Tofugu» Society http://www.tofugu.com A Japanese Language & Culture Blog Fri, 22 Aug 2014 22:38:21 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.9.2 Peace and Japan Part 2 – Japan’s Current Military http://www.tofugu.com/2014/08/22/peace-and-japan-part-2-japans-current-military/ http://www.tofugu.com/2014/08/22/peace-and-japan-part-2-japans-current-military/#comments Fri, 22 Aug 2014 16:00:28 +0000 http://www.tofugu.com/?p=41820 In the first article “Peace and Japan: How The Militarization Of Modern Japan Keeps Marching On“, I explained the constitution, the history behind Japan’s current situation with and how the Japanese Self Defense Forces (JSDF) have developed after creation, after the Second World War. This includes their most recent and controversial change, which gives them the right to a collective defense.

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

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

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

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

It’s Not Militarizing: The GDP Argument

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Japanese fighters in flight at Nyutabaru Airbase Aviation Festival

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Photo by dragoner_JP

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Newly selected Japanese officers at a ceremony

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

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

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

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

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Photo by ChiefHira

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

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

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

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

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

3) The self defense forces are not exactly prestigious

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

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

All that being said…

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Photo by the United States Army

Japanese Self Defence Forces during a visit by an American General

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

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

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

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Surviving Karaoke When You Hate It http://www.tofugu.com/2014/08/21/surviving-karaoke-when-you-hate-it/ http://www.tofugu.com/2014/08/21/surviving-karaoke-when-you-hate-it/#comments Thu, 21 Aug 2014 16:00:30 +0000 http://www.tofugu.com/?p=41975 I hate karaoke. I don’t mean “hate” like someone says they “hate” tuna after biting into a mystery sandwich and being unhappy with the taste. I mean hate like gagging on that bite of sandwich and then setting fire to it. It’s not a problem with the public performance aspect (which I don’t enjoy, but as a teacher and constant foreigner, I’ve adjusted). I just don’t like to sing. I don’t sing in the shower, in the car, or when I’m alone, unless I’m planning something (more on that later). Heck, I often don’t like it when other people sing, partially because people often don’t realize how tone deaf they are until they sing without a pro acting as their back-up. I know I’m awful, and I have no desire to improve, since I feel singing wouldn’t add anything to my life.

However, karaoke is important to modern Japanese society. You can go to a bar but not drink alcohol in Japan, and that’s okay. Can’t eat a lot of the food at an event because of dietary restrictions? It’s awkward and burdensome, but people will understand and try to make the best of the situation. But refusing to sing? That’s not okay. Japanese people don’t let each other off the hook either. I’ve seen some sincere rejections, not-so-joking dragging of co-workers, and supreme embarrassment of failed karaoke attempts in front of their peers. My first night of karaoke, I never said no, but I attempted the serious, indirect ways of politely declining that usually work for me in every other aspect of Japanese life (and I rarely use those). My protests were flat out rejected, songs were chosen for me or I was pressed to make a decision, and a mic was forced into my hand. Even when the depth of my ineptitude was revealed, I was forced to repeat the task throughout the night.

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Of course, as a foreigner, you can probably get away with using your gaijin card as with so many other situations, but don’t do it. As someone who still considers the practice to be a form of cruel an unusual punishment, I’ve recognized quickly that rejecting karaoke is a great way to find yourself alone on weekends. While I wouldn’t say I even do karaoke on a monthly basis, when it happens, there may be weeks where I’m invited to karaoke bars by multiple groups. Like a plague, it comes out of nowhere and spreads rapidly before burning out. While you can sit alone in your “mansion” in quarantine, do you really want to be the only survivor of a non-deadly disease that is somehow able to bring people together? I know I don’t. So for those of you who also hate karaoke but still want to bond with your Japanese friends and co-workers, I present you with this guide, complete with a bit of background information that may help you arm yourself against upcoming outbreaks.

Singing in Japan

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Photo by gullevek

I’m not sure how true it is, but it makes sense to me that Alexander Prasol, in his 2010 book Modern Japan: Origins of the Mind: Japanese Mentality and Tradition in Contemporary Life, called Japanese songs “democratic”. Supposedly, they tend to stay away from the soprano and bass ranges, residing in the middle where most people usually sing. This does seem to ring true for the most part since I hear less sour notes when Japanese people sing, especially when they do karaoke to Japanese songs. However it might have more to do with their educational upbringing.

Having witnessed music practice in several schools, I must admit that students are given more instruction for singing than I recall receiving when I sang in a church choir. Japanese school music class was treated with the respect you would expect from any other scholastic field of study when learning from a teacher at school. That is, it wasn’t made to be “fun”. It was a serious endeavor with consequences (mostly in the form of longer performances, a tactic I sincerely wish I was allowed to use while teaching English). Singing is certainly seen as fun to some students, but teachers give feedback and address the class as teachers. My own musical training in school lacked the sort of vigor I’ve witnessed out here and, like my students, I was also expected to perform in front of a crowd. Not all students can exactly read music, but it seems it’s taught in a large enough capacity that my inability to read it was a bit surprising to some Japanese co-workers when they have handed me some sheet music, both for entertainment and school functions.

I’m not going to say Japanese people are musical, but I will say that they utilize music aggressively. For example, instead of having mascots, every Japanese school has their own school anthem. I’m sure some American schools have anthems as well, but I don’t personally recall hearing any. And knowing the school anthem is of utmost importance. The music lessons I’ve sat in on that I described above? Those were mostly for the school anthem. Buddha bless the first year kids, because they really have to practice learning their new anthem quickly! They will sometimes have an extra class for anthem practice, or a music teacher may ask other teachers to cancel classes (or maybe just my classes) so they can get extra practice in.

It’s not just in the schools though. We’re all aware of advertising jingles for big stores, but even small shops have jingles. I thought at first that it was like in the states, but when I’ve asked if a certain store with a jingle was famous or popular, people have told me, “No, they just paid someone to make their song.” Grocery stores, malls, locksmiths. I think the only shops I’ve noticed that don’t consistently have a song playing in the background while I visit them are restaurants, like ramen shops.

While American states have songs, the one I lived in never made use of it, and apparently other people I’ve met felt the same about their home states. In fact, I wasn’t even aware of my state’s song until we had a project in grade school where we had to research various states. Japan’s prefectures, though, are hardcore. They have anthems, and you will learn about them fast. They’re played at city hall, on advertisements, at some events, and yeah, sometimes they’re sung at school.There’s a youtube list with several prefectural anthems, but it’s incomplete, though you can always search for another prefecture’s anthem.

And if you think karaoke is the only example of recreational singing in Japan, think again. Songs are used in classes as “fun” activities, more so than I recall experiencing (probably for the best). I just had a very academic school hold a chorus contest between their various classes. This is the second best school in my prefecture and they took their contest quite seriously, practicing after school instead of doing club activities, sacrificing weekends, and then performing– enthusiastically, for no real prize– at the capital city’s cultural center. These kids, who rarely say “hi” to me when I walk to school with them, became super friendly and suddenly remembered my name.

And it’s not just the kids. I went to private party at a bar and one teacher brought a kind of “game”. This wasn’t a karaoke place, but she had sheet music and divided us into groups. It was a “singing game” where people have different parts and sing at different times. I’ve read about this in Victorian Europe where people were bored and didn’t have other things to do, and my choir did this “for fun” sometimes, but I’ve never had the (dis)pleasure of performing one of these songs in a semi-public space with people I barely knew. Again, my inability to read sheet music confounded my hosts, and my foreigner status did not allow me to get off the hook. The song, in fact, made heavy use of loanwords, so I was fully expected to participate.

If it’s not clear by now, song is serious business out here.

The Start of Karaoke

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So, how did karaoke get its start here? It’s truthfully a bit of a mystery. While Wikipedia points to Filipino entertainers, the connection seems thin. Singing with a tape player is different, and having the first patent on a karaoke machine only makes Robert del Rosario a smart businessman. By most accounts, Daisuke Inoue was the first able to prove he created karaoke machines

A musician in his own right, Inuoe was asked to accompany a client on a trip as the musical entertainment. However, due to his work schedule, Inoue simply sent a recording of himself alone with the client and collected the money as a “house musician”. The term karaoke (coming from 空/kara meaning “empty,” and オケ/oke clipped from the loan word for orchestra, オーケストラ) at the time was used for “house musicians,” which explains how it could also fit the torture practice we’re discussing today. At any rate, Inoue, thinking there might be a market for such a device, made a special tape player that played music (for some money, of course), and leased out his machines while providing tapes of popular music for people to sing along to. While del Rosario beat him to the patent, Inoue had enough of a history for us to remember his contribution.

Survival Preparation (Use Your Head!)

Karaoke-party

Now, the first part of surviving karaoke is planning for it. Like floods or fires, it can strike at any time, though usually assume it’ll come during a party season, such as the end of the year. Not all Japanese people know the history of karaoke, so memorizing the above history might help you buy a little time if you need to stall. It won’t save you though.

First, I’d suggest looking up some classic rock and pop songs and practice them secretly. “Rock and Roll All Night” by KISS, pretty much anything from the Beatles or Michael Jackson, heck, I’ve even seen Metallica songs from the Black Album and Load on some machines! Get familiar with some oldies and try to pick something short and in your vocal range. Johnny Cash would normally be my first pick since I talk more than sing (but without any rhythm). However I’ve sadly learned that not a lot of machines have his songs, and when they do, they’re not ones I usually hear. Jackson and The Beatles will always be available though.

You can also pick pop songs that have been out for maybe 6 months to maybe a year or two. People will not only want to hear you sing these, but will offer to sing them with you. Do it, because at the very least, Japanese people tend to know the melody and will just be happy that you can pronounce things right. There are some issues with this though, since the songs might be more risqué. I had a co-worker who may or may not have understood the meaning of “Bad Romance,” but my male co-worker certainly did, and when I was made to sing Lady Gaga’s part… anyone who knows the lyrics can see why a man singing that part may feel a bit uncomfortable.

As I said, I hate singing, but once in awhile, take one of your practice songs for a spin. Practice once with the song and at least once without. If there’s one thing my music teachers taught me, it was that you are singing worse than you think you are when you sing along with someone else. If you learn you can’t hit certain notes, don’t use that song. If you like karaoke, that’s not a problem, but this guide’s for my fellow haters. Avoid anything that will reveal your dog-like tones.

When picking out songs, I’d also advise you to look for songs with multiple parts, simple choruses (for Japanese), or different singers. You can ask someone to sing with you and give them a part. Most oldies work well for this, so as much as I’d like to do Enter Sandman, I know I’d have to do that all on my own.

Unless your kanji skills are really good or you’ve memorized it, don’t go for a Japanese song! While there is often furigana above the kanji, this isn’t always the case, and can turn that one song you liked as the end theme from Gundam into four and a half minutes of hell. You may impress some people, and that will count for something, but it will most likely get you targeted for more Japanese songs. Good for Japanese practice, but the other side of the coin is that, with some Japanese people, knowing the language makes you less interesting. You won’t get off the hook for singing, but most people want to hear you speak a different language. Being a foreigner and speaking/singing in Japanese is like being magician that’s giving a speech about the evolution of whales. Yeah, it’s cool, but it’s unexpected and maybe even boring to some people. I’d prefer to be less known as people’s personal go-to-gaijin, so I’m fine with that, but if you like your foreigner status and the attention it brings, I’d avoid singing Japanese songs.

Finally, before any outing that may result in karaoke, look up the katakana spelling of your arsenal before hand, and try to memorize it. Especially where I live, I can’t find always find Michael Jackson, but I can find マイケル・ジャクソン. Songs are often in English, but you might not always find your song, so you may need to search for a new one.

Survival Execution (Don’t Lose Your Head!)

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Photo by syvwlch

So, now you’re at the bar. Somehow, it came down to karaoke. I’m sorry, there’s nothing that can be done. But you’ve prepared for this. Now for some finishing touches.

First, if it’s not too late, don’t get too drunk. I hate karaoke primarily because every karaoke incident I’ve witnessed in the states was terrible and involved drunk people getting “too much” courage and singing something deeply personal and ending up not only proving they are tone deaf, but pouring out bodily fluids from one of many orifices they normally have better control over (only the eyes, if we’re lucky).

Next, act happy. Force it if you have to. I’ve seen natives do this and it probably saves them.This is my biggest weakness but, at the very least if I seem mildly amused, the night goes over well enough. People will see you’re trying your best and will be far more willing to help make things go smoothly for you.

It should go without saying, but compliment everyone else’s singing. As I mentioned, the music teachers here seriously teach music, so I feel the average Japanese person is better equipped for karaoke. It’s also a good way to tackle the “act happy” tactic.

Whenever possible, piggy back off of other people’s songs! It’ll count as your turn. Just say (in English or Japanese), “Should we sing this together?” to any song you might decently know. The other bonus is that it’ll make trying to find the katakana version of your song name a million times easier since someone else probably knows. Also, as I said, whenever you’re singing with someone better than you, you don’t realize how much you suck at singing. Silently thank your friends’ music teachers and do your best to sing loud enough that people know you’re trying, but soft enough to let the pro shine.

Last but not least, in a small karaoke place that doesn’t have private booths, sit by the exit and drink a lot (of water) so you have to go to the bathroom a lot. The less you’re around, the less you’ll be noticed when the good karaoke people are doing their thing. Aim for your “escape” when someone not very good is singing. Everyone will try to help that person (I’ve seen it with others and myself), and often a skilled person will offer to go next to help people’s ears recover. That’s your queue to worship the porcelain god and hope for a short night.

The Rewards for Your Torture

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Photo by Derek Gavey

At the end of it all, what does a night of karaoke-induced torture get you? Sadly, invitations to more karaoke. It’s not all bad though. It’s mostly a bonding experience. If you’re clear that you don’t like singing, but do it anyway, you show you’re willingness to be a team player, which is really important out here. You’ll also see what kind of music your co-workers like, who’s in what clique, and naturally learn some juicy gossip as people drink more. I’ve gotten a bit closer to some of the office staff at my school, so that’s been incredibly useful. Teachers later hear from other teachers that I’m willing to do karaoke and, since then, at least one teacher has been super friendly since he found out. I’d honestly prefer to bond over some Marvel vs. Capcom, but I suppose karaoke works well enough.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Peace and Japan Part 1: How Japan Got Militarized. Again. http://www.tofugu.com/2014/08/15/peace-and-japan-part-1-how-japan-got-militarized-again/ http://www.tofugu.com/2014/08/15/peace-and-japan-part-1-how-japan-got-militarized-again/#comments Fri, 15 Aug 2014 16:00:37 +0000 http://www.tofugu.com/?p=41441 Some of you who have an interest in Japanese current affairs may know about what the current Liberal Democratic Party has put in place regarding Japan’s armed forces, which allows the right for a collective self defense (more on that later). These have attracted controversy from both within and outside of Japan. There have been large protests and even one person set himself on fire in Shinjuku to show his resolve against the changes. Worldwide media has also picked this up, with some people describing Prime Minister Abe’s “nationalism” (which I find accurate) and Japan’s “militarization” (which I don’t find accurate).

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

The Constitution

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

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

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

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

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

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

History Timeline

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

1947 – Post-war (Showa) Constitution Adapted

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

1950 – Start of Korean War

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

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

1954 – Promulgation of the Law of the Self Defense Forces

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

1959 – Sunakawa Incident

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

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

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

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

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

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

1992 – Peacekeeping Operation Cooperation Law passed

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

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

2001 – Invasion and Occupation of Afghanistan

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

2014 – Further change of Interpretation of Constitution

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

What Can We Say From This

A few clear and obvious patterns can be seen here:

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

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

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

What does the current change mean?

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

Video on the protests against the changes to the interpretation

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

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

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

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

So what does it not mean then?

self-defense

Ministry of Defense, Japan

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

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

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

Regarding the next part

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

Stay tuned.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Sources:

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Let’s All Get NAKED! Onsen and Body Image http://www.tofugu.com/2014/08/14/lets-all-get-naked-onsen-and-body-image/ http://www.tofugu.com/2014/08/14/lets-all-get-naked-onsen-and-body-image/#comments Thu, 14 Aug 2014 16:00:58 +0000 http://www.tofugu.com/?p=41972 There’s nothing better than slipping into a hot bath. You feel your muscles relax. The cares of the day float away on a cloud of steam. A butt-naked Oba-chan (old woman) is staring at you… wait! What?!

Does that seem like one of those dreams that turns into a nightmare where you’ve forgotten your clothes? Well, you could see onsen, Japanese communal baths, that way, but you’d be missing out. Not only missing out on a relaxing experience, but also missing out on something that could profoundly change how you view yourself.

Before we plunge into the onsen, let me come clean about this article. What I’ve written here is based entirely on my own personal experience in onsen and of my own body. I’m not claiming any authority beyond that of personal experience. I recognize that who and what I am has influenced this. I’m a woman. From talking to guys, it seems that women can sometimes have more positive experiences in onsen than foreign men, who sometimes come under close scrutiny in one particular area.

This Towel Isn’t Big Enough For The One Of Me!

onsen-towel

The first time I went to an onsen I was terrified. A Japanese friend had suggested we go to an onsen hotel in the next town over. I agreed, but all the way there I was tense with fear. Would I disgust the other people in the baths with my terrible foreignness and cultural faux pas? I was also carrying all the baggage of my own culture’s attitude to nakedness. Like a lot of people, I had a lot of hang ups about getting naked in front of other people. These were twofold. First was a sort of general feeling that nakedness was wrong. This came from my primary school days, a time when all the girls herded into a changing room before swimming lessons and I perfected the “knicker-twist”. (This is a method of putting on a swimsuit over one’s underwear and then removing said underwear in one complicated twisty movement.) The aim was always to avoid having anyone, even our peers, see us naked for even a moment.

The second hang up was a sense that my own body was unacceptable. I was intimately familiar with my own body’s flaws; the orange peel cellulite, the width of my hips, the wobble of my upper arms, the way my hair either made me look like a member of a 90s boy band or a wet cat. That first time in the onsen, when I was handed a narrow towel, I thought, “There’s no way I can cover all my flaws up with this little thing.”

My friend was so excited though. She’d been looking forward to this trip for weeks. I didn’t want to let her down by refusing to go to the onsen. I gritted my teeth and undressed, putting my clothes in the basket provided. I tried to cover up as much of my front as I could. Through the door I found a steam filled room with set of individual showers. I followed my friend’s lead and settled myself on the short stool in front of one of the showers. With great reluctance I put my towel on the small shelf in front of me and began to wash myself. I kept my head down, not wanting to see anyone else’s nakedness or their reactions to mine.

Washed, I grabbed my towel again. I tried to shield myself with it as we headed to the onsen pools. Again, I had to let go of my precious modesty covering as I slipped into the water. I was so conscious of myself. I tried to angle my body so that nothing showed. My friend didn’t seem to notice. She floated with a peaceful expression. I tried to relax too, but it was difficult. Even the gloriously warm water and the beautiful view of stars overhead couldn’t free me from my own self consciousness.

Now contrast that description of visiting an onsen with this one, three years later. A couple of weeks ago I visited an onsen with a two of my friends. I stripped off and put my clothes into the basket, chatting as I did so. At the showers I grabbed soap and shampoo from my own little onsen basket, lathered myself up and rinsed myself clean. We headed for the pools. I had already used my towel to tie up my hair, making no effort to hide myself. In the rotemburo (outside bath) we chatted and laughed. It was a hot bath and at one point I sat on the edge, with just my legs in the water. I felt the cool night air on my skin. I felt happy.

What took me from a nervous, self-conscious girl to a relaxed, happy woman?
Oba-chan butts. Seeing so many Oba-chan butts.

OK, it’s a little more complicated than that. But after that first nerve wracking onsen experience I didn’t stop going to onsen. At first, there were times when visiting onsen was unavoidable, when it was the only bathing option at English camp, or to wash off sweat after snowboarding. But soon I actually started seeking out onsen. Each time I visited, I became more comfortable with my own and others’ nudity. Once I let my preconceptions about nakedness go, I realized what a rare and wonderful space the onsen is.

The Naked Truth

onsen-sign

We are constantly exposed to women’s bodies. But almost all of these bodies are ones that have been chosen by some arbiters of what is hot and what is not and then often retouched, creating impossible standards of beauty. At the opposite end of the spectrum, candid pictures of celebrities in magazines have every flaw ringed and pointed out. It’s not surprising that this affects women’s views of themselves.

Onsen were the first places where I saw actual women’s bodies without photoshopping or judgment. These were bodies that weren’t being displayed to sell me something or to titillate. They were just being people, relaxing and chatting as usual, except they were naked. All of the bodies had “flaws,” but only compared to the impossible perfection that exists in the media. There were broad women, skinny women, women whose bodies had cesarean scars, women who didn’t shave, women who did shave, women with large breasts, women with small breasts, women whose breasts showed the signs of nursing children, all kinds of women. But what they looked like didn’t matter. They weren’t there to be looked at or to look. They were there to enjoy the onsen. Once I realized that, I found that I could enjoy the onsen too.

I carried this positive thought out of the onsen and into my daily life. I began to think of my body in terms of “doing” things, not how it appeared. My body is my tool for doing what I want to do, from climbing a mountain to writing this article. My fingers are moving across the keyboard because I have a body that lets me type. I feel more connected and thankful for the body I have.

Only Oba-chans Know The Secret

onsen-outdoor

I was talking about this with a friend of mine the other day. Actually we were at the onsen. (After three years it doesn’t seem strange to have a chat while relaxing naked in a bath in the open air.) She is gorgeous in a totally unjapanese way, with many of the features that Japanese people associate with foreigners, blonde hair, blue eyes and curves. She was the one who made me realize about the “grass is always greener” aspect of onsen for both Japanese and Non-Japanese women. Japanese women told her how she was their ideal; while for many non-Japanese women Japanese women’s slenderness and elegance can seem like an ideal. We all want what we can’t have. Living in Japan as a non-Japanese woman sometimes made me feel like Godzilla lumbering through my city. This always hit me worst when I went shopping for clothes. Skirts that would be reasonable on a Japanese girl are scandalous on me. Someone once asked me if I’d ever bought a bra in Japan and I just laughed. But we have to recognize that the flipside exists too. Just the other day a female student said to me, “Sensei, give me your oppai (breasts).” If you take the lesson of the onsen in the wrong way, envying the way others look, it could make this “grass is always greener” thinking worse.

Because for all that I’ve found onsen liberating, they don’t seem to have solved the problems of body image in Japan for Japanese women. 29% of Japanese women in their 20s are underweight. This statistic is being blamed on Japanese media, with celebrities and models having increasingly slender frames. Women diet and skip meals to try to attain similar weights.

Perhaps this has something to do with the demographics that enjoy onsen. In my experience it’s rare to see young women in the onsen. The main groups who seem to visit are ladies of retirement age and mothers with young children. Young women most at risk of body image problems likely don’t have the time to spend at onsen as they are working the hours expected of Japanese workers. The young people who would, according to society’s expectations, have the least reason to worry about their bodies are too busy to enjoy the onsen, while the oba-chans have plenty of time to learn the secret that there’s nothing to worry about, no matter how wrinkly you get.

Let’s All Get Naked!

outdoor-onsen2

Photo by Ben Beikse

I have a friend who lived in Japan for over a year, but never went to the onsen. Sometimes she would come with us, but she’d just sit in the changing room, fully clothed, while the rest of us enjoyed the hot water. She didn’t feel comfortable enough in herself to enter the onsen. It seemed like a tragic irony that going in the onsen would probably have helped her overcome the anxieties that kept her from going in the onsen in the first place. Don’t let yourself be kept from something so good for you!

There are so many wonderful onsen in Japan, from Dogo Onsen that the baths in Spirited Away are based on, to free onsen deep in the mountains, to the kitschy fun of Oodeo Onsen in Odaiba, Tokyo. I’d really recommend trying an onsen if you are visiting Japan. If you are lucky enough to be here for a long time, you can visit lots! Don’t let embarrassment hold you back from something wonderful that’s not only good for your skin, but good for your mind too!

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Lords of Kumamoto: Kato Kiyomasa and the Hosokawa http://www.tofugu.com/2014/08/06/lords-of-kumamoto-kato-kiyomasa-and-the-hosokawa/ http://www.tofugu.com/2014/08/06/lords-of-kumamoto-kato-kiyomasa-and-the-hosokawa/#respond Wed, 06 Aug 2014 16:00:15 +0000 http://www.tofugu.com/?p=41840 Last fall I visited Kumamoto Castle. Though mostly a reconstruction, it’s impressive nonetheless. There is currently a regular live show on the castle grounds, in which actors dressed as famous samurai stage mock fights and deliver stirring speeches to dramatic music. Chief among them was Kato Kiyomasa, lord of Kumamoto Castle. Entertaining though it was, I couldn’t help but think, “If the real Kato Kiyomasa were here, he would despise this.”

Kato Kiyomasa was an uncompromising military man. However, his family’s reign in Kumamoto only lasted two generations. They were replaced by the Hosokawa family, who ruled there throughout the remainder of the Edo period. Kato Kiyomasa and the Hosokawa lords had vastly different views on how a warrior should live, one uncompromisingly militaristic and the other a balance of war and art.

The Demon General

kato-kiyomasa

Let’s look at our first representative in this debate, the uber-aggressive and finely-bearded Kato Kiyomasa (1561-1611). He was the son of a blacksmith, born near Nagoya. Kiyomasa first rose to prominence thanks to his accomplishments fighting for Toyotomi Hideyoshi in the Battle of Shizugatake (1583), and became known as one of the “Seven Spears of Shizugatake.”

battle-of-shizugatake

Kiyomasa fought in Hideyoshi’s 1586 conquest of Kyushu. Two years later, Hideyoshi awarded half of Higo Domain (including Kumamoto) to Kato Kiyomasa, and the other half to Konishi Yukinaga (1555-1600). Yukinaga was a Christian convert, while Kiyomasa was a staunch follower of Nichiren Buddhism. The two hated each other.

planning-the-invasion-of-korea

Kiyomasa also played a large role in Hideyoshi’s invasions of Korea (1592-1598), commanding one of two vanguard divisions. The other division of the initial invasion was led by none other than his least favorite neighbor, Konishi Yukinaga. Despite their antagonism, the invasion was quite successful at first.

The invasion later stagnated due to Korean naval campaigns and Chinese intervention. The Japanese settled in and built many forts and castles to solidify their position. Kiyomasa designed and oversaw the construction of several, skills he would later use to greatly expand Kumamoto Castle to the form we know now.

kumamoto-castle-1874

Oh, and in his down time, he hunted tigers. Yeah. Tigers.

kato-kiyomasa-hunting-tigers

After Hideyoshi’s death in 1598 the invasion ended, and conflict between Toyotomi and Tokugawa supporters began. Kiyomasa did not participate in the decisive Battle of Sekigahara (1600), but sided with the Tokugawa and fought Toyotomi allies in Kyushu. For his support, the victorious Tokugawa awarded him the remaining half of Higo, which Kiyomasa governed until he died of illness in 1611.

The Hosokawa

hosokawa

In 1632, Kato Kiyomasa’s heir Tadahiro was arrested for conspiring against the shogun and Higo was confiscated from the Kato family. It was given to Hosokawa Tadatoshi (1586-1641). In contrast to the humble beginnings of the Kato, the Hosokawa were a family with a long history of status, influence, and culture. Descended from the Minamoto, through the Ashikaga, the Hosokawa could claim the blood of two shogun families in their veins. They held many prominent positions and, over time, governed in Shikoku, Kinai, Kokura, and lastly, Kumamoto. This clan reigned in a vastly different way than Kiyomasa.

Hosokawa Tadaoki (1563-1646), fought his first battle at age fifteen and in in many campaigns thereafter, including Hideyoshi’s conquest of Kyushu. His heir, Hosokawa Tadatoshi participated in the suppression of the Shimabara Revolt (1637-38).

Way of the Warrior

Kusunoki_Masahige

Photo by Tranletuhan

Let’s broach the subject of bushido 武士道. Usually translated as the “way of the warrior,” people today generally think of it as a code of ethics followed by the samurai, kind of like chivalry among European knights. The term is hundreds of years old, but appears only rarely until the modern era. It is, for the most part, a term that people of the modern age have projected back on the past.

However, that’s not to say that some samurai didn’t have strong opinions about how a warrior should live his life. Kato Kiyomasa was one such samurai, and he wrote a set of precepts outlining his thoughts on the ideal warrior lifestyle. Since it’s a short document, I have quoted it in full. You may notice that the word bushido does appear, but since I was unable to find the original text, I am relying on William Scott Wilson’s translation. I don’t know if the word bushido actually appears in the original.

“The Precepts of Kato Kiyomasa”

kato-kiyomasa-statue

Photo by Dreamcat115

ARTICLES CONCERNING WHICH ALL SAMURAI SHOULD BE RESOLVED, REGARDLESS OF RANK

One should not be negligent in the way of the retainer. One should rise at four in the morning, practice sword technique, eat one’s meal, and train with the bow, the gun, and the horse. For a well developed retainer, he should become even more so.
If one should want diversions, he should make them such outdoor pastimes such as falconing, deer hunting and wrestling.

For clothing, anything between cotton and natural silk will do. A man who squanders money for clothing and brings his household finances into disorder is fit for punishment. Generally one should further himself with armor that is appropriate for his social position, sustain his retainers, and use his money for martial affairs.

When associating with one’s ordinary companions, one should limit the meeting to one guest and one host, and the meal should consist of plain brown rice. When practicing the martial arts, however, one may meet with many people.

As for the decorum at the time of a campaign, one must be mindful that he is a samurai. A person who loves beautification where it is unnecessary is fit for punishment.

The practice of Noh Drama is absolutely forbidden. When one unsheathes his sword, he has cutting a person down on his mind. Thus, as all things are born from being placed in one’s heart, a samurai who practices dancing, which is outside of the martial arts, should be ordered to commit seppuku.

One should put forth great effort in matters of learning. One should read books concerning military matters, and direct his attention exclusively to the virtues of loyalty and filial piety. Reading Chinese poetry, linked verse, and waka is forbidden. One will surely become womanized if he gives his heart knowledge of such elegant and delicate refinements. Having been born into the house of a warrior, one’s intentions should be to grasp the long and the short swords and to die

If a man does not investigate into the matter of Bushido daily, it will be difficult for him to die a brave and manly death. Thus, it is essential to engrave this business of the warrior into one’s mind well.

The above conditions should be adhered to night and day. If there is anyone who finds these conditions difficult to fulfill, he should be dismissed, an investigation should be quickly carried out, it should be signed and sealed that he was unable to mature in the Way of Manhood, and he should be driven out. To this, there is no doubt

TO ALL SAMURAI

Kato Kazuenokami Kiyomasa

Hosokawa, Rennaisance Clan

hosokawa-clan-crest

In an approach nearly the absolute opposite of Kato Kiyomasa, Hosokawa Tadaoki was accomplished not only in matters of war, but also of peace. He was a seasoned warrior, with plenty of experience on the front lines. He was well versed in the designing of castles, and responsible for some innovations in armor.

 

sword-mounting-by-hosokawa
Sword mountings made by Tadaoki

He was one of the closest students of Sen no Rikyu, developer of the tea ceremony, and a tea master in his own right. He was also a poet, a painter, and a master of lacquer ware.

lacquer-art-by-tadaoki
An eggplant shaped sake flask created by Tadaoki

After his son was given Higo Domain, Tadaoki retired there, at Yatsushiro Castle. During his retirement he commissioned the creation of the Kouda-yaki style of ceramics.

lacquer-bowl-by-tadaoki-hosokawa
Modern kouda-yaki cup

Hosokawa Tadatoshi continued the family tradition of balancing martial and peaceful pursuits. He was an avid swordsman, proficient in the Yagyu Shinkage style. He also became well acquainted with the legendary swordsman, Miyamoto Musashi, a friendship that highlighted his balanced approached to samuraihood. The two initially met at a poetry circle in Kyoto. Musashi’s prowess in dueling and the arts interested Tadatoshi. Eventually, Musashi entered his service, and wrote The Thirty-Five Articles of the Martial Arts at his behest.

kumamoto-castle-gardens

Tadatoshi also designed the Suizenji Jojū-en, a garden in Kumamoto. It was originally a tea retreat, the location chosen for its clean spring water. Much of the garden was designed to replicate the fifty-three post stations of the Tokaido, the road from Kyoto to Edo. The easiest example to spot is the mini Mt. Fuji, seen above.

The Sword? The Brush? Both?

miaymoto-musashi-quote

Kato Kiyomasa and his opinions could be seen as a reflection of his time. The chaos of constant war allowed lowborn men such as him to rise in status, and his obsession with martial pursuits served him well. However, as the wars drew to an end, it was the attitudes exemplified by the Hosokawa that took hold with the warrior class during the peace of the Tokugawa era. With little fighting to be done, bureaucrats were needed more than soldiers. At the same time, samurai continued to train for battle, and dojo culture flourished. Two attitudes indicative of the Sengoku Period and Edo Period, respectively. And both housed within the mighty walls of Kumamoto Castle.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Sources

  • Cobbing, Andrew. Kyushu, Gateway to Japan.
  • Kent: Global Oriental Ltd., 2009
  • Matsumoto, Sumio; Itakasu, Kazuko; Kudo, Kei’ichi; Ikai, Takaaki. Kumamoto-ken no rekishi.
  • Tokyo: Yamakawa Shuppansha, 1999.
  • Swope, Kenneth M. A Dragon’s Head and a Serpent’s Tail: Ming China and the First Great East Asian War.
  • Norman: University of Oklahoma, 2009.
  • Wilson, William Scott. Ideals of the Samurai.
  • Ohara Publications, 1982.
  • Wilson, William Scott. The Lone Samurai: The Life of Miyamoto Musashi.
  • Shambhala Publications, 2013.
  • “Hosoakawa Tadaoki.” http://ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E7%B4%B0%E5%B7%9D%E5%BF%A0%E8%88%88
  • “Hosokawa Tadatoshi.” http://ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E7%B4%B0%E5%B7%9D%E5%BF%A0%E5%88%A9
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Fashionista By No Means http://www.tofugu.com/2014/07/31/fashionista-by-no-means/ http://www.tofugu.com/2014/07/31/fashionista-by-no-means/#comments Thu, 31 Jul 2014 16:00:32 +0000 http://www.tofugu.com/?p=41335 The sticky mat draws particles away from my shoes before I slip on disposable fiber booties.  Donning a hairnet, I secure a face mask as I proceed to wash my hands and pull on blue nitrile gloves.  Next I zip myself into a white bunny suit.  I wear my side-shielded glasses, and just before entering the clean room, I snap on a second pair of gloves and spray my hands with an aerosol sanitizer.

This used to be the start of my day.  Strolling the spotless glass, chrome and marble façade of Ginza reminds me of the sterility.  Everything is clean and in its proper place.  I sip my coffee and watch the rush of mostly middle-aged housewives, executive assistants and anti-egalitarians stride past.  The people are orderly; they walk with quick purposeful cadence.  They are not fooling anyone, because they don’t have to.  That Louis Vuitton is Louis Vuitton!  That Franck Muller is Franck Muller!  Their vanity is legit, and that blasé is real.  The polished gold doors open before them as they are cordially welcomed inside.

Takeaway: Fake it until you make it does not apply to Japan, not in the way many Westerners are used to experiencing.  Yes, some people still look down their noses. There are so-called Haves and Have Nots even among the Japanese, but the material part of it, the outward appearance of wealth is not as important a status symbol as “power is power.”  What this means is that fashion and money do not necessarily coincide. In Japan, affordable fashion does not mean fake, namely because you don’t counterfeit in a society so bent on perfection.

Removing The Walls

FBNM07

I’m being pulled along.  Led through the wardrobe, the world changes from furs to firs.  I see blue of sky and the walls fall away.  Now surrounded by pleasant greenery, sunshine kisses our faces and we’re shopping, or people watching or both.  There are no windows here.  And nobody is out to turn a profit, make a commission or wearing black.  This is a Japanese secondhand clothing market.

The mostly twenty and 30-something crowd shuffles about the neatly arranged spaces attended to by cohorts of like manner: posh, hippie, Lolita, etcetera.  Everyone has representation.  Their genre of fashion calls to them like Isildur’s Bane.  I am happy to observe, but my companion has other ideas.  Shopping is her other-other part-time job.

My wingwoman gestures for me to squat alongside as she picks, inspects and presses garment after garment in my direction for lack of a basket.  Designer threads are like catnip to this mostly freeter (フリーター) crowd, but damn, they make rummaging look less bag lady and more chichi.  And now my arms are full, and every label reads like a who’s who of haute couture: Dior, Ferragamo, Tadashi Shoji?

“That’s mine, stupid!” Yo-yo growls when I question the Hermés bag she has guided to me.  I apologize.  Her playful k-k-kawaii mood is spent.  She is now competing against a frenzy of lionesses padding about her kill.  A bottle blonde claws at the chiffon blouse Yo-yo holds, and the air shifts darkly.  I only catch the blonde’s sardonic, “Inaka-chan,” and I know the girl is tempting fate.  Yo-yo has maimed for less.  Yet uncharacteristically, she nods charitably for the girl to take the canary yellow blouse.

At the same time, Yo-yo stands, holds a silvery shirt-like dress upon her chest and urbanely steps aside optimistically modeling for my opinion.  I mumble something with a smile, but actually say nothing.  Her pensive look turns to the seller for aplomb, but the vendor simply grins and flashes a quintet of fingers.  I do not know where the decimal lies.  Yo-yo squints sweetly and the seller rescinds one finger.  I learn it is the equivalent of $40US for a four hundred dollar dress, in addition to the ¥3,000 in bric-a-brac I cradle in my arms.  It is only then the blonde realizes the silvery frock missing from her pile.  I’m tiring of holding this bag, “Stupid.”

Takeaway: This is a peoples’ market, a grand meeting of egalitarian social ideals with a dash of free market economics.  Here it pays to be froward.  So don’t be shy, engage everyone with a smile.  This may grant you that 20% discount you didn’t even know existed.  Sometimes however, you should express directly what you want to pay, but be nice about it.

Out Of The Woodwork

FBNM02

Secondhand clothing markets bring people out of the woodwork, and that is what made the inaka-chan comment clever and dangerous.  But the market is much more than deftly sewn fabric at rock bottom prices.  Turning away, there are festive foods.  A girl bites into a hotdog, another studies the grilled squid. It’s a fine day to play ubiquitous Japanese games: Goldfish scooping (金魚掬い) and Yo-yo Tsuris (ヨーヨーつり).

We take to nearby shade, and Yo-yo gets organized as I contemplate the cuisine.  She withdraws an expandable nylon bag and neatly arranges her winnings before we continue our stroll, “Eat later, okay?”

The playfulness has returned to our party and we share laughs with buyers and sellers alike in passing.  The secondhand clothing market is about easiness, never mind the occasional drama.  Everything and everyone is informal and casual.  The wares are priced to move, which makes negotiation mostly irrelevant or more likely, a minor courtesy.

Takeaway: Like open air markets throughout the world, bargain hunting demands strategy, persistence and above all else: a good eye.  Arriving early is key to garnering those incredible deals, yet even seasoned vets will not catch everything the first time through.  With all of the excitement and stress, it’s easy to find yourself experiencing tunnel vision as I did.  So take a break, have your snack and welcome the pleasantness of the moment.

People Watching People

FBNM01

We are three hours in and Yo-yo’s bag is brimming to capacity.  The market is now a deluge of bodies, though I sense fewer shoppers and more people just hanging out.  I have yet to purchase anything besides the sweet potato I’ve demolished.  And then I raise my camera.

Yoyogi Flea Market is a lot of shopping, but to many it is a place to see and be seen.  Breakout fashion is common and many flock here to tryout new ideas and connect with like-minded sartorialists.

The Candid Moment

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Yo-yo casually slaps my face with follow-through!  And I lower the camera.
“Don’t be that guy,” she whispers.

Suggesting we move, I follow her into another aisle just as a tall skinny rockabilly tosses me a ‘sup head tilt and I’m riveted.  A head tilt in a land of bows is absolute counterculture, but I will myself to return the gesture.  The man flashes a gold crown half-smile as we approach his small setup.  Clearly rock and roll, his horn-rimmed glasses, cuffed blue jeans, red-laced boots and pompadour greet us.  Yo-yo is beaming wildly.  I suspect they know each other and wait for the introduction.  It does not come.

Lifting a small spiked pouch from this overseer’s lot, there is a tiny handwritten tag tied to the zipper with a piece of twine.  I turn to my companion and ask what it says.  She squints.  “It’s from London.”  And now everyone is laughing, because just below the inscription is the price: ¥100.

Takeaway: Have you ever purchased something from someone just because they were the ones selling it?  Secondhand clothing markets can be like this.  As a co-worker once told me, “Sometimes I just buy their stuff like it’s a souvenir of that person.”  There’s a lot of this kind of buying, actually.  Yeah it’s weird, stalker-shopper syndrome isn’t uncommon, especially here.  But this is Japan, and meaningful association is the norm.  It’s kinda like Elvis’s comb.

The Social Place

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Whether one is a shopaholic or a people watcher, secondhand clothing markets are ideal to practice your Japanese language skills in a low-pressure environment.  More importantly, these markets provide an opportunity to make friends.  Or at the very least, they grant a dose of cultural exchange regardless of one’s Japanese or English speaking abilities.

Takeaway: Lead with your best smile and seize opportunities to interact.  Granted, you may be the one initiating, but that’s as simple as saying hello. Secondhand clothing markets are wonderful for engaging strangers.  This is not so easily achieved in Ginza by example.  And in the later hours when traffic slows, sellers begin slashing prices not wishing to take back what they’ll never use.  The time is ripe to shoot the breeze.

Minding The Store

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It’s four weeks later, and I’m crouched before a vendor’s stall.  A strategic mess, but the shopkeeper knows where everything is at.  She holds up a silvery dress and smiles brightly.

“Remember this one?”
“Yeah, I think you should wear it.”
“It’s too early.”

Yo-yo and I are now sellers.  I only brought a dozen or so items, things friends of friends left behind, the stuff not worth shipping.  Though I have never participated in the E-teaching game, I have known a fair number who have.  They always leave stuff, always clothing.  My collection is significant.  There is a bundle of vintage t-shirts, and lots of plaid.  Someone had a schoolgirl phase.

Our stall cost a paltry ¥200.  It’s a nice spot under a tree, and we have laid out an old quilt as drop cloth.  Yo-yo has also brought a box of bath bombs she claims fell off a truck.  She sells me on the idea of, “Free with every purchase.”

Ten o’clock arrives and there are loads of early birds.  It is then Yo-yo decides to leave!  She’s actually forgotten why she’s here.

“I don’t know your stuff.”
“So? Ganbatte!” she cries over her shoulder while hurrying out of sight.

Remember how I said that bargaining was a non-issue, I WAS TOTALLY WRONG!  Most of these early shoppers are resellers with online businesses, a few are serious fashion folk, but really, it is all chaos to their advantage.  And while I know this game, it is another thing to stay ahead of the curve in a language I am only dangerously proficient.

All I can make out is, “This?” “That?” “That one over there?” “How much for everything?” “What’s this?” “If I add these?” “Is this okay?” “Don’t-touch-my-pile!”

It is all happening rather quickly, and I’m calling out numbers like this is the Tsukiji Fish Market!  Turning on my knees, Yo-yo and Rocka Billy are contemplating smiles behind me.  He’s got a fist before his face, and Yo-yo’s crushing her bright red lips.

“Are you gonna help or just supervise?”
Ganbare!” they cheerfully rally in unison.
“Keep-your-fist-pump,” I mutter.

Takeaway: After this experience I believe anyone could successfully sell regardless of Japanese language ability.  Really, I do.  Speaking Japanese is helpful in maintaining flow, but being organized is much more important.  If the price is reasonably marked, most buyers will simply hand over payment sans negotiation.  And while we did not mark any prices on our items, my Japanese improved significantly since the situation demanded keen listening.  This was my idea, and partially why Yo-yo remained hands-off to my benefit and frustration.  It was like a five hour Japanese lesson with sixty different instructors for a mere ¥200.

Getting There And Getting To It

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While finding these secondhand clothing markets is not difficult, many outdoor venues close if weather is severe enough.  Most markets are promoted with this in mind, often designating alternate dates in advance for rain.  Although secondhand clothing markets are generally referred to as flea markets, their vendors and clientele differ dramatically in presentation.  It is best to search the web accordingly for market type, location, dates and times.  One static source for English readers is Metropolis.  Alternatively, simply ask someone.

For those interested in selling, a few markets require advanced booking online, while others will charge a nominal fee day of.  All you really need is a drop cloth and your stuff.  Be ready to make change.  Ganbatte!

Note: All photos taken by the author.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Introducing Introduction: Mastering Jikoshokai and the ALT Self-Intro Class http://www.tofugu.com/2014/07/28/introducing-introduction-mastering-jikoshokai-and-the-alt-self-intro-class/ http://www.tofugu.com/2014/07/28/introducing-introduction-mastering-jikoshokai-and-the-alt-self-intro-class/#comments Mon, 28 Jul 2014 16:00:14 +0000 http://www.tofugu.com/?p=41650 Hajimemashite! It’s nice to meet you!

If you come to Japan you’re going to find yourself saying this quite often. Introductions are very important in Japanese culture. It can be seen as an extension of the Japanese obsession with perfection. Things have to be perfect right from the start and that includes the start of every relationship, whether in business, school, or even casual meetings. It can sometimes seem like the introduction is the most important part of any endeavor. If you’ve got off on the right foot, all the subsequent steps aren’t quite as important. But that introduction… gotta get that right!

I once attended an English camp where I spotted a tiny error in the program notes for the introductory speech. I pointed it out to the organizers and thought that was the end of it. Problem solved! I was surprised to find the organizers flipping out for the next half hour, trying to work out if they could reprint all the programs before the opening ceremony. I was very confused so I asked a Japanese co-worker why they were so agitated. She explained, “It’s because it affects the opening ceremony. We think that if the opening is good, then the whole thing will be good. If the opening is bad, then everything is ruined.”

To me that seemed like a lot of pressure to put on the start of something (though actually that camp was a disaster, so maybe they had a point.) Still, it gave me some insight into the importance that Japanese culture places on introductions. The introduction sets the tone for the entire relationship. It’s a formalized way of perfecting first impressions. In some ways this is stressful, if you don’t know the rules. But luckily the rules are easy to grasp. Once you’ve got them you can relax.

Let’s Jikoshokai!

kitty-cat-greeting

Photo by kouyuzu

So if introductions carry so much weight in Japan, it must be pretty important for you to master! Jikoshokai (自己紹介) is the Japanese word for self-introduction and it’s probably the third thing you should learn after konnichiwa and arigatou.

At its very simplest, the pattern is:

はじめまして。Hajimemashite. (Nice to meet you.)
よろしくお願いします。Yoroshiku onegai shimasu. (It doesn’t translate well, but this means, in a self-intro situation, something like “Please be kind to me.” More than one student has thought it translates as “Nice to me too.”)

The next step up is:

はじめまして。(Hajimemashite.)
私は (name) と申します。Watashi wa (name) to moushimasu. (My name is… (polite version).)
よろしくお願いします。Yoroshiku onegai shimasu.

Then you simply build from there:

はじめまして。(Hajimemashite.)
Watashi wa (name) tomoimasu.
(Home country) から来ました。(Home country) kara kimashita. (I’m from (home country).)
日本の(interests)に興味があります。Nihon no (interests) ni kyoumi ga arimasu. (I’m interested in Japanese (interests))
よろしくお願いします。Yoroshiku onegai shimasu.

And so on, depending on what you want to say.

The content of your self-introduction will differ depending on who you are talking to. Self-introductions can open a lot of doors. For example, if you are a new ALT at a school, mentioning aspects of Japanese culture that you are interested in might get you an invitation to a class or club. But if you are in a business setting, it’s best to keep things formal. If you are just meeting people casually you don’t need to launch into the full spiel, just hajimemashite, name, and yoroshiku onegai shimasu will do. However, if any group is meeting for the first time, don’t be surprised if someone suddenly says it’s time for jikoshokai, even if you’ve been happily chatting for half an hour.

Business Cards

exchanging-meishi-business-cards-japan

Business cards (meishi) are an art form in Japan. If you’ve read any sort of guide, you already know to take them with both hands. Don’t write on them, damage them, or stick them in your back pocket. You might also want to have your own printed up. Bilingual meishi are particularly useful. Personally, I never got round to having some made, but there were certainly times I wish I had. As a JET ALT it wasn’t necessary, but if you are looking to find another job in Japan, ALTing or otherwise, then cards will be a useful tool for you.

I got a little case from a 100 yen store so that I’d have somewhere to put meishi given to me. Failing that, I’d put them flat on the table then tuck them into my wallet only when I’d finished speaking to whoever gave it to me.

Some people go beyond simply handing over a card. The most impressive presentation of a business card I ever saw was performed by a magician. When he opened his card case it burst into flames. Then he used sleight of hand to pass it to me without me even realizing. Business cards don’t have to be boring! You’ll probably want to stick to formal ones for formal occasions, but that doesn’t mean you can’t also have a set of personal name cards for more casual meetings.

How to Master the ALT Self-Intro Class

japanese-classroom

Photo by Dylan Raife

I recently wrote an article for new ALTs (Assistant Language Teachers), offering tips and tricks for success in the classroom. But before ALTs can start proper teaching, they are expected to teach a self-introduction class. While this may seem daunting at first, a little preparation and practice can make anyone a self-intro wizard!

First, don’t worry if it goes a bit wrong. The first ones are always dodgy. Take it as a learning experience. My first self-introductions were appalling, mumbling, too long, too focused on me talking, and far too complicated. Now, over 100 self-intro classes later I can literally do one successfully almost on autopilot. The key is to refine it a little each time. Notice which bits got the laughs and which bits got dead silence. Adjust your self-introduction accordingly. Ask JTEs (Japanese Teacher of English) for feedback. They may not all be willing to give any, but a few might have some good advice for you.

photos-from-home-self-intro

Photo by Verity Lane

Most of my schools didn’t have access to any kind of presentation equipment, so I relied on printed pictures. The laminator will be your greatest friend. I put my self-introduction together three years ago and used it over 100 times. Thanks to being laminated it’s still going strong. When it comes to pictures, think big – A4 size minimum. Passing pictures around takes time and splits a class’ attention when you want to keep that attention on what you’re saying. Flags are good, as are other props, especially for younger students. If you love rugby, take a rugby ball. If you have a national animal, take a stuffed toy. Pictures of your family, your pets, favourite foods and hobbies are good staples. Try to find a picture to illustrate each point you want to talk about. Back those pictures up with drawings on the blackboard, however terrible they may be. Fast is more important than beautiful. You can write keywords too, which really helps Japanese students who usually don’t get much listening practice, but can read much better.

If you do have access to presentation equipment, go for it! I’d particularly recommend Prezzi, presentation software. It will blow your students’ minds. Actually, even PowerPoint will probably blow their minds, especially if you include moving elements. In my experience of rural schools, most JTEs rarely use technology in the classrooms. (Some can’t even use Microsoft Word – I wish I was joking.) Given how unusual presentation equipment is in Japanese schools, I’d suggest making a low-tech version as a backup. You never know when a projector won’t work, or your power point will bizarrely show upside-down or a teacher will simply be so freaked out by the idea of a presentation that they say no.

So you’ve got your materials. But what do you say? Try to think back to language classes you took as a child. What topics did you cover? Family, animals, foods, and so on. Make it your own too. What is interesting about you? That can be hard to answer by yourself, so ask friends and family for their opinions.

Students-like-Sheep

Photo by Verity Lane

Now, I’m not saying you should lie to children (fun as that is), but do simplify your life story. Personally, I say, “My family are sheep farmers. This is my favorite sheep, Kevin.” I don’t say, “My Aunt once rescued some sheep and has since created a paradise on earth for out of luck farm animals. Kevin is an ovine spiritual guru whose wooly coat holds the secret to cosmic happiness, which can be unlocked by petting him.” It’s simpler. The aim is not to have the kids understand every nuance of your life, but just to have them understand something. Also, this appeals to the kids in my area, many of whom come from farming families. Try to find parts of your life the kids can empathize with. This will take some time. Don’t worry about being perfect on your first try.

Throw some questions in there too. When I show the picture of Kevin the Sheep I ask the students, “What animal is this?” Kevin is a very handsome brown sheep, but most sheep in Japan are white, so the answers usually go from dog to bear to cow before settling on sheep. That’s more fun for the students than me simply saying, “This is a sheep.”

Go to town with gestures too. Mime like your life depends on it. I do an imitation of Kevin the sheep running towards me in a field, which is 100% ridiculous. It always gets a laugh and the kids visibly relax. They aren’t so shy about embarrassing themselves, because nothing they do will be as embarrassing as me running around the classroom going “Baaaaaaaa!”

I don’t just talk about sheep, (though animals are a good topic for kids since they know a lot of the vocabulary.) I usually start with an explanation of the four countries of the UK. I make it more interesting by explaining that my Dad is from England and my Mum is from Wales (another simplification.) I do this using pictures of my Mum and Dad and making the kids guess who they are before saying “Yes. This is my Father. He has a crazy face.” (In the picture I use, he is pulling a very strange expression! Thanks Dad!) Really simple humor using words they know (like crazy) is really important. Thus, without really realizing it, the students learn about the otherwise confusing and dull administrative districts of the UK. (Also, the Welsh flag is badass and gets a mime too – roar!)

I also run through, my favourite food (scones), famous UK food (fish and chips), and my hobby (knitting). Each subject has a picture. I don’t work from a script, but instead put the pictures in order and let them remind me of the next topic. If I have a lot of time I throw in that I studied at Oxford University, but I brighten this up for students who have never heard of it by explaining Harry Potter was filmed there. Pop culture can be a useful tool to connect with students. Although this is a self-introduction, that doesn’t mean you have to talk about only yourself. This is a great chance to talk about where you come from and your culture.

Self-Intro Class Quiz Finale!

Verity-Self-Intro

Photo by Verity Lane

Some teachers will ask you to introduce yourself in 5 minutes. I did a very quick highlights version (name, country, student questions). But sometimes you’ll be asked to do your self-introduction for an entire class period. Talking about yourself for 50 minutes is tough on you and on the kids. That’s why it’s quiz time! There are loads of different ways to run this. I’m going to share what worked for me (at Senior High School level, though it could easily be adapted for Junior High Schools), but you’ll be sure to find your own groove.

This entire process is done in English, for both you and the students (this depends on student level, but even at low level schools, it is possible to do it all in English since your pictures and props will help with understanding.) Sometimes it’s appropriate for Japanese Teachers to add explanations in Japanese, but usually I found it’s not, even at the lowest level schools. Try as hard as you can to stop JTEs from translating every word you say. It kills self-intro classes.

Prepare your quiz questions ahead of time. At first you’ll probably need them written down, but your eventual aim should be to do this paperless. Don’t be afraid of going off script. It’s important to react to the tone of the class.

  • At the start, divide the kids into teams of 5 or 6 and have them move their desks together.
  • Give each group one big piece of paper.
  • Explain that you are going do your self-introduction then there will be a quiz, so the students should write a memo. Memo is a word kids know from katakana (these sorts of words are your friends).
  • Do your crazy-awesome self-introduction.
  • Explain that the first round of the quiz is the students asking you questions.
  • Give them two/three minutes to discuss their questions in a group.
  • Use this time to draw the scoreboard, question categories, and points on the blackboard.
  • If you have 4 categories then plan on between 3 and 5 questions per category to fill 30 to 50 minutes. As you get more familiar with your self-introduction you’ll be able to gauge how many questions you’ll need to fill the time.
  • Ask the JTE to keep the scores.
  • When the 2 minutes thinking time is up, regain the students’ attention and tell them to raise their hand to ask a question.
  • Answer the students’ questions. Give lots of positive feedback (“Great question!” “Nice!”)
  • If they ask a slightly wonky question eg. “What do you like foods?” repeat the correct version back the them before answering, “What foods do I like? I like agidashi dofu!” (The weirder the Japanese food you say, the happier they’ll be.)
  • Be prepared for rude questions too and don’t get too flustered.
  • Give the students 10 points for each question they answer.
  • After a few minutes, or when every group has asked a few questions, tell them it’s time for you to ask them questions.
  • Get ready to slip into a “Game Show Host” persona – think big gestures and big reactions.
  • Explain the categories and the points (more points mean a more difficult question).
  • Explain that if a team gets a question right they get to choose the next question (they can easily grasp this once they start playing).
  • Run through all your questions. Erase the points as the students answer each question.
  • Call out the points to the JTE who should be writing them down.
  • If there is a very confident team, try to give other teams a chance to answer too by ignoring them for a round.
  • At the end add up the scores and give the winners a round of applause.
  • Boom! You just ran an awesome self-introduction.

As ever, this advice is what has worked for me. Be sure to modify and change as you see fit. If you aren’t sure where to start with self-introductions, then you can use this as a framework to build your own style on. There are lots of awesome ways to run a self-introduction. If you have access to IT equipment at school you could do this as a Jeopardy style quiz on a screen. Or you could do it another way entirely. For very young kids, you could consider making answer cards with words or pictures for them to collect when you ask questions about yourself. You could make a comprehension worksheet with questions or in a bingo style for students to fill out as they listen to you. You could get the kids to guess everything about you. I tried several styles before settling on the one I described above.

But beyond all these tips, perhaps the most important thing is the attitude of the JTE towards you. I once had two classes, the same level, same material, same school, same day. The first class went fantastically; kids asked great questions and got really excited. The second class went terribly; the kids stared silently and getting them to ask questions was excruciating. The only difference was the teachers. In the first class the teacher walked in with me and said, “Today we have an ALT with us! She’s going to give you her self-introduction!” with a big smile on his face. The second teacher walked into the classroom without saying a word and stood at the back silently. In both cases, the teachers set the tone of the students’ reaction. If you can, talk to your JTEs before class to ask them to introduce you. As I said right at the start, introduction is an important part of Japanese culture. The students’ crucial first impression of you is formed in part by how the JTE introduces you.

Concluding the Introduction to Introductions

self-intro-helper-card

Photo by Ian Forrester

All that said, don’t let all this perceived pressure on self-introduction freak you out. When you first arrive in Japan things can be a little overwhelming. If you can get your Japanese self-introduction mostly memorized you’ll be fine. People will be forgiving, even if you flub it. Prepare your English self-intro class, but also be prepared to change it as you find your ALT feet. Don’t worry; you’ll have lots and lots and lots of opportunities to practice the art of jikoshokai. You’ll be a master in no time!

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Surviving Sports Festival http://www.tofugu.com/2014/07/25/surviving-sports-festival/ http://www.tofugu.com/2014/07/25/surviving-sports-festival/#comments Fri, 25 Jul 2014 16:00:17 +0000 http://www.tofugu.com/?p=41652 In Japan, summer’s end ushers in a nationwide school tradition. Students, teachers, family, and other guests gather for a day of outdoor events known as undoukai (運動会) or sports festival. Undoukai offers something for everyone – some events are taken seriously while others offer light-hearted comic relief. And although a winner is declared at day’s end, undoukai’s true spirit lies beneath its competitive pretenses – one of cooperation.

A (Very) Quick History

Hamamatsu_GirlsHighSchool_1910_SportsDay_Dance

Undoukai’s history dates back to the Meiji period, an era of drastic changes in the formerly isolated nation. In his book Sport and Body Politics in Japan, Wolfram Manzenreiter explains, “The history of school sport days in Japan began with the (probably) first undoukai ever staged by Kaigun Heigakuryou in Tsukiji, Tokyo in March 1873.” Manzenreiter credits English Naval Officer Archibald Douglas with introducing the idea (Manzenreiter 52).

The tradition took off from there as Japan pushed to “catch-up” with the west, adapting many western traditions. Ironically Japan’s militarization and its opposition to the West would further solidify undoukai’s place in Japanese culture as an “ideological device used for nationalistic purposes… Marching formations and mass calisthenics demonstrated the result of a disciplinary education that put the body into service of the collective” (53).

Although sports festival’s roots may lie in the west, Japan has made undoukai a uniquely Japanese tradition. Manzenreiter goes as far as declaring, “Undoukai can be viewed as a contemporary extension of older traditions, such as the cherry blossom viewing” (53). And anyone involved in the Japanese school system can attest, the tradition is still going strong.

Surviving Undoukai

pocari-sweet-vending-machine

Photo by Tamago Moffle

Spending an entire day in Japan’s characteristic mushiatsui (蒸し暑い), or hot and humid, weather warrants proper preparation. But the concept of proper preparation differs by culture. Items considered necessities by native Japanese participants might not be so obvious to an uninitiated foreigner, as I discovered at my first undoukai. Follow this Japanese-centric list to get through the day like a seasoned pro.

  • Hat – Protect your head and eyes from Japan’s merciless sun. Go with a fly fishing hat or a cap with a mullet on the back. Remember, it’s not about making a fashion statement, it’s about survival.
  • Towel/Tenugui – Use it to wipe away the sweat, protect your neck from the sun and dry your hands after washing them. A towel/tenugui is your all-purpose undoukai utility tool. Using a tenugui will earn you bonus points for Japanese cultural recognition.
  • Sports Wear – When Japan holds an event, people prefer to look the part. At undoukai, even the most well-dressed teachers will trade in their dress suits for track suits. The more stuff printed on your outfit, the better, as track jackets covered in logos and advertisements are all the rage. But if your team, homeroom, or school has a custom t-shirt made for the day, be sure to wear that instead!
  • Sports Drink – You can bring water, but people might think you’re crazy. Japan has embraced the sports drink, so if you want to fit in, make it Pocari Sweat, Aquarius or Amino Value. But if sports drinks aren’t your cup of tea, try tea! Barley tea (mugi-cha) is the traditional tea of champions.
  • Bentou Lunch Box – If you don’t have a school provided bentou, bring your own. If possible, bring enough to share. Undoukai’s lunch often becomes a hodgepodge picnic. Make some friends and sample their home-cooking as they (hopefully) enjoy yours. It doesn’t have to be fancy – a family I shared lunch with loved my simple banana bread. Or at least they said they did.

Home_made_Bento

Photo by kunchan
  • A Mat – Straw or plastic, a mat will keep your rear-end dry and dirt-free while giving you a clean place to enjoy your lunch. It’ll also save your spot when you participate in events or head to the little boy’s or girl’s room.
  • Sunblock – When it comes to sun protection, some Japanese people don ninja-like outfits, covering themselves from head to toe. These get-ups prevent sun exposure at a cost; they’re sweltering. To avoid melting in your own personal sauna suit embrace sunblock – or better yet, let it embrace you. Bring the entire bottle just incase you need re-apply at lunchtime. Sunblock is the only non-Japanese-centric item on this list so prepare to receive some awkward looks, especially if your sunblock is coconut scented and has gold sparkles in it – like mine did.

Now that everything’s prepared, we’re ready for the big day!

The Venue

sports-day-setup-in-japan

Photo by 不可説

In preparation for undoukai, a school’s undoujou (運動場) or all purpose athletic grounds undergo a painstaking transformation. Days before the event, students and teachers spend hours converting the giant sandy lot into a sports festival wonderland. White chalk lines mark the positions for undoukai’s array of activities. Flags and other decorations create a festive atmosphere. Canopies surround the athletic field and offer spectators protection from the elements. Get to the field early to secure a great spot in the shade with a great view of the action.

Opening Ceremonies

sports-day-opening-ceremony

As with most events in Japan, undoukai kicks off with an opening ceremony. Expect a few speeches – by the principal, the student council president, maybe a PTA member and even a city or town official. And be sure to remove your hat for the national anthem and raising of the Japanese flag.

After waiting through the speeches and national anthem, students will spread out for another Japanese tradition – rajio taisou (ラジオ体操) or calisthenics. Watch or join students as they stretch and pose to a cheerful narrator and catchy music. Some schools play modern pop tracks, but nothing beats the traditional piano music.

(Rajio Taisou with some local Tohoku flavor.)

When rajio taisou ends, teams split up and the events begin!

The Events

sports-day-relay-race

Photo by Ishikawa Ken

Check the schedule to see the order of events. Along with student events, there are sometimes events for teachers, faculty, and guests – so don’t miss out! This is a non-exhaustive list meant to be a sampling of events. Each school has its own contests and traditions.

Popular undoukai events include:

  • Mukade Kyoso – Like a three-legged race but might involve even more legs.
  • Kumitaiso – Students create various shapes with their bodies (think human pyramids).

sports-day-human-pyramid

Photo by Josh Berglund
  • Tama-ire – Students and guests throw bean bags into an overhead basket.
  • Odori – Students perform various dances ranging from the traditional to recent pop hits.

sports-day-dance-event

  • Tsunahiki – A good old-fashioned tug-of-war. There’s often one held for parents/guests as well.
  • Relay – Japan loves a relay and undoukai is no exception. The event is often the most competitive and usually closes out the day.

The Soundtrack

stack-of-cds

Photo by Arbitrarily0

Undoukai even has its own soundtrack, so expect to listen to music all day long. Every event of every undoukai I’ve ever attended has been accompanied by BGM (Background Music). Sometimes the playlist includes classic tunes, like The William Tell Overture by Gioachino Rossini. Other times anime themes rule the day with titles like Dragon Ball’s Chara Hecchara (チャラ・ヘッチャラ) or any of the One Piece themes. Kindergartens love children’s songs, particularly Anpanman’s March. And of course there’s J-pop. Since arriving in Japan seven years ago, AKB48 has been a mainstay of school life – and undoukai is no exception.

Undoukai’s soundtrack provides English teachers a chance to shine. If you’re a teacher try offering some popular English songs to mix things up!

Closing Ceremony

sports-day-closing-ceremony

Photo by Taku

After the relay finishes, teams will return to their areas for a break while teachers tally the points. The event ends much as it started, with students and faculty assembled in the middle of the field for (you guessed it!) a closing ceremony. The winning team is announced and awarded a trophy – usually an elaborate flag attached to an even more elaborate staff. Expect more speeches before the Japanese flag is lowered and folded and the event ends…

Or does it?

Although closing ceremony officially ends undoukai, the day is far from over. After the long, exhausting day everyone wants to go home, but no self-respecting attendees do. Instead (almost) everyone, from students to parents to grandparents, helps with the clean-up. Everything – the sports equipment, chairs, canopies, tarps, wires, speakers, and decorations – needs to be dismantled and put away. Once the school field resembles a school field once again, everyone can finally call it a day… Well, except the teachers who might have a closing meeting to attend.

The Spirit of Cooperation Under Competition’s Guise

rajio-taiso

After experiencing years of sports festivals, the term “undoukai” still inspires images of headband wearing students in gym uniforms sprinting around a track. But if I’ve taken anything away from undoukai – other than an appreciation of barley tea on a hot day – it’s that undoukai isn’t all about competition. Under all the dust and sweat lies a spirit of cooperation.

Undoukai’s preparation alone strengthens bonds among students and faculty who put an enormous amount of time and effort into the event. The month leading up to undoukai is a busy one filled with practices for ceremonies, speeches, dances and other events. Even rajio-taiso is drilled to perfection. Days before the event, field and equipment preparation begins.

Undoukai often expands beyond the school, drawing in its wider social environment (Manzenreiter 52). Manzenreiter wrote, “(Local) residents became chiefly involved in preparation tasks of ‘their’ annual undoukai.” With parents and local organizations lending a hand, undoukai fosters a sense of community within the community. Undoukai provides a chance for former students to visit their alma mater. Local TV coverage allows anyone in the community to experience the event.

At the social level, undoukai creates a situation for students to work with and support peers other than their friends. Teams made up of homerooms, grades, or randomly chosen kids encourage students to work with and cheer for peers they might not otherwise interact with.

Teams, often formed according to grade or homeroom membership, work together preparing flags, shirt designs, dances, and marches. Of course group events like dances, kumitaiso, and tug-of-war foster a cooperative spirit among participants. After all, it’d be impossible to pull off a human pyramid without cooperation! But even individual events like the races promote cooperation and group solidarity through cheering.

To most students, undoukai is simply a fun escape from studying. But the event teaches them to cooperate while representing their homerooms, school, and community – whether they realize it or not. And although points are tallied and a winner is declared, at day’s end everyone is brought a little closer together as teams celebrate their hard fought efforts, win or lose.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Sources:

  • Manzenreiter, Wolfram. Sport and Body Politics in Japan. NY: Routledge, 2014. Print.
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Gotta Catch ‘Em All: Karuta! http://www.tofugu.com/2014/07/18/gotta-catch-em-all-karuta/ http://www.tofugu.com/2014/07/18/gotta-catch-em-all-karuta/#comments Fri, 18 Jul 2014 16:00:58 +0000 http://www.tofugu.com/?p=41200 Nintendo has been a household name in the world over for the last 30 years, and their Pokemon franchise took the world by storm in the 90s. But did you know that the multimedia Nintendo empire started out as a humble karuta company in 1889? That’s right, not 1989, 1889. Long before Mario and Princess Peach’s torrid love affair began, there was a type of Japanese playing cards called karuta (かるた or カルタ). Oddly enough, mastering karuta requires some of the same skills as mastering your average video game–a combination of lightning reflexes, memorization, and lots of time to waste. And for the Japanese language learner, karuta also offers the perfect blend of procrastination and productivity, a way to work and play at same time.

Clam Shells + Portuguese Sailors = Karuta

clams

Photo by Scott S

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

early-karuta

Photo by Sudare

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

How To Play

kids-playing-karuta-again

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

karuta-types

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

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

Note: each yomifuda has a corresponding torifuda

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

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

Competitive Karuta

ladies-playing-karuta

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

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

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

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

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

karuta-champions-at-omi-temple

Photo by 47 News

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

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

Varieties of Karuta

karuta-wood

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

Hyakunin Isshu Karuta (百人一首かるた)

official-karuta

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

Examples:

Karuta_duo_kana-waka

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

karuta-uta

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

Iroha-garuta (いろはがるた)

baby-karuta-for-babies

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

Examples:

kids-karuta

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

kids-karuta-2

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

Obake Karuta (お化けかるた):

obake-karuta

Photo by Kotonoca

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

Examples:

obake-karuta-again

Photo by Yomi Kikase

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

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

regional-karuta

Photo by Sanzo Kuame

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

dialectal-karuta

Photo by Katoko

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

more-karuta

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

National Karuta

nationalistic-karuta

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

Examples:

1804-0037-000_3

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

prefecture-karuta

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

Shakespeare Karuta (シェイクスピアかるた)

shakespeare

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

shakespearean-karuta

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

How to Catch ’Em All

karuta-catch-em-all

Photo by Gilgongo

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

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

karuat-shop

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

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

Last but definitely not least, you can print out free downloadable karuta decks on sites like Happy Lilac and Nifty Kids–see http://kids.nifty.com/card/carta/001_100nin/ for a Hyakunin Isshu set or http://happylilac.net/karuta-kotowaza.html for Iroha-garuta.

Get Your Game On

karuta-ball

Photo by fdecomite

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

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

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

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Is Japan Really “Conservative”? http://www.tofugu.com/2014/07/11/is-japan-really-conservative/ http://www.tofugu.com/2014/07/11/is-japan-really-conservative/#comments Fri, 11 Jul 2014 16:00:14 +0000 http://www.tofugu.com/?p=41146 I don’t think that I’m the only one who has experienced this but I often hear the word “conservative” being applied to Japan. At first I just accepted it as being true – because Japan is very obviously conservative on many fronts. But after a while, I started having doubts – maybe “conservative” isn’t the best word to describe Japan.

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

Politically

political-campaign-van-japan

Photo by Joe Jones

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

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

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

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

Socially

taiko-drumming

Photo by May S. Young

Conservative or not conservative, that is the question

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

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

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

Sexually

kabukicho-entrance

Photo by alcyone.ath.cx

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

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

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

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

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

Sex and Gender

maid-in-japan

Photo by OiMax

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

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

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

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

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

In Other Words…

kenrouken-garden

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

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

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

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

Yes and No

osaka-castle

Photo by D. Julien

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

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

Bonus Wallpapers!

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More Than Gaijin: Specific Ethnic Groups Living in Japan http://www.tofugu.com/2014/07/10/more-than-gaijin-specific-ethnic-groups-living-in-japan/ http://www.tofugu.com/2014/07/10/more-than-gaijin-specific-ethnic-groups-living-in-japan/#comments Thu, 10 Jul 2014 16:00:03 +0000 http://www.tofugu.com/?p=41159 When you hear that Japan is a homogenous country, know that it’s a lie. There’s certainly less diversity here than other places, but there are tons of foreigners. Some are harder to spot than others, partially because there is pressure to conform and blend in, but diversity is here. We have preconceived notions of many ethnicities in our own countries, so Japan isn’t alone in its treatment of foreigners. But their treatment is a bit different (again, partially because of that emphasis to fit into the group). There are so many other foreigners out here that I feel some comments should be made about some of these stereotypes. That way, hopefully, people have a starting point for in-depth discussions about, not only being a gaijin in Japan, but something more specific. Being Nepalese, being half Korean, half Japanese, Vietnamese American. In Japan! Something more than just gaijin.

She’s Not Foreign!

Japanese-Classroom

Photo by Dylan Raife

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Photo by camknows

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

European and Not “White”

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Photo by camknows

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

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

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

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

“What are you?”- The Rest of Us

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Noboru Iguchi: Master of Movie Mayhem http://www.tofugu.com/2014/07/03/noboru-iguchi-master-of-movie-mayhem/ http://www.tofugu.com/2014/07/03/noboru-iguchi-master-of-movie-mayhem/#comments Thu, 03 Jul 2014 16:00:45 +0000 http://www.tofugu.com/?p=40858 The Japanese are no strangers to weird and wacky cinema, in fact, as most YouTube commenters are quick to attest , “OMG JAPANESE MOVIES ARE SO WEIRD!!!1” A host of cultural differences and an inclination towards the subversive tends to make many Japanese movies come across as strange and impenetrable to a Western audience—and then there are Noboru Iguchi movies. Directors like Iguchi go above and beyond the normal levels of weird to give viewers something truly, truly bizarre.

The Why of Weird

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Insanity Sampler

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

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

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

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

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

A Hidden Depth

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

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

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

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

Bonus Wallpapers!

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