Tofugu » Technology A Japanese Language & Culture Blog Wed, 02 Sep 2015 22:08:26 +0000 en-US hourly 1 How Monster Strike Conquered Japanese Mobile Gaming Thu, 13 Aug 2015 13:00:00 +0000 Teaching kindergarten has its advantages. We sing, dance, read picture books, and even take naps. As an added bonus, the children keep me up to date with the latest trends in their world. A couple of years ago Yo-kai Watch exploded onto the scene and possessed children’s handhelds, t-shirts, school stationary and even bentou lunch boxes. This past year the kids showed me a mobile […]

The post How Monster Strike Conquered Japanese Mobile Gaming appeared first on Tofugu.

Teaching kindergarten has its advantages. We sing, dance, read picture books, and even take naps. As an added bonus, the children keep me up to date with the latest trends in their world.

A couple of years ago Yo-kai Watch exploded onto the scene and possessed children’s handhelds, t-shirts, school stationary and even bentou lunch boxes. This past year the kids showed me a mobile game called Monster Strikeor Mon-Suto (モンスト) to those in-the-know. To kindergartners in Japan, owning a smartphone means one thing; Monster Strike.

And Mixi, Monster Strike‘s parent company, couldn’t be happier. Mixi used to be Japan’s social media kingpin, until they were overtaken by upstart competition. Yet, instead of squandering resources on a losing battle, Mixi hatched a plan to conquer new territory – the mobile gaming scene. Monster Strike’s domination of the mobile gaming scene struck me as random, but was anything but.

By assembling a crack production team that brought old school gaming elements to the current mobile gaming world, Mixi and its pet Monster dethroned the leading mobile gaming king, forced the mighty Nintendo to take notice and became 2014’s mobile game phenomenon.

The Ballad of Mixi


Mixi had conquered Japan’s social networking scene. Or so it seemed. “At one point, 27 million people, or one in five Japanese, had a Mixi account,” says Jonathan Soble of the New York Times. But just when they appeared to have a secure grasp on the Japanese market, foreign competition entered the game.

Twitter, Line, and Facebook chipped away at Mixi’s market share by offering slightly different experiences. Line focused on chatting. Facebook allowed “real” people (more on that later) to connect and reconnect. Twitter offered second-by-second news, sharing, and personal expression.

Smartphones kicked archaic keitai (cell phones) to the curb by offering streamlined interfaces and smooth internet browsing experiences. Thanks to smartphones’ popularity and intuitive apps, Mixi’s competitors became more accessible and easier to use than they had been during the keitai era.

Facebook spurred a paradigm shift in Japanese social-networking. Although membership had been limited to those with registered college email addresses, in 2006 Facebook emerged from its isolationist shell, allowing anyone to join. Taking the opposite route, Mixi restricted membership to Japanese cellphone owners and ran strictly in Japanese.

Although Mixi’s strategy offered extra security, it came at a cost. It confined the Mixi experience to Japan. A Western import that offered the world, Facebook’s lack of limits gave it an air of possibility and sophistication.

Furthermore, Facebook brought a sense of reality to Japanese social networking. ” ‘Facebook values real-life connections,’ warns a message that pops up when a Japanese user withholds information.” While Mixi promoted the use of nicknames and false avatars, Facebook preferred real names and searchable true identities. Japanese users gave up Mixi’s anonymity for Facebook’s reality based potential.

Facebook helped its cause by creating a native Japanese interface. Blog-like walls and the “Ii ne” button, Japan’s equivalent to “Like,” made Facebook fun. Facebook’s notification page kept everyone up-to-date on their friends activities. Japan, a culture that embraces social “circles,” found Facebook to be a powerful social tool.

Mixi dipped into a tailspin and its stock plummeted. “Mixi stopped publishing membership data after the number of people who logged on at least once a month fell to half of what it had been at the company’s peak,” Soble says in his report. Currently, Facebook has grown to Japan’s ninth most visited site while Mixi has fallen to 13,406th.

Mixi was down, but not out. Ironically the technology that nearly killed Mixi would serve as the foundation to its meteoric rebirth.

Like a Phoenix


Mixi could have fought to the end and joined the graveyard of failed companies in this fast moving technological era. But they tapped out, regrouped, and lived on. They focused their remaining resources on a new endeavor – the lucrative mobile gaming industry.

Mixi’s move came with the mobile-gaming boom that’s swept up Japan’s young generation. GREE, Japan’s third largest social-networking operator, saw the number of users to its site more than double to nearly 10 million. Its profits increased multiple times over the past year on the back of popular mobile games created in house. The phenomenon underscores how social games, if they catch on, can lead to a huge gains.

With established names like GREE, Line, and Nintendo already thriving in the gaming market, Mixi didn’t take the task lightly. Like a sports franchise looking to rebuild, it secured the best free agent on the market, gaming industry legend Yoshiki Okamoto. The former Konami and Capcom employee (and creator of the “global megahit” Street Fighter II) teamed with producer and director Koki Kimura and Mixi’s head of localization Michael Oakland to engineer Monster Strike, the game behind Mixi’s unimaginable resurgence.

The plan worked. Monster Strike rocketed to number one in mobile app downloads, overtaking then-darling Puzzles and Dragons and stealing some of Nintendo’s audience. Mixi returned to the top, but of a totally different playing field.

Uniting the Old School and New


How did Monster Strike rise to the top? Mixi learned from its downfall and offered audiences a slightly different experience from its competitors. Although Monster Strike embraces current industry standards, Okamoto’s old tricks, like keeping the game “small,” made the difference.

Old School Co-Op

In a strategy fitting of Mixi’s origins, Monster Strike‘s production team sought to harness the joys of social interaction. Koki Kimura explained,

The thing about Monster Strike is that it was built from the ground up, by us, to be a communication tool – to get people playing games together in the same room again. (Nutt)

Monster Strike harkens back to the pre-internet era, a time when “multiplayer meant going to a friend’s house or hitting the local arcade. But cyberspace took multiplayer global and local co-op fell out of favor. By reaching back into gaming’s past, Monster Strike offers the novelty of playing with close friends in the literal sense. Since players cannot play together via the net, local co-op is one of the game’s unique hooks.

To drive the point home, Mixi took it a step further by rewarding cooperative play. Friends share the game’s limited continues . Using one continue allows everyone to play on, so teaming up means more opportunities to play.

Let’s Get Small


The sheer size of today’s console games has made their production expensive, time consuming and, according to Okamoto, frustrating. Giant worlds and complicated plots mean today’s games demand more commitment than ever for players to complete them.

The Monster Strike team felt many game fans don’t have time to invest in these “big” games. Okamoto explained,

People… don’t have a lot of time on their hands, so they want to find experiences that they can play for five minutes, ten minutes (at a time). (Nutt)

The Monster Strike team focused on making a smaller, more focused game. And it all starts with its palm-sized playing fields that encapsulate all the action. Since players needn’t worry about the world beyond the screen, they can focus on the on-screen action. For me Monster Strike conjured memories of arcade machines, like Pac-Man, Donkey Kong or Burger Time. The game’s action unfolds over an established, static background.

Monster Strike is also small in terms of time. Like Okamoto’s Street Fighter II, Monster Strike can be played in “short bursts.” The game progressively saves a player’s progress and small time investments add up. I have played it waiting on appointments, in line at the supermarket, and during commercial breaks while watching TV.

Lights, Touch Screen, Action!

“Action” sets Monster Strike apart from competitors like GungHo Online’s Puzzles and Dragons which focuses on “match-three” puzzle gameplay and A-Lim’s Brave Frontier which emphasizes classic RPG menu battles. Although those games feature onscreen action effects, the nature of matching gems and navigating menus disconnects a player’s initiation from the onscreen action.

Monster Strike’s battle system offers a sense of realtime action. In what can be described as a combination of Pokemon and billiards, players flick their character game pieces around a closed arena, sending them bouncing off the walls and into their foes and allies alike. This intuitive flicking action system gives Monster Strike a sensation of physical game interaction that many competing games lack.

Taking “User-Friendly” to a New Level

Monster Strike‘s smallness has also allowed producers to react to real time feedback and keep the game user friendly and fair.


In an era where “free-to-play” often translates to “pay-to-win,” Mixi sought to offer a free and fair gaming experience (Yvray). Koki Kimura says,

You can’t get the strongest character in Monster Strike by paying. Nor does paying get you to 10 levels beyond where you were before you paid… Skill should get you further than money. (Kain)

Just as Monster Strike rewards cooperative play, special items can be earned by logging in and participating. Players can’t buy the best characters. They earn them by winning special campaigns or through the games capsule machines. Players can spend money on coins or more playing time, but it isn’t necessary. In a break from the “pay-to-win” paradigm, Monster Strike facilitates a feeling of fairness by rewarding player effort and allowing players to succeed with no monetary commitment.

Embracing the Grapevine


Small games based in social networking lend themselves to real-time communication. Monster Strike‘s maintenance team reacts to player concerns with little delay. “Because it’s not a big, bloated triple-A game, you can actually make real-time changes based on this feedback” says Okamoto.

Recent frustrations with the infamously glitched Batman: Arkham Knight PC-port illustrate his point. Disgruntled customers numbered around 8,000 and WB Games decided to suspend sales of the game until the kinks were ironed out. Unlike giant PC and console games, small game production teams can respond with quick solutions. If problems do arise, players receive updates via the game, its website or social networking tools like Twitter or Facebook.

Small games also facilitate small updates and add-ons. Monster Strike constantly adds new and limited-edition campaigns, items, and characters. These small changes keep Monster Strike fresh and surprising. Players never know what to expect when they log-in.

How Monster Strike Competes with Consoles


Photo by Esther Vargas

While smartphones’ streamlined internet experience played a role in Mixi’s initial downfall, the devices’ proliferation sparked Monster Strike‘s rise. Today (nearly) everybody has a touch screen device with internet access. So mobile gaming’s access far exceeds that of stand-alone consoles. And the puzzles, dragons, and monsters have helped mobile games take a bite out of the console market. Since 2013 console and software sales have dropped, but the mobile gaming market continue to grow.

Smartphones have changed mobile gaming culture, taking a large chunk of both portable and home consoles’ audiences. Since parents already own smartphones, there is no need to buy children new hardware. Furthermore, there’s no physical software to buy. Monster Strike can be downloaded anywhere at anytime. Like Monster Strike, many mobile games are free or cost less than “bigger,” more time consuming console software.

While Monster Strike maintains a “small” game experience, it receives updates and continuously expands. Thanks to calculated strength limits, Monster Strike maintains a challenge and thrill many console games lose through grinding or building overpowered characters to make the game easy. Players never beat or finish Monster Strike. They play until satisfied or a new game attracts their attention. Of course, Mixi hopes the latter won’t happen.

How Monster Strike Struck My Heart


Many mobile gaming fads have come and gone but Monster Strike was the first to hook me. Free means guilt-free. Sure I’m wasting time, but at least I’m not wasting money. And since I play the game in minute spurts, I rarely feel like I’m actually idle.

I’ve unlocked top-tier characters and beat difficult campaigns without spending either a yen or cent. Monster Strike truly embraces its mantra of fairness. On the occasion that the game crashes or experiences technical difficulties, Monster Strike offers items or other rewards to make up for the inconvenience. As the game’s producers’ vision proves true, the Monster Strike goes out of its way to treat players fairly.

The kid in me loves the collectible characters. Monster Strike‘s unique cast ranges from historical legends, anthropomorphic military vehicles, beasts, robots, plants, cute girls, cool guys, and legendary heroes and villains. A continuous stream of new characters, including new evolutions and limited edition from franchise tie-ins like Gojira (Godzilla), Evangelion, Okamoto’s Street Fighter cast, and even TMNT makes “catching them all” nearly impossible.

But my favorite element is the action based gameplay. I have a ton of fun flicking my character pieces around the screen. And while critics may question Monster Strike‘s challenge and level of strategy, I have won and lost many battles based on my decision making.

Future Strike


Photo by Maurizio Pesce

Although Monster Strike’s explosion in popularity seemed sudden, it was anything but. The game achieved a deliberate success, engineered by an all-star production team that heeded gaming’s past and future while respecting its audience. As a result, Monster Strike offers a free-but-fair, constantly evolving action-based gaming experience.

Its insane earnings have not been ignored. “As of March 31, 2015, the game has been downloaded more than 30 million times and has daily revenues of $3.8 million” according to Wikipedia. Mobile gaming profits have grown enough to lure just about any game maker to the market. Even Nintendo decided to join the fray, announcing the development of five games for mobile devices.

Does Nintendo’s foray into smartphone gaming signal a continued fall for consoles, or is it just a passing fad? Although naysayers question the legitimacy and longevity of mobile games and free-to-play games in general, industry insiders like Okamoto and Konami CEO Hideki Hayakawa have declared mobile gaming the future. “Mobiles,” Hatakawa said, “will take on the new role of linking the general public to the gaming world.”

Will Mixi repeat past mistakes and rest on its laurels? Or will it continue to push the envelop?  Perhaps it will allow players to trade characters? Or combine characters to unlock special versions for each player? Maybe Monster Strike will create a versus mode? Or lend their popular characters to other games? If anything has proven true it’s that social elements rule the day.

However, with an anime series in production, expansion to the 3DS announced, and the availability of Monster Strike credit cards the Monster Strike hype train shows no signs of slowing down, at least for now.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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


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“Let’s Play” Gamers In Japanese, With Anijya and Otojya… desu. Tue, 17 Mar 2015 13:00:36 +0000 Myself (and many others) have always recommended you study Japanese together with the things you enjoy. I enjoy video games, but I also enjoy watching people play video games. A little under a year ago I came across a YouTube channel run by two Japanese brothers and was surprised by it. First of all, they were […]

The post “Let’s Play” Gamers In Japanese, With Anijya and Otojya… desu. appeared first on Tofugu.

Myself (and many others) have always recommended you study Japanese together with the things you enjoy. I enjoy video games, but I also enjoy watching people play video games. A little under a year ago I came across a YouTube channel run by two Japanese brothers and was surprised by it. First of all, they were Japanese people doing “Let’s Play” videos, which I hadn’t really seen before. Second, they were playing first person shooters and other “typically Western games.” Combine all this with the fact that they are entertaining to watch and you have yourself a winner. You definitely can’t say that about every YouTube channel, that’s for sure.

At the time of this writing, they have 653,521 subscribers on YouTube. It seems they’re doing something right. I had wanted to interview them for a while, and I finally got the chance. As a primer, here’s a compilation video of some highlights from 2014.

Koichi: Let’s get introductions out of the way. What are your (internet) names?

Brother 1: 兄者 (Anijya) – Editor’s note: This is the kanji for “older brother” and “person.”

Brother 2: 弟者 (Otojya) Editor’s note: This is the kanji for “younger brother” and “person.”

Koichi: They’re an older and younger brother duo, in case you (the reader) didn’t get that.

When did you start doing “Lets Play” videos?

Otojya: I started in November of 2009. At first, we didn’t include our own commentary. We simply added subtitles and made game video tutorials.

Koichi: Here’s the oldest video I could find on their channel.

Koichi: And why did you originally start doing these videos?

Anijya: I saw a “Let’s Play” video my brother made and I got interested in how people commented on it, so I started doing it too. However, the videos I made initially were things like “how to post a video online without losing its picture quality.”

Otojya: The biggest reason was I just wanted to know how people would react to my “Let’s Play” videos. I still remember one of the comments on one of our first videos that said my voice sounded like a villain character and that made my brother laugh so hard. After a while, I’ve really come to enjoy communicating with a large number of people through our videos.

Koichi: That’s so true. I think it was your voice (Otojya) that originally drew me to your videos. I thought it sounded more like an “announcer” though, which really added a lot of excitement to watching you play games. Okay, maybe an “announcer villain.”

Koichi: So what keeps you doing “Let’s Play” videos now then?

Anijya: I want to enjoy games with other people – Or rather, because I do enjoy playing games with other people.

Koichi: I can definitely see that in your videos. I think some of my favorites are the 4player ones you do. I have a soft spot in my heart for the Left4Dead videos, but that’s because I particularly enjoy that game.

Payday2 was pretty good too.

And Vagante.

Otojya: I like gaming, so I try to convey how fun and interesting games are. I introduce them to people like, “Here is a fascinating game that’s now out there!”

Otojya: I also want people to evaluate the playing styles I come up with for multiplayer games. One thing that has come from posting videos that makes me the happiest is when I am told “I started gaming after watching your videos.” It makes me hold up my fists in triumph.

Your Favorite Games

Koichi: Well, it made me want to start doing “Let’s Play” videos, but then I realized people would get angry at me for not doing my actual work. Speaking of games, what kinds of games do you usually play?

Anijya: I play FPS (first person shooters) and TPS (third person shooters), but I actually try out all the games that interest me. Games are so profound and I’m fascinated with them.

Otojya: I usually play FPS

and I recently started playing horror games

as well as retro games

but I like every kind of game.

Koichi: I think I know this already, but what’s your favorite genre?

Anijya: FPS perspective games. I’ve liked this genre for a long time because it gives you the feeling of being in the game and you can immerse yourself in its world.

Otojya: If you have ever watched our videos, you will probably know, but my favorite genre is FPS! Although I say FPS, there are some other types, like puzzles, adventures, or horror that I really enjoy too but I like all kinds of FPS. My most favorite FPS are those with explosive action.

Koichi: I have to ask. Least favorite game genre?

Anijya: RPG or MMORPG. I get tired of playing games where all the events or missions are offered from the beginning.

Otojya: Well, to be honest, I just mentioned how I like every kind of FPS, but I like horror games the least among them. When I was a kid, my brother and his friend played a zombie horror game called “Biohazard 2″ (many of you likely know Biohazard by another name – Resident Evil) and it scared me to death. I’m afraid of zombies, so I don’t like my brother…oops I mean I don’t like horror games very much. Haha!

Koichi: You two often play games together. What are your strong points and weak points? Are you a good team?

Anijya: A strong point would be that we can communicate without saying very much at all. I’ve played games with him longer than anyone else, so he can help me out without me even asking him. He is very reliable. However, as a weak point, we have really big arguments when our gaming doesn’t go very well. You may think, “it’s just a game, right?”, but we play it so seriously and enthusiastically that sometimes we get a bit too intense. We’re an ideal team rather than just a “good” team…at least in my eyes, the older brother, who likes gaming.

Otojya: The strong point would be our teamwork. I’ve played games with my brother more than anybody else, so that naturally created our ability to work as a team. It’s also easier to play with him. However, we are often too serious about gaming, so if one of us makes a mistake, we get into a serious fight. In terms of enjoying games from the bottom of our hearts, we are the best and strongest team.

Koichi: Aww, that’s 可愛いね.

“Western Gaming” vs. “Japanese Gaming”

Koichi: What do you think is the difference between Western gaming and Japanese gaming?

Anijya: I think the differences have been decreasing, but I’d say “reality.” In Japanese games, there are often anime characters or handsome boys or cute girls that Japanese people like. However, in Western games, there are usually tough guys and women who are more likely to exist in the real world. Thus, in terms of realism, I think Western gaming has the advantage. Conversely, non-realistic fantasy settings might be the Japanese strength.

Otojya: This is my personal opinion, but I think the difference is “whether a cute character appears or not.” There are almost always cute characters in Japanese games. I like movies, so I prefer to play games with cool characters you might see in a movie, but Japanese people tend to prefer playing games with cute characters rather than cool people.

Koichi: Then how do you feel about “Western gaming culture?”

Anijya: Western gaming is very particular about details. There are some very particular things in games that closely mimic reality, but if that were done for Japanese people, none of them would enjoy it. I’m sure there are fans of that style in Japan too, but since we have to get over the language barrier, I suspect it may not be very many.

Otojya: I think that there are many games pursuing reality. Western gaming even diligently pursues reality on silly or seemingly unimportant details, so I feel the scale of Western gaming is vast.

Koichi: On the flip side, how about “Japanese gaming culture?”

Anijya: I think Japanese gaming culture is completely different from that of other countries. The gaming experience that at one time could only be had in an arcade suddenly became available at home with family game consoles, and even people who weren’t interested in gaming that much now play app-games on their smartphones. Now, it’s trendy to create games for smartphones that everyone can enjoy rather than just for game consoles or computers, which have become more complicated and expensive. The gaming industry is still developing, but I think there is still a lot of room for growth.

Otojya: I think Japanese people consider gaming a childish thing. If you play games as an adult, it can give people a bad impression of you, so I think many people hesitate to confess that they like gaming.

Koichi: I was surprised to see you playing so many FPS games. I’ve always thought of FPS as “Western” gaming, but a lot of Japanese people love your videos. Are FPS games getting popular in Japan too?

Anijya: In the 90s, FPS games on computers became popular worldwide, and the number of Japanese fans has slowly increased since then. I was actually one of them. Although there were no games that had the language localized in Japanese, I still ran into Japanese players. FPS players increased a lot more after people learned how to enjoy FPS with game consoles, such as PlayStation or Xbox, and the number of titles in Japanese increased as well. The image of FPS must have changed from that of hardcore computer games to a much more common game. The type of gameplay specific to FPS, much like an action movie, makes people excited, and the scenes also change depending on which character you choose to be, so you won’t get tired of it.

Otojya: My brother first learned about FPS and I started playing because of his influence. I probably never would have known about FPS if he hadn’t known about them. At first, I was just watching my brother play while thinking “I want to play that too!” So I posted “Let’s Play” videos for viewers to enjoy with similar feelings that I had experienced. I think FPS are becoming more and more popular in Japan.

Koichi: I’m surprised! I guess I don’t know anything. As someone who’s on the front lines of Japanese gaming, what do you think about the current state of Japanese gaming?

Anijya: I like obscure games, and I feel Japan doesn’t have many unique ones. The games made for smartphones are mostly not my genre either. My favorite game series Metal Gear Solid is loved all over the world, so I hope Japanese game companies create something that focuses not only on Japan but also the world.

Otojya: [Japan] makes games mostly for children and I think that’s fine, but they should also challenge themselves to make games that adults can enjoy.

Koichi: And how do you think Japanese gaming will change? As in, what will it be like in 5-10 years?

Anijya: I think the main market will change from consumer consoles to peoples’ smartphones. Right now, many games are only enjoyable on game consoles, but I’m pretty sure those will be available on smartphones soon enough. I also think that brainstorming type games might be popular soon. Haha!

Otojya: I think smartphone games will become the mainstream…or web browser games.

Koichi: Well, I hope they get better then. I haven’t seen many other “Let’s Play” videos from Japan, not like in the West. Why do you think that is?

Anijya: I think it’s because it used to be pretty difficult to upload videos of someone playing a game while also talking about it. It costs quite a lot at first, and knowledge of computers is also required. Recently though, computers have changed to PS4s and to Xbox Ones, so everybody can post “Let’s Play” videos. It was impossible not so long ago, but now it’s awesome!

Otojya: For Japanese people, I think gaming is usually something you enjoy by yourself, so it’s not necessary to share videos to enjoy with others.

Wrapping Up

Koichi: But are there any “Let’s Play” people out there that you guys enjoy?

Anijya: I often watch Markiplier despite the language barrier. It’s not related to gaming, but I also watch Freddie Wong.

Otojya: I look on Youtube every once in a while, but I haven’t found one yet.

Koichi: Dang, so no Japanese “Let’s Players” to recommend. I hope more pop up, though I will continue to watch your videos either way. What are your goals for your channel / website?

Anijya: We now have over 600,000 subscribers, but my new hope is to reach 1,000,000. It would be great if everyone could find enjoyment through our gaming videos while watching with their friends.

Otojya: We will post more videos, make new challenges, and increase channel numbers!

Koichi: Sounds about right – so if someone wanted to subscribe to or follow your videos, how can they do it?

Anijya: Homepage

Otojya: YouTube

Koichi: They’re also on Twitter (AnijyaOtojya) and TwitchTV, too. Thank you both so much for doing this interview! I found a bunch of your videos that I haven’t watched yet while doing research for this interview, so I’m going to go watch them now. Everyone who likes gaming and is studying Japanese, be sure to subscribe to their YouTube channel. It’s one of my favorite channels and a lot of fun.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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

The post “Let’s Play” Gamers In Japanese, With Anijya and Otojya… desu. appeared first on Tofugu.

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Translation, Localization, and Nice Japanese Things: A Q&A with Matt Alt Tue, 08 Jul 2014 16:00:20 +0000 When it comes to Japanese pop culture, I’m like a lot of fans. Despite years of off-and-on attempts at study, I don’t know the language well enough to follow the original versions of manga, anime, or live-action drama and movies. And yet, I know enough about the culture – and sometimes the language – to be […]

The post Translation, Localization, and Nice Japanese Things: A Q&A with Matt Alt appeared first on Tofugu.

When it comes to Japanese pop culture, I’m like a lot of fans. Despite years of off-and-on attempts at study, I don’t know the language well enough to follow the original versions of manga, anime, or live-action drama and movies. And yet, I know enough about the culture – and sometimes the language – to be annoyed about what translators do to them.

Probably all of you have your own pet peeves. One of mine is when tanuki is translated as “raccoons,” an error with a history going back to the nineteenth century. And as someone who watches a lot of dramas about food, I groan at how even some of the most devoted fansubbers can’t leave well enough alone, and instead come up with many different ridiculous “translations” of “itadakimasu.”

Here on Tofugu, these discussions pop up from time to time. A recent article about a new American production of Doraemon was the occasion for much weeping and rending of garments on our Facebook page. A comment on a recent blog post that compared the anime Yokai Watch and Pokemon bemoaned how boring the English version of Pokemon was, since they’d taken out all the Japanese cultural references. You all know what I’m talking about: it’s like a dysfunctional relationship. We’re totally dependent on translators but, a lot of the time, we hate them. They’re the only reason we have access to the stuff we love and, at the same time, we feel like they are why we can’t have nice things.

So I’ve always wanted to ask a translator some questions. If they love the products of Japanese culture enough to make a career of translating them, why do they mess with them so much? On the other hand, I also thought: maybe, if we understood more about the process, we wouldn’t be so mad all the time.

Well, I was finally lucky enough to have that conversation.


Matt Alt is the co-author of a bunch of cool books about some difficult-to-translate parts of Japanese culture: yokai, yurei, and ninja. I’ve followed him online for a few years, observing that he knows about everything from 1970s robot toys to Japanese giant salamanders. And at some point I discovered what he does for a living: He co-founded a company, called AltJapan, that specializes in translation and localization. In fact AltJapan is working on the translation of the Doraemon manga right now. I wasn’t sure what localization was, but I knew what it sounded like: it’s why we can’t have nice things, right?


Still, as much as you can tell from just knowing someone on the internet, I felt sure that Matt was a good guy and that his goal would never be to ruin nice Japanese things. He proved both true by being generous enough to answer my questions and – much to my utter shock – managing to convince me for a split second that maybe, just maybe, there was more than ignorance behind calling a tanuki a raccoon.

Q. Localization vs translation in 25 words or less. Go!

Localization is the art — and it is an art — of adapting content into different languages and cultures.

Now I’m going to cheat and go way over 25 words. The idea is for content to “feel” the same in the target language as it did in its native language. The reason “localization” is used instead of “translation,” incidentally, is because it often involves a lot of work beyond just the translation of text: manipulation of layouts, even the content itself in some cases, all with the aim of reducing the barriers for the target audience. If something’s meant as light entertainment in Japan but you need a PhD in East Asian Studies to make heads or tails of the translation, someone messed up.

Q. A good translation isn’t always exact, because word for word accuracy might not convey the intended effect. With puns, for example, a translation has to either change the content or lose the wordplay. You have to change something to convey the spirit rather than the letter of the original, right?

When it comes to Japanese-to-English (and English-to-Japanese) translation, you’re talking about two languages with absolutely nothing in common linguistically. Japanese grammar is the reverse of English, it doesn’t use articles like English does, it has honorifics, and, in casual speech, often omits subjects entirely. All of that has to be accounted for in translation. The longer and more complicated a sentence gets, the more possible ways there are to translate it.

This is why, for example, the translations of Alfred Birnbaum and Jay Rubin feel so different, even when they’re working from the exact same Haruki Murakami texts. It isn’t because one is wrong and one is right. It’s because there’s no precise one-to-one correlation between Japanese and English and translating between them means a constant stream of judgment calls.


Getting to your specific question, yes, wordplay and puns can be really challenging to translate, particularly if they’re accompanied by specific images. For example, “time flies when you’re having fun” is no problem at all to convey in Japanese conceptually, but it isn’t a set idiom. So if there’s, say, a drawing of a flying clock on the page, readers might not get that joke.

My company is translating the Doraemon manga series right now. There’s one (yet to be released) episode with a gadget that transforms homonyms, words that sound the same, into their different forms. When Nobita points it at some clouds (kumo), it transforms them into spiders (also kumo). Puns with images are extremely difficult to deal with in translation. We handled that one by explaining that it was a tool for learning Japanese and keeping the Japanese homonyms in the English text. But that approach might not work in other contexts.

Q. I get that, in some cases, if everything is translated or reproduced precisely, readers/viewers who don’t know Japanese culture will be confused. But for those of us who do know the culture, stuff that we love gets lost – and I think we also sometimes feel our intelligence is being insulted. Let’s talk about some examples in the upcoming American version of the Doraemon anime that got our readers up in arms. Some of these changes seem necessary and trivial to me: replacing the circle for a grade with F. Others make me want to scream. Are audiences so ignorant that we really need to have chopsticks replaced with forks?


I wasn’t involved in the anime and so can’t comment about the decisions made there. I can only talk about my experience in general.

But my basic stance is that if you are passionate enough about Japanese culture to want to understand every nuance, you’re passionate enough to learn the language and watch or read it in its original form. I wasn’t satisfied with the translations of anime and video games I played as a kid, and that spurred me to study the language so I could do a better job myself.

And now that I am doing that job myself, I can see that things aren’t nearly as cut and dried as I thought they were when I was a kid. Translators don’t work in a vacuum. It’s a service business. There’s a bigger picture, and translators are only one (important!) part of a larger mix. There are broadcast or publishing regulations, technical issues, cultural issues, demographic considerations, legal and copyright issues, budgets, schedules, and all sorts of things that affect the localization process.

If Hiroko and I are asked to make a change that troubles us, we never hesitate to raise the issue with the higher-ups, but there are some cases where we get overruled for whatever reason. Sometimes it’s just out of the translators’ hands. Rolling with that is part of being a professional.

Q. Okay, but if these changes are supposed to make the cartoon more accessible, here’s what I don’t get: They haven’t re-drawn the street scenes, sliding doors, etc – all the evidence suggests that the cartoon is still taking place in Japan. So if they’re in Japan, why are they eating American food with American utensils and using American money? Isn’t that confusing?

Again, I wasn’t directly involved in the anime production, only the manga. But as a localization professional, with any production we’re involved with, whether it be a book, a video game, an anime, whatever, we have to clarify who the audience is. Is it for adults? Teenagers? Little kids? If it’s for kindergarteners, it’s entirely conceivable they’ve never used chopsticks before, perhaps never even seen them. The people who read this site are deeply interested in Japanese culture, so chopsticks are a no-brainer, but that simply isn’t the case for everyone. A lot of people, adults and kids, don’t want to learn about Japan. They just want to be entertained. And the Japanese people I know have just as many forks and knives in their kitchens as chopsticks. So it doesn’t feel that out of place to me.

Now, I’m not arguing for or against changing chopsticks to forks. I’m just saying that the people who make manga and anime in Japan, in my experience, are open to nearly any changes that might make them popular abroad. We’ve even had [anime and manga] creators tell us they’re okay with changing the genders of protagonists and things like that! That might come as a shock to foreign fans, but it’s true. And the bottom line is, when you’re talking about a kids’ show, how do children feel? Do they enjoy it? That’s really what’s important in the end.

Q. So part of what you’re saying is, sometimes we have to remember that we’re fans of a show for five-years-olds.

Yes, exactly! And there’s nothing wrong with that!

Q. It works the other way round too. There are Japanese fans of Mickey Mouse, after all.

I did a homestay in Japan back in high school, and recall being shocked at seeing high school kids wearing Sesame Street shirts and openly, unironically loving the show. Guys and girls. For them, it was just a way to learn English with a bunch of cute characters and there wasn’t any context or stigma of wearing something for pre-schoolers.

Q. So in that context, some of those changes I was whining about make more sense now. A five-year-old won’t recognize that those yen bills are money, so whatever is actually taking place in that scene won’t make sense. Whereas if you change them to dollar bills, a five-year-old isn’t going to know that they wouldn’t be using dollar bills in Japan, so that’s not really a problem. And something like what the street scenes look like is a big deal to change but probably not noticeable to a five-year-old. Right?


Speaking from experience on totally different projects, there’s a limited amount of time and money that needs to be spent on the most “high value targets,” so to speak. When you’re adapting something you need to pick your battles. The more changes, the more work, and that means more money.

When you’re translating for fun you can obsess endlessly over your translations, but when you’re a pro it becomes about delivering quality within the limited amount of time and money you’re given.

Q. Moving on from things like eating utensils and money, which exist in all cultures – There are Japanese words/things/whatever that simply don’t have English equivalents. Tanuki are not raccoons or even related to them, and yokai are not ghosts/demons/monsters, for example. To me, if Disney needed the animals in the Ghibli film Pom Poko to be familiar to the American audience, they should have redrawn them as raccoons, not just called them by THE WRONG NAME. Aaargh! If American children can watch a movie about Madagascar with lemurs in it, I think a movie about Japan with tanuki in it would not make their heads explode. As far as yokai, we also seem to be able to deal with mythological beings from other cultures like the yeti, so why use a bad translation for Japanese monsters? To me, those substitutions are fundamentally different. Am I just being crazy because I am a geek about certain things?


Believe me, Hiroko and I are huge proponents of calling yokai “yokai” even in English. We made a special point of emphasizing that in our book “Yokai Attack! The Japanese Monster Survival Guide.” So you won’t get any argument from us on that front. In fact, a key part of localization as far as we are concerned is when NOT to localize something. The word “yokai” is one example of that, and we often advise clients to leave it as-is when we’re working on their stuff. And even though we weren’t involved, I was really happy to see that the Yokai Watch people left yokai in the title.

Now, not having been involved in Pom Poko either, I don’t know how it was localized, but that is one helluva Japanese movie. It is packed with cultural references both obvious and subtle, and it would be a challenge even for experienced translators like Hiroko and I to do (a challenge we’d welcome!). My inclination would be to let a tanuki be a tanuki, but that doesn’t make the existing localization of Pom Poko “bad.” It just means they took a different approach.


For Japanese, tanuki are a very common, everyday sort of animal with a lot of culture and folklore associated with them. You don’t need to explain that to Japanese audiences and introducing that concept isn’t the point of the film. Calling them raccoons is one way to get that baggage off the table in one fell swoop. Even if, technically speaking, it’s wrong, because tanuki are canines while raccoons are in the bear family. But if the creator agrees, the change makes it more enjoyable for the viewers, and particularly if it sells, then there’s nothing “wrong” from a localization standpoint. It’s just shades of gray. Not everyone who watches that film is going to be as up on Japanese folklore as we are.

Q. I never thought this would happen, but I kind of get it.  The way tanuki are drawn must have seemed like a godsend to translators. It is so stylized that they could be raccoons. The traditional incorrect name is “raccoon” and their folkloric personality is similar. Though I now understand, I still hate it.

While I try to recover from the shock of almost seeing that point of view, let’s move on to something I have less of a personal stake in. Your company also localizes English stuff for the Japanese market, right? I’m curious about this because I feel like American culture dominates the world so much, what’s left about the US that people aren’t familiar with? I’m assuming a children’s cartoon wouldn’t need to substitute chopsticks for forks for a Japanese audience, but I have no idea what you do need to do when going in the other direction. Can you give some examples?

We weren’t involved with it, but I heard quite a few changes were made to Grand Theft Auto V, such as editing out the sex scenes.

I can’t think of any changes to things we’ve done off the top of my head. Most recently, we did the Japanese versions of Capcom’s Lost Planet 3 and Strider, and helped out on the Japanese subtitles for the film Magic Mike. I can’t think of any major cultural changes made to any of those.

But it’s a bit of an apples and oranges comparison. Besides the fact that content is for adults, not kids, there is an absolute hunger for translated content in Japan. If something is big abroad, chances are it’ll get translated into Japanese. Japan as a nation is very interested in foreign ideas and it isn’t at all uncommon to see translated content on bestseller lists.

Meanwhile, with very rare exceptions (such as with manga), there isn’t much of a market for books or films to be translated in the US. Americans don’t seem to be as interested in what’s going on abroad as the citizens of other countries are. It’s isn’t uncommon for foreign content to get totally remade, such as La Femme Nikita, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, or the Godzilla films. Even foreign material already in English, like the British House of Cards series, gets remade for American audiences. Americans have a much lower threshold for “foreignness” than Japanese do.

Q. Finally – is there an argument to be made that, even if fans think that Pom Poko and Doraemon are ruined by these changes, we should put up with them? Because in the long run, if they are successful, more Japanese stuff will get translated for us, and maybe even more accurately, right?

The key thing to remember is that this is a business, and the point is to sell product – even in Japan, turning a profit trumps everything else. It isn’t some freeform artistic exploration for creativity’s sake. And when it comes to localization, nobody wants to change anything for the heck of it. That’s more work and effort on top of the already huge effort needed to translate it! They do it because they think it will make the end product more popular and thus more profitable. That’s the name of the game.

As I said before, I think that if you’re passionate enough to get upset about a localization, you’re passionate enough to channel that energy into learning the language. And let me be clear: I am not saying anyone is wrong for expressing their dissatisfaction. I’m not in the business of shutting down personal opinions. What I am saying is to seize that discontent. Passion and emotion are powerful things. Use them to better yourself and, maybe, in the future, better the localization industry. Dissatisfaction with the status quo drove me to learn Japanese as a kid, in the late eighties, when it was far harder to do than it is today. And believe me, I’m not the world’s greatest student or linguist. If I can do it, any motivated person can.

So consider this a challenge – if you think you can do better, do it! Study hard, pay your dues, and wait for the chance to prove that you can. But along the way, you might find things aren’t nearly as black and white as you think.

Check out a few of Matt’s awesome books:

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Three Times Mighty Nintendo Sold Out Tue, 10 Jun 2014 16:00:37 +0000 I hope you’re sitting down, dear reader, because I have some disturbing news. Nintendo has partnered with Nabisco to create a Mario game featuring Oreos, Nutter Butters, and Triscuits. The skateboarding bear from Dizzy Grizzlies is rumored to be an unlockable character. Dear reader, I hope you have remained seated or are planning to sit again, because this second […]

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I hope you’re sitting down, dear reader, because I have some disturbing news. Nintendo has partnered with Nabisco to create a Mario game featuring Oreos, Nutter Butters, and Triscuits. The skateboarding bear from Dizzy Grizzlies is rumored to be an unlockable character.

Dear reader, I hope you have remained seated or are planning to sit again, because this second paragraph contains more shocking news. Nintendo has been commissioned by NPR to remake Pokemon Red/Blue with the Pokemon replaced with 150 talk show hosts like Diane Rehm, Terry Gross, and Garrison Keillor.

I hope you are now prepared to sit harder than ever, because I have more unsettling news. Nintendo has agreed to create an original game focusing on the adventures of Southwesty, the character mascot for the SXSW Music Festival.

Actually, I have a fourth news. Those previous three newses were all lies. But if they were true, it would make Nintendo seem a little desperate, right? Making games like that would indicate that Nintendo had fallen on hard times. Well, harder times.

But the point remains, games with such blatant advertising tie-ins always feel cheap and weird. Players can sense that something is being pushed on them, which is why, if you’ve got the mun-muns (that means money), you shy away from having in-game endorsements. Even worse would be making a game from the ground up that is centered around a promotion; for example, Nintendo presents, The Legend of L-Bo, the Barilla Macaroni Noodle.

So no, Nintendo is not doing any of these things. But the truth is, it did. Back when Nintendo was the undisputed champeen of the world (of video games), it made three games at the bidding of other companies. This is not the Nintendo with a struggling Wii U or Gamecube. This is the Nintendo that made game developers and consumers bow to them and offer burnt sacrifices of praise. The Ozymandias Nintendo in its prime made three shameless, pandering, promotional games.

These are three times Nintendo sold out.



In 1983, Nintendo released a little game called Mario Bros. which introduced pipes, turtle-stomping, and Luigi. Mario and Luigi ran around on a fixed screen kicking enemies and collecting coins. Nothing too special, but it was hit in arcades and was eventually overshadowed by the legendary Super Mario Bros. in 1985.

But in 1988, Nintendo released Kaettekita Mario Bros. (Mario Bros. Returns) for the Famicom Disk System. And to what did the Mario Bros. return? The exact same game that was made in 1983. There were a few tweaks in the physics and graphics but, at its core, Kaettekita Mario Bros. was identical to Mario Bros. Aside from gameplay, there were a few key differences, namely shameless advertising.

Kaettekita Mario Bros. was sponsored by Nagatanien, which was the the large Japanese food manufacturer that made Mario Curry and Mario Furikake, at the time.

Before starting a game of Kaettekita Mario Bros., one of three advertisements would play. Mario and Luigi, sometimes joined by company’s CEO, would engage in silliness in front of large advertisements for Nagatanien foods. Surprisingly, only one of them is Mario-related.

But why would anyone pay for a then five-year-old game with advertisements? Because it was cheap and promised free crap.

Kaettekita Mario Bros. was only 400 yen as part of the Famicom Disk Writer service. You could take a Famicom Disk (which was a big yellow floppy disk) to your local merchant and pay a small fee to erase and replace it with a new game, some of which were exclusive to the Disk Writer Kiosks. Kaettekita Mario Bros. was one such game.

So let’s say you had Castlevania, for which you paid 2980 yen. You would take that very good game and pay more money to erase it and, in its place, get a mediocre game with advertisements. But wait, there’s more!

Kaettekita Mario Bros. featured a mode called Nagatanien World. If you could score 10o,000 points in this mode, the game would give up a code that you could send to Nagatanien in exchange for a deck of cards or a keychain. If you scored 20o,000 points, you would get a code to receive Super Mario Bros. 3, which had just been released a month earlier.

This at least makes slightly more sense. You were erasing an expensive game you owned and enduring hours of mediocrity with commercials, all in the hopes of receiving Super Mario Bros. 3.

But the question remains, why did Nintendo need Nagatanien to do this? I understand suckering kids out of 400 yen by making them slave away for the game of their dreams (In 1988, Super Mario Bros. 3 was probably the best game in existence). But why did Nintendo need to put Nagatanien advertising in the game?



All Night Nippon Super Mario Bros. is only slightly less lazy than Kaettekita Mario Bros. and its origins and reasons for existence are a lot clearer.

All Night Nippon (ANN) is a talk radio show that has been airing in Japan six nights a week from 1:00am to 5:00am since 1967. So it’s pretty popular. As the Famicom (The Japanese Nintendo Entertainment System) grew in popularity, ANN started several segments in their show that highlighted and praised its games.

The only information I can find about the reason this game was made is that “a deal was struck”. Fujisankei, who owns ANN, asked Nintendo to make a special version of Super Mario Bros. for a giveaway celebrating All Night Nippon‘s 20th anniversary. But why did Nintendo agree? If Howard Stern starts talking up the Wii U and his parent company asks nicely, will Nintendo make a special Howard Stern version of The Legend of Zelda? I doubt it.

Somehow for some reason, a partnership between Nintendo and Fujisankei was formed and All Night Nippon Super Mario Bros. was made. And to say it “was made” means that it was brought into existence. There wasn’t a whole lot of making involved in this title.

All Night Nippon Super Mario Bros. is basically just Super Mario Bros. with a few cosmetic changes. The goombas and piranha plants are replaced with the pixelated head of ANN DJ Sunplaza Nakano, the characters you rescue from each castle are popular Japanese celebrities from the 80s, and the Fujisankei logo is strewn about here and there. Also the first world is changed from day to night, because All Night Nippon airs at night. That’s it.

The game is a basic hack, which couldn’t have taken Nintendo long to put together. It is unknown how many copies were given away, so existing copies are extremely rare and sell for nearly $1000.

But again, what made Nintendo do this favor for Fujisankei? What did Nintendo have to gain? Sure, they didn’t have to do much work, but why produce a strange, adulterated version of your game just because some DJs talked it up?



Now, we finally get into the good stuff. The good, weird stuff.

Yume Kōjō: Doki Doki Panic! (Dream Factory: Heart-Pounding Panic!) is better known in the U.S. as Super Mario Bros. 2. You know, the one with the vegetables. This veggie-oriented game was not the Mario sequel that Japanese gamers received. The Japanese Super Mario Bros. 2 was basically the original Super Mario Bros. designed to punish and frustrate. When it came time to bring a Mario sequel stateside, Nintendo of America sidestepped the Japanese version of Super Mario Bros. 2. not wanting the Mario series to be known for frustration. Instead, they replaced the main characters of Doki Doki Panic! with Mario heroes and released it as Super Mario Bros. 2.

It would be fine enough if Doki Doki Panic! was an imaginative romp for its own sake. It’s actually a great game! But, it was made at the bidding of Fujisankei, our friends who commissioned All Night Nippon Super Mario Bros. But Doki Doki Panic! wasn’t a mere remake or rom hack. It was a full-fledged original game baked from scratch. So why this level of effort? Were the main characters of Doki Doki Panic! stars of their own popular anime series? Were they incredibly popular media characters? The truth is much more shameful.

The heroes of Doki Doki Panic! were the mascots of a festival called Yume Kōjō 87, a carnival held by Fuji TV to promote its fall lineup of shows. Granted, it was a big carnival, but its sole purpose was to promote a television station, and it only lasted from July 18 through August 30, 1987, a mere month and twelve days.

One of the themes of Yume Kōjō 87 was Rio De Janeiro’s Carnival, thus a great deal of mask imagery was used in the promotion and the festival itself. There’s a good deal of flying masks in the commercial above, and below are some stationary, non-flying masks printed on Yume Kōjō 87 phone cards.


So it’s no coincidence that many of the elements and enemies from Doki Doki Panic! ended up being mask related. The mushrooms, turtle shells, and stage exits in the U.S. version of Super Mario Bros. 2 were all originally masks. Likewise, many of the enemies that hop about and try to murder you wear masks.


The shyguy in particular has become a mainstay of the Mario series. So, if you’re slurping up shyguys in the new Yoshi’s Island for 3DS, you can thank Yume Kōjō 87 for inspiring their expressionless, Michael Myers face.

But I digress.  Doki Doki Panic! is a full-length game that Nintendo poured its sweat into. Shigeru Miyamoto, Koji Kondo, and most of the original Mario team worked on this game. All this talent and hard work was expended to promote promotional characters. These characters aren’t even good enough to have their own show. They were created to promote other, better shows! Doki Doki Panic! is a promotion of a promotion. I’m not sure you can go much lower than that, unless you consider the commercials that promoted Doki Doki Panic!

Sell Out Nevermore! Well, Maybe Just One More…


Photo by Tjflex2

So, why did Nintendo, in its mightiest form, kowtow to these other companies? Nintendo was at its bossiest back then, so why let itself get bossed around? Maybe because it was only the biggest chipmunk in Chippy-Nut Kingdom.

Nintendo may have been at the top of the video game world, but back in the late 80s, video games were still a burgeoning children’s novelty. And the burgeoning children’s novelty industry does not trump the food, radio, or television industries. Nintendo was certainly doing well for itself, but it had only recently found incredible prosperity. After 100 years of humbly manufacturing playing cards, it abruptly exploded to an unprecedented level of success, a level inhabited by companies much larger and more sophisticated than itself.

When you suddenly find yourself among the big dogs, you’re probably going to try and make those big dogs your friends. Especially if you’re a chipmunk.

So, in retrospect, it makes sense that Nintendo would do weird, sell-outy favors to make friends. But in the present and recent past, Nintendo has not been known to do favors or work with hardly anyone it couldn’t bully. Even in the difficult days of the N64 and Gamecube, Nintendo mostly kept to itself, not willing to put Cheetos in a Kirby game for a little extra cash. So it sold out a little in the beginning, but it certainly wouldn’t do anything like that again.

Whoops! I spoke too soon.

It seems that, in an effort to boost the appeal of its IP and the Wii U, Nintendo did a cross-promotion with Mercedes-Benz.  Mario Kart 8 and the Mercedes-Benz GLA SUV were both released the same day in Japan, so Mario appeared in a commercial for the GLA and the GLA appears in Mario Kart 8 a downloadable bonus vehicle.


Maybe this could be seen as more of a コラボレーション (collaboration) the way Japan loves to do, ie. SOMETHING X SOMETHING. But whatever you call it, it’s still promotion. Is Nintendo selling out yet again? Maybe not. Selling out implies that things are going well and the entity is using that success to make a shameless money or power grab. Nintendo is an established and mature company, but it isn’t having the happiest stroll through money town. It may need to team up with other companies now more than ever. Though the little chipmunk is now rather large, even giant chipmunks may need help from big dogs every now and then.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Japan’s Solar Revolution – The Sky’s (Not) the Limit Thu, 29 May 2014 16:00:47 +0000 My neighborhood is changing. When you run everyday, you get to know your surroundings. You learn the locations of the essentials – water fountains, vending machines, and toilets. There are familiar faces and places. You remember which houses have dogs and learn alternate routes for when oncoming trains block your path. And you tend to […]

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My neighborhood is changing.

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

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

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

Welcome to post-Fukushima Japan.

Wake-up call


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

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


Photo by 保守

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

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

Nuclear Shutdown


Photo by Jihara19

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

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

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

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

What Alternatives?


Photo by Tnk3a

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Solar Power?


Photo by Σ64

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

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

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

The Fukushima Effect on All Scales


Photo by CoCreatr

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

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

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

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

The Sky’s (Not) the Limit


Photo by NASA

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

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



Photo by mrhayata

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

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

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

Bonus Wallpapers!

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The Marketing Genius Behind The “Magic” Japanese Necklace Wed, 14 May 2014 16:00:15 +0000 In 1983, a company named Phiten was founded in Kyoto. The company made products it calls “quasi-drugs,” alternative medicine with pseudoscientific explanations for what each product is supposed to do. Most of them are supposed to harmonize with the human body’s natural energy field, to help you sleep, or energize you, or make you good […]

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In 1983, a company named Phiten was founded in Kyoto. The company made products it calls “quasi-drugs,” alternative medicine with pseudoscientific explanations for what each product is supposed to do. Most of them are supposed to harmonize with the human body’s natural energy field, to help you sleep, or energize you, or make you good at sports.

So what? You’ve heard of this before. Why write about this company rather than the dozens or hundreds of others who do the same thing? Thanks to a happy coincidence at the turn of the century, this little Japanese company from the ’80s gets on national TV in the United States, every Sunday night at 8:00.

Energy Fields and Aqua-Metals


Photo by *嘟嘟嘟*

First, a little talk about the claims behind the products. Phiten’s main selling point is its Aqua-Metal technology. According to their sales materials, Phiten products are dyed in Aqua-Metals, “metals broken down into microscopic particles dispersed in water.” They do this with gold, titanium, palladium, silver, and platinum.

This process is supposed to better harness the properties of the metals. What are those properties? The Phiten website says they use gold because “It’s believed that Gold helps to strengthen the immune system. It is a perfect enhancer for the absorption of nutrients, regeneration of tissues, and circulation. Many have also claimed that it is a powerful anti-aging agent.” I hope whoever wrote the ad copy gets a phone call from their high school English teacher about all those weasel words.

Phiten makes a lot of products that straddle the surprisingly thin line between alternative medicine and athletic gear: necklaces, lotions, gels, shirts, and by far the most terrifying, Aqua Gold Drinking Water. And, if you’re privy, you can even buy necklaces and lotions to make your pet feel better too. Phiten’s product line has expanded over time, and the company certainly has as well. But the real story is how this Japanese product made the leap across the Pacific Ocean into America, finding a newer, male-r market for these pseudoscientific gels and creams.

Baseball Stars and a New Sales Strategy


Curtis Granderson is a big proponent of Phiten necklaces, which have helped him hit for a .125 batting average so far this year.

In 2001, in what was either a chance occurrence or a brilliant marketing maneuver, Phiten had its big break in the United States. On one of the Major League Baseball All-Stars trips to Japan they do every so often, future Hall-of-Fame pitcher Randy Johnson found a Phiten necklace and decided he liked it. According to The New York Times, he started the trend in the US.

Phiten has a product that works, which is extremely important. I’ve been asked to use a lot of products, but this is very beneficial because of what I do. Pitching at my age, my body structure gets tired. I’m always trying to find a product that will make me better, to recover quicker, to be stronger, and so when I’m working with a company such as Phiten, and they’re improving and trying to get better, the results of the products I’m using will make me better as well.

– Randy Johnson

The necklaces really caught on in baseball after 2004, when the “cursed” Red Sox swept the Cardinals for a World Series victory, while seemingly everyone on the team was wearing a Phiten necklace.

Due to a confluence of superstitious baseball players and Phiten company reps making their way into Spring Training dugouts, Phiten accessories spread fast across Major League Baseball. The list of players who wear Phiten is too long to print here. The bracelets blend in fairly well, but the necklaces are hard to miss when you watch on television. In every other close-up shot, you and everyone else watching ESPN will see that ropey necklace, usually matched to the team’s color. Baseball players get them for free, and the ones that keep wearing them are free advertising for that corporation in Kyoto. In a handful of cases, those relationships are even extended into paid endorsement deals. Remember that Aqua Gold Drinking Water? Angels pitcher CJ Wilson recommends it!


The benefits of what happened with Randy Johnson and the Boston Red Sox are clear today: Look at Phiten’s website and you’ll see a list of “Brand Ambassadors.” Big name baseball players from Justin Verlander and Yu Darvish to Josh Hamilton and Shin-Soo Choo sit right up at the top of the page. No one outside of baseball is a household name in the US: the US Men’s Kendo team, softball pitcher Jennie Finch, Japanese pro golfer Hideki Matsuyama. The baseball players are all wearing Phiten’s product on national television, making people like me and a country full of amateur players ask “What’s that hempy looking necklace they’re all wearing?” Without them, what are the odds that I would have ever have heard of Phiten Aqua-Metal necklaces?

You know what? I hear some guys say they help. Some guys wear them because they’re afraid that if they don’t wear them, they’ll miss out on something. I actually wore one of the Phiten bracelets at one time, and I felt that my elbow pain went away. Then I gave it to somebody else by mistake, and he put it in his pocket and said his cheek went numb.

– Pittsburgh Pirates manager Clint Hurdle

The company is now branching out into the NBA and NHL, with hopes of replicating their success on a new market. And unless NBA and NHL players happen to be more resistant to wearing necklaces on TV, what’s there to stop this formula for success from working again?

Hedging Bets and the Logic of Magic


Photo by Alan Sung

It’s tempting to say baseball players are stupid or superstitious for wearing the necklaces and buying into the hype (the ones who aren’t getting paid to endorse Phiten, that is). But what harm does it do them? They’re not paying for the necklace or the bracelet or the athletic tape, and a lot of their teammates wear them, and who are they to say the pseudoscience and chemistry is made up?

Occasionally you’ll see someone do an informal study on the effectiveness of Phiten wear on sports performance, but the results never say much. In a report for ESPN’s “Outside The Lines” program, Dr. John Porcari of The University of Wisconsin at La Crosse performed a series of tests on the Power Balance bracelets, an American product once very popular in the NBA. He had athletes perform a number of tests based on Power Balance promotional material, demonstrating strength, balance, and flexibility. The athletes would do the test once while wearing a Power Balance bracelet and once wearing a dollar store rubber bracelet, with a wristband covering the bracelet so they would not know which they were using. No matter which bracelet the athletes wore, they performed better in their second tests, either from added familiarity in the experiment, or from the added confidence they got from the switch in bracelet. Porcari proclaimed that the bracelets were a hoax.

Phiten is treading dangerous ground. That American “magic bracelet” company, Power Balance, was forced to pay a $57 million settlement in 2011, practically ending the business. The company claimed that their bracelets improved the wearer’s strength, balance, and flexibility, but when the claim was challenged in a federal court class action lawsuit, the owners had no scientific evidence to back their claims. The owners admitted their claims were false and offered full refunds, then filed for bankruptcy and eventually sold the company.

And a fun little side note: Power Balance, founded by two Californians, claimed its products were based on “Eastern philosophy,” whereas the Japanese Phiten company doesn’t advertise any kind of oriental mystique. Perhaps said “Eastern Philosophy” was just “The Philosophy of Phiten.”

The products are supposed to make you feel better and feel less fatigue, but is that going to be measurable in baseball statistics? And even players did play better when they wear the bracelets, how would you know what is the placebo effect and what is not? If wearing the “magic Japanese necklace” makes an athlete more confident, then he’ll play better, Aqua Titanium aside.

If I were a high school baseball player right now, I might even wear one. At this point, so many baseball players wear them that wearing one makes you look more like a baseball player. And looking like a real baseball player could make other people treat you differently, could make a scout pay more attention to you, and could help you fit in on a team. Fifty dollars is a lot for a ropey-looking necklace, but it’s not hard to imagine real benefits past all the energy field pseudo-science stuff.

“I used to imitate all kinds of people, I would do Barry Zito’s windup. When I batted, I would do what Chipper Jones did. I also wore the wrist tape, the arm bands, the batting gloves, no batting gloves. Whatever you saw somebody doing, you had to do it. These ropes are definitely being worn all the way down through the farm system. You’re going to see people in high school wearing them. If kids today are emulating us wearing the twisted ropes, I’m speechless, in a good way.” – Texas Rangers pitcher Derek Holland

By gaining so much traction in Major League Baseball, Phiten has managed to warp things so that buying one of their Aqua-Metal antioxidant necklaces is actually a logical decision for a young athlete. You don’t have to buy into their claims to buy a bracelet. That’s what is genius about the company. Now maybe they can ditch the Aqua Gold Drinking Water.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Mining For Japanese Gold: The Professor Who Teaches Japanese Through Minecraft Mon, 12 May 2014 16:00:45 +0000 Minecraft… err, マインクラフト! Of course, I think almost everyone knows the game. Either you’ve played it, someone you know won’t shut up about it, or you’ve heard of it through popular culture / the media. To me, I’ve always thought of it as the incredibly addicting, fun, and educational game that I don’t mind seeing […]

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Minecraft… err, マインクラフト! Of course, I think almost everyone knows the game. Either you’ve played it, someone you know won’t shut up about it, or you’ve heard of it through popular culture / the media. To me, I’ve always thought of it as the incredibly addicting, fun, and educational game that I don’t mind seeing kids playing (darn kids and their CoD). The deeper you get into Minecraft the more educational it gets, really!

But, couldn’t the “educational” aspect of Minecraft be taken a step further? I thought exactly this during a month-long binge of Minecraft I had in 2012. Playing on various servers, you would meet people from other countries, Japan included. Mostly, I would see people trying to explain or ask things in the English language. Sure, we were mostly talking about diamonds, pick axes, and survival, but the grammar and the need to communicate was all being learned.

The game itself is simple, it encourages teamwork (or lots of fighting and whining), and communication is fairly realistic, all things considered. You have to talk in the past tense, the present tense, and the future tense. Also, you have to explain directions, where things are, what things are there, and so on. It’s a real (virtual) world, after all! Plus, the game is extremely simple to play at first, and builds very gradually to the more complicated, which is similar to how languages are learned. Unlike virtual worlds such as Second Life and MMOs, Minecraft has a very pleasant learning curve that’s almost perfect to learn a language alongside it.

That brings me to James York, English teacher at a Japanese university and PhD student researching language learning in virtual worlds. He has actually built a Japanese class around Minecraft, teaching several classes a year up to the JLPT5 level (at least for right now). Just from seeing how Minecraft encourages language learning from my experience “in the wild” I was really interested to find out how Minecraft could help someone’s language learning in a slightly more organized “class”. So, I interviewed York-Sensei to learn more about how he’s trying to improve how Japanese can be learned.

Q. What’s Your Story?

james-yorkI learnt a lot of Japanese when I joined a Japanese WoW guild back in 2006 and since then have been interested in games/virtual communities as language learning domains. I teach English as an assistant professor at a university in Japan and am also a PhD student researching how spoken language proficiency can best be promoted with virtual worlds. So lets just say Kotoba Miners (editor note: that’s what he’s calling his in-Minecraft Japanese class) is my hobby, but also my job, and will hopefully help me get a PhD.

I started the server originally as a LAN-based server where my Japanese university students could learn/practice English. Then I asked over on Reddit if I could bring my students to their server and if anybody would like to help them learn. The response was really promising and one very generous redactor offered to give me a server with his hosting company to make my own server. Of course I accepted and so became “Mining English” as it was originally called. So, we had Japanese university students learning English with some native English speakers on my own server. Then, the course finished and all the students stopped playing. What I was left with was a server with a bunch of English speakers eager to learn Japanese. It was at this point that the original objective of the server to teach English flipped to learning Japanese.

Q. What were your key takeaways from doing “Mining English”?

That you can’t force people to learn.

Students are sneaky :P (By this I mean that they will often do the bare minimum or cheat. For example, I gave them the task of interviewing a native English speaker on the server, but they actually ended up interviewing each other and then handing that in (haha). I wouldn’t have known unless one of the native English speakers happened to be online at that time and saw them do it.)

Task goals designed by teachers are often misconstrued into something completely different from what students actually do, but we have to roll with that and adapt on the spot.

Slightly negative: The Japanese don’t want to learn English (sweeping statement I know, but true… At least in a structured, Minecraft-based course). I opened the server up to the Japanese Minecraft forums and had very little response. It’s a shame, but I’m glad we became Kotoba Miners. I really enjoy teaching people that are eager to learn!

Q. So why Minecraft?


I experimented with a number of virtual worlds and games as part of my research. I rejected MMOs for lack of control over content and their often extremely specialized discourse (e.g. “Prot Warrior LFG SFK pst”). I also rejected a lot of social worlds (i.e. Second Life) for their painful aesthetics, controls and distance between user and content-creator.

Minecraft is simple. Controls, aesthetics, and gameplay. This means that you spend less time learning how to navigate the game and more time learning and focusing on language.

Q. How is your classroom in Minecraft set up?  How does a typical class work?

Class topics loosely follow the Genki textbook in terms of progression and the overall objective of the class is to get students to a JLPT N5 level.

The overall objective of the class is to get students to a JLPT N5 level. Lesson content is stored on the server in the “JP buildings” JP1 – JP10.


Activities related to the lessons in each building can be found around the building itself:


Classes are not lectures and students speak and interact with others for the majority of class time. Speaking is achieved with the use of TeamSpeak where we all log into the Kotoba Miners server (address: If you are to join the class you should expect the following as a typical class:

  • Start with a review exercise to refresh our memories of previous lessons content (an activity from another JP building).
  • Brainstorm vocabulary.
  • Sometimes I explain a new grammar point, but then other times, students go and Google it and share what they found (student-centered learning).
  • The next main activity is designed to make use of the new grammar point, but also requires the use of grammar/vocabulary that we have covered in the past also.
  • After class, there is sometimes homework (such as to create a similar activity for others to complete the following week) and I provide practice exercises via our LMS (learning management system):

Q. What kind of lessons have you created that are unique to the Minecraft interface?


We do a couple of lessons where students have to play Minecraft in survival for 2 full Minecraft days. They have a number of objectives to complete.

The objectives are given to them in a book. These objectives are pretty specific to Minecraft.


Once the two days are over, pairs get together and compare their experiences over the two days. This is obviously used to practice the past tense in affirmative and negative forms. An example of a conversation might go something like this:

A: 畑は作った?
B: 作らなかった。ダイヤは見つけた?
A: 見つけた!そっちは?
B: 見つけなかったorz
A: あまりできなかったねw

So, you’re doing things and you’re talking about them afterwards. In a regular Japanese classroom you you don’t really have these kinds of shared experiences that you can talk about. But, thanks to Minecraft we can do this. In addition to this we can speak WHILE doing them. Doing the activity itself requires the use of language.

A good example is the “Ice Palace” which is set up so that you cannot clear it unless you communicate with your partner. Here is a screenshot of one of the rooms:

This side has the route to tell your partner:


This side is a row of pressure plates that need to be navigated correctly. If you don’t pistons push the blocks at the top and crush the player.


Q. What advantages does Minecraft hold over a real world classroom?


Learning by dying. Simply put – games offer feedback loops that show/punish you when you do something wrong. And people are more likely to take risks and get things wrong when playing a game than they are in a classroom.

However, the biggest advantage for Kotoba Miners is the fact that people can log in from all around the world at the same time and connect with other Japanese learners and actually practice SPEAKING the language. The majority of students that come to Kotoba Miners that have been studying Japanese in the past invariably say something along the lines of: “I’ve been studying Japanese for a while, but I’ve never actually spoken it…” So I think the lessons we do on Kotoba Miners are a great place to improve your Japanese speaking and listening ability. (as an aside: these skills are generally not looked at as much as reading and writing in the literature on virtual worlds and language learning, and this is why I’m pushing them in my own research).

Q. What’s your language learning philosophy?

  • (Specifically for Japanese) Get the Kanji out the way early on. If you are serious about learning the language, and aiming for a high level of proficiency 6 months to 1 year is not a long time to spend on learning Kanji.
  • Use and SRS. RtK aside, Anki was the most useful tool I had when actively studying Japanese. Not just for vocabulary, but grammar, and even things like famous peoples’ faces, and famous dates etc. Extremely important.
  • Speak, make mistakes and learn. I (very fortunately) was able to learn Japanese while living in Japan. But it didn’t come without an almost uncountable amount of 恥ずかしい moments when I messed up. There is nothing more embarrassing than being told by a 6 year old kid 「なに?日本語変だよ」(What? Your Japanese is strange) but it makes you god damn certain that you will never make that particular mistake again. A famous point on mistakes is that you can do one of two things: speak or not speak. If you speak you get a result “I was correct” or “I was incorrect;” but if you don’t speak, you will never know if you are correct or not, and therefore never actually learn or progress. Get out there and mess up!
  • Read. Can’t understand what they are saying in anime? Start with books. Books should not be overlooked. I started with stories aimed at 小4−5 level (elementary grade 4 and 5) and learned an absolute metric cuss ton of useful language. Especially onomatopoeia which is so important in Japanese.

Q. How does the community outside of the Minecraft game enhance the Japanese language learning experience?


I’ll let my students answer this one:

Kotoba Miners the community enhances the language learning experience in every way, and I honestly can’t think of a better resource. Most of all for me is that it keeps me motivated, and I can say for sure I wouldn’t still be studying Japanese if I didn’t come across Kotoba. The way it does this I think is that the topic within the community is always language learning, but the specific activities we do may be things that we just enjoy. Naturally the Japanese learning leaks in to what we’re doing, but it doesn’t feel like I’m burning out on the learning aspect, rather than just enjoying it and getting immersed. For example I love video games; I grew up as a gamer. Within Kotoba I have found friends to game with, on games like Garry’s Mod, League of legends, Osu and more. Since we’re learning Japanese, even though we’re not focusing on it, you can bet a friend will show off some new word or grammar he learned, which will naturally make everyone want to know what it means. Then there is the social aspect, I have people from class as friends now (one of the main reason I got into the language I guess). There are constantly conversations going on within Teamspeak, IRC, the app “Line” on my phone, all in Japanese.

The community has Japanese natives also, so with all this combined it’s hard to get away from the language, I’m virtually immersed so to speak. The thing is, I’m just being social, it’s fun, but I have to learn Japanese if I want to be even better at participating in these conversations, which I want to do. A few weeks ago I even met Cheapsh0t, and a few other guys interested in the Japanese culture. I learned so many interesting things about Japan and got some nice manga just from being involved with Kotoba.

Then there is my imagined rivalry with other students within the community. When I see that they just held a conversation with a native speaker better than I would of, it makes my blood boil. How dare he be progressing quicker than me? You can bet that’s motivated me for the night until I think I could have done what I’ve just seen my friend do. It’s nice to be able to compare myself to others and make sure I’m not slacking. So the community is fun, sociable, and I use it to benchmark my progress, keeping me motivated to keep learn the language.

Let me touch on what I see on /r/learnjapanese lately, which is output. Quite a few of these people are like “output is important, but how do I do it?”. Then things like reading books, news, listening to podcasts, writing journals on lang-8, watching drama’s etc. are all suggested. This is literally, so easy without effort in Kotoba. Podcasts? I can talk to natives or friends and get my listening comprehension and speaking practice. Books? I could open up Line on my phone now and find a whole conversation to read. Grammar? “Hey mate, I didn’t quite understand what this bit meant, can you explain it?” I would ask, rather than searching it up and taking longer than I’d like. Writing journals? Well, I do this on the Kotoba forums, the forums are my favorite part (I can rikaichan everything!).

Honestly I used to use Genki textbook, Japanesepod101, Tae Kim’s Grammar Guide and all that cool stuff. However, I’ve substituted all those for Kotoba, I really think it helps me more and is way more fun. I think Kotoba’s only downfall as a community when it comes to enhancing my language learning is learning kanji, which I use WaniKani for. Besides that, it’s the perfect resource with immersion second to only actually living in Japan.

Q. What are your plans for the future of Kotoba Miners?


One thing that I haven’t been spending too much time on is how to study kanji. I personally went the Remembering the Kanji route, and a lot of my current students are using WaniKani, so although it is probably not needed, I’d still like to figure out a way to teach kanji in the Kotoba Miner’s world (James goes on to say that the blocky graphics make this particularly difficult).

Another thing I am focusing on is branching out into other games with our Saturday “Let’s Play” series where we play games in Japanese. We’ve mainly focused on Minecraft up until now, but we’ve got Rust, LoL, and DarkRP coming up, as well as suggestions from current students.

Finally, I think the Kotoba Miners model is usable for other languages, so if any readers would like to use it to teach another language, get in touch!

Q. How can people sign up for your Japanese classes?

We will be starting a new run of our course for EU students at the start of June. You will need a Minecraft account of course. I wrote a guide about signing up.

Currently, classes are Tuesday 11:00 AM and 9:00 PM (JST).

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Ten Japanese Toys You Might Want to Reconsider Buying For Your Children Thu, 19 Sep 2013 16:15:37 +0000 Let’s face it: there are a lot of terrifying children’s toys out there. Walking down the isles of “Toys ‘R’ Us” I can’t help but gawk in awe at some of the items on the shelf, wondering “Who the fudge would buy this for their kid?” As expected, there are not many places in the […]

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Let’s face it: there are a lot of terrifying children’s toys out there. Walking down the isles of “Toys ‘R’ Us” I can’t help but gawk in awe at some of the items on the shelf, wondering “Who the fudge would buy this for their kid?”

As expected, there are not many places in the world that take more of a jaw-dropping turn than Japan when it comes to disturbing toys. That being said, here are my top ten most disturbing Japanese toys that I would seriously hesitate giving to any child.

10. Poop and Pee Plushies


Japan has a strange relationship with poop. I can’t tell you how many potty-training and poop related children’s toys I’ve come across, but it’s more than I could have ever imagined. Sure, poop jokes are always funny, but somehow the idea of teaching your child to snuggle with their own excrement via plushies just doesn’t sound healthy to me. Please, prove me wrong.

9. H-Bouya USB Toy


The H-Bouya is a plug in USB toy in the form of a small boy. I’m not sure what twisted tween-age mind came up with this one, but the H-Bouya’s main trick is giggling and blushing every time you press the letter “h” on your keyboard. In Japanese “h” stands for “etchi,” meaning sex, erotic, or pervert (oh my god, she said “h” hehehehe). The H-bouya also reacts to other love related words like suki (like/love), deeto (date), and much more.

I guess it’s kinda funny, but I’m not sure if the H-bouya is supposed to be amusing for kids or adults. It seems like it would get old faster than the new Ferby which lasted only about 30 seconds after I turned it on.

8. Virus Plush

japan-toy-4 (500x500)

In the past few years, plushies in the shape of diseases have become pretty common in the States, but that’s not the only place. This Japanese plush for babies is modeled after a virus for maximum fun time! Above left is the Japanese virus plush. Below, the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). And above right, a small child that appears to be contracting AIDS.


Am I the only one that sees the resemblance? No? Well, this is sure to be a happy ending. I can’t see how anything could go wrong here.

7. Face Bank


My parents have always taught me the importance of saving money, but honestly, I’ve never really been any good at it. But you know, It’s really a shame that a bank like this one didn’t exist when I was a kid because I’m sure I would have saved money in fear that Satan would devour my soul if I didn’t offer it my lunch money as tribute.

face_bank-20882 (1)

As shown, the Face Bank comes in solid colors and is rather plain – that is, expect for the soulless, haunting eyes and subhuman face protruding from the front of it. The Face Bank will stare you down with its lifeless, chimpanzee face until you appease it with your pocket change. It will then proceed to devour said change with its robotic jaws and then let out a satisfied belch.

There is something truly terrifying about a robotic creature mimicking human-like functions in such a lifeless manner. Seriously, this thing is pure nightmare fuel.

6.Road Kill Cat


“Mommy? What happened to Mittens?” Don’t even bother conjuring up some BS story about Mittens running  away or going off to play with the neighbors. Just throw your kid this thing and they’ll eventually get the idea. Or, at least it will give them something to do with all those extra Hot Wheels cars laying around the house. I’m sure they’ll be just as happy as the kid on the package- all smiles! :D

5. Rubber Lips


Do you remember those old “candy” lips that looked really tasty but actually tasted like freshly waxed baboon butt (and were about the same color)? That’s what these Japanese toy rubber lips reminded me of when I first saw them, only somehow much more disturbing (not at all in a suggestive way). Japanese rubber lips are mobile, so you can preform a range of activities while wearing them including talking, eating hoagies, or even scaring the Milk of Magnesia out of your aged neighbors! Honestly, I’m not sure what the purpose of these things is, but I really don’t want to know.

4. Russian Roulette Toy Gun


“Hey guys! I’ve got a great idea!” Let’s play with guns!” That’s basically what this Japanese Russian Roulette game says to me. The game includes a toy gun similar to a Nerf gun that “fires” randomly. Young children put the toy gun to their heads and pull the trigger to test their luck. Somehow making the gun shoot out hippopotamus legs instead of bullets is supposed to make this so much more acceptable.

Sounds like a roaring good time to me. In expert mode kids use a real gun!

3. Japanese Pregnant Doll

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All this time I’ve been deluded into thinking Japan has been coming out with a steadily more shocking line of toys every year, but I was wrong. This 19th century doll showing the stages of pregnancy is on my list of the top 3 most disturbing toys ever. It’s only saving grace is the fact that this doll was originally made as a medical model. However, evidence suggests that it was later used for entertaining children.

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This, however, raises more disturbing questions. Call me culturally ignorant, but who decided a pregnancy doll was a great thing to use as a child’s play thing? My money is on a doctor giving whatever he had on hand that wasn’t pointy to his children in order to make them shut up, and it happened to be this.

2. You Can Shave the Baby!


This toy has become a sort of myth on the internet and among Japanese toy enthusiasts. However, after doing some research, I found that this toy was originally designed by the Polish artist Zbigniew Libera. Even though this discovery was slightly disappointing, I still think “You Can Shave the Baby” qualifies as one of the disturbing toys ever in Japan.

As you can see, this baby doll comes with hair on all sorts of exciting regions of the body. And you know what the best part is? You can shave it! Unfortunately, it doesn’t grown back, but nothing beats the joy one gets from a good, clean shave. Am I right?

In all seriousness though, I wouldn’t touch this thing with a ten foot pole. Just look at its death glare (it must be unhappy from all that hair). And from the looks of things on the internet, I would say people tend to agree on this subject.

Warning: This video is PG-13

I sincerely hope I’m not the only one here who thinks there is something exceedingly unnerving about having your child shave an infant’s pelvic hair. This is psychopath-making material, right here.

1. Baby in the Microwave Toy


It both encourages me and horrifies me to know that, no matter how desensitized I think I am to ludicrous Japanese inventions, there is always something new to prove me wrong. The baby in the microwave toy is, sadly, exactly what it sounds like: the model of a small child who has been blown up in a microwave. I’m not sure if things could get any more deranged even if I tried.


Honestly, I would have loved to be there to see the sales pitch for this one. The man who pitched this must have been a genius (or a great comedian) to convince someone to market this “gem” of a toy.


This is just a small sampling of the number of disturbing toys in the world. Unfortunately, there are many, many more both inside and outside of Japan. What is the creepiest toy you’ve ever seen or heard of? Let us know! Share your story with us in the comments section below!


Bonus Wallpapers!

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10 Imagined Futures as Predicted by Anime Mon, 19 Aug 2013 16:00:40 +0000 Last week I wrote a post about robots and space and technology. That got me thinking about the future. And then that got me thinking about anime. A lot of anime gives us a glimpse of what the future might look like one day. Depending on the technology we develop and the choices we make, […]

The post 10 Imagined Futures as Predicted by Anime appeared first on Tofugu.

Last week I wrote a post about robots and space and technology. That got me thinking about the future. And then that got me thinking about anime. A lot of anime gives us a glimpse of what the future might look like one day. Depending on the technology we develop and the choices we make, the future could end up being really cool, or even really scary. Which predicted anime futures are the most exciting? Dangerous? Realistic? Well I’ve collected 10 of my favorite predictions here, so get ready to embrace the (potential) future.

Ergo Proxy

After the atmosphere explodes, the remaining members of mankind are forced to live in isolated domed cities scattered across an arid and inhospitable landscape. In a hasty attempt to preserve humanity, a secret human regeneration project is started. The story takes place in one of the domed cities where humans coexist with androids known as AutoReivs. But the AutoReivs get infected with a virus that causes them to become self-aware, and they start murdering people.

All the while, the government is conducting secret experiments on a mysterious human life form called a “Proxy” which is believed to hold the key to the survival of mankind. The humans in the city are grown in artificial wombs and are only grown to fulfill a particular purpose, ensuring that everyone has a place in society.


The future in Ergo Proxy does not seem like the kind of future I’d want to live in. Sure, it’s cool to coexist with androids, but not when they’re wanting to kill you. Plus you’ve got these weird Proxy things running around (terrifying) and you can’t travel with any sort of ease as the planet is pretty much screwed over. This future is really interesting to read about and watch, but I would definitely not want to live in it.


In the world of Chobits, personal computers are now personal companions, looking and acting like most anyone else. The main character can’t afford his own Persocom, but he finds an abandoned one (named Chi since that’s all she can say in the beginning) which he later discovers might be a “Chobit”, an advanced type of Persocom rumored to have independent thought.

The story explores Chi’s origins and human/Persocom relations. Chi starts to develop feelings for her owner, and her owner struggles with his feelings for her all while teaching her how to speak and act like a normal human/Persocom.


The future imagined in Chobits sounds like a fairly safe, decently realistic near future. Like Kirobo, the robots in Chobits are designed to help humans and be personal companions. That’s great. None of them are killing people, and nothing bad is happening. It does seem a bit unnatural for humans and androids to develop feelings for one another, but perhaps this will become a normal thing one day in the future.


In the not so distant future of Psycho Pass, we see a world without stress. But without stress comes a surprising amount of stress about not being stressed out. Maybe it’s due to the devices which can instantly measure a person’s mental state, personality, and the probability that they’ll commit a crime? If your Psycho-Pass (ha! That’s where the name comes from) Crime Coefficient Index is deemed too high by the Sibyl System (a “computer” system that makes decisions on these things), someone will come and get you for some much needed psycho-therapy (or much needed psycho-death, depending on how high your Index is).

This is all well and good, but some people in this society are secretly  not fans of the Sibyl System. They’re told what they should do for work, they aren’t allowed to do anything that’s stressful, and nobody has any ambition since the Sibyl system decides where you should work and what you should do. Since it wasn’t too long since the Sibyl System was put in place, there are those who remember nostalgic / stressful things like older literature, theater, and philosophy.

In this series there’s a group of people who figure out how to get around the Sibyl System, and that causes all kinds of chaos, because the Dominators (weapons that can only shoot people with a high Crime Coefficient Index) used by the police are unable to do anything. During this period the anime has you question whether it’s good for society to live without stress or not. I’ll let you watch the anime so you can decide for yourself. I wouldn’t want to give too much away.


This series reminds me a little bit of Minority Report, though a somewhat more realistic version of it. Instead of predicting  crimes, they’re just removing the “bad” elements of society while reducing stress to zero. Crime is at an all time low, but you really have to wonder if that’s actually a good thing or not. I could see a time in our future when scientists are finally able to get an idea of what a “healthy” brain looks like. Then, everyone who doesn’t fit within that “healthy” brain range will… well… hopefully not anything too bad.

Cowboy Bebop

Cowboy Bebop is set in the year 2071 and the entire solar system has been made accessible through hyperspace gates. In 2022, the explosion of an experimental hyperspace gateway messes up the moon pretty bad, resulting in a debris ring and meteor bombardments that end up killing a lot of Earthlings. Many survivors abandon Earth to colonize the inner planets, the asteroid belt, and the moons of Jupiter.

Mars has become the new central hub of human civilization, and interplanetary crime syndicates have their claws in the government and the Inter-Solar System Police (ISSP), limiting their effectiveness. To combat this, a bounty system similar to that in the Old West is established. These bounty hunters deal with fugitives, terrorists, and other criminals. They are often known as “cowboys”, hence the name of the show.


The future imagined in Cowboy Bebop is really cool. I think space westerns such as Firefly are great, and Cowboy Bebop is no exception. Exploring the frontiers of space and bounty hunting sounds pretty appealing. In reality I might not be so keen on experiencing all this danger and excitement firsthand, but it sure is a joy to watch.

Sword Art Online

Sword Art Online takes place in the near future and focuses on virtual reality MMOs. In the year 2022, Sword Art Online is released. With a virtual reality helmet known as Nerve Gear, players can experience and control their game characters with their minds.

Nerve Gear is hooked up to the user in such a way so that everything experienced in the game feels like it is actually happening. The first half of the series focuses on a group that is trapped inside Sword Art Online and if they die in the game, they die in real life too.


This future sounds amazing. I love a good MMO, and a VR MMO sounds like something I would enjoy immensely. We’re already headed in this direction with the Oculus Rift (can’t wait to get one of these once good games start being developed for it), and this seems like something that could happen in the not too distant future. As long as I don’t get trapped in a game (scary!) this future sounds absolutely fantastic.


The year is 2019 and the location is Tanegashima, an island in Southern Japan. Like many Japanese futures (heck, even presents!) robots are involved. In this series, a group of high schoolers in the robotics club at Central Tanegashima High School decide to see if they can put together and build a giant robot. Small robots are pretty easy to do in 2019, but big ones? That’s still a large challenge, especially for a group of kids.

As the series progresses, you get to see what it takes to build a giant robot in the year 2019. You also get to see some battling miniature robots… kind of a futuristic Battlebots. If stuff like this exists in the future you can bet I’ll be watching it on my Occulus Rift. On top of the big and small robots is also a conspiracy that I won’t get into. You should watch the series if you want to know more about that.


All in all, the life of someone in 2019 as portrayed by this anime seems somewhat realistic to me. Building giant robots isn’t particularly easy, but it’s getting there (you know it will someday if Japan has any say in the issue). There’s a lot more augmented reality going on, and high schoolers still play fighting games on their handhelds. I liked this series because it had a somewhat believable (but not always) view of the future… a future with giant robots appearing sometime in my lifetime. I can dream, anyways.

Neon Genesis Evangelion

In 2000 a global cataclysm destroys most of Antarctica and leads to the deaths of half of all humanity. Thought by the public to have been a meteor impact, the event causes tsunamis, global climate changes, geopolitical unrest, general economic distress, and nuclear war.

Over the next ten years, the organizations known as GEHIRN, SEELE, and NERV achieve a number of impressive scientific achievements, including the creation of giant humanoids known as Evangelions in preparation for the arrival of alien beings known as Angels (which turn out to be responsible for the 2000 incident).


This future sounds terrifying. For the most part, it’s pretty normal (once things settle down post Impact), unless you are one of the characters actually on the show, then your life is pretty messed up. For most of the population, life is relatively unchanged until an Angel shows up, then everything goes to hell.

Living in constant fear of that, plus the huge Evas running around and the collateral damage from them sounds dreadful. Even being one of the kid pilots sounds terrible given the psychological damage they all experience. Don’t get me wrong though – this show is fantastic and I love it to death. I just wouldn’t want to live in it.


In the near future, a revolutionary new psychotherapy treatment called dream therapy has been invented. This is made possible thanks to a device called the “DC Mini”. The DC Mini allows the user to view other people’s dreams. The head of the team working on this treatment begins using the machine illegally to help psychiatric patients outside the research facility, using her alter-ego known as Paprika.

The world in Paprika is pretty similar to that imagined in the movie Inception. You’ve got people diving into other people’s dreams, influencing and messing with them. The device can be used for fun, but it can also be used for therapy. Once it gets into the wrong hands – then you’ve got trouble. And that’s what happens in this anime.


I’m not quite sure how I feel about this technology. I mean, it would be awesome to have my dreams recorded so I could watch them later and really remember what happened, and I’m sure this information could be used to help people struggling with nightmares or people with deep seeded psychological issues.

On the other hand, it sounds terrifying for someone to be able to invade my dreams without my consent or be somehow manipulated by this process. Also, my dreams are my dreams and I wouldn’t want anyone I didn’t trust just eavesdropping on them either.


This series doesn’t actually take place in the future at all! In fact, it’s set in the past: Summer, 2010. So how did this series make the “future” list? Time travel. In the series, Rintarou Okabe, “the mad scientist,” discovers that the microwave they’ve been working on is actually a time machine with the ability to send text messages to the past.

A group called SERN (yeah, suspiciously similar to CERN) has been researching time travel as well. In fact, they have tried to send people back in time from the future already, though this has resulted in a lot of blobby, disfigured, and very dead time-traveler messes. More on SERN in a minute. Later, Kurisu (another member of this very casual mad scientist group) figures out how to change their time machine to send someone’s memories back in time, which would allow someone to time travel without dying. Smart girl!

But wait, this post is about the future! Throughout the series, we get glimpses and hints of the future from people in the future who either come to visit or send messages back in time. The actions that Okabe and friends take have a great affect on what happens in the future. If xyz dies, the world will be ruled by SERN due to their time travel abilities. If zyx dies, then World War III will start because someone will have stolen the information needed to build a time machine (and then have sold it to the Russians). Every little action, even ones that seemed inconsequential in the beginning of the series had bigger and bigger future results, especially as Okabe kept traveling back, changing things a little at a time.


While the future in this series is very important, they don’t show much of it. It’s just hints, for the most part. Still, I thought they did a really good job with time travel. It didn’t feel too ridiculous, and I found myself thinking how little actions could affect the future in a big way. A butterfly effect, essentially. The lesson here: if you have a time machine, please don’t mess up the future and keep hopping around until you fix it, okay? Also make sure you can send text messages through time. It’s very helpful if your future self can let you know when you screwed up. Let’s hope future cell carriers don’t charge too much for inter-time texts.

Ghost in the Shell

In the year 2029, the world has become interconnected via a vast electronic network. It’s the internet on steroids. That same network also becomes a battlefield for Tokyo’s Section Nine security force, which has been charged with apprehending a dangerous hacker known only as the Puppet Master.

Computer technology has advanced to the point that many members of the public possess “cyberbrains”. This technology allows them to connect their biological brain with various networks. The level of cyberization ranges from simple interfaces to almost complete replacement of the brain with cybernetic parts, such as in cases of severe trauma.

This can also be combined with various levels of prostheses, with a fully prosthetic body allowing a person to become a cyborg. On the downside, this opens up the brain to attacks from hackers. These hackers can then affect the actions of the person which is really, really scary.


This is another future that sounds like it has the potential to be very cool, other than the fact I would be afraid of getting my brain hacked. Today, it’s not very common to get your computer hacked, but even if that does happen, you just reinstall everything or get a new computer or whatever.

But in this case, it would be your brain getting hacked and that can do a lot more damage to you and your life than getting your computer hacked. You can’t exactly reinstall your brain or get a new one, and who knows how much damage a hacker could do controlling you before you could fix the problem? I dunno, this future, if done right, could be cool – but the potential risks to your brain would make me a bit uneasy I think.

Which Future Do You Choose?

So anime has predicted our futures. Some are more realistic than others, but it’s hard to say that none of them are totally impossible. Personally, a VR MMO world sounds pretty fun to me (Blizzard, get working on that, would you?), though the ability to travel through time seems to have its benefits (and pitfalls)… how about you, though? Which one of these (or combination) would you choose for your own life? Let me know in the comments below.

Bonus: Koichi actually wrote about 3 out of the 10 animes above. Can you guess which ones?

Header Image by vagoverto

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9 Remarkable Places In Japan You Can Visit From The Comfort Of Your Own Couch Wed, 14 Aug 2013 16:00:08 +0000 You could fly to Japan, take the long bus ride to Mount Fuji from Narita Airport, and hike 3,776 meters to the top of one of the world’s highest mountains, or you could see the same sight from the comfort of your own home. Thanks to Google Street View, anyone can visit Japan’s most famous […]

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You could fly to Japan, take the long bus ride to Mount Fuji from Narita Airport, and hike 3,776 meters to the top of one of the world’s highest mountains, or you could see the same sight from the comfort of your own home. Thanks to Google Street View, anyone can visit Japan’s most famous cultural landmarks. Google Street View is a feature added onto Google Maps and Google Earth that provides 360 panoramic views from many locations around the globe.

I’ve stood at the base of Mt. Fuji and visited many of Japan’s most famous temples, and throughout this time I’ve experienced some of my life’s most breathtaking moments. Many of these trips however required me to save a lot of money and put in a ton of effort in planning each visit. So I can’t tell you how amazing it is that we can live in a time where you can easily access many of this incredibly locations right from your own home.

In this post I’ll go through nine of Japan’s most famous locations that you can explore right from home. To see more of Japan’s cities and neighborhoods from Google Street View, simply go to Google Maps and type in the location you’d like to check out. On the map’s zoom controls, you’ll see a yellow pegman. Drag and drop the pegman to any location on the map to see it from ground level. If you don’t see this, it means there’s no Street View available at the moment. That being said, Google is constantly updating its database and will eventually cover most (if not all) of Japan’s major areas.

I chose many of the locations in this post based on two criteria: historical significance and cultural impact. Not to mention they’re just plain cool! Each of them is ordered in terms of their overall popularity, my own personal love for them, and the detail which Google Street View gives you. I hope you like the list I’ve put together for you. Be sure to let me know which one of these was your favorite spot in the comments!

1. Mount Fuji

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I know. It’s not really the same. Sure, the strong feeling of achievement you get when you reach the top of Fuji-san won’t parallel anything that Google dishes out. But with this view, you’re guaranteed no crowds, perfect weather, and none of the painful after effects from climbing more than two miles up.

“The Street View collection covers the highly popular Yoshida trail that takes hikers up the mountain, the full walk around the crater at the top, and the quick zigzag descent,” said Setsuo Murai, representative director of Geo Partnerships for Google Japan, on Google’s official blog post. “We hope these 14,000 panos of new imagery will give climbers a sense of the terrain to expect under their feet — especially all the night-time climbers who shuffle up in the dark to see the sunrise at the crack of dawn.”

Fuji-san was awarded the honor of becoming a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Organization for Education, Science and Culture (UNESCO) back in June 2013. This recent achievement spiked tourist’s interest in the site, attracting thousands of people to its slopes this year. Google Street View allows you to avoid all the heavy traffic from hikers crowding Fuji-san’s various climbing paths. Definitely check this one out!

2. Sensoji Temple

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Sensōji is a Japanese Shinto Temple located in the heart of Asakusa, Tokyo. Don’t even bother trying to come here around new years. The crowds number in the thousands and getting anywhere near the main building is next to impossible. Google Street View is the perfect alternative.

When you first arrive at Sensōji, you’ll be greeted by the Kaminarimon, which means “thunder entrance” or “thunder gate”. This is considered one of Tokyo’s most iconic landmarks. A small traditional shopping district known as Nakamise connects the Kaminarimon to Sensōji’s second gate, the Hozomon. Beyond that you’ll find the temple’s main building for offerings and a five storied pagoda.

3. Itsukushima Shinto Shrine

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Itsukushima Shrine is located on Miyajima Island. “Miyajima” itself means “shrine island”, hinting at the city’s most recognizable landmark. Itsukushima was built in a small inlet along the coast of Miyajima. Its famous torii gate is placed just outside the shrine right on the Seto inland sea. During a low tide, visitors can walk out to the torii gate and see it up close. The high tide offers a more photogenic scene (especially around sunset).

Google Street View took the opportunity to capture Itsukushima Shrine’s torii gate during a low tide, so you’re offered a rare glimpse of one of Japan’s most iconic landmarks up close.

4. Himeji Castle

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Himeji-jō is one of Japan’s oldest and most famous castles from Japan’s feudal period. For over 400 years the castle has remained completely unharmed, surviving numerous WWII bombings and severe natural disasters such as the Great Hanshin earthquake of 1995.

Himeji-jō is home to many famous Japanese legends, folklore, and other great tales from the past. It is one of Japan’s most important historical landmarks and was also granted status as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO back in 1993.

5. Kiyomizu-dera Temple

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Kiyomizu-dera is one of Japan’s most famous Buddhist temples. Its name means “pure water” which comes from the Otowa Waterfall upon which the temple is built. Located in forests of east Kyoto, the landmark was originally associated with the Hosso school of Japanese Buddhism, but formed its own branch in 1965.

The temple is known for its traditional wooden construction and an open stage which allows visitors to see the beautiful cherry trees that run along the hills of Kyoto. Kiyomizu-dera was also added to the list of UNESCO world heritage sites in 1994.

6. Great Buddha of Kamakura

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The Great Buddha of Kamakura is a bronze statue which rests on the grounds of the Kotokuin Temple in Nara, Japan. Standing at a height of more than 13 meters, the Great Buddha of Kamakura is considered the second tallest bronze Buddha statue in Japan. This landmark was built in 1252 and was originally located near the main temple hall.

The Buddha statue is actually completely hollow, and tourists can go inside the structure to view its interior. According to Wikipedia, the notice at the entrance to the grounds reads, “Stranger, whosoever thou art and whatsoever be thy creed, when thou enterest this sanctuary remember thou treadest upon ground hallowed by the worship of ages. This is the Temple of Bhudda and the gate of the eternal, and should therefore be entered with reverence.”

7. Yakushi-ji Temple

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Yakushi-ji is one of Japan’s oldest Buddhist temples. It was built by Emperor Tenmu in the late 7th century as a monument to his late wife. If you take a look at the main building of Genjo-sanzoin Garan located slightly north of the main temple complex, you’ll notice that the structure’s shape is a completely symmetrical octagon. Built in 1981, the complex is a memorial to the Chinese monk Genjo-sanzo, who lived in the 7th century and was famous for his extensive study in Buddhism and travels to India and Central Asia.

Behind this structure you’ll find a building displaying some of the most famous works of artist Hirayama Ikuo, one of Japan’s most celebrated painters who recently passed away in 2009. Google Street View goes into detail here. I can’t imagine how many hours of walking that poor Google mapper had to put in to accomplish this, so definitely take a look at this one.

8. Ogasawara Islands

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The Ogasawara Islands are a chain of volcanic islands that run 1,000 kilometers south of Tokyo, Japan. Also known as the Bonin Islands, the chain attracts thousands of tourists each year for its warm subtropical climates, crystal clear beaches, and local resorts. The islands were discovered by Ogasawara Sadayori in 1593, who claimed them in the name of the Tokugawa Shogunate.

The islands were officially recognized as Japanese territory in 1875. After WWII, the Ogasawara islands were occupied by the United States until 1968 when they were finally returned to the Japanese government. Currently, the only way for regular visitors to reach the islands is by boat. A ferry runs from Tokyo to the Ogasawara Islands regularly, taking around 25 hours to reach the islands. Because the trip to the islands takes so long by boat, whenever tourists or inhabitants have a medical emergency, the Japan Maritime Self Defense Force sends a helicopter to retrieve them.

9. Gunkanjima

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Hashima is known by the Japanese as Gunkanjima, meaning “Battleship island.” You might also recognize this island as one of the locations from the very popular 2012 film, Skyfall, where Agent 007 was held captive by the evil Raoul Silva in his secret hideout. The scene was actually filmed on a small island off the coast of Macau, and the production crew ended up using 3D models of Gunkanjima to recreate the look of the island using special effects and elaborate set pieces.

Located off the coast of Nagasaki Prefecture, Japan, Gunkanjima served as a coal mine and a home to more than 5,000 people. With the island measuring only 480 meters by 150 meters wide, Gunkanjima became the most densely populated area in history. To help accommodate so many people in such a small area, the city constructed tall buildings that took up most of the land, making the island look a lot like a battleship.

The mine closed in 1974, and residents were forced to move back to Nagasaki, leaving the island with all its building and equipment behind. Over the next few decades, typhoons and natural weather erosion has caused the remaining structures to look rundown and desolated, giving the island a very spooky atmosphere. Due to the danger of collapsing buildings, Gunkanjima was closed to the public, until 2009, when small guided tour boats allow participants to view the island from selected observation decks.

Google Street View offers a rare opportunity to explore one of the most deserted locations in the world, seeing just how time and weather have affected the surrounding structures. Here’s a cool video of the “making of” of the Street View photos:

Certainly a remarkable looking place, and now you can visit it too! Well, kind of, at least.


Google Street View offers everyday people the opportunity to visit some of the world’s most fascinating places. Japan is something that has always interested me, so I can’t tell you how glad I am to have this feature as a resource for my own studies and research. One of the biggest setbacks from traditional media like video and photography is that it only offers you a set rectangular view of things. With a 360 panoramic view, you can see what you want when you want and travel along as if you were really there. There’s nothing better than actually getting to see a place first hand, but this is definitely the closest thing to it.

So what did you think? Were you surprised with how some of these places look in real life? Did you discover anything cool from surfing through Google Street View in Japan? Share screenshots in the comments below if you see any people in horse masks walking around.


Bonus Wallpapers


[2560×1600] • [1280×800] • [1280×800 Animated] • [700×438 Animated]


Hector is a copywriter and blogger for usb memory direct. In his spare time he runs a Japanese reference site called Japan Finds where he discusses regional, cultural, and historical facts about Japan. Hector is particularly interested in the Edo period, a time where honorable samurai, beautiful geisha, and powerful shoguns roamed the islands of Japan.

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Japan’s First Robot Astronaut Claims the Future is Now Mon, 12 Aug 2013 16:00:44 +0000 Space. The final frontier. For humans as well as robots. Japan’s humanoid robot known as Kirobo is the first talking robot astronaut and just recently began his journey into the great beyond. Representing the hope of a nation, the fate of the future rests on this 13 inch robot’s little shoulders. Why is Kirobo being […]

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Space. The final frontier. For humans as well as robots. Japan’s humanoid robot known as Kirobo is the first talking robot astronaut and just recently began his journey into the great beyond. Representing the hope of a nation, the fate of the future rests on this 13 inch robot’s little shoulders. Why is Kirobo being sent into space? Will he succeed in his mission? We can only hope.



Derived from the Japanese words for “hope” and “robot”, Kirobo was launched into space by JAXA (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency) along with literally tons of other supplies and machinery just last week. Kirobo was designed as a companion for International Space Station astronaut Koichi Wakata. Kirobo will also help in relaying information from Koichi to another robot on Earth.

The biggest challenge in making this robot was designing it so it could function in zero gravity. The robot talks, and can also recognize different faces and voices. It’s part of a program that aims to provide companionship for the elderly and/or lonely. For anyone who’s seen Robot & Frank (video clip further below), this is a pretty cool step in the direction of a future rife with sci-fi excitement.


Kirobo should spend about 18 months on the space station under the care of Koichi. I’m sure the other astronauts will get to play with him too, depending on how selfish Koichi is feeling. Too bad for them Kirobo only speaks Japanese.

The robot is a product of a collaboration between Dentsu, The University of Tokyo, Robo Garage, and Toyota. The overall goal of their Kibo Robot Project is to “help solve the problems brought about by a society that has become more individualized and less communicative. Nowadays, more and more people are living alone.” They hope a conversational robot such as Kirobo would help these people feel less lonely.

Japan, Robots, and the Future


Kirobo is the first of many robots that could improve the health and wellbeing of many people just by being there to talk and interact with. When humans are isolated, psychological and cognitive damage can occur.

Writing in Psychology Today, Hara Estroff Marano noted that “unmet social needs take a serious toll on health, eroding our arteries, creating high blood pressure, and even undermining learning and memory.” This is especially important for those living in Japan, because, as we all know, Japanese people live forever.

Being in space can get pretty lonely at times, and this is where Kirobo comes in. At least the people on the space station have their crew, but not all of them speak the same language as it is an international space station. Plus, this is just kind of a test to see how a robot like Kirobo would function if somewhere down the road we start sending lone astronauts on trips to the Moon, Mars, or beyond. Those people would get pretty lonely, and having a little buddy like Kirobo around would make things a little bit more bearable. Anyone seen the movie Moon?

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Also, the technology developed and refined here might one day improve your car (if it’s a Toyota, that is). Toyota is responsible for the voice recognition tech in Kirobo, so what they learn from this experiment will be applied in future car models with voice activated controls.

Kirobo arrives at the station this month, but won’t actually get set up and start speaking until later in the month or early September. Apparently Koichi isn’t even getting to the space station until November, but he’s going to be the first Japanese Commander of the International Space Station, so that’s pretty cool.

Koichi will start getting into serious tests and experiments with Kirobo come December. Why they sent Kirobo separate from Koichi and spread so far apart, I’m not quite sure.

How Did We Get Here? Where Will We Go?


If you’ve been keeping up with Japanese tech and/or Tofugu, you’ll know that Japan has been at the forefront of humanoid robot technology. Everything from sex dolls to retail store models has already been done (all of which secretly want to kill you). Kirobo is one of many steps towards getting robot companions to those that need them.

I think this is one of the coolest, but also scariest, directions robot tech can head in. How many movies and TV shows have we seen where robot companions go berserk, become self-aware, or cause some sort of harm to their fleshy overlords? I mean, we joked about it before when we were talking about Vocaloids, but actual physical robots like Kirobo pose a much larger potential threat.

Even more than the robots acting on their own, what about hackers and viruses for something to worry about? What if someone found a way to hack into your robot companion and used an Xbox controller to make the robot flush your cat down the toilet and rack up tons of expenses on pay-per-view? The horror! But no, seriously, how terrible would it be to get strangled in your sleep by your robot “friend”? That would be just dreadful.

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On the other hand, how awesome would it be to have a fully capable companion robot? It would be super awesome. Think of how much more productive (or lazy) you could be. The robot could cook and clean for you, freeing up lots of time for you to do whatever.

And while these kinds of robots could help extreme introverts and the elderly, people who don’t get enough social interaction for whatever reason – these robots might also encourage some to not seek social interaction from real people. Why go out into the real work when you have a customizable robot that can do and be whatever you want it to? These are all things to consider as we head down this road.

Let’s Take a Few Steps Back

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But anyway, let’s get back to Kirobo and space. I think it’s a pretty cool idea. Right now it might seem like kind of like a novelty, and not really all that serious. But everything has to start somewhere, and Kirobo is already getting plenty of publicity since the space station he is going to is an international one, and lots of people care about space and stuff.

Will Kirobo be the catalyst that sparks the world into developing more robot companions like him? Perhaps. Will it happen anytime soon? Hopefully.

So tell me, would you want a companion robot like Kirobo or any other sort of robot like you’ve seen in fiction? Why or why wouldn’t you want one? Share your thoughts about the future and let us know in the comments!

Sites Referenced:

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Why Japanese Toilets Are Failing In America Mon, 22 Jul 2013 16:00:47 +0000 Anyone who’s been to Japan knows that they have some pretty advanced technology over there. Anyone who’s gone to the bathroom in Japan knows that they have some pretty awesome toilets. No, I’m not talking about the old school squat toilets (yuck), I’m talking about the Japanese toilets of the future. Toilets that talk to […]

The post Why Japanese Toilets Are Failing In America appeared first on Tofugu.

Anyone who’s been to Japan knows that they have some pretty advanced technology over there. Anyone who’s gone to the bathroom in Japan knows that they have some pretty awesome toilets. No, I’m not talking about the old school squat toilets (yuck), I’m talking about the Japanese toilets of the future. Toilets that talk to you, wash you, and even warm your bum on a cold morning. Why don’t we have these things in America?

The Superiority of Japanese Toilets


Photo by Gary Hymes

I’ve written a bit about these insane Japanese toilets before, and with good reason – they’re awesome. They can talk to you, wash you, and even play music for you (both to relax and mask) while you do your business.

But probably the biggest reservation Americans (and others) would have with a Japanese toilet like the Toto Washlet (pictured above), is the bidet (and having a toilet that could potentially become self-aware). Below we have an animated video explaining how the standalone bidets work.

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A traditional bidet is just a low oval basin designed for washing your privates. Most Japanese toilets have the bidet feature built in. Many Americans are not fond of the idea of either method. Is there a reason for this? Why yes, yes there is.

Why Americans Think Bidets Are Stupid

bidet-fountainPoop goes WHERE!?!

First, we must travel back in time to the origin of the bidet. These things first showed up in France in the early 1700s. Since then, the bidet has spread far and wide, becoming standard in many European countries, South America, the Middle East, and Asia. An estimated 80% of bathrooms in those areas have bidets in them. America, on the other hand, pretty much has none.

Never in my years have I seen a bidet in America. The reasons for this are shrouded in mystery, but there are some theories. Since it was invented by the French, some believe that the concept was then rejected by the British, and that feeling of rejection carried over to the settlers in America. Some think that American soldiers most often saw bidets in European brothels, and erroneously associated them with immorality.

BrothelStinking European brothels and their bidets!

A reason that stand-alone bidets might not have caught on is that many American bathrooms are not made large enough to house them. Then again, bathrooms could always be made larger, and current Japanese toilets have the bidet built in, so take from this what you will.

In the 1960s, a guy named Arnold Cohen tried to market a bidet in America, but soon realized that 99% of Americans had never even heard of a bidet before. This made people wary of purchasing this strange newfangled butt fountain. In the 1980s, the Japanese company Toto started pushing their toilet/bidet hybrid, and met largely the same issues that Arnold saw twenty years earlier.

kitty-bidetKitty, NO!

Also, interestingly enough, most people who grew up with bidets believe the toilet paper only method to be unsanitary whereas those brought up on TP only believe bidets to be inferior. Unfortunately I’ve never used the bidet feature on the Japanese toilets I’ve encountered, but Koichi has, and he loves them almost as much as full body pillows. I figure I would probably use both the bidet feature in conjunction with TP, but I can definitely recognize the benefits of using a bidet.

Japanese Toilets in America

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Fancy Japanese toilets are also pretty expensive. The Toto Washlet add-on lids (see above) currently go for anywhere from $300 to over $1000 on Amazon. And that’s just like, your basic model. These forego the separate bidet and just integrate it into the toilet which takes care of any space issues.

But still, these toilets are by no means cheap. Additionally, people tend to be pretty stuck in their ways when it comes to bathroom issues, so there’s not too many people looking to “upgrade” their toilets. Check out this quote from the president of a recent toilet start-up company.

For Americans here in the US, the biggest issues are personal experience with these products and a major reluctance to discuss bathroom issues or change ingrained habits. You wouldn’t imagine how many people giggle nervously or say “gross” when we try to educate them about the advantages of the bidet seat, yet these are the same people that are still using paper – a much inferior way to cleanse oneself.

Steve Scheer


Photo by Anne

The reviews for Toto Washlets and other toilets are stellar. The people who actually have them love them. But efforts to spread this enthusiasm to the rest of America have been utterly unsuccessful. Toto has been working hard to push their toilets on Americans but have pretty much gotten nowhere.

Another issue involving expense is that you need a three pronged grounded outlet to plug your Toto Washlet into. Depending on where your bathroom outlets are, this can be pretty inconvenient, and getting a new one installed can cost around $500 or so. Not cheap. There are also cheap bidet attachments that are just bidet only, but those aren’t Japanese so I won’t get into them here.


The people who have actually given Japanese toilets a chance love them. The rest of America just needs to be convinced how awesome they are. They need to be marketed well. However, marketing toilets and toilet accessories probably isn’t the easiest thing to do, but maybe someone will figure out a good way to do this.

It really just seems that people are reluctant to change their toilets because their current ones work just fine and are perfectly sanitary in their eyes. So why spend more time and money upgrading a toilet when their current one works just fine? That’s the argument that bidet marketers need to conquer in the US. Will they eventually succeed? Only time will tell.

So tell me, have you ever experienced a Japanese toilet or a bidet before? Which method (TP or bidet) do you believe is superior? If you don’t have a fancy Toto toilet, what’s holding you back from getting one? Share your thoughts in the comments!

And also, here’s a link to the Toto Washlet website in case you were interested.

Sites Referenced:
Mental Floss

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