Tofugu » » Society A Japanese Language & Culture Blog Wed, 01 Oct 2014 16:01:00 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Is Abenomics Working? Mon, 29 Sep 2014 16:00:38 +0000 This is a continuation of my previous article, which explains what the 3 arrows of Abenomics are and how they are supposed to work.

It’s impossible to say with certainty whether Abenomics is working because the data is ambiguous. Actually it is almost always ambiguous in economics since there’s no such thing as indisputable data.

This page from the Prime Minister’s Office has a list of the grand achievements of Abenomics. But since it’s a government website trying to justify its own policies, you probably know that things aren’t as rosy as they are trying to portray. Richard Katz at The Japan Times for example, calls the whole policy bundle “Voodoo Abenomics”

The issue has two questions that need to be answered:

1. Has Abenomics been able to improve the Japanese economy in the short run? This we can discern from the current statistics.

2. Will, Abenomics ensure Japan’s long term economic health – and this requires speculation and will largely depend on the school of economic thought that one follows.

First, let’s look at some of the indicators so far.



Japanese government says: There has been a cumulative total of 4.2% GDP growth from Q3 (3rd quarter) 2012 to Q1 2014! This is a break from the prior recession in Q2-Q3 2012!


Japan just experienced a big slump in growth in Q2, with a quarter-on-quarter growth of -1.8% according to the most recent statistics. This is a slowdown worse than the effects of the 2011 earthquake.

The government’s being a bit sneaky by just limiting the data to until Q1 2014. The big fall from April to June of this year has mainly been attributed to the effects of the consumption tax hike in April. In short, because a lot of people spent stocking up on big items before the tax increase, consumption has slumped in the second quarter.

The problem is whether consumption will rebound significantly in the rest of this year and whether the effects of the tax hike will just be a heavy, but temporary hit. The Japanese government and the Bank of Japan are taking the optimistic view – and there are already some signs of recovery. Other commentators are expecting however, consumption to remain stagnant due to the tax hikes.

Big question: How permanent are the effects of the tax hike? Will growth recover?



Photo by Luigi Guarino

Inflation is defined as a steady and general increase in prices, with deflation being the antonym. The negative effects of the latter are explained in my previous article.

Deflation has been the bearbug of the Japanese economy since the 1990s. So how much has Abenomics been able to cause inflation? Bear in mind that the official inflation target rate is 2% at the moment.

Take a look at this link. At face value it looks like Japan has managed to reverse deflation, with positive inflation recorded from around June 2013 with a big jump near April 2014. So on paper it looks positive.

There are two main caveats to this, the most obvious point being that the big jump in April 2014 was due to the tax increase. This jump therefore will not be sustained and may lead to a long term lowering of the inflation rate as consumers spend less.

The second is that a big portion of this inflation is due to increased electricity / combustible prices which are in turn caused by the weak yen. If we exclude the increase in combustibles prices and tax from the inflation rate, inflation is even weaker and certainly below the targeted 2% rate. This suggests that inflation from consumer spending remains weak.

Big question: Will Japan be able to strengthen its inflation to reach their targeted 2% per annum?



Photo by Azlan Dupree

Employment in Japan is a complicated thing. While most of the world is battling very high unemployment, Japan is enjoying a very enviable unemployment rate of 3.8%. At present, for every job-seeker there are 1.09 jobs available in the job market. Needless to say this is far better than the situation in Europe and in the US.

The problems with employment in Japan aren’t with absolute unemployment but the form of employment. According to ministry statistics, at the moment more than one third of the Japanese workforce is tied down to “non-formal employment” (part time work, contract work etc). While this is justifiable in many cases (eg. A housewife working part-time at the local supermarket), the issue is that a large proportion of these are youth who actually want to be fully employed. After all, having only “non-formal” work means that you probably will get less benefits and pay than a full employee, not to mention less job security.

On the other hand, there is commentary about how Japan’s strict labor laws make their employees virtually unfireable. Thus, there are many non-productive and middle-aged staff in companies. Companies are also reluctant to formally employ new labor for the fear that they will not be able to remove them once employed. The Abe government will need to balance the protection of workers with the wishes of companies for more hiring / firing flexibility if it wishes to reform this area.

Labor Force Size

We’re moving on to the long-term issues. And in this sense, what seems to be a short term plus in the form of low unemployment is actually a sign of a long term minus: Japan’s workforce is shrinking and bringing with it a slew of issues such as the sustainability of the welfare system and labor shortages.



Photo by Azlan Dupree

So far the Abe government is pledging to increase women’s labor force participation rate. On the government’s official Abenomics webpage, they have a glowing figure of 620,000 more women joining the workforce since the administration came into power. Plus, the Abe government is also pledging to increase childcare facilities to alleviate the shortage which many parts of the country are already facing.

I’m a bit skeptical. Because firstly, 620,000 women is a statistic that is impossible to interpret without more context – after all it could just mean that more women were forced to work due to financial reasons. Secondly, increasing childcare facilities is just one part of the problem. If the state of Japan’s female employment is to change, issues of chauvinism and the “glass ceiling” need to be addressed. The culture of overwork needs to be lessened for change to occur too – after all given a choice of working 10 hours a day and doing housework, one can see the attractions of the latter.

Foreign Labor


If getting women to work doesn’t happen, or if it doesn’t happen enough, labor shortages will become serious enough that foreign labour will be needed.

There is less controversy with highly skilled labor entering Japan. After all professors and businessmen are considered to be rare resources that would be beneficial. In any case, their numbers would be limited. This is why, as I mentioned in the previous article, the government is putting in place measures to streamline the acquisition of permanent residencies by highly skilled residents.

Bigger controversy lies with allowing in lower skilled workers into Japan, for reasons such as fears about increasing crime, a breakdown of “social order”, wage depression, etc. However, the shortage is already happening and the government is making tentative steps towards allowing some foreign workers through a program which has already been criticized for allowing exploitation.

Big question: At the end of the day, how many people will there be in Japan working and paying the taxes needed for Japan to remain stable?

Structural Reform


Japan’s current Deputy Prime Minister, Taro Aso, pictured above in a parody of the 1958 film, The Ballad of Narayama, ridiculing his unfortunate statements about the elderly. I am not endorsing this as proper structural reform!

There are limited movements towards reforms, but they resemble needle pricks than a solid arrow at the moment. More are supposedly on the way.

Naturally, this depends on the industry. Main battle areas now are over free trade and the TPP, which exporters such as car manufacturers are pushing for. Agriculture is demanding exceptions. Even after removing it from the issue of free trade, Japan’s agriculture may be the target for reform in the future. View this article for a more detailed view on the issue.

Medical care is also facing its own problems as detailed here. As mentioned earlier in the article, labor reform is something which businesses are championing and which may be enacted.

This leaves us with two big questions:

Firstly, how much will Abenomics bow to vested interests (pro-reform or otherwise) and thus what reforms will it produce?

Secondly, are these largely pro-deregulatory reforms the correct solution in the first place?



Photo by Richard G

Then there’s this. Another big long term headache for Japan which I’ve written about in another article.

To summarize: the point is that the Abe government has succeeded in the last two years in bringing down the rate of borrowing – but borrowing is still happening and at a very large rate, as seen here.

It’s a balancing act – borrow too much and you can’t spend or will even crash in the future. Cut borrowing too quickly and you’ll cause lots of short term pain which may then crash in the future (some give European countries as examples).

Big question: Therefore, is the rate of cutting borrowing too fast or too slow right now?

So … is it working?


To be frank, I don’t know. Certainly I do have my own opinions. I do think that the indicators look generally positive though quite shaky at the moment. I consider myself also pro-reform, but since the majority of the reforms are still “in the works” I can’t even say what I think about them.

In any case, professors of economics argue about this stuff and mine is not a professional opinion. Since professors of economics don’t agree with each other you’re free to disagree with mine. Time will tell whether Abenomics will work or not for better or for worse.

Just giving a shoutout – anybody have any suggestions for stuff I should write for the next article? If there’s something about current affairs in Japan that intrigue you just leave a comment and I’ll consider. Thanks!

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Further Reading:

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Bishounen Fri, 26 Sep 2014 16:00:20 +0000 Girl meets boy, boy likes girl, girl meets girl-like-boy…

If you have never uttered the word bishounen with swooning exhalation, then, you are most likely a straight male with a floating thought bubble filled with question marks above your head just about, now.  The other nth of you prefer your men folk clearly defined by pronounced Adam’s apples, brow ridges, large hands, and husky voices or thereabouts.

For those on the adoration side of the aisle, if you could, you would not have your men any other way than bishie, but that is impossible.

Bishounen are not men.  They are not youths engaged in pederasty.  They are not actually “pretty boys” as many otaku running in anime circles might insist.  These beguiling beings are not superlative in any form, not really.

Idealization Of Youthful Male Beauty


These are boys who cannot grow up.  They are Japan’s answer to Peter Pan and Twilight.  In essence, bishounen are specters whose very existence defies Western conventions of masculinity.  They are seemingly asexual harbingers of tragedy, who choose neither the path of manliness nor femininity.

From afar, bishounen exhibit perfect qualities of youthful boyishness without any of the detractions of adult responsibility.  This does not mean they cannot perish.  At first glance, they appear to be flaunting their youth while at the same time tempting Death.  The tragedy lies in everything bishounen are not.

Bishounen are often connected with the ancient Japanese literary works known as chigo monogatari.  These pederastic love stories were written by Japanese priests during the Muromachi Period between 1337 and 1573 in such quantity that modern day scholars classify the prose as a genre.  The stories focused on the relationship between a Buddhist cleric and their beautiful boy acolyte, with the later often finding a tragic end.  Some tales depict absolute erotica, while others reveal more noble outcomes toward enlightenment.  The acolytes in these stories only share two similarities with bishounen: they are beautiful and forever boys.

This Is Where The Fantasy Ends


The reality is that chigo (acolyte children) “participated in formal processions, religious ceremonies and public functions,” and would also “serve meals, receive guests and attend closely to the master.”

“In exchange, the chigo were granted unusual privileges that were not given to the other temple children.  They were permitted to wear their hair long (waist length, in some paintings), powder their faces, and dress extravagantly.” Chigo in the Medieval Japanese Imagination

In manga, these beautiful boys are often indifferent protagonists.  Western readers may perceive bishounen ambiguity as effeminate, but that is a misreading.  Bishounen as perceived by the Japanese audience is neither effeminate nor ambiguous; rather they are seen as something like angels, wholly male and female.  Thus the character is sexually liberated, or is it the Japanese reader who is freed from their own traditional social restraints?

“But if the primary Japanese readership is female, shouldn’t these liberators be female as well?” asks the feminist.  Yes and no.  Bishounen are masculine insomuch that they assume this role.  On the other hand, bishounen are feminine in that they disregard this perceived maleness.

And that is what makes these males endearing to the masses of Japanese female readers, bishounen’s sensibility of character apart from their sexualization.  Of course, a significant part of this dynamic is how they are drawn.  Bishounen are distinctly neither male nor female in appearance.  By convention it is assumed those are male clothes, a boyish cut, and figure.  Soft features upon lanky frames with stylish hair, these boys are literal representations of asexual aesthetic.  More than this is the perceived vanity which female readers are connecting with, an ironic paradox, since the corporeal male aesthetic does not regard the mirror.

For the bishounen, this vanity is not calculated; instead, it is a misinterpretation by other characters, the ones we as readers define sexually and thus impart our social expectations upon.  Just as Peter Pan in Broadway productions is historically portrayed by women with a tap upon their nose, so bishounen give us a nod and a wink.

Readers Are In The Know


Androgyny further lends to the bishounen’s heightened vanity by literally drawing attention to it.  Like runway models with boyish figures, there is a reason this body type remains the go-to form upon the catwalk.  Yet unlike fashion models, bishounen protagonists, being male, are immune to the criticism of feminist rhetoric.  In essence, bishounen are idealistically feminist while remaining wholly male.

And while many readers claim bishounen to transcend gender, it is all important to recognize for whom bishounen are created. Western gender roles need not apply.

Cultural Contamination Skews Perception


Photo by Arjan Richter

One casual Saturday, I was able to visit Book-Off for second opinions, firsthand insight and to glean some reading material.  Cautiously navigating the stacks, I spotted several customers lining the bishi aisle AKA shoujo section.  Having my Girl Friday in tow, we approached with quasi sumimasen bows.

“Lots of bishounen read like total chauvinists, not just in my American mind, but I think universally.  They can often be purposefully insensitive,” I said to our first participant.

Mari, 33, Office Lady

“Exactly!  It’s because they are guys, they have that choice,” Mari exclaimed.
“No, but when bishi are jerks, don’t you hold it against them?” I instigated.
“Never, they’re too beautiful to hate forever; I just couldn’t.  I always give them a chance.  I hope they change, but it’s okay if they don’t.  As a shoujo reader, I’m optimistic, but that doesn’t mean I’m right.  Heartache is fun when it’s not your own.”

Kyou, 28, Salaryman

“Excuse us, but are you reading shoujo?”
“No, I was, yes.”
“Wonderful!  Do you have any opinions about bishounen?”

The man thought about the question so long we thought he was ignoring us and when he finally spoke, Yo-yo and I had already moved several bookshelves away.

“Yes. I have an opinion!” the man proclaimed.

Seeing Both Sides Of The Coin


Photo by nakimusi

“I think they’re…cool.”
“What do you mean?”
“They’re cool.  Bishounen don’t give a damn; they do what they want, and more importantly, how they want.  They act in a way I would never dare,” Kyou stated.

Yo-yo and I studied the salaryman.  He was tall, slender, and perhaps even bishi in a way.  His glasses flashed whenever he cut a look toward us.

“Why do you think Japanese women swoon over bishounen?”
He tilted his head as if we’d asked him the impossible.  “Men or women, it’s the same really: the fantasy. I never swoon, but sometimes I sigh.”

Sanami, 21, University Student

“Well, I find that most bishounen are just a convention these days.  They’re often alien or magical or something like that.  I’m not really a fan, but I tolerate them as supporting characters.”
“That means if the lead character is bishounen, you won’t read the manga?” I asked.
“Well, I might still read it.  I just might not finish it.  I know why office ladies love these characters, but it’s not my thing.  Like I said, I find bishounen really conventional.”
“Sorry, and why do office ladies love them?”

At this point, Mari rejoined the conversation as Kyou eavesdropped some distance away.

Mari: We love them because they’re on the other side of that glass ceiling.  I don’t mean that in a corporate sense.  It’s…”

Sanami is nodding.  “She means it the way people often see the grass as always being greener on the other side of the fence.  Bishounen are on that other side.  They’re this kind of social hybrid.”

Mari: Exactly!  And the fun is knowing that the grass isn’t actually greener at all, it’s blue or pink, it’s different, not better.

Me: So you’re saying that this “glass ceiling” mandates that bishounen must be male?  Or that bishounen actually reinforce traditional gender roles?

Yo-yo bats her eyes in my direction.

Sanami: This is why I dislike bishounen.  I know they’re male because of convention, while they’re actually supposed to be this ambiguous beauty thing.

Mari: I don’t think it’s defined so clearly, but there is a kind of formula these days. An expectation I guess.  It goes with the territory, and I love it.  It’s my escape.

Me: What about female empowerment?

Yo-yo: What about it?

Me: Ask them!

Yo-yo translates.

Mari: Oh that, yes, there is that.  I’m moved, and sometimes I think about how differently bishounen might handle a similar situation I find myself in, like when I am expected to serve tea at business meetings merely because I am a woman.  Sometimes I wish I was irresponsible.

Me: Right, that means you think of bishounen as a kind of man-child?

Sanami: That’s totally wrong.  They are their own thing.  Bishounen don’t actually exist, right, since this is part of the convention.

Mari: That’s right, they can only exist in manga.

Yo-yo is laughing.

Me: What is it?

Yo-yo: If every Japanese man were to suddenly disappear, oh nevermind!

Sanami: I know what she’s thinking.  Bishounen are the way Japanese women would act if they were to assume the masculine role.

Me: So why don’t Japanese women simply assume that role?

Mari is laughing, but stops suddenly as Kyou appears.

Kyou: Because they are still women.

Me: ???

Yo-yo: Feeling empowered and being empowered are two very different things.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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

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

Some Background


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

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

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

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

The Interview

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


Q: What made you decide to apply for JET?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

Q: Continuously?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Photo by Scott Lin

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

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

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

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

Bonus Wallpapers!

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The 3 Arrows of Abenomics Explained! Fri, 19 Sep 2014 16:00:13 +0000 If you’ve been paying attention to recent Japanese news you may have come across this term called “Abenomics”. The term’s origins come from Ronald Reagan’s economic policies, “Reaganomics”. Thus Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s economics are “Abenomics”.

The key parts of Abenomics can be summarized in three arrows. But before analyze the three arrows, we have see why Abenomics is needed.

Why “Abenomics”?

Shinzo Abe Abenomics

The first thing to note: Abenomics is packaged, and meant as a dramatic break from the prior situation. And the prior situation entailed:


  •  Near zero growth for the past twenty years.
  • Consumer spending stagnating, in part due to deflation.
  • Depressed sentiment due to the 2011 Earthquake disaster and consequences resulting in a recession in 2012.
  •  Huge government debt due to inflagrate spending from the 1990s.

Monetary Situation

  •  Long term deflation.
  • An overly strong yen, damaging exports.


  • (Relatively) low unemployment BUT!
  • Long-term concerns about labor availability as Japan’s population is declining.
  • Increasingly clear shortages of labor in some areas (eg. construction).
  • Low female labor participation rate.
  • A large portion of the labor force trapped in non-formal employment with lower incomes and benefits.

Abenomics is certainly meant to be a dramatic break from the above-mentioned “lost generation”, especially after the damage from the 2011 Earthquake disaster.

The major reason why Abenomics has been gaining so much attention is the fact that it’s a great contrast to what is happening in the rest of the world – especially in Europe. But to describe this we need to go into the details. So let’s start on the first arrow.

1st Arrow: Dramatic Monetary Easing


Photo by Ivan Walsh

“Monetary Easing” is a bit hard to explain without using economic jargon. Basically, the Japanese government is putting pressure on the Central Bank to flood the market with cash.

The government has done this by nominating Haruhiko Kuroda to the helm of Japan’s national bank. He is much more open to monetary easing than previous leaders. If you compare the amount of money (money supply) in Japan’s economy from 2012-2014 (the present regime came into power in Dec ’12), you can see a clear increase over the past 2 years.

To use a weird example, let’s say¥1000 is allocated to buy 20 Fuji apples. To boost the economy, the government is making the central bank release more money into the market so that ¥1500 is allocated to buy the same 20 Fuji apples.

Theoretically the (intended) effects of this are:

1) Since you have more money chasing the same apples, the price of apples is likely to increase.
In the real world, this is meant to stoke a general increase in prices. This may sound bad but when prices decrease, consumers tend to save money to spend later, thus hampering growth.

In other words, increasing price levels by creating more money may break the deflationary cycle and spur consumers to stop saving and start spending.

2) There is ¥1500 floating around compared to say, US$ 100. The comparative value of the yen goes down.
In the real world, because the yen becomes weaker compared to other currencies, Japan’s exports therefore become cheaper, thus probably boosting the amount that will be exported.

2nd Arrow: A “Robust” Fiscal Policy


Photo by Rs1421

The actual word “robust” in Japanese is 機動的 (きどうてき, kidouteki) which is otherwise translated as “nimble, agile,” etc. But no matter the translation, the wording in Japanese (and therefore in English) is intentionally vague.

The point is that the Japanese government is spending more, to boost the Japanese economy. Statistics from the Japanese government show that government spending has been clearly increasing over the past two years, each of which is setting new records in absolute government spending.

Looking at this year’s budget we can also see that the main places this increase in spending is going toward is:

1.) welfare
2.) servicing the debt
3.) public works

The first is explained by Japan’s aging population, the second because Japan’s debt is already astronomical (albeit at a low interest rate) and the third is largely linked with infrastructure investment, particularly in relation to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

At the same time however, the Japanese government simply cannot continue throwing money at its economy without finding new sources of income. Thus there was a move to increase the consumption tax to 8% this past April and a planned further increase to 10% by next year.

In short, while trying to increase growth through government spending, the Japanese government is at the same time trying to rebuild their finances, or at least reduce their reliance on debt.

3rd Arrow: Policies for Growth to Spur Private Investment


Photo by Herry Lawford

This one’s a mouthful, but that’s what the Japanese title originally means. Actually – at least to me – this is more of a shotgun blast than an arrow. After all, as The Economist says here, “Part of its strength is its breadth: it is less a single arrow than a 1,000-strong bundle of acupuncture needles.”

So how is the Japanese government trying to spur growth? Below is a list of 5 of such needles that the Abe administration has launched:

1) Lowering corporation tax

  • Corporation Tax has been lowered in April in this year by 2.4%.
  • This is in the hope that it makes business easier to do in Japan.

2) Increasing the labor participation of women

  • Japan’s population and labor force is already declining.
  • Japan’s female labor participation rate is one of the lowest among the developed world.
  • Bringing women into the work force is a way to plug the labor shortage.
  • Policies for this include providing for more childcare workers and childcare facilities.

3) More openness to foreigners in society

  • Fast-tracked permanent residency for “highly-skilled” foreigners.
  • Bringing more foreigners into Japanese universities through the G30 program (actually dates back to before Abenomics but is clearly aligned with it).
  • Push to send more Japanese students overseas with scholarships etc.

4) Cool Japan

  • Push to export Japanese foods and other cultural products to the world and support for such corporations.
  • Measures to increase inbound tourism. Lowering of visa restrictions and introduction of duty-free shopping.

5) Lowering of regulation / barriers

  • Free trade: Ongoing (and probably eventual participation) in the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
  • Lowering of barriers to foriegn direct investment in Japan.
  • Deregulation in many industries such as healthcare, agriculture etc.

Some of these have been implemented already and some are still in the pipeline. Anyway if the previous two arrows are meant to prop up the Japanese economy in the short run, this “arrow” of a thousand needles is meant to secure Japan’s long term growth and economic health, and therefore needs time to take effect.

This is, by the way, what a lot of the commentary has been focused on. The first two arrows have their detractors from the academic and news worlds, but the third however runs up against vested interest groups such as Japan Agriculture and the doctor’s union. In addition, it’s not going to be easy to change cultural norms regarding the status of women. The success or failure of the third arrow will largely depend on how much the government bows to these groups’ interests and successfully causes societal change.

Will Abenomics Succeed?


Photo by takashi

As I noted at the beginning, Abenomics is quite famous worldwide, so I thought to finish with a bit of an explanation as to why.

The main reason is that no other country is doing what Japan is doing to jump start its economy. While Japan and America do have similarities in that their central banks are trying to flood the markets with cash, Japan is unique in that its government is blatantly trying to spend its way into growth, especially considering their already existent heap of debt. In contrast, Europe is stewing under austerity and the US has similarly had its deficit levels fall significantly. Japan’s economic policy is getting positive attention right now, as people wonder if it will succeed.

Also there’s the fact that it’s got a catchy name. The Prime Minister owes some of his attention to his short family name.

Our analysis isn’t over yet! In the next article I’ll be looking at whether this group of policies is working or not. Stay tuned!

Bonus Wallpapers!

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

What’s in a 名字?


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

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

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

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

The Beginning Of the 名字


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

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

Samurai And Their 名字


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

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

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

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

名字 Comes To The Forefront

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

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

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

Family Names In Meiji Period


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

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

Establishing The Modern Legislation

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

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

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

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

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

And Here We Are

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

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

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

Bonus Wallpapers!

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A Long History Of Japanese Names, Part I Wed, 10 Sep 2014 16:00:00 +0000 In modern times, there are 4 ways to write/say family names in Japanese:

  1. 氏 (shi)
  2. 姓 (sei)
  3. 名字 (myouji)
  4. 苗字 (myouji)

But why are there so many and what are the differences? In order to get the answer, you simply have to learn its history.

Actually, I wrote a very brief history of this in an earlier “names” article: The History Of How “Cow Poop” Became A Real-Life Japanese Family Name. But, considering that many Tofugu readers are very studious, I thought you might want to learn more of the details. Even to me, someone from Japan, the history was quite surprising. It’s a long history, so I hope that this won’t quench all of your daily thirst to learn.

Japanese Family Names In Ancient Times – Uji


Photo by Shig ISO

In ancient times, perhaps around the Yayoi Period (300BC-300AD), Japan had a system of clans (氏族/shizoku). Each clan was made up of people that were related to each other by blood, marriage, or a common ancestor. At that time, people used their clan names as a family name, which was called 氏 (uji). This stemmed from occupations or natural features of their region.

In this clan system, the head of the clan was called 氏の上 (Ujinokami) and he lead the main constituents of the clan called the 氏人 (Ujibito). The Ujibito ruled over a subordinate class called the 部民 (Benotami) or the 奴婢 (Nuhi).

There has been a lot of research effort put forth in finding Japan’s oldest family name and there are various opinions as to which one it is. However, definitive proof of a specific name and when it started being used is yet to be uncovered.

So, we move on.

Yamato Kingdom and Ujikabane system



During the Kofun period (AD 250 to 538), powerful clan leaders and their families (called 豪族/gouzoku) started to emerge. Small kingdoms, each ruled by a different clan, were established. One of the most powerful, the Yamato, ended up developing a union between each state following many years of warfare.

As Yamato’s sphere of influence expanded, more clans pledged themselves to the Yamato. This resulted in more people working for the Imperial Court. Since there were so many people doing imperial things hanging around, we see the increasing need for the Yamato king to distinguish the status of each clan. Not all clans were created equal, you see. Some clans, for example, supported the Yamato from early on, while others jumped on the bandwagon later. To show the difference between the clans, they created a system known as the 氏姓制度 (Ujikabane-seido/ Shisei-seido).

Under this system, the Yamato Kingdom would choose a clan name (氏/uji) for each clan, as well as a 姓 (kabane), which is understood to be an inherited aristocratic title attached to an uji name. These were given to nobles living in the capital and to the most powerful clans subordinate to the Yamato rule. Thus, the 氏姓 (Uji-kabane/Shi-sei), which combines the uji and the kabane, became the means to classify different groups in the Yamato kingdom.

As a side note, the emperor was the one who designated the Uji-Kabane for each clan, so the Emperor’s family did not require one. The Imperial family in Japan didn’t have a family name back then, and it is a custom that remains even today.

Examples Of Ancient Uji-Kabane

The three most common 姓 (kabane) were

  1. 臣 (Omi)
  2. 連 (Muraji)
  3. 伴造 (Tomonomiyatsuko)

(Just to give you an idea of how this would work, if I were given the kabane “Omi”, I would then be known as Mami Suzuki-Omi.)

臣 (omi) and 連 (muraji) were the titles given to those of the highest status. Both were reserved for the most powerful clans, but there existed a fundamental difference between omi and muraji. Omi was given to the long time supporters of the Yamato clan, such as the 葛城 (Katsuragi), 春日 (Kasuga), 蘇我 (Soga), 巨勢  (Kose), 紀 (Ki), 平群 (Heguri), 波多 (Hata), 阿部 (Abe) and 穂積 (Hozumi) clans. Muraji, on the other hand, were given to the clans associated with particular occupations, such as the 大伴 (Ootomo), 物部 (Mononobe), 中臣 (Nakatomi), 土師 (Haji), 弓削 (Yuge) and the 尾張 (Owari). The most powerful clans with 臣 (Omi) were called 大臣 (Oomi). The same holds true for muraji as well. 連 (Muraji) would become 大連 (Oomuraji), but only for the top in their class.

The step below 連 (Muraji) was 伴造 (Tomonomiyatsuko), and this kabane was given to clans that were 司 (Tsukasa), aka the administration in governmental offices. Families such as 秦 (Hata), 東漢 (Yamatonoaya), 西文 (Kawachinofumi), 服部 (Hattori), 矢集 (Yazume), 犬養 (Inukai), 舂米 (Tsukishine), or 倭文 (Shitori) are included in this list. Of these clans, the first three were 帰化氏族 (Kika-shizoku), which means clans from other countries that had been naturalized as Japanese citizens.

Some of the above 氏 (uji) are not used anymore, but some do remain as family names today. Did you recognize any? However, it is still possible to encounter someone with one that is no longer used because somebody in their family at some point decided to change their name to one of those ancient uji names. So be aware that just because they have that name doesn’t mean that they share the long family roots of that ancient family.

Transition In The Uji-Kabane System


As some of you may have already realized, there was a major defect in this system. Just think about for a moment. What if a lot more people started working for the Imperial Court and each person worked at a different position? They would need assign some marker of identification not just to each clan, but to each individual, right? In order to solve the problem, Shotoku Taishi established 冠位十二階 (Kani-Juuni-Kai), which means the twelve level cap and rank system, in 604 AD. Despite having already given a kabane to each clan, titles in the new system were given to individuals depending on their political position within the Imperial Court.

Since the new system didn’t end the Uji-kabane system, the introduction of it just further complicated matters because now they had more titles to deal with. After the Taika Reformation in 646 AD, Japan united as a nation under the Ritsuryo codes, and soon afterward the Imperial Edict “甲子の宣” (Katsushi no Sen) was issued. This edict reduced the 12 ranks down to just 3, which were 大氏 (Oouji), 小氏 (Kouji), and 伴造 (Tomonomiytatsuko). The purpose of those ranks was to clarify which clan (Uji) belonged to which rank. It was a combination of the new and old systems. It additionally decreed a ban on having multiple uji. For example, there was a person whose uji was 蘇我石川 (Soga+Ishikawa), so at this time they were forced to decide to become either 蘇我 (Soga) or 石川(Ishikawa). It may have simplified the system a little bit, but complications still persisted.

The Royals And Nobles Raise Their Heads


In the meantime, the Jinshin Revolt broke out in 672 AD following the death of Emperor Tenji who had originally designated his brother Prince Oama as his successor, only to later have second thoughts in favor of his son Prince Otomo. In the process of the violence caused by fractional rivalries, Otomo killed himself less than one year after acquiring reign. His uncle Oama then succeeded the throne as Emperor Tenmu.

Tenmu wanted to set the nobles apart from the powerful local clans, as well as organize the Uji-Kabane system, so in 684 AD he reformed the Uji-Kabane system into a system of eight 姓 (Kabane) called 八色の姓 (Yakusa-no-Kabane). At the time, he added 4 new 姓 (Kabane) , which were 真人 (Mahito) for the royals and 朝臣 (Ason/Asomi), 宿禰 (Sukune), and 忌寸 (Imiki) for the nobles. He then kept only three of the originals: 臣 (Omi), 連 (Muraji), and 稲置 (Inagi) for the local clans. As you can see, the powerful臣 (Omi) and 連 (Muraji) of the time were kicked off of their pedestal, so to speak. They found themselves demoted under this new system of royals and nobles. In 701 AD, it was even decided that those first four Kabane were to be granted certain privileges under the Taiho Code and the power of the clans became even weaker.

What About Family Names Of Common People?


While the system regarding those of higher status was being restructured, so too was the system for the common people of Yamato Kingdom. These people were known as the 部民 (Bemin). A family registration system called the 庚午年籍 (Kougonenjaku) was introduced in 670 AD followed by another family registration system called the 庚寅年籍 (Kouinnenjaku) in 690 AD. Everyone was successfully registered and clan names and ancestral titles were given to the people. In other words, the Uji-Kabane system had expanded to the general public and uji and kabane became a way to reveal one’s social standing in the hierarchy of the state.

However, it was later realized by examining the existing registration book in 702 AD, there were still many people without Uji-Kabane. The Nara period started in 710 AD, and it took 47 years for the government to finally decide to never register people without given them an Uji-Kabane. But by 757 AD all citizens were officially registered with an Uji-Kabane of their own. Hooray! Sadly, this joy was short-lived. As the clans began to devolve into individual households, family lineage and status became more important than the social status of the clan as a whole. This caused the Uji-Kabane system to gradually fade from use.

Collapse Of The Uji-Kabane System


In the 9th Century, during the Heian period, 藤原朝臣 (Fujiwara-Ason) became the strongest clan under the regency. Furthermore, some emperors started giving Uji-Kabane to family members who were leaving the Imperial family. For example, Emperor Kanmu (737-806 AD) gave them the name 平朝臣 (Taira-Ason) to some family and the Emperor Seiwa gave his family members the name 源朝臣 (Minamoto-Ason). For these reasons, the Uji-Kabane system under the Ritsuryo code started to fall apart as a system of appointing particular names to individuals with certain skills emerged. Kabane became decidedly useless, and the family registry system under the Ritsuryo Code began to fade as well.

In the 10th century, some powerful local clans even became vassals of the influential nobles and changed their names. By doing so, they brought dishonor to the original clan names and ancestral titles. This act became quite commonplace and was called 冒名仮蔭 (Boumei-kain), which means “misrepresentation of one’s clan name and ancestral title”. On top of that, specific family lineages became fixed due to their type of business or trade. This brought about the movement towards changing uji after marriage and what one’s newly acquired name would be dependent on the new family’s business. (Before then, a person’s Uji was passed on to blood relatives and marriage didn’t change that.)

At that point, the variety of clan names in Japan began to dwindle and certain names became much more common, such as 源 (Minamoto), 平 (Taira), 藤原 (Fujiwara), 橘 (Tachibana), 紀 (Ki), 菅原 (Sugawara), 大江 (Ooe), 中原 (Nakahara), 坂上 (Sakanoue), 賀茂 (Kamo), 小野 (Ono), 惟宗 (Koremune), 清原 (Kiyohara), and so on. Because of that, there was an incredible upsurge in the number of families that shared the same name, especially the powerful 藤原 Fujiwara family. This occurred so often for such a time that they soon needed yet ANOTHER NAME to distinguish one family from the next. Hence, the nobles continued using uji names and Samurai families started using new names called 名字 (Azana/Myouji). As for the kabane, it continued on merely, perhaps, because it existed before. In regards to its actual function, well, it was barely upheld as a public naming system until its demise in the beginning of the Meiji Period when the government created a law called 姓尸不称令 (seishifushourei).

Fortunately for you, the fascinating history of Japanese family names is incredibly long and continues passed this point, but unfortunately it will have to wait until the next article. Just so you know, the above names may seem to be very old, but most of those in the last paragraph are still used in Japan today, so familiarizing yourself with them might be useful. Anyways, you are all so studious that I’m sure that you will come back next week to learn more about the history of Japanese family names. Until next time! Mata ne!

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

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

In short, you become a child again.

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

Accepting You’re a Cultural Child


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Letting Go of Your Shame


Photo by Steve Hunt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Embracing Your Foreign-Child Status and Learning to Adapt


Photo by David

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

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

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

A Curious Kid


Photo by philHendley

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

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

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Origami: Improving Children’s Minds One Fold at a Time Tue, 02 Sep 2014 16:00:32 +0000 My first exposure to foreign cultures was through a Japanese classmate in kindergarten. Until then I had lived in a limited world, unaware of other cultures, countries, and the vastness of universe. But Takeshi expanded my horizons, introducing me to the culture of his home country, an interesting place called Japan.

Suddenly foreign cultures became a tangible reality. I learned that Japanese people ate raw fish and removed their shoes when entering homes. More importantly, I learned that my beloved M.U.S.C.L.E. toys originated from Japan where it was known as Kinnikuman and even had its own comic and cartoon!

Takeshi also taught my class about origami – the Japanese art of paper folding. I recall being surprised by the delicate paper, overwhelmed by the detailed instructions, and impressed by Takeshi’s finished product – a beautiful paper crane (that looked much better than my attempt, which looked more like a backhoe).

Little did we know that Takeshi’s origami did much more than expose us to Japanese culture – it helped shape our developing brains. Recent research shows that origami is more than just a cultural pastime or art. In fact, it might be the best activity for children’s developing minds, making it perfect for school curriculums everywhere.

The Developing Child


Although children develop at varying rates, every age has developmental benchmarks. For example, four-year-olds can clean-up, dress themselves, and begin to show hand preference. The average five-year-old can grip utensils, write and draw, and begin to comprehend rules. These stages can be found in any child development textbook, but presents a great overview in their pamphlet entitled, [A Guide To Your Child’s Gross & Fine Motor Development].

As a kindergarten teacher I find a clear-cut distinction between the age groups’ abilities and the accuracy of these benchmarks shocked me. For example songs and dances work best with the four-year olds because they cannot yet grasp a game’s rules and structure. However, with only a year’s difference between them, five-year olds can understand instructions, follow rules, and can therefore play games. Due to these acute developmental differences, lesson-planning varies by age group.

Nature versus Nurture – Providing an Appropriate Learning Environment


Photo by Abhiney

Although the nature versus nurture debate – whether genetics (nature) or environment (nurture) takes preference in determining a child’s development – continues today, most experts agree that opportunities for children to practice and improve their developing skills are imperative. As James Arthur and Ian Davies explain in The Routledge Education Studies Textbook, “Nowadays even the most devoted environmentalists or hereditarians admit that both nature and nurture play an obvious role in the development and functioning of human intelligence” (99).

Skills can be divided into two main categories, cognitive and motor. Sociability and following instructions, rules, and routine make up cognitive skills while motor skills consist of physical abilities like hand coordination, balance, and dexterity. Although cognitive and motor skills differ, they can develop together in the brain. Bill Jenkins, Ph.D. of Scientific Learning explains, “These abilities (cognitive and motor) were attributed to separate areas of the brain… But… research show(s) that both (cognitive and motor areas of the brain) could be activated during certain motor or cognitive tasks.”

It’s no surprise that nursery schools and kindergartens facilitate activities and environments to spur a young child’s development in both respects. Japanese kindergartens emphasize real-life situations like cleaning up, serving lunch, and packing up. Since students are together throughout the day and cooperation is encouraged, social interaction is constant. As a result, cognitive skill development is naturally incorporated into a student’s school life. More deliberate activities like rajio taisou (calisthenics), arts and crafts, dances, and te-asobi (hand-play) facilitate motor development.

Origami, a kindergarten staple, facilitates both cognitive and motor skill development, making it an excellent activity for children. At times teachers incorporate paper folding into lessons as a classroom activity. But constant access to instruction books and origami paper encourages children to explore and practice the activity on their own during free play. With widespread accessibility and practice, Japan has embraced origami as an essential element in providing an appropriate learning environment.

Origami and the Developing Brain


Photo by Andreas Bauer

But Japan isn’t alone in recognizing origami as a developmental tool.  In fact, Amera Khanam of A Learner’s Diary explains that “Friedrich Froebel, the godfather of kindergarten, “was the first to introduce origami into formal education… Froebel recognized the value of children learning through play and exploration. He considered the manipulation of the paper as a means for children to discover for themselves the principles of math and geometry.”

Mr. Froebel pinpointed origami as a perfect activity for childhood development. And he isn’t alone, recent research has served to bolster the claim.

Hagit Shalev of Theragami (New York’s Educational-Therapeutic Origami Program For Children and Adolescents) wrote, “In this learning by doing activity, (in which co-ordination and motor control play an important part), there is a continuous interaction of the action and thought process. Children watch how each fold leads to a more advanced one and how together they all progress to create a life-like pliable material… Origami is a method of active research. There is a gradual progression, a sequential order, research into new relationships of folds, and creative possibilities which encourage the advancement of new ideas.”

Katrin and Yuri Shumakov of Oriland performed extensive research on origami’s effect’s on children’s brain activity in their 2000 study entitled “Left Brain and Right Brain at Origami Training.” They reported, “Our findings allow recommending… origami training for (the) development of motor, intellectual and creative abilities of children…. The training of origami… causes intensive interaction of brain hemispheres and… effectively develops motor, intellectual and creative abilities (of) children.”

Leveling Up


Photo by Nevit

Origami’s varying levels of difficulty provides another benefit – tiered learning. As A Guide To Your Child’s Gross & Fine Motor Development shows, children use mastered skills as a springboard for learning new skills. While children master specific origami projects, a child will never master origami – there is always another, more difficult project waiting to be challenged.

Kurt W. Fischer of The University of Denver explains, “(Children’s) development is relatively continuous and gradual, and the person (child) is never at the same level for all skills. The development of skills must be induced by the environment, and only the skills induced most consistently will typically be at the highest level that the individual is capable of” (Fischer, 480). As children level-up, they need new, more complex activities to push their development.

My previous article on beigoma (battle tops) exemplifies the process. At first, four year olds are given simple tops that involve pulling a string or spinning the stem between their palms. These tops familiarize the younger children with the top’s physics and skill sets needed to make them spin. The experience with those tops will be reapplied and expanded on when the children are five years old and they learn to use more difficult tops.

With no limit to its complexity or difficulty, origami proves to be the perfect developmental activity once again. Some origami activities require only a few simple folds (like this mouse). Others include detailed instructions with numerous, complex folds (like this elephant). In fact, some origami is so complex one can continue the practice into adulthood. There’s no end to the challenge – just check out this rose!

Mr. Fischer continued, “The level of skills that are strongly induced by the environment is limited, however, by the highest level of which the person is capable. As the individual develops, this highest level increases, and so she can be induced to extend these skills to the new, higher level.”

When practicing origami, a child improves at his own pace. Once a simple origami is completed, the child can move onto more complicated ones, constantly using mastered skills to build new skills and level up. And with a wide range of difficulty, the activity suits children at all ages and all skill levels.

Children and Origami


Photo by Solipsist

From a teacher or parent’s standpoint, origami is a perfect activity to foster a child’s development. But there’s another benefit as well – (most) children love origami. What makes origami such an enjoyable activity?

Origami caters to a child’s interests. Children can create anything through origami – from useful wallets and protection amulets, to cool bugs and cute animals, to toys like shuriken, swords, and tops. One boy even made a Nintendo 3ds which could play any game imaginable (or should it be – only games imaginable?).  With so many options available, children can choose something that they want to create. This makes origami more motivating than other, by-the-book school activities.

Origami empowers children with choice. Children choose what to make, what kind of paper to use and what color to make it. Once the origami is complete a child has control over it and can chose what to do with it. Many of my students use their origami as a way to show they care by giving them as presents.  The Sadako Sasaki story of One Thousand Cranes famously exemplifies origami gift giving.

Origami builds self-confidence. Mistakes are forgivable as paper can be unfolded and refolded. Completing a project creates a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. Furthermore, with the finished product at hand, there’s a sense of instant gratification. There’s no wait for glue, paint or clay to dry. A child can instantly enjoy the fruits of her labors.

Perhaps Hagit Shalev of Teragami put it best, “To the unsuspecting child, the transformation of the flat sheet of paper into a three dimensional form, using only two hands, seems almost magical.”

Origami For All


Photo by Orestigami

Okay, maybe doing origami once in kindergarten wasn’t enough to actually shape my brain.  But Takeshi’s well made crane showed that his consistent practice paid off – he could follow the directions and make the correct folds in the paper. I never did origami again (until recently) so I never leveled up – but the experience left a lasting impression.

Connecting my childhood experience to what I know today, Japan and origami seem like the perfect fit. Learned patience and attention to detail can later be applied to cultural practices like flower arrangement, bonsai trees, tea ceremony and writing kanji – as well as the Japanese workplace. Therefore paper folding is the perfect activity to start children on their way to successful adulthood in Japan.

Yet, with all its benefits there’s no reason origami shouldn’t be embraced as an educational tool outside Japan as well. It doesn’t take much – a piece of paper is all you need to watch the rich and challenging world of origami unfold (or fold?) before you. In fact, most of you probably have the necessary tools  in your pocket right now! Get folding!

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Peace and Japan Part 3: What’s With All The Arguing? Fri, 29 Aug 2014 16:00:00 +0000 For the past two articles of this series I’ve been talking about the current controversial changes about the “right to collective defense” and the strength of the Japanese military forces. This time however, I hope to take a look at who is saying what in terms of the debate: about the constitution, the army, and the recent changes themselves.

I can’t possibly cover every single point of view so I’ll talk about the most common ones, get nice quotes if I can find them, and explain what I think about them. In any case,  I hope that this will help inform you about this very important part of Japan’s policy – a policy that people don’t like to talk about but may (in the worst case) affect Japan’s future.

The Constitution – In Particular Article 9


Photo by Satoshi KAYA

To know the background about Article 9 please see the first article.

“Article 9 was forced on Japan by America to gut it and keep it weak!”

And therefore, “we need to get rid of it so that Japan can resume being a normal strong country!”

Found on: Internet forums. Facebook comments. Not openly stated by mainstream politicians but some nationalist ones are certainly thinking it.

What I think: How much of the Japanese constitution is Made-in-America is a whole other debate that I’m not going to go into. However this bang-the-pots nationalism doesn’t really make sense to me because of two reasons.

Firstly, the constitution may have been written largely by the Americans, however the Japanese public has accepted article 9 and even until now, most polls show a majority against the revision of the article 9 (all links in Japanese). The sweeping claim that America has forced Japan into something it doesn’t want rings hollow when you consider this.

Secondly, it’s not as if Japan hasn’t gained from Article 9. After all, Article 9 pairs with America assuming of responsibility for Japan’s defense. Think about it – some countries would probably love to dump the need to have their own full army and receive the protection of the biggest military power on Earth. So Japan has benefited indirectly from the implications of Article 9.

On the other hand …

“Article 9 keeps us peaceful”


“I don’t want to kill. I don’t want to be killed. No to changing the constitution by reinterpretation.”

Photo by midorisyu

“Today marks 60 years from when the Japan Self Defense Forces were formed. Not a single serviceman has been killed, and we have not killed a single foreign person. This kind of army is exceedingly rare among the main countries in the world – and this is because of the principle of not allowing force to be used overseas, under this Constitution, and because of Article 9. Article 9 has protected the lives of our soldiers. Don’t you dare break this treasure!” – Japan Communist Party representative Shii Kazuo on Twitter.

Usually said by:
left-of-center groups. The majority of citizenry, which is opposed to a change in the constitution, also probably agrees with this.

What I think: This is certainly expressed often – but how Article 9 *actually prevents* Japan entering into war isn’t actually explained as often. Certainly, as a law it does constrain the government from having any too glaringly offensive armed forces. And while there is ample room for interpreting the constitution, especially given the historical interpretations, perhaps there is a limit before it becomes absurd and clearly unconstitutional.

But then…

“If peace was as simple as making a law for it, Japan might as well enact an anti-Typhoon law.”


After all, we just need a law against it right?

As mentioned by a friend of mine. And I don’t think anyone really disagrees with this.

The point is that war and peace are issues with political, economic and diplomatic dimensions – having a provision in the constitution prohibiting it alone certainly isn’t enough. This point of view doesn’t really view Article 9 as good or bad, but ineffective and at most symbolic.

But even so, perhaps symbols are useful anyway? Perhaps having a symbol, no matter how ineffectual, is better than not having one?

On Japan’s Military


Moving away from legal arguments, we come to debates about Japan’s military, what role they should play, how much should the government spends on them, etc.

“Japan needs to have a strong(er) military to defend itself given rising regional tensions”


“The security environment surrounding Japan has become increasingly severe, being encompassed by various challenges and destabilizing factors, which are becoming more tangible and acute.” – As stated by Japan Defense White Paper, 2014


“A strong(er) military itself provokes rising regional tensions”

Example: Chinese protests reported by CNN

What I think: Very chicken and egg / vicious cycle thing here but both are true to an extent. Regional tensions are rising and North Korea seems to have a good time firing missiles into the Sea of Japan.

On the other hand China and South Korea often protest against Japan when Japan makes moves to strengthen its military. There is something to be said for how both countries are using Japan as a political punching bag for domestic agendas. But then again, it’s not as if Japan couldn’t predict the above. So is Japan just trying to defend itself or adding fuel into the fire?


“Japan, being an economic and significant power needs to fulfill it’s military responsibilities”

Example: “Japan’s reliance on the United States for protection undermines Japanese credibility in the world. It projects the image of an economically strong country that is unable to defend itself … There is also the issue of the fundamental unfairness of the alliance to the American people. Should America be compelled to defend Japan for an indefinite period without reciprocity?” - Kyle Mizokami at the Atlantic.

What I think: This has been increasingly noted from the US in recent years, but then again it suits Japanese nationalists – who want to see a “Strong / Normal Japan” – perfectly well too.

Note that until 1991, Japan’s forces never participated in any peacekeeping operations. Not to mention that before the current change in the constitutional interpretation, the US would be obligated to come to Japan’s aid in the event of war, but not the other way around. Some would say that Japan, as the previous second and current third largest economy of the world, ought to pull their weight  – after all, it’s not as if they can’t.

Detractors, however, say that while it all sounds nice, this is a recipe for Japan to get dragged into unnecessary conflicts – not entirely unfounded when we consider the bungling of some peacekeeping missions in history.

But then,

“Japan really doesn’t need the economic burden of a military”.


Photo by EO Kenny

What I think: I’ve noted in the second article in the series that Japan spends only 1% of its GDP on defense, a rate which puts it near the bottom of the world rankings. I’ve also written elsewhere that Japan’s government is essentially broke – and really doesn’t need anything else on its plate to spend yen on.

So having a stronger military simply means a choice between three painful options: more debt, higher taxes, or less spending elsewhere – pacifists would add that military spending doesn’t actually improve the welfare of the Japanese people anyway. But of course, military spending is a very “contingency situation” thing – how much military spending is “adequate”? Does Japan want to run the risk of not being prepared in the case of a conflict? How high are the chances of such a conflict anyway?

About The US Army In Japan


Photo by US Navy

“We need’em”

As per official government policy.

“But not in our neighborhood”

As stated by…


“We don’t need the bases!” – Anti-US base protesters in Okinawa. (Picture by Nathan Keirn)

What I think: The US army doesn’t have a good rep in Japan, especially in Okinawa. One incident often remembered about it is the rape of a twelve year Okinawan girl by three US servicemen in 1995. Not to mention that the Japanese government does sponsor heavily the upkeep of bases in Japan (this is within the Japanese defense budget).

The crime point is to some extent overblown because the crime rate of US servicemen is lower than the general Japanese population. But nonetheless, the central government views the US forces as something that is welcome and which contributes to Japan’s defense. It’s just that on the local level no one really wants to have them on their soil.

About the Right to Collective Defense.


Photo by midorisyu

As in Picture,”The Right to Collective Defense = War!”

“If we allow the right to collective self-defense, in the case that a certain country declares that they are being attacked, it is possible that Japan will mobilize its forces and use military force overseas, following mobilizing US forces [...] We cannot just let this move, which will allow our children to be sent to the battlefield, pass.” - Petition on


“If having this right is a right-wing plot, then all other countries in the world are ruled by fascists”

…A comment I saw on Blogos, a Japanese political blog collation site.

What I think: Japan gains pretty much nothing concrete from reinterpreting the constitution except for avoiding being called a leech. PM Abe says that a condition for the use of the right includes reasonable damage to the Japanese people’s welfare, but in essence what Japan gains is the ability to use its own military to defend someone else! Yay!

The US is happy with this, but why would Japan make such a reinterpretation in the first place? On a very common sense level, it is kind of absurd that you are in an alliance with someone and that you can’t help your ally in a time of war. However, on a political level, reinterpreting the law allows for more flexibility to use the JSDF forces. Ideology-wise, it also is a step towards the “normalization” of Japan as a country with normal military capabilities.

And this is true. The right to collective defense is “normal” in the world. Pretty much only Japan and Switzerland did not recognize its right to a collective self defense. Now Switzerland is hanging out alone in that party.

The counter point is that it is a right that Japan can live without. After all – if it is simply the right to fight for someone else, then Japan doesn’t need it in the least. And – as repeated for the umpteenth time – this may lead to Japan getting sucked into a conflict.

So After All The Arguing…


Paper crane art piece, entitled “Peace from Hiroshima”

All in all the public opinion appears to be 1) In favor of retaining Article 9, 2) Conflicted over the US army especially if they end up in their local neighborhood and 3) Opposed to the current reinterpretation (though this varies by survey). However, the ruling party is more conservative and nationalist than the general public opinion. And as can be seen from the current changes, it is also open to ignoring the public at times.

Nonetheless, the question still remains: Are we seeing a Japan that is moving towards war or one which is simply trying to ensure its own security? Is it possibly both at the same time? No simple answers here, but in the meantime you can be sure that there will be a lot of arguing about it, both in and outside Japan.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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

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

1200px-thumbnail (1)

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

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

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

It’s Not Militarizing: The GDP Argument

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Japanese fighters in flight at Nyutabaru Airbase Aviation Festival

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

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

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

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

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

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


Photo by dragoner_JP

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


Newly selected Japanese officers at a ceremony

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

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

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

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


Photo by ChiefHira

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

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

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

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

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

3) The self defense forces are not exactly prestigious

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

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

All that being said…


Photo by the United States Army

Japanese Self Defence Forces during a visit by an American General

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

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

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

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Surviving Karaoke When You Hate It Thu, 21 Aug 2014 16:00:30 +0000 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.


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


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


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!)


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!)


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


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

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

The Constitution


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

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

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

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

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

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

History Timeline

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

1947 – Post-war (Showa) Constitution Adapted

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

1950 – Start of Korean War


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

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

1954 – Promulgation of the Law of the Self Defense Forces

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

1959 – Sunakawa Incident

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

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


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

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

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

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

1992 – Peacekeeping Operation Cooperation Law passed


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

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

2001 – Invasion and Occupation of Afghanistan

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

2014 – Further change of Interpretation of Constitution

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

What Can We Say From This

A few clear and obvious patterns can be seen here:

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

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

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

What does the current change mean?

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

Video on the protests against the changes to the interpretation

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

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

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

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

So what does it not mean then?


Ministry of Defense, Japan

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

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

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

Regarding the next part

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

Stay tuned.

Bonus Wallpapers!

[1280x800] ∙ [2560x1600]


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