepared since Japanese mothers are usually expected to provide for themselves (toiletries, towels, pajamas, etc.) during their often week-long hospital stay after birth.

The hospital doesn’t provide any amenities, but a week long recovery in the hospital is something a lot of the world’s mommies could only dream of. At the end of my wife’s visit, the hospital even gave her a special three star meal to celebrate. Prenatal services are also top-notch in Japan, with many cities offering expecting mothers free childcare and delivery classes. I remember my wife leafing through a special baby handbook city hall gave us, which thoughtfully included color photos of healthy baby poop. We’re well prepared.

I email the in-laws and tell them it’s time. I do this on my iPhone because the Japanese keypad is easier to use than a Japanese keyboard for me. Japanese mom and dad speak absolutely no English and I’ll be counting on Apple’s built-in dictionary for translating those especially difficult kanji.

My wife swears she’s not in any pain. She spends the ride to the hospital sitting on her knees because she doesn’t want to leak on the seat. I can’t believe she’s not in pain.

“My mother was the same way,” she explains. “She didn’t go into labor for hours after her water broke.”

At the hospital we’re told labor would start in 10 to 16 hours. We’re a bit sore about being woken up at three o’clock just to have to wait around till night, but I suppose that’s how it is. I make it a point to ask if I can be there during the delivery, since some Japanese hospitals don’t allow fathers in either the delivery or labor room. Even in the Japanese medical profession there are some surprisingly old-fashioned beliefs, and daddies not having much to do with baby stuff is one. Fortunately, our hospital says it’s okay for me to be there when my wife starts screaming.

By the early morning the nervous excitement’s worn off and we both would rather her start labor sooner than later because waiting for it’s driving us crazy.

Waiting

waiting-in-the-waiting-room

Photo by Craig Sunter

Since the baby won’t be arriving anytime soon we both decide I should go back to the apartment to rest for the delivery. Just as I nod off, my alarm clock tells me it’s time to get ready for work. That reminds me that I hadn’t told them I won’t be coming in, so I shoot them an email. When that’s finished my wife mails asking if I’m awake yet. Shouldn’t have left in the first place, I realize. I eat lunch on my way back to the hospital.

She’s been put in a shared room. Hospitals often put mothers-to-be in shared rooms with nothing but curtains sectioning off beds. Private rooms are more expensive, and while the cost of labor is partially reimbursed by the Japanese national healthcare system, it’s a standard lump sum of 420,000 yen. (When all was said and done we paid about 60,000 yen out-of-pocket, which is about 500 US dollars.)

Anyway, my thrifty wife didn’t want to spend the extra cash and opted for the shared room. Behind the privacy of our curtain, I keep her mind off things the best I can, mostly by drawing funny pictures on my iPad. I wish I could have thought of something better, but funny pictures is the best I can manage. But you know what? That’s okay. I kept a smile on her face between nurse visits–visits that are making me worry I don’t have enough Japanese for this.

Pain

in-pain-so-much-pain

Photo by Racchio

The pain starts. At first it’s not so bad. Then it is. And it only gets worse because less than three percent of Japanese women get an epidural or any sort of pain relief during birth. Part of it is a lack of obstetricians and anesthesiologists. Childbirth is a risky field with unexpected working hours, and a lot of medical students are opting for easier lines of work like cosmetic surgery. Several years ago things were so bad that some women, called “birthing refugees,” had to roam the hospitals looking for a doctor to deliver their babies. Epidurals also require an anesthesiologist, which there just aren’t enough of on hand to administer a shot to a woman in labor while a heart surgery might be going on down the hall.

They move my wife to the labor room on the opposite side of the hospital so her screams won’t terrify the other women. I think of it as Purgatory, and the doctor or nurse or whoever she is starts checking in more often. She keeps giving my wife what I think is advice but I can’t tell. My Japanese medical vocabulary is sadly lacking. At one point she points between her eyebrows and says something about “wrinkle” and “scream.” Days later, my wife told me she was saying that screaming gives you wrinkles.

I see her massaging my wife’s lower back. Once she’s gone I keep it up, but am informed I’m doing it wrong. “Do it like she did, in circles.” She’s speaking in all Japanese now. This I expected, but now I’m worried I won’t be able to understand the next thing she says. Fortunately for me she isn’t saying much between screams.

All this pain, though, is supposedly a good thing. The other reason most hospitals don’t offer epidurals is that the pain of childbirth is thought to be a virtue that creates good mothers. Beliefs like embracing suffering are slowly going the way of the samurai in the face of modernity, but like fathers not needing to be there for their wives during childbirth, some old habits die hard in Japan. My wife had chosen this hospital because it looked attendant to her needs, but that service still didn’t include pain relief.

A lot is going through my mind, like what I can say to make her feel better. I quickly give up on that idea though. There’s not a word in English or Japanese that will make this easier. Mostly, I just think that I won’t ever, ever stop massaging her back.

Labor

scream-cat-screams

Photo by Mingo Hagen

The nurse/doctor comes back again once the sound of a good mommy-in-the-making gets too shrill. She says more things I can’t understand and I’m starting to feel really bad that I don’t study Japanese as much as I should. Conversational Japanese is fine, but I’m turning out to be woefully unprepared for how much medical-speak this is involving. I do understand that she is counting the time between contractions and telling my wife to go “huuuuu” instead of scream.

So I’m massaging and she’s huuing and the nurse/doctor is telling her something else I don’t understand but it’s okay because I want this woman to deliver my baby. She has professional written all over her, carved in steel with a diamond-tipped ice pick. At this point I’m sure she’s a doctor. (I was wrong about that, actually. She was a midwife.)

My wife is huuing like a panicked barn owl vacuumed through a pipe organ and after a few hours the contractions are close enough that Purgatory ends. The midwife collects my wife and throws me a smock.

“Put it on,” she says. Finally some Japanese I understand.

I do, and she looks annoyed when I try to help her carry my wife to the delivery room. That’s her job, not mine.

She points to the side of the delivery chair. “Stand here and don’t move.”

My wife is happy to be in this room. In Japanese: “We’re here. In this room. It’s almost over!”

I lie and tell her she’s right, not saying that I think the bad stuff is just getting started. My own mother had said they’d put me behind her so I wouldn’t be able to see what’s going on. In Japan, if they let you into the delivery room at all, they put you beside her. Some hospitals even drape a cloth around the delivery chair so only the doctor can see what’s going on. The woman, meanwhile, is stuck behind it not being able to see anything, not even how many people are in the room.

I can’t massage her back anymore so I settle for her neck. I want to be useful, so I’m massaging anything I can.

“There’s a needle in my arm, Nathan. Stop touching it,” says my wife in Japanese. The midwife had put an IV in her arm.

“Yes….there’s a needle,” repeats the midwife. “Stop touching it.”

Idiot! They put an IV in her arm! Why are you massaging the needle? So, frantically determined not to be dead weight,  I massage her neck instead.

Suddenly the midwife looks concerned and calls down the hall for a nurse who isn’t there. Just as suddenly this hospital feels oddly empty.

“Push that button,” she orders me.

There’s a button hanging above the delivery seat. Pressing it brings a nurse that looks far too casual for my taste. The midwife tells her to “go get doctor so-and-so.”

Itai!” My wife screams, it hurts. “Itai…”

I get real quiet and let the midwife work. I wish I could understand what was happening and I promise myself I’ll study Japanese harder when all this is over. Mostly, now that things are bad enough to need doctor so-and-so, I’m just hoping my life isn’t turning into some bad soap opera. I remind myself that Japan has one of the lowest maternal death rates in the world, coming in at 11th in 2010, with western countries like the US coming in at 39th and the UK 23rd respectively. Still, 11th place was 6.8 deaths per 100,000 women, which feels very high when it’s your wife who needs a doctor who isn’t there.

Fatherhood

baby-and-daddy-in-the-ocean

Photo by JeffS

Baby’s head turns into a head and shoulders and I remember hearing that the shoulders are the hardest part. He comes out with limbs covered with a yellowish membrane attached to his skin. I think it might even be his skin. I remember watching a documentary about how some babies are born inside-out. I don’t want an inside-out baby. The midwife doesn’t look concerned, but this ice-woman-cometh wouldn’t have flinched if the baby came out with two heads screaming “banzai!” so that doesn’t mean anything.

While the nurse is cleaning him off the midwife asks my wife if she wants to see something. I get the feeling that something is the afterbirth. She says “yes” and I can’t look away as the the pan of gore is couriered over. The midwife explains how the boundary between her and the baby was like a liver. My lovely wife is fascinated.

Baby comes back without that yellow film on him just as doctor so-and-so finally shows up. They ask me to wait outside. As I leave I see doctor so-and-so sewing my wife up and realize what happened. Once I do, a thought flutters through my head about that whole afterbirth scene. It reads: why did you go on about the ins and outs of afterbirth instead of stopping the blood from pouring out of my wife’s body? Later, I learn it’s because of legal red tape. Japanese midwives can only perform medical interventions in the case of dire emergencies. Apparently that wasn’t one. It makes me wonder why a doctor wasn’t there in the first place.

So there I am, waiting in the lobby for some cosmic shift inside of my soul strata–something to turn on or even something to turn off, but so far there’s no plate tectonics. I had a child, but I didn’t feel like a father. I’d seen on TV there was supposed to be some magical moment when an angel waves an invisible wand over your head and everything falls into place inside you. But in real life becoming a father mentally and spiritually isn’t as easy as falling into a hole. It’s climbing a mountain.

Doctor so-and-so comes out and offers a smiley “Congratulations.”

“Is my wife okay?”

He nods and explains what happened. I don’t understand because he’s communicating in the High Speech, medical Japanese, but frankly I’m just glad he’s polite enough to do so.

As we’ve mentioned before at Tofugu, medicine is not a service industry in Japan. Japan has a strong social hierarchy and doctors are near the top of the totem pole. Unfortunately, that means some doctors think they’re Doctor House. I’ve had a particularly nasty one even call me an idiot before. While most doctors here are great and old farts like the one I saw are rare, even now we’re switching doctors about a foot problem my son has because our current one refuses to tell us what’s wrong. In his mind, he’s the doctor and that’s his domain, not ours.

After the doctor finishes his explanation I just tell him “thank you” because I already know what happened anyway. That’s one thing about communicating in Japan. Even if you don’t understand half of what someone’s saying, common sense can make up for a lot of what’s missing. The midwife pokes her head out and says I can come back in now. My wife is holding the baby.

“You okay?”

“Tsukareta.” She’s tired. “Here, hold him.”

And there, as I hold my son, the father inside me flickers to life.

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