Tofugu » Society http://www.tofugu.com A Japanese Language & Culture Blog Fri, 29 May 2015 13:00:00 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=4.2.2 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!

ADayInTheLifeofaMonk-1280
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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!

bakaintensifies-1280
[Desktop – 5120×2880 / 1280×720] ・ [Mobile 1 / 2 / 3]

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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.

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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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Getting Famous in Japan the One Direction Way http://www.tofugu.com/2015/03/27/getting-famous-japan-one-direction-way/ http://www.tofugu.com/2015/03/27/getting-famous-japan-one-direction-way/#comments Fri, 27 Mar 2015 13:00:00 +0000 http://www.tofugu.com/?p=49772 Japan is a popular target market for pop singers that want to take their fame internationally, particularly, it seems, when it comes to debuting in Asia. Is it because of the infectious fan base? Is it because the fandom of Asian pop music has not gone unnoticed? There are numerous stars who try, working to […]

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Japan is a popular target market for pop singers that want to take their fame internationally, particularly, it seems, when it comes to debuting in Asia. Is it because of the infectious fan base? Is it because the fandom of Asian pop music has not gone unnoticed? There are numerous stars who try, working to organize tour dates and scheduling media appearances in Japan, but are met with a relatively low breakout success rate. The ones who succeed are those who understand that while Japan is a big market, it is also a very different one. The most recent and relevant example of this: British boy band sensation, One Direction.

First, let’s characterize J-pop

akb48-has-way-too-many-members-and-its-ridic

Japan is the second largest music market in the world, just behind the United States with a retail value of over 3 billion dollars back in 2013. The Japanese market is dominated by (surprise!) Japanese artists. Japanese pop, or J-pop, is a genre that entered the musical mainstream of Japan in the 1990s, and was coined by the Japanese media in order to distinguish itself from foreign music. Japanese musical idols (or アイドル /aidoru) are a significant part of this music market, with girl groups and boy bands regularly topping charts. Some well known examples are Arashi, SMAP, Morning Musume, and, of course, the wildly popular, AKB48, who currently holds the Guinness World Record for being the “Pop group with the greatest number of members”.

For those unfamiliar with the idol culture in Japan, typically they are are young stars and starlets who are promoted as being particularly cute, manufactured to be a universal role model for everyone. They aim to play a wide range of roles as media personalities, and must have a perfect public image so as to be good examples to young people. As a consequence, a unique characteristic of J-pop is “cutesey” music, and the female artists’ subtle fusion of sexuality and child-like traits.

Another characteristic of J-Pop stars is that they have appearances that span a variety of media. In SMAP for example, group members appeared on at least ten regularly scheduled music and variety shows in the mid-90s. This added to their individual personalities and group persona. At present, they have their own weekly variety program called SMAPxSMAP, which has been airing every Monday since 1996. In addition, individual members also appear in many commercials and television dramas (Any Kimura Takuya fans out there?) Similarly, another aforementioned group, Arashi, also went on to have their own variety show as well, as well as stand out actors such as Matsumoto Jun, well known for his role on Hanayori Dango (Boys over Flowers).

This omnipresence is important for pop stardom in Japan because it creates a sense of intimacy between the artist and the fans. Since J-pop has a focus on marketing effectiveness, the fans are key. Between a curated connection with the fans and the branding of these pop stars as good-looking talents who are also portrayed as emotionally sensitive and caring (as is successfully done through constant media presence), fan-directed marketing is a huge driver for success.

The Stars of the Moment

Japan the One Direction

How, then, does One Direction fit into this world? The British band probably needs no introduction. They are the poster children for boy band pop today, and if the name doesn’t sound familiar, this song probably does:

Or this one:

In a nutshell, they are an English-Irish pop boy band based in London who came to fame from the British Television show The X Factor. They were propelled to success with the help of social media, which we will see is an integral part of their popularity in Japan.

In January 2013, One Direction (1D) touched down in Japan for the first time, donning traditional Japanese red happi coats that had “One Direction” written in katakana on the lapels. What can be assumed as a conscious homage to the Beatles from the 1960s, it was a smart choice for the boy band that was in Tokyo for a short, packed schedule of fan events and media appearances. Harry Styles tends to be the heartthrob of this boy band, but in Japan, it seems as though Niall, from Ireland, is the most popular. In an interview, Harry Styles stated that “In Japan Niall [is the most popular]. Because he’s got the blonde hair they go crazy for him.” Niall’s response was simply that “They’ve never seen people like me before. Little Irish people coming in with dyed hair and dancing,” which probably speaks more to the stereotypical Japanese affinity for things of novelty.

Branding in Japan

Japan the One Direction

The header image from onedirection.jp

The finale of 1D’s Take Me Home Tour had a recorded audience of about 12,000 Japanese fans, which might be considered underwhelming for those who are used to performing for thousands and thousands of shrieking adolescents. But in the eyes of industry veterans, it was quite a showing. For every performer like The Beatles, Lady Gaga, and now One-Direction, there are numerous international acts that gets met in Japan with widespread indifference. Shows being cancelled, as both Kanye West and Selena Gomez have experienced, are not a surprising result.

Instead of letting themselves succumb to that same fate, 1D had a slower launch into Japan, duly noting the market at the time. Their arrival into Japan for media appearances mentioned above, gave Japan just enough to keep buzzing nationwide about this up and coming music group and their newly announced Japan tour.

But what really got the Japanese media’s attention was Sony Music Japan’s branding of the group. This was the start of the official Japanese Facebook and Twitter accounts, which showed translations of the members’ social media. Their first record had a delayed release in Japan but their sophomore album “Take Me Home” was positioned for a simultaneous release. And an even bigger social media innovation was to provide them with what most J-pop acts have: their own fan club.

January 2013 marked the establishment of One Direction Club Japan, which was the group’s only official fan club anywhere at the time. Members would pay approximately 5,000 Yen annually for enrollment which would come with perks such as first choice concert tickets, the opportunity to buy fan-only merchandise, and other special accesses. Even as social media’s influence in Japan grows, official fan clubs like this continue to be integral to J-Pop fandom. It’s the maintaining of that omnipresence that we talked about before. Having a fan club like this becomes smart for international artists since they are only in Japan for a few days out of each year, making it difficult for fans to have a connection with the artists. A Japanese style fan club is paid, it’s exclusive, and perhaps most importantly, it’s something familiar to Japanese people, crafting a perceived intimacy. Having a constant presence is a challenge that overseas artists face with the Japanese market, and it’s an advantage that K-pop (Korean Pop) bands enjoy, because of proximity.

One Direction has bridged that gap with their exclusive online fan club. This fan club not only made 1D’s Japanese fan base comparable in size, but also in breadth. The fact that international pop aimed at teenagers in Japan can find an older audience as well is an idiosyncrasy of the Japanese music market.

In comparison, consider the infamous Justin Bieber, who amassed an impressive fan base of over 40 million on Twitter, and proclaimed his love for Japan. The response from Japan, however, wasn’t quite as reciprocated. It’s all relative, of course, but One Direction’s two 12,000 capacity shows in Japan sold out immediately, while Bieber still had tickets available at the door for his single, 15,000 capacity venue. Even Creativeman’s Yoshinari Hirayama, 1D’s promoter for those Chiba concerts, seemed surprised: “I believe the response was much greater than anyone expected.”

The 1D Café?

Japan the One Direction

Photo by Victor Lee

AKB48 has their café in Akihabara so maybe it’s time for One Direction as well? The rumor mill heard stories of plans for a 1D café to open up worldwide, starting with Shibuya. It was supposed to have opened on Feb 11, 2014. The success of the café in Shibuya would go on to determine whether or not the chain would appear in other cities such as London, New York, Paris, and Berlin. Dissimilar to “pop up” shops, these cafes would stay open year round, selling merchandise of various types for younger fans.

The Story of Their Lives?

Japan the One Direction

It is unclear what the future holds for One Direction in Japan though they are arguably one of the most successful international musical groups that have infiltrated the tough Japanese market. Will One Direction be just another “boom” with a timely end to their popularity? Or will the Japanese fans continue to adore them even when they are old news? Japan can be a great country for an aspiring international artist’s debut, you just have to know how to approach the market and break in. It seems that Japan loves overseas bands, but the bands that make it in Japan are equally as enamored with Japan as well. Harry Styles, for example has taken on the role of incorporating some Japanese to his performances. On a tour stop in the US, Harry led the fans in a chant of “Gambarimasu!”, followed by an exuberant, “Yes! I’ve always wanted to do that!”

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Is Japan Really Hardworking? http://www.tofugu.com/2015/03/25/japan-really-hardworking/ http://www.tofugu.com/2015/03/25/japan-really-hardworking/#comments Wed, 25 Mar 2015 13:00:00 +0000 http://www.tofugu.com/?p=49543 “Hardworking Japanese people” … How many of you have heard that phrase before? How many of you were tripped up by that phrase? And more importantly, for how many of you were the above three words as natural as, for example, “cultured French people”? I too brought that stereotype to Japan. But like other stereotypes, […]

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“Hardworking Japanese people”

… How many of you have heard that phrase before? How many of you were tripped up by that phrase? And more importantly, for how many of you were the above three words as natural as, for example, “cultured French people”?

I too brought that stereotype to Japan. But like other stereotypes, well, there’s true bits and false bits to it. You see all the salarymen half-asleep on the last trains departing from Shibuya and imagine what a hard day they must have had. But then you see the same thing in your university classroom and think – ehh, these people could at least drink some coffee before coming to class.

So this article is me trying to make sense of how hardworking the Japanese people are and putting my point of view out there. Perhaps this will be useful for those of you who are planning to work in Japan in the future too!

The Hardworking Side

Otsukaresama-deshita! Photo by Janne Moren

If there’s one thing the Japanese are known for, it’s their long hours at the office. But what do the statistics tell us? Let’s see what the OECD says for the year 2013:

Average Number of Hours Worked per Worker:

  • Japan: 1735 hours per year
  • South Korea: 2163 hours per year (result for 2012)
  • UK: 1669 hours per year
  • USA: 1788 hours per year
  • France: 1489 hours per year
  • OECD Average: 1770 hours per year

So it looks like the Japanese actually don’t work so hard compared to other countries. They work less than the US and even less than the average. That makes them not so hardworking, right?

Not quite. This is an example of misleading statistics because for two reasons:

Higher incidence of part-time work in Japan

Multiple sources suggest that Japan’s workforce has a higher proportion of part-time work compared to other countries. Some of this is because Japanese women tend to quit full-time work when they have a child only to return as part-time labor after a while. Some of this is due to workers only being offered part-time jobs despite wanting a full time job.

This part-time work depresses the average more than in other countries. Full time work in Japan, however, generally involves longer hours than those in other countries.

Inaccurate Reporting

Some of you may have come across the term saabisu zangyo. Basically, this refers to overtime which is kept off the official books with the full consent of the employee.

Officially, the working week in Japan is largely 40 working hours with additional limits for overtime work. But these limits don’t have any effect if a worker doesn’t clock those hours in – which is de facto what happens in many Japanese workplaces. This goes for both full-time and part-time work – an example being being paid as a waiter for a kaiten zushi restaurant but having to do the clean-up after the restaurant closes without pay.

The 1735 hours you see above is therefore a highly distorted number because of the under-reporting of working hours.

Education for Long Hours

Photo by Angie Harms

Before people even get into the workplace, the Japanese education system seems to demand long hours of them as well. This is particularly with reference to the amounts of cramming students have to do in the lead up to their university exam (See the “Exam Hell” section here for some anecdotes). There are even reports of primary school entrance exams at some selective institutions.

However, do note that the fiercest competition is only reserved for those who want to enter schools on the higher end of the education system – The Japan Times reports that with the decrease in the Japanese youth population, the competition found during the 1980s has died down. It is not hard to get into a university in Japan right now (putting quality aside) if one wants to.

The Exceptions?

Photo by Jason Wharam

There are a few possible exceptions to the stereotype of long working hours. As I’ve written about before, the first thing that comes to mind is the university lives of the Japanese students. Since I wrote that, I’ve come across this additional article on Toyokeizai (in Japanese). The writer basically compares American and Japanese universities, and concludes that Japanese students do put fewer hours into studying at the university level than Americans do.

But otherwise I really had to rack my brain to think of exceptions – even the university example has to be qualified by how some people sacrifice their studies not for slacking off but to put time into something else, such as a sports clubs. Perhaps we can talk about the housewives? But they do labour at home. Or maybe parasite singles? But that’s only a small slice of the Japanese population?

So the Japanese are hardworking then! Not so fast…

Hardworking ≠ Being Worked Hard

Which does this count as? Photo by Amir Jina

This is the main point which I think people misunderstand about Japan. When people characterize the Japanese people as hardworking, it usually implies that a Jiro-Dreams-of-Sushi-esque image of the conscientious, motivated, eager-to-serve Japanese worker willing to put his best into his job.

This image is overplayed and exaggerated on two points.

Motivation?

There is a difference in being motivated enough to work twelve hours a day at something and working twelve hours because your boss still hasn’t left the office, or because of the general social pressure to not do so. Rocketnews has an article that looks at how much actual work is getting done in those long hours (the conclusion: not as much as you might think). And let’s look at some statistics that relate to feelings of motivation:

Which in turn can be explained by the following:

  • This article suggests that base pay is a very important factor for Japanese workers – stagnant pay over the past two decades wouldn’t have helped motivation.
  • After the collapse of the bubble economy, job security has decreased and as stated above, many can’t even get full-time jobs in the first place. Job anxiety may make you work hard (or at least make you appear to do so), but that does not equate with being happy or motivated while doing so.
  • Japanese HR practices as listed here that have the effect of decreasing engagement.

Productivity?

Another thing that we can question is, if the Japanese were so hardworking, surely they would be very productive as well! But this again isn’t supported by the data. Here’s what the OECD says about productivity in 2013 (ie. GDP per hour worked in USD terms deflated for purchasing power):

  • Australia: $48.50/hr
  • France: $50.90/hr
  • Japan: $36.10/hr
  • Korea: $29.90/hr
  • Spain: $40.40/hr
  • UK: $44.50/hr
  • US: $56.90/hr
  • OECD Total: $40.50/hr

This means that hour for hour, Japan produces less than the OECD average and at only around 3/5 of the average productivity of the US. Even when doing a per-industry analysis, this report notes that Japan is still behind in terms of productivity when compared to Europe and the US (though not for all industries). And note that these statistics are calculated based on output per hour, so given that hours are likely to be under-reported, actual productivity is likely to be even lower.

There are two ways of interpreting this low productivity: either the Japanese are only pretending to work, or they are actually putting in a lot of effort, but on the wrong things. Both are probably true – this link, and quite a few of the links I’ve included above refer to Japanese offices being full of people rushing around and acting busy, but not actually accomplishing much. There’s also many comments about people sleeping in poorly conducted meetings and people just staying in the office because their boss is there, and so on, with nothing actually getting done.

On the other hand, there are also some examples in which Japanese people are putting in earnest hours but just in rather unproductive ways. Examples include the endless paperwork that the Japanese both produce and process diligently but which could be streamlined with better use of technology. This article also points out another thing – how many people do you really need to direct the traffic in Japan anyway? Sure they’re all very hardworking in giving the traffic signals, but sometimes living in Tokyo you wonder if so many are really needed.

Quantity vs Quality

Photo by Tokyoform

The conclusion seems to be yes, Japanese people put in many hours, but in the end much of this is due to peer pressure and job-security fears and not much actual work gets done. In fact, something I’ve heard while living here in Japan is that, since the people know that they’re going to have to do overtime anyway, why bother to work hard and be efficient? You might as well lounge around and do things slowly since you’ll pretty much be forced to have a 10-12 hour workday anyway.

I have to say the obligatory disclaimer that not all Japanese conform to this – and it’s not just the individual but the sector and company too. Behind the great Japanese customer service lies the hard and earnest work of Japanese service staff. However, a different story applies to big Japanese conservative “dinosaur” corporations.

In short, the Japanese (at least those with full time employment) do tend to put in more hours than the average in many countries. However, don’t expect them to be particularly content nor efficient while doing so. Working long doesn’t necessarily mean working hard. And being worked hard can be different from being hardworking.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Politely Puffing with Japanese Smoking Manners Posters http://www.tofugu.com/2015/03/09/politely-puffing-japanese-smoking-manners-posters/ http://www.tofugu.com/2015/03/09/politely-puffing-japanese-smoking-manners-posters/#comments Mon, 09 Mar 2015 13:00:00 +0000 http://www.tofugu.com/?p=49056 One of the biggest adjustments I had to make when I lived in Japan was dealing with smoking. For most of my adult life, a smoking ban in the UK meant that when I went to bars, clubs, or restaurants, I could enjoy myself in a smoke free environment. Almost everyone I knew was a […]

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One of the biggest adjustments I had to make when I lived in Japan was dealing with smoking. For most of my adult life, a smoking ban in the UK meant that when I went to bars, clubs, or restaurants, I could enjoy myself in a smoke free environment. Almost everyone I knew was a non-smoker. Since I have asthma, smoking was never something I wanted to take up. My lung capacity is bad enough as it is.

In comparison, it seemed like most of my friends and co-workers in Japan smoked. Even when I went out to eat with friends who didn’t smoke, there would often be other restaurant customers who smoked, filling the air with a grey haze. After every enkai, I always had a shower to wash the smell out of my hair, no matter how late I got home.

I even knew someone who took up smoking in Japan, even though she had quit in her home country. She said that stress, the influence of her Japanese colleagues, and the fact that cigarettes were so much cheaper in Japan thanks to low taxes broke her resolve.

However, despite my personal dislike for cigarettes, even I can recognise that the Japanese tobacco industry has given the world something wonderful. I’m talking about the beautiful, poetic and funny smoking manners posters.

If you have noticed…

Smoking-manners-posters

Photo by speedwaystar

If you visit Japan, your eye will probably be caught by the simple design of the smoking manners posters. Using only two colours, green on white, the posters illustrate situations and moral quandaries. The illustration is accompanied by a line or two of text in Japanese and English. The illustrations are labeled only in English, possibly capitalising on the “cool” image of English in advertising. Reading them feels like reading poetry sometimes. The ads seem to owe something to Japanese styles of poetry like the haiku.

“The fire disappears beneath his shoe. Unfortunately, the butt still remains.”

One of the elements of many classic haiku is a shift in perspective using a line break. Many of the posters employ a similar technique, with two sentences that shift your point of view. Others put smoking in a new perspective.

“I carry a 700°C fire in my hand with people walking all around.”

They don’t state rules, but are designed to make people think about their actions. There is definitely a sense of humour too.

“Don’t smoke in a crowd. Coats are expensive.”

Some pose questions.

“Tossing out cigarette butts because others did? Is that a good reason?”

They don’t tell you the answer, but the implication is clear. The tag line of the adverts is あなたが気づけばマナーは変わる。”If you have noticed, your manners change.” There is a lightness of touch that makes these posters strangely affecting.

…your manners change

smoking-manners-posters-about-smoking

Photo by tokyofortwo

There are some common themes the posters address; throwing away cigarette butts, being aware of secondhand smoke, burning people and things, caring for Japan’s nature, and the usefulness of portable ash trays. Every season a new batch of posters is released. You can view a gallery of all the posters here. My favourites are the winter ones I spotted at the Sapporo Yuki Matsuri.

snow-manners

Photo by Verity Lane

I’ve stuck my face in plenty of snow and was very glad never to see any cigarettes in there with me, so maybe the posters worked. I spotted this poster in the middle of Oodori, the street that famously holds the huge snow sculptures that you’ve probably seen (yes, including that Star Wars one). Specifically, the posters covered the side of a smoking area that had been set up to separate smokers from the rest of the crowds. That raises the question… who is making these posters?

Anti-Smoking or pro-Smoking Posters?

smoking-manners-with-man

Even if you’ve noticed the posters, you probably don’t know who makes them. The only clue is the small JT logo. That JT stands for Japan Tobacco. These posters are not an anti-smoking adverts. Did that blow your mind? I know that many people, including myself, have assumed that the posters are some kind of anti-smoking public health campaign. They are made by one of Japan’s largest cigarette manufacturers and the third most profitable tobacco company in the world.

At first this might seem counterintuitive. However, when you think about it, the motives behind this campaign start to emerge. Public opinion and shame play a huge role in Japanese society. Conforming to the expectations of those around you is very important. As cigarette sales and the number of smokers in Japan decline, it is becoming less of a cultural norm. Therefore, smokers are more at risk of being judged by other non-smokers. It is in Japan Tobacco’s interests both that the tobacco industry and smokers appear to be well mannered so as not to upset others. The more smokers have good manners, the less friction there will be in society, and the less likely that public opinion will turn against smoking leading to things like smoking bans, which would cut further into Japan Tobacco’s profits.

Viewed from this angle, the charming posters seem quite cynical. However, regardless of the poster’s motives, if they are effective then they are doing some good. Though some areas of Japan, like Kanagawa and Hyogo Prefectures are imposing smoking bans, most of the country does not seem to be following yet. In the short term, if the posters improve smokers’ manners and help keep Japan clean, this is a good thing, even if they slow the decline of smoking in the long term, which is not so good.

The posters and TV adverts were made by the ad agency of Kinya Okamoto, Okakin. Okamoto is also responsible for Japan Tobacco’s “Adult Training Course,” with yellow posters and a similar theme to the green and yellow ones. He seemed to have corner the market in “adult” (no, not in that sense) adverts. He is also responsible for the Otona Glico (adult Glico) chocolate campaign. The link between cigarettes and adulthood is a bit easier to understand. The age of majority and the age you can buy cigarettes is 20 in Japan. This is the age when you are expected to take on adult responsibilities.

Beyond Smoking

train-manners

Photo by Jackson Boyle

The ads have been so effective that they’ve been taken on by another industry. Japan Rail (JR) has a collaboration with Japan Tobacco. The JR posters have the same style as the JT posters, but address common travel faux pas. They are displayed in train carriages, often with one half addressing train manners and the other the familiar smoking manners. When I was backpacking around Japan, my eye was certainly caught by the poster about large bags.

train-manners-by-verity

Photo by Verity Lane

It did make me more aware of how I was carrying my bag and I adjusted my behaviour. Many foreign tourists in Japan use public transportation. If you are going on a trip, look out for them. Not only are they interesting, they can also help you mind your manners on the often very packed trains.

Studying Japanese

smoking-manners-shock

Photo by megadem

Beyond teaching manners and providing the occasional chuckle, the posters have another use. They can be used as a Japanese language learning resource in three ways. The first way is that they provide reading practice “in the wild.” Coming across one of these posters is either a chance to test your reading skills by trying to read the Japanese and comparing your translation with the English on the poster, or a chance to study some new kanji. Since most of the sentences are short and only have one verb, it’s easy to pick out the verb and match it to the English meaning. If you are a visual learner, the picture can help reinforce the memorisation. I liked to look at the posters as little learning resources scattered across my journeys through Japan. It was always exciting to find a new one.

smoking-manners-gonne-getcha

Photo by Walter Disney

The second way the posters can help you with your Japanese goes beyond just kanji and grammar. It is fairly rare to see direct translations of Japanese into English. A good translator will keep in mind the idioms and style of the target language. That’s great if you’re just interested in the final translated content. It’s not so great if you’re trying to look behind the scenes and gain a better understanding of the original language. The English on the smoking posters sounds strange in a way that it’s difficult to pin down. It’s not misspelled, grammatically incorrect or “Engrish”. It’s just not quite how a native speaker would express the same sentiment. If you are studying Japanese, this can give you a great insight. I found that by studying these oddly direct translations, I could better understand how these statements were constructed in Japanese.

smoking-manners-posters-wet

Photo by Lee LeFever

The third way they are useful builds on the second way. If we examine not just what the posters are saying, but how they are saying it, we can understand something about constructing an argument in Japanese. Anyone who has tried to teach English essay writing skills will know that an English argument and a Japanese argument are very different creatures. The smoking posters illustrate one of these differences. Rather than trying to convince people through direct command, they evoke contemplation or a emotional response. Trying to convince a Japanese person of something can sometimes be a very frustrating exercise.

When I was trying to convince teachers that students should try writing original sentences in English, it didn’t matter what educational theory or evidence I cited. In the end the thing that convinced them was an anecdote. Take a look at the smoking posters and see if you can see how they make their arguments in a subtle way. What is important goes unspoken, but is implied. Learning Japanese is not just about learning the language, but also how to think in that language. You might learn what to say, but if you don’t learn how to say it, you’ll be missing an important component. The smoking posters can give you an insight into this aspect of Japanese that is often hard to see.

Not only useful as reading practice, the very literal English translations clearly illustrate the differences in English and Japanese go beyond the words themselves to a way of thinking. By reading these translations, we can understand something about the different thought process behind constructing a persuasive argument in Japanese.

Behind the Smokescreen

smoking-bear

Photo by Evan Blaser

For all that I admire about the artistry and the usefulness of the smoking manners posters, we can’t get away from the fact that they are part of a cute cover-up for a big health problem. The problems with smoking that the posters highlight are trivial in comparison with the real problems caused by smoking. Tobacco kills up to half of people who use it. The World Health Organisation estimates that 7,000 people are killed by second hand smoke every year in Japan. However, Japan’s smoking rate is falling, part of a wider trend in developed countries. Despite the lack of a nationwide smoking ban, smoking is becoming a hotter issue in Japan. Lung cancer has overtaken stomach cancer as one of the biggest killers in Japan. The smoking salary man is an image that seems to belong in the past. The tide is turning in Japan, with increasing taxes and decreasing smoking rates, but there is still along way to go before Japan is a pleasant environment for non-smokers, despite the efforts of the smoking manners posters.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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[Desktop – 5120×2880 / 1280×720]

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Why the Japanese Countryside Is Emptying http://www.tofugu.com/2015/03/06/japanese-countryside-emptying/ http://www.tofugu.com/2015/03/06/japanese-countryside-emptying/#comments Fri, 06 Mar 2015 14:00:00 +0000 http://www.tofugu.com/?p=47213 I often tell newcomers to Japan to assume that there’s a giant conspiracy going around. A conspiracy that aims to hide the uglier parts of Japan. While Japan does have its share of problems, it papers over them pretty well. The typical tourist therefore heavily risks mistaking Japan as a wholly prosperous country. There isn’t a conspiracy […]

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I often tell newcomers to Japan to assume that there’s a giant conspiracy going around. A conspiracy that aims to hide the uglier parts of Japan. While Japan does have its share of problems, it papers over them pretty well. The typical tourist therefore heavily risks mistaking Japan as a wholly prosperous country.

There isn’t a conspiracy of course, but skepticism is healthy no? After all, tourists tend to go to the successful tourist spots and forget all of about the unsuccessful ones. How can you know if you haven’t seen it? These are largely spread out, decaying in the declining Japanese countryside. A countryside invisible to the typical tourist. After all, visitors tend to cluster in the main cities, and the rural areas that tourists visit are still tourist spots. They tend to be well kept.

Outside of this veneer, the Japan beyond the main cities has started to drift into population decline. As I traveled around Tohoku researching for two other articles, it was hard to miss. This article wishes to address why the country is emptying and if anything can be done about it.

Population Problems

japan countryside emptying fields
Between Mito, Ibaraki and Iwaki, Fukushima

First, take a look at this interactive map produced by Nikkei News. The map indicates the population growth/loss by percentage in all the municipalities of Japan between 2010 and 2014, sorted by color. The more autumn-like the color, the greater the population loss.

The large swaths of pale green that you see indicate municipalities which have lost 0-10% of their population in the past 4 years, ie. the majority of Japan. Exceptions which show marginal growth are clustered around the main urban areas with few outliers.

This variation of the map will prove more startling. Now you’re looking at the expected percentage change in the young (20-39 years old) female population of Japan by 2040.

There are probably around 20 localities in green. The rest of the country is coated in varying shades of bright autumn. The deepest purples indicate a greater than 80% loss in this key population group. Furthermore, zoom out and you will see that no prefecture is expected to have any growth in this population segment. Rural Japan is expected to fare generally worse.

japan-countryside-emptying-storefront
Urban Decay less than 5 minutes from Iwaki Station

These are dire straits for many localities outside of the main cities. The point is that in addition to national population decline, Japan’s countryside is expected to be hit the hardest. Already there is talk of some localities “vanishing” in the future.

However, the very well known lack of babies is only one part of the problem. In general (as in most parts of the world), fertility in rural Japan beats that of urban Japan hands down. If nothing else were happening it would be urban Japan dying out.

But people, especially young people, are moving from rural to urban areas. This is something they’ve been doing for the past century. The three main causes of this migration are education, the economy, and culture.

Education

japan-countryside-emptying-school-desks-class

Photo by: naosuke ii

Say you are a middle school kid in rural Japan where trains come once every two hours. Or perhaps you don’t have the fortune of having a train line pass through your area at all. Your parents worry about your future but in Japan (and in wider East Asia), having a future means having an education. High school alone usually doesn’t cut it so it’s off to study more – preferably at a university, even better if it’s a famous one.

The best universities are all clustered in major cities. And even if you choose one closer to home it’ll still be in a major city within the prefecture at least. And that means moving.

japan-countryside-emptying-charts
Source: Wikipedia. Left graph: Green denotes national average, Purple the distribution of Nidogawa-cho in particular. The right shows the distribution divided by gender, males in blue females in red.

This is why if you look at population graphs of rural towns in Japan there’s a very big dip in the population between 18-22 years old. The graph above shows the population graph for Nidogawa-cho, Kochi prefecture (picked at random). Note the very obviously disproportionate elderly population and the very clear valley around age 20 explained by the above.

Naturally, once you move out there’s no guarantee that you’ll move back.  In this way many young people drain out into the main urban areas and stay there.

Here is something curious I found on a visit to Iwaki. Below is a photo of the window advertisements of a cram-school.

japan-countryside-emptying-cram-school-schedule

The schools listed here are all located in Tokyo. Okay, well Tokyo has many universities anyway so that’s not surprising. More importantly, mixed in the congratulations are schools which are not exactly famous; a cram school in Tokyo would probably never advertise some of the listed schools here.

There’s lots of ways to interpret it but here’s mine: the advertisements are obviously aimed at parents passing by. Therefore some way or another going to a mid-tier Tokyo university (something which is nothing special to Tokyo dwellers) gives your kid enough future prospects for you to fork out money for extra lessons.

Therefore, with higher education being tied to the big cities it’s no surprise that Japanese youths are leaving, often permanently.

Employment

japan-countryside-emptying-minimum-wage-sign
Shiogama, Miyagi. 800 yen an hour compared to the minimum wage in Tokyo, which is more than 850 yen an hour.

Education explains one third of the problem. Another third is work.

Actually, if you look at unemployment statistics, you’ll find that the prefecture with the lowest unemployment is actually Shimane whereas Osaka has the third highest unemployment rate in the country. So maybe rural Japan isn’t doing so bad after all?

But intuitively speaking, when a rural person can’t find work they tend to move to a city for opportunities. When an urban person can’t find work, they usually don’t think of heading into the countryside. The low unemployment rate of the rural areas may simply be because the young people who would have been unemployed have already moved to the cities in search of work.

Another thing: city-dwellers unambiguously earn more than countryside dwellers. On the other hand, (contrary to expectations) living in rural areas isn’t necessarily cheaper. Consider the following:

  • You save on rent, but you need a car to get around. This means paying for the fuel and maintenance.
  • Food is cheaper, but since other shops are rare there isn’t much competition (not to mention having to transport the goods to rural areas). Goods are generally more expensive outside of big cities.
  • High fees are necessary to send children away for higher education.

In any case, not all rural areas are doing poorly. However, unlike the major cities which are generally doing okay, there is a spread of winners and losers among the rural areas. And the losers often are marked by:

japan-countryside-emptying-scenery-from-a-bridge
Yubari, Hokkaido. Following the closure of it’s coal mine and a city bankruptcy last decade, the town which once boasted a population of around 70,000 had (as of 2010) only around 10,000.
Photo by Glade
  • Mismanagement: Yubari in Hokkaido (documented beautifully here) is a fine example.
  • Sunset industries: Former coal towns (like Yubari) have had their populations decrease since the shutting of their mines. Others have jobs like fishing, agriculture, forestry, etc., which are simply not attractive to younger people.
  • An end to pork-and-barrel politics: Japan’s government spending has been propping up the rural areas (made clear by this graph). However as Japan has been forced to slim down its public works this support will fall – taking down some localities with it.

Culture

japan-countryside-emptying-winter-station-train-girl-on-phone

Photo by Miki Yoshihito

I have to say that in my short trip around Tohoku the youth I saw were pretty much the same as those in the big cities. Guys with lion hair. Girls with very well conditioned hair even though there were no snazzy hair salons in sight. And surprisingly short skirts – so much for inaka conservatism. But then I guess it would be unfair to think otherwise. What else could they be? Unfashionable savages with pock marked faces?

Of course not. But people don’t normally grow lion-hair naturally and so this must come from somewhere. That somewhere probably being the national / internet media which certainly pushes city trends.

So imagine that you are a high-schooler. You are inspired somehow, probably through boy bands or Johnny’s idols on TV, to make your hair defy gravity. Everyday you take a train which comes once every 30 minutes during the morning “rush hour.” Miss that train and you miss one class. On the train ride it’s just rice fields or occasionally some shops with 1970s font.

japan-countryside-emptying-shuttered-shops
Shuttered Streets, Ishinomaki, Miyagi. Probably not the most attractive place to live if you are young.

You’ve probably been to the nearest big city in your region. And unlike where you live there are karaoke chain shops, not dinghy snack bars with a machine that only has enka songs. You are amazed at the lack of shutters in the streets. But above all there’s other young people. Aside from school, meeting someone else around your age is a herculean task.

You get the point here. It’s no wonder why many young people want to live in the cities. So even if the above two problems were solved, the steady stream of young people into the cities probably wouldn’t slow.

What Now?

japan-countryside-emptying-nahari-station
Nahari, Kochi. 1990 population: 4291. 2010 population: 3540. 2030 estimate: 2521. (Sources here and here)
Photo by Rsa

This is a topic that has garnered a lot of attention in Japan and most people know that something must be done. The central government, and especially the various towns and cities in peril, have put some measures in place. In fact the current government has pushed through a set of reforms under the banner of Chiho Sosei (地方創生, literally “Creating Life in the Countryside”).  Some of the many measures by both central and local governments being taken involve:

  • Tax cuts and other incentives for companies to relocate their headquarters out of the main urban areas of Japan.
  • Providing people who are considering moving to the countryside the necessary living/job information to do so.
  • The central government providing funds to localities who have produced concrete and sound plans for their own revivals.
  • Measures to increase the birthrate, including the setting up of sufficient numbers of childcare facilities.
  • Active enticing and development of new industries

And we do see some positive examples. Kawakami-mura in Nagano-prefecture has actually seen a population increase from 2005-2010 while Ama-cho has recently gained media attention for its success at attracting young people and its successful economic revival.

The issue is that these are so far the exceptions and no matter how well Japan as a whole handles the issues, there will be some casualties. This is inevitable at the rate at which Japan’s population is decreasing (it dropped by around 220,000 people from last year to this year). Therefore, Japan not only has to find out how to revive its declining countryside but manage the decline through perhaps merging unsustainable settlements.

I have to add that this isn’t a uniquely Japanese problem. Many countries are also facing gradual declines in rural population. Japan however, is probably the first to experience it on such a scale in a non-wartime scenario.

This means that it doesn’t have any examples to learn from, making managing an emptying countryside an extremely difficult task. As metioned before, given the population decline it’s no longer a question of if Japan’s inaka will empty but to what extent. But, if well managed, perhaps it can be an example for other countries such as neighbours South Korea and China which will follow in its demographic footsteps. Or perhaps even the wider world.

Bonus Wallpapers

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

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Japan’s Robot Theater and the Rise of the Android Actor http://www.tofugu.com/2015/03/02/japans-robot-theater-rise-android-actor/ http://www.tofugu.com/2015/03/02/japans-robot-theater-rise-android-actor/#comments Mon, 02 Mar 2015 14:00:00 +0000 http://www.tofugu.com/?p=48304 ROBOTS CAN ALREADY VACUUM YOUR HOUSE AND DRIVE YOUR CAR. SOON, THEY WILL BE YOUR COMPANION. ~”Friend for Life” By Adam Piore for Popular Science (November 2014) Or so predicts Popular Science magazine in response to a US tour of Osaka University’s Robot-Human Theater Project. Whether you find the premise that your next best friend […]

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ROBOTS CAN ALREADY VACUUM YOUR HOUSE AND DRIVE YOUR CAR. SOON, THEY WILL BE YOUR COMPANION.
~”Friend for Life” By Adam Piore for Popular Science (November 2014)

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

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

Meet the Masterminds

ishiguro and geminoid

Photo by Ars Electronica

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

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

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

osaka univ robot lab

Photo by Ars Electronica

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

Robots and Androids and Humans, Oh My!

robot theater serving tea

Photo by Brett Davis

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

Hataraku Watashi (I, Worker) Debut in 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Henshin (Metamorphosis) Debut in 2014

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

robot theater

Photo by Brett Davis

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

Human Responses to Theatrical-Electrical Stimuli

robot theater 2

Photo by Ars Electronica

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

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

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

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

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

The Future of Robot Theater

robot theater 3

Photo by Ars Electronica

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

 

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The Superior Power of Japanese Mathematics http://www.tofugu.com/2015/02/25/superior-power-japanese-mathematics/ http://www.tofugu.com/2015/02/25/superior-power-japanese-mathematics/#comments Wed, 25 Feb 2015 14:00:00 +0000 http://www.tofugu.com/?p=48142 Maths was never my strong suit at school. The numbers never danced into line for me. So I thought that trying to deal with numbers in a foreign language would be impossible. However, to my great surprise, dealing with numbers in Japanese was easier than I’d expected. This wasn’t due to any genius on my […]

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Maths was never my strong suit at school. The numbers never danced into line for me. So I thought that trying to deal with numbers in a foreign language would be impossible. However, to my great surprise, dealing with numbers in Japanese was easier than I’d expected. This wasn’t due to any genius on my part. It is entirely due to the genius of the Japanese counting system itself.

One, Two, Three, 一、二、三

soba-restaurant-numbers-math

Photo by CeciliaC

At first, it is easy to be daunted by the Japanese counting system. Really, you shouldn’t worry. You’ve already mastered a much more complicated number system. Counting in Japanese is much more logical and systematic than English. If you can get hold of the basics you’ll soon be flying.

Let’s have a look at those basics and what we can do with them.

1: 一 ichi
2: 二 ni
3: 三 san
4: 四 shi/yon
5: 五 go
6: 六 roku
7: 七 nana/shichi
8: 八 hachi
9: 九 ku
10: 十 juu

The first ten numbers. They aren’t too daunting are they. Just ten numbers (twelve if you count the two alternate ways of saying 4 and 7.) It’s worth learning the kanji too, if only so you can read prices in fancy soba restaurants. I don’t know why, but the soba places near me always used the kanji numbers.

Now here is where Japanese has a huge advantage over English. The numbers from 11 to 99 all use the same sounds you’ve just leaned. Unlike English with its bizarre exceptions to its own rules. Eleven! What’s that all about, huh?! Eleven! It doesn’t sound anything like ten or one, or even twelve.

There are are so many exceptions that make the English counting system confusing, especially for young children. But look at the Japanese for 11, 十一 juu-ichi, ten-one. How beautiful! The same pattern continues. 21 is 二十一 ni-juu-ichi, two-ten-one. Once you get to 100, you only have to learn one more word, 百 hyaku. Now you can count from 1 to 999 using the same system. 101 is 百一 hyaku-ichi. 241 is 二百四十一 ni-hyaku-yon-juu-ichi. The only thing you have to watch out for is the hyaku sound turning into byaku. To count from 1 to 9999, all you need is one more word, 千 sen which means thousand. 10,000 is 万 man, and the same rules apply. If you are interested, 100,000,000 is 億 oku, 1,000,000,000,000 is 兆 chō, and 10,000,000,000,000,000 is 京 kei.

If you’re living in Japan, you’ll find it very easy to practice counting all the way up into the thousands because it’s so common when you go shopping. 1000 yen is only about 8 US dollars. As Japan is such a cash based society, you’ll soon be dealing with numbers in the thousands and tens of thousands on a daily basis. When I bought my car in cash, I happily counted out the 万 and 千.

Sensible regular naming systems in Japanese mathematics extend beyond the numbers themselves. Shape names don’t require you to study up on your Ancient Greek, like English ones do. Now, I’m a big nerd for English etymology, but there is something to be said for a simple system like this. To name a polygon in Japanese, all you have to do is count the sides and add that number to 角形 kakkei or kakukei. So a triangle is 三角形 san-kakkei, and an octagon is 八角形 hachi-kakukei. Admittedly, you will have to spend some time learning which pronunciation of 角形 goes with each number.

Do you know what an eleven sided shape is in English? Can you work out what it is in Japanese?

If you said, “hendecagon,” and “十一角形 (juu-ichi-kakukei)” then I salute your knowledge. Which was easier to figure out?

Everybody Do the Kuku

japanese-math-donkey-kong-jr-math-famicom

Photo by Bryan Ochalla

The kuku is not a bird. It’s a tool to learn multiplication tables. I remember struggling through my times tables at school. Even now I dread being asked to multiply numbers on the spot. This is not a fear that many Japanese people have. From the age of seven, children learn their times tables using the kuku chant. This covers the times tables up to 9×9, which is where the kuku gets its name. By learning the kuku by heart, Japanese children get a solid grounding for the rest of their exploration of mathematics. I’ve gone on about how regular the Japanese counting system is, but the kuku breaks from this trend. To fit the rhythm, many numbers are said in a simplified form. For example hachi is sometimes shortened to ha. Also, the kuku won’t help you past 9×9. It surprised some Japanese teachers I know that Western students learn up to 12×12.

Still, if you’d like to try it yourself, there are many videos which use different rhythms or songs to help teach the kuku. I’d recommend downloading a version that you like and listening to it over and over again and try to sing along.

Memorising mathematical concepts comes up again later in Japanese children’s education. In senior high school, they can be expected to memorise trig function tables, something that is unthinkable in the UK. The merits of memorising those can be debated, but without the training the kuku provides, it would be far more difficult. I wish that there was a sing-song equivalent to the kuku in English which I could have learned by heart. Recently, I’ve been trying to memorise the kuku and I have to say it’s far more fun than I expected.

Could You Be a Soroban Master?

japanese-maths-math-soroban

Photo by Joe Haupt

There is another tool that can help you improve your maths skills and this one is literally a tool. Soroban 算盤 is the Japanese abacus. You might be thinking, “Why is she suggesting I use an abacus?” You have a scientific calculator. Abacuses are so five centuries ago. But the soroban has the ability to turn you into a mental arithmetic magician.

The Japanese abacus is divided into two sections. The upper part has one bead and each represents 5 units. The lower part has four beads, each representing 1 unit. To read the abacus you only look at the beads that have been pushed into the middle of the abacus, resting against the dividing bar. It is read left to right. You can try it yourself using this virtual soroban.

Having a physical representation of numbers and actually moving beads makes using an abacus easier and more fun for children than simply working sums out on paper. The aim is to use the abacus combined with muscle memory to mechanise the process of arithmetic. A trained soroban user can complete calculations far faster than someone with an electronic calculator because they don’t even need to think about the calculations. Using the soroban becomes automatic. Soroban schools are popular 塾 juku, where children are trained in abacus skills after school. There is even an examined ranking system, just like in martial arts. I used to watch in amazement as the teacher who sat opposite me calculated huge sums on a soroban. Her fingers flicked across the beads at amazing speed. She also used it for adding up marks on tests. I was slower, clumsier, and less accurate doing the same thing on an electric calculator.

The greatest soroban users don’t even need a soroban in front of them. This is called anzan soroban (暗算そろばん) or mental soroban. People who have mastered anzan soroban have internalised the abacus. They can see it in their mind’s eye. If you watch someone calculating with anzan soroban sometimes you’ll see their fingers flicking as if they were moving beads on their abacus, even with no abacus there. Students retain the mechanised aspect of soroban, so they don’t have to consciously do the calculations to get the right answer. Watch this video of children playing shiritoi (a word game) and doing anzan soroban at the same time.

That’s pretty mind boggling! But the most impressive form of anzan soroban is even more amazing. Flash anzan is an illustration of the extraordinary power of the human brain. Flash anzan was invented by soroban teacher Yoji Miyamoto as a game to stretch his students. In flash anzan 15 numbers between 100 and 999 are flashed on a screen. The challenge is to add them up in your head. OK, that sounds pretty tough, but doable, right? Well, the champions of flash anzan can do it in under 2 seconds. The 2012 champion of the All-Japan Flash Anzan competition, Takeo Sasano added the 15 three digit numbers in 1.70 seconds. Here is a video of the All-Japan National Soroban Championship in 2012 where contestants make the caluclation in 1.85 seconds.

This is the power of the soroban.

Maths Is More Fun in Japan

hopscotch-japanese-maths-math

There are certainly complexities when dealing with numbers in Japan. Counting things, not just numbers brings you into the complex world of Japanese counters. All throughout this article I’ve been using the on’yomi reading of numbers (ichi, ni, san, etc.) not the kun’yomi reading (hitotsu, futsu, mittsu, etc.) which is a whole other challenge to master.

However, difficult or not, I believe there is something more important when it come to arithmetical success. That is attitude. When I asked my Japanese students what their favourite subject was there was a roughly 60/40 split between PE and maths. Japanese students are typically much more confident in mathematics than they are in English. While my maths teachers back home despaired at me, maths teachers in Japan liked me for some reason. I was often invited to maths class and teachers would try to explain things in English, much to the amusement of the students. In maths class I saw students, who I knew as shy and withdrawn, happily chatting away about mathematical concepts that were far beyond me. The attitude towards maths in Japan is far more positive than it is in the UK. Maths is something to play with in Japan. It’s not surprising that Japan is the source of many of the world’s most popular number games like sudoku.

While you and I might never achieve complete mathematical fluency in Japanese and be able to do massive calculations in under two seconds, we can learn not only maths in Japanese, but also Japan’s positive attitude towards it.

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Don’t Get Sued! Libel, Slander, and Defamation Laws in Japan http://www.tofugu.com/2015/02/20/dont-get-sued-libel-slander-defamation-laws-japan/ http://www.tofugu.com/2015/02/20/dont-get-sued-libel-slander-defamation-laws-japan/#comments Fri, 20 Feb 2015 14:00:00 +0000 http://www.tofugu.com/?p=48993 Scandal erupted back in 2007 when a Japanese weekly magazine, Shukan Gendai, reported that Asashoryu, a grand champion sumo wrestler, had bought his way to the top, paying off opponents in exchange for winning matches, and that he wasn’t the only sumo wrestler to do so. The Japan Sumo Association conducted its own internal investigation, […]

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Scandal erupted back in 2007 when a Japanese weekly magazine, Shukan Gendai, reported that Asashoryu, a grand champion sumo wrestler, had bought his way to the top, paying off opponents in exchange for winning matches, and that he wasn’t the only sumo wrestler to do so. The Japan Sumo Association conducted its own internal investigation, found no evidence of match fixing, and took Shukan Gendai’s publisher, Kodansha, to court for damaging the JSA’s reputation—and won to the tune of over 40 million yen, the biggest amount ever awarded in a Japanese libel case surrounding a magazine article.

But the thing is, Shukan Gendai’s reporting was sound. Matches were being fixed. (Albeit, to this day it’s unknown if Asahoryu was a part of this bout-fixing, but other sumo wrestlers involved in the case have since come forward.) And if this case happened in the United States or another developed country, things would have probably turned out way differently. But defamation laws and how they’re interpreted shift and change depending on what country you’re standing in and where that country’s society places cultural value.

You don’t need to be a lawyer to appreciate a few slander and libel cases, and in fact, knowing a little bit more about defamation laws in Japan will boost your own cultural understanding and may even save you from seeing the inside of a courtroom. (See? Who needs law school when you have Tofugu?)

First, A Little History

meiji jinja

Japan has some serious literary cred when it comes to its poetry and prose, both of which can be traced back centuries. But Japan’s press didn’t really gain its footing until the Meiji era, when, in an attempt to bring Japan up to speed with the West, the Meiji government started encouraging common Japanese people to become more informed about current events. A knowledgeable citizenry is always a rad idea, but in this case, it also resulted in a press that was basically another arm of the government, and a tool for the government to disseminate whatever information it wanted.

Fast-forward and things changed again for Japan’s press when, in the aftermath of World War II, General MacArthur and his American staff drafted a new constitution for Japan, which is still in use to this day. Reading the Japanese Constitution, it’s pretty obvious that MacArthur and his team drew heavily on the United States Constitution. So it probably comes as no surprise that freedom of speech is pretty open-ended in the Japanese Constitution as well. But with that open-endedness comes a lot of room for interpretation, and that’s where culture can really come into play. For example, Japanese courts are much more inclined to protect and focus on reputation than United States courts. A United States court is going to be concerned about whether the statements in question subject the plaintiff to intense ridicule or public hatred; a Japanese court will tend to focus on whether the statements in question reduce the respect of the plaintiff in his or her community.

Slander vs. Libel

headlines

Photo by emdot

But before I get into more of the nitty-gritty of Japan’s defamation laws, let’s toss up some definitions real quick. Defamation is the act of saying something untrue about someone else in order to harm their reputation and can be divided into two subcategories: slander and libel. Slander is defamation that’s spoken, and libel is defamation that’s printed. (Simple, no? Though as a point of interest, Japanese law doesn’t make a distinction between libel and slander.)

Exactly what can count as defamation and who can sue for it changes depending on which country’s law book you’re using. For example, in the United States, once you’re dead, you can no longer seek legal protection from slander or libel. People can say anything they like about you, true or not, because your reputation and societal standing aren’t worth anything once you’re a corpse. Japanese corpses, however, can still protect their good name and reputation under the law, so long as what’s being said about them is false.

Defamation can also be divided another way: Is the allegedly defamed person in the public or private sphere? Defamation laws act a little differently depending on whether the plaintiff is a private citizen or a public figure, because your expectation of privacy is going to differ depending on where you stand in your community.

So, let’s say you’re David Beckham, soccer star and husband of Posh Spice. And a magazine, let’s say In Touch Weekly, publishes an article about you having an affair with a prostitute. And let’s say you then sue that magazine for libel, because the story is false. As a public figure, David Beckham lost his case, because he couldn’t prove “actual malice.” By malice, I don’t mean that the magazine was twirling its moustache, plotting to destroy David Beckham’s reputation. “Actual malice”, in legalese, is knowing that a statement is false but saying/publishing it anyway, or acting with reckless disregard for the truth. This is very hard for plaintiffs to prove, so most cases in the US turn out the way David Beckham’s did.

But in Japan, David Beckham probably wouldn’t have gotten as raw a deal and he definitely wouldn’t have been required to prove there was “actual malice” behind the published story. Instead, Japan would have put the onus on the publication to prove that their statements about David Beckham were a matter of public interest, were only made with the sole purpose of advancing public interest, and were true. (Remember the Japan Sumo Association suing Kodansha for that story about bout-fixing in sumo? Kodansha was required to prove those same things in court and failed.)

The Truth Won’t Set You Free

lawyer fortune

Photo by slgckgc

But what happens if you’re just a regular person, someone who doesn’t even have more than a hundred followers on Twitter? I’m not a lawyer (or a person who has a lot of Twitter clout), but in my layperson research, a defamation case against a private citizen in the United States mostly boils down to one question: Is what Person A saying about Person B true?

Good to know the truth is always a defense, right? Well, in Japanese libel and slander cases, the truth won’t necessarily help you. Instead, it all comes down to reputation. (The Japanese word for defamation, meiyokison or 名誉毀損, when broken down, literally means “damaged honor”.) Even if a published statement is 100% true, it can still be considered defamatory if it irrevocably hurts the subject’s reputation and oftentimes the question of truth doesn’t really enter the equation. For example, in 2012 a Japanese man discovered that when he put his name into the Google search bar, it autocompleted results that implied he had a criminal record, and this man argued these autocomplete search results were severely damaging his reputation. Some sources strongly implied this man really did have a criminal past, others said that he was innocent. But it didn’t really matter either way—the Japanese court ordered Google to remove the autocomplete terms, which they did.

So You’re Being Sued

lawyer on tv

Okay, so what happens if you’re the one being sued for defamation in Japan? Well, if you’re a weekly magazine, this really isn’t so bad. In fact, this is probably a consequence you’ve already accepted in exchange for printing a really juicy, salacious story that’s going to sell a whole lot of magazine issues. Being sued is all part of publishing life in Japan, because it’s relatively easy for a plaintiff to make a successful case and there usually isn’t a huge amount of money involved anyway. This is in pretty steep contrast to the United States, where defamation cases might be settled for millions of dollars. In Japan, you won’t typically get a lot of yen for your trouble. It’s a question of pride, not money.

Things can get bad, though, if you’re being brought up on a criminal charge, and you could be facing a jail sentence of up to three years. Again, it’s about losing reputation and respect. In the United States, defamation cases are only civil cases, with no jail time for the defendant. (Just a big check to write.) In Japan, defamation can be a civil case or a criminal case, depending on how the plaintiff wants to go about things. (Are they out for cash or are they out for blood?)

Injunction, What’s Your Function?

stop button

But sometimes it’s not enough that there’s a payout or a prison sentence. Japanese publications also face the occasional injunction. An injunction, in this context, is a court order demanding that a publication not print or distribute a particular story or fact. In the United States, injunctions (theoretically) don’t happen: the media can be held responsible after something’s been published, but not before. In Japan, an injunction is fair game if it will irrevocably damage someone’s reputation. (At this point, you may be sensing a theme here.)

For a better sense of how this whole injunction thing works in the name of libel, I present Hoppo Journal Co. v. Japan. In 1979, a Supreme Court allowed an injunction against an article about Kozo Igarashi, a local mayor planning to run for governor of Hokkaido. Igarashi’s lawyers argued that Hoppo Journal had written defamatory statements about Igarashi that, if widely released, would severely damage Igarashi’s reputation. To be fair, I wouldn’t like it if a magazine article said I was a “cockroach” and “an ugly character hiding behind a beautiful mask,” like the Hoppo Journal said of Igarashi, but I would also argue that few of Hoppo Journal’s readers probably took this language literally. Still, the court thought otherwise, and Hoppo Journal had to pull its article about Igarashi, the masked cockroach running for governor of Hokkaido.

Court Is Adjourned

judges gavel statue

Freedom of speech and press is a closely held right and ideal in most countries, and Japan especially has a very liberal ruling on free speech built right into their constitution: “Freedom of assembly and association as well as speech, press and all other forms of expression are guaranteed.” That’s actually a way broader free speech law than a lot of other developed countries have. (Canada, what’s up with the whole “reasonable limits” on your “rights and freedoms” thing, eh? And England, why the crazy intense libel laws, huh? Though to be fair, the United States has its own dubious free speech baggage. See: WikiLeaks.)

But Japan is also a country with a constitution that’s extremely close to that of the United States. (Hence why I compared Japan law to United States law. Also, I’m American and this is what we do.) Yet, for better or worse, Japan interprets its open-ended free speech laws in ways that a United States court never would. We don’t necessarily think about it, but laws like those for libel and slander interpret culture into action and it’s pretty clear how Japanese courts use defamation law to best meet Japanese culture. Maybe samurai aren’t falling on their swords anymore, but reputation and social standing are still meaningful things in Japan, and their effects are far-reaching, right down to how Google autocorrects your name.

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