Posts Tagged With: United States

Why actions in Japan speak louder than words




Foreigners are often upset when their Japanese counterparts break verbal commitments or fail to live up to the signed agreements. Where the foreigners themselves “fail” is that they are ignorant of the etiquette and ethics of the Japanese and do not realize that what they think is wrong, may be regarded as right in Japan.

The reality behind a pleasing facade

In formal official dialoge in Japan, especially with government bureaucrats and politicians, what you hear is generally not what you get. Rather than speaking frankly and fully, the Japanese way is to speak in vague and esoteric terms, particularly when they cannot or do not intend to cooperate or follow through in any way. Generally in order to communicate effectively in Japan, one must be able to interpret relationships, the circumstances, and the behaviour of individuals and groups rather than words- something that requires a comprehensive knowledge of the history and culture of the country. The reason for this extraordinary situation is that a long time ago Japanese culture and society developed in such a way that appearances took precedence over reality and were used to obscure reality behind a pleasing facade.

This development apparently came about because of the etiquette system that derived from the imperative of maintaining minutely prescribed harmonious relationships between individuals based on their social class, rank, gender and other factors. As this etiquette became ritualised, it took on a life on its own, became a vital part of the moral standards of the Japanese, and was often given more importance than the substance of dialoge between individuals.

Again in formal situation in particular, what was only alluded to or was left completely unsaid was often the message. The reason why the Japanese themselves could communicate with each other fairly well within this system was that they shared the same beliefs and life-styles, had a common base of knowledge, and generally shared the same values and aspirations.

The orientation of Japanese society into groups, contributed enormously to this cultural and social homogeneity because living in close quarters and working together, made the Japanese intimately familiar with the character , personality, likes and dislikes, and goals and aspirations of all of the members. Furthermore, a combination of the universal etiquette and the house and group rules under which the Japanese lived for centuries both controlled their behaviour and limited their choices, to the point that everyone thought and acted pretty much alike, making detailed, lengthy conversations – about anything – generally unnecessary.

facade masks

Obscuring your ‘honne’ (real intentions)

In this environment, nonverbal communication, something the Japanese refer to as ‘haragei’ or “art of the stomach”, accounted for much of the communication between individuals. In the words of the Japanese, they communicated more by “atmosphere” than by words. This in turn, led to emphasising external appearances (tatemae, and obscuring reality (honne)). This cultural conditioning of the Japanese was so strong and pervasive over so many centuries that it is still characteristic of most older Japanese today – again, especially those in more conservative and traditionally oriented organisations such as the government.

As is well known, Americans and most Europeans prize frankness, detailed presentations, and lively debate based on facts as well as assumptions. In contrast, for more than a thousand years the Japanese were programmed to speak publicly only in tatemae terms and reveil their honne (real thoughts) only in private settings.


Doing business in the Heinan period

In fact, the tatemae/honne system was officially embraced by the government of Japan during the late Heian period (794-1185). In 1185 the founder of the shogunate system of government, Yoritomo Minamoto, took the tatemae/honne concept even further. He formulated extralegal posts and regulations that gave all power to the shogunate in Kamakura, while leaving the Emperor and the Imperial Court intact, but powerless, in Kyoto. This system of real power being in the hands of a shadow government was to persist in Japan down to modern times and to have a fundamental influence on the overall culture, eventually permeating virtually every level of society, down to small companies whose owners would retire early and manage these from the back ground.

Still today, Japan’s government on every level is basically controlled by people “behind the scenes”. Furthermore, much of the administrative actions of government agencies and ministries is extralegal – not based in law, but on the agendas of those running them.

Many Japanese corporations as well are directed by people behind the scenes – lower level executive managers, consultants, or retired executives – something that the Japanese know only too well, but that is generally unknown to foreigners.

The tatemae/honne concept is so fundamental to the Japanese way of thinking and doing things that it applies to the laws of the country and to written contracts. Broadly speaking, contracts and laws are tatemae – facades that are general expressions of intent. They are not meant to be binding.

In the Japanese context, the important thing is not what contracts and law say. It is the intent of the individuals who created the laws and signed the contracts that is important. Therefore, contracts and laws can be disregarded, when the circumstances change or when they do not ful fill the intent of their creators.

As for the Japanese government, most laws are designed to satisfy the expectations and demands of specific constituents. However, as far as the bureaucrats who are responsible for carrying out the laws are concerned, they are all just tatemae. Bureaucrats generally do whatever it is they have been doing, or what to do, by extralegal means.

Salarymen in Izakaya

Sex talk

In the same vein, business meetings in Japan are primarily designed to establish an “atmosphere”; not to discuss concrete details and come to quick conclusions. It is only after several such meetings, when a fairly clear-cut consensus has emerged, that decisions are made.

In government agencies and ministeries, the purpose of the first of these meetings, which often take place after normal working hours and include food and drinks, is commonly referred to as “free talking”. This means that participants don’t discuss issues at hand. Instead they engage in group-bonding rituals of chatting (often about sex), drinking and eating.

One of the primary reasons why foreigners, especially government officials and those in the professions, have so many problems dealing with their Japanese counterparts is that so much of the administration in Japan is, in fact, extralegal. So many things are done outside of the law and contractual agreements, that it sometimes seems to outsiders that the whole legal contractual system is a sham.

When pressured by outsiders, the Japanese government, as well as other entities, mag change the laws and regulations governing their operation, but typically they will continue to operate the way they did before the change as long as they can get away with it. Not being contract or law oriented, most Japanese still toda do not see anything intrinsically wrong with ignoring contractual agreements and laws in order to do what they think is best. Thus what you see, in Japan, may not be what you get.

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Back to the future: take a 500 kph ride on the new Maglev Shinkansen (bullet train)

Now you will never have an excuse to be late ever again! Not yet travelling by the speed of light, but we’re getting there!

Central Japan Railway Co. (JR Tokai) has begun test runs of a magnetically levitated train that can reach speeds of up to 500 kph with an eye toward commercial operations beginning in 2027.

The test runs got under way on Aug. 29 on an extended Yamanashi Maglev Test Line over a distance of 42.8 kilometers using the latest prototype L0 train cars.

The test runs will initially involve five linked L0 cars and reach speeds of 500 kph.

The Yamanashi Maglev Test Line was extended from its previous length of 18.4 kilometers. The longer test line will allow JR Tokai to conduct test runs at 500 kph using a long link of train cars, as well as through long tunnels.

To prepare for actual train operations, the company will also assess the environmental impact on the ground and examine ways to reduce maintenance costs. When put into commercial operation, the maglev train will run on the yet-to-be-constructed Chuo Shinkansen Line, which would link Tokyo and Osaka.

An additional nine train cars will be constructed by fiscal 2015, with eventual test runs involving up to 12 train cars that would extend to a total length of 299 meters.

Among the participants at a ceremony on Aug. 29 to mark the start of the test runs were Yoshiyuki Kasai, JR Tokai chairman, Akihiro Ota, the transport minister, and Yamanashi Governor Shomei Yokouchi.

“We want to export technology completed in Japan to the United States so that it becomes the international standard,” Kasai said during a speech at the ceremony.

Ota said: “This provides pride and hope as a technology power, and it will also be important in dealing with natural disasters. We want to provide support for the realization of this technology.”

Ota and others also took a speedy ride as part of a test run.

“I experienced the ride at 505 kph,” Ota told reporters. “My body felt the sense of speed, but it was not at all uncomfortable and conversation was possible as usual. There was not much vibrating.”

Research started on the “linear motor” propulsion floating system in 1962. Cumulative test runs have exceeded 800,000 kilometers.

A preparatory environmental impact report will be released this autumn as part of plans to begin construction on the Chuo Shinkansen Line in fiscal 2014.

JR Tokai is planning to begin operations between Tokyo’s Shinagawa and Nagoya in 2027. It has plans to eventually extend the line to Shin-Osaka by 2045.

Plans call for linking Shinagawa and Nagoya in 40 minutes and Shinagawa and Shin-Osaka in 67 minutes.




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Don’t feel like driving? Just take this self-driving car from Nissan out for a spin

Nissan Motor Co., which grabbed a global lead in electric car sales with its Leaf hatchback, wants to do the same thing with self-driving vehicle technology and plans to offer such models by 2020.

“We will be able to bring multiple, affordable fully autonomous vehicles to the market by 2020,” Andy Palmer, Nissan’s executive vice president, told reporters Tuesday at a briefing in Irvine, Calif.

Such systems mean “frustrating and unproductive commutes could become a thing of the past,” he said.

Just as the Yokohama-based carmaker set a goal of becoming the world’s biggest seller of battery-powered autos, Nissan wants to be a leader in the move to make cars safer by adding electronic systems capable of preventing accidents and injuries. The systems also can reduce traffic jams by rerouting vehicles, which helps curb emissions of carbon dioxide.

Nissan has sold more than 75,000 Leaf electric vehicles worldwide since late 2010. Including alliance partner Renault SA of France, they have delivered about 100,000 electric cars.

The company showed off self-driving Leaf models at a former U.S. military base in Irvine on Tuesday with the robotic cars ferrying passengers in simulated urban driving conditions.

Technology underpinning autonomous autos, including adaptive cruise control, electronic steering and throttle controls, is already available, and added sensors and road-monitoring capabilities are being refined, Palmer said.

“The technology to create self-driving cars is already here,” said Karl Brauer, senior industry analyst for Kelley Blue Book. “As sci-fi as it sounds, self-driving cars that don’t ever crash, reduce traffic congestion and make valet attendants obsolete are coming.”

Nissan, Japan’s second-largest automaker, is developing its system in-house, though it is willing to work with companies, including Google Inc., which has been promoting driverless car systems in recent years.


“I don’t preclude the possibility of working with Google, or anyone else for that matter,” Palmer, who leads vehicle development, told reporters.

Nissan has contacts with Google on various matters, he said, without elaborating.

A difference in approach between Nissan and Google is that Nissan’s system does not need to be linked to an Internet-based data system, said Mitsuhiko Yamashita, the company’s executive vice president for research and development.

“We don’t count on infrastructure so much. All the technology is in the cars,” Yamashita said Tuesday. “We are trying to get to crash-free, fatality-free vehicles.”

Nissan’s North American operations are based in Franklin, Tenn., near Nashville.


Over 2 mil. cars in Americas

Nissan Motor Co., pushing to make more vehicles at plants in the Americas, said it will have the ability to build more than 2 million autos annually in the region by early next year.

The carmaker is spending more than $5 billion to expand capacity in the United States, Mexico and Brazil, the company said Monday in a statement. Expansion in the United States will help Nissan almost double exports from plants in Tennessee and Mississippi, the company said in a separate release.

Nissan began a push to build up production capacity in North America following Japan’s earthquake and tsunami that caused some supplier disruptions, and after the yen surged to a record high against the dollar, making imports to the United States less profitable. The automaker has not pulled back on the expansion even as the yen has weakened in the past year.


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Breaking news: Obama will come to Japan next spring

Obama is coming to Japan!

Obama is coming to Japan!

Tokyo and Washington are arranging for President Barack Obama to make an official visit to Japan possibly next spring for talks with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on strengthening the bilateral alliance, government sources said Wednesday.

It would be Obama’s first visit to Japan since November 2010, when he attended a summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Yokohama.

“During a summit with Mr. Obama in February, Prime Minister Abe requested that he visit Japan,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said at a news conference.

Suga indicated Japan is flexible about the timing. “At this point, we aren’t making concrete arrangements with a specific period in mind,” he said.

But one senior official expects Obama to visit around April, given the U.S. political schedule, while another said Japan wants him to come by next summer since the United States has a midterm election that fall.

Bill Clinton visited Japan in April 1996, the last U.S. president to do so as a state guest. Obama would be the sixth to visit in that capacity.

Abe and Obama would likely discuss the nature of the bilateral alliance in the future.

It is possible Obama would also go to China and South Korea before or after his Japan visit.

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Must see: ハーフ (hafu) A new movie about what it is to of mixed ethnicity


With an ever increasing movement of people between places in this transnational age, there is a mounting number of mixed-race people in Japan, some visible others not. “Hafu” is the unfolding journey of discovery into the intricacies of mixed-race Japanese and their multicultural experience in modern day Japan. The film follows the lives of five “hafus”–the Japanese term for people who are half-Japanese–as they explore what it means to be multiracial and multicultural in a nation that once proudly proclaimed itself as the mono-ethnic nation. For some of these hafus Japan is the only home they know, for some living in Japan is an entirely new experience, and others are caught somewhere between two different worlds.

According to the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, one in forty-nine babies born in Japan today are born into families with one non-Japanese parent. This newly emerging minority in Japan is under-documented and under-explored in both literature and media. The feature-length HD documentary film, “Hafu – the mixed-race experience in Japan” seeks to open this increasingly important dialogue. The film explores race, diversity, multiculturalism, nationality, and identity within the mixed-race community of Japan. And through this exploration, it seeks to answer the following questions: What does it mean to be hafu?; What does it mean to be Japanese?; and ultimately, What does all of this mean for Japan?

Narrated by the hafus themselves, along with candid interviews and cinéma vérité footage, the viewer is guided through a myriad of hafu experiences that are influenced by upbringing, family relationships, education, and even physical appearance. As the film interweaves five unique life stories, audiences discover the depth and diversity of hafu personal identities.


Featured Hafus


David (28) was born in a small village in Ghana, to a Ghanaian mother and a Japanese father. After spending 6 years in Ghana, they moved to Tokyo. However, due the to difficulty of adjusting to their new life in Japan, his parents separated when he was 10, after which he spent the next 8 years in an orphanage with his two brothers. When David went back to Ghana for the first time in his early 20s and saw the disparity in quality of life between his two countries, he realized how blessed he was to have grown up in Japan. He now uses his talents to raise funds to build schools back in Ghana.


Raised entirely in Sydney, Sophia has only a few memories of Japan, where she visited her relatives as a child. At 27, Sophia decided it was time to explore her Japanese heritage, and so she has relocated to Tokyo, leaving behind friends, family and a job she enjoyed. She is determined to make a life for herself in Japan while attempting to learn the language from scratch. Will Japan live up to the expectations she’s held for so long? Will she be able to assimilate? And, ultimately, how will she identify herself after spending some time here?

The Oi family

Gabriela (Mexican, 37) and Tetsuya Oi (Japanese, 41) met when they were students both studying abroad in the United States. They fell in love, married and moved to Nagoya, Japan. In 2002, they welcomed a baby boy, Alex Oi, and two years later Sara. Alex (9) and Sara (7)have been attending Japanese elementary school. However, worried about how her children will straddle three languages (Spanish, Japanese, and English), Gabriela has started to investigate whether she should send her children through the international school system in Nagoya. Alex has also been increasingly showing physical symptoms of stress due to the teasing he receives from his classmates for being hafu. Through the Oi’s, this film looks at the tough decisions parents have to make in raising multicultural children.


Venezuelan-Japanese Edward (28)dreams of a multicultural Japan. Raised entirely in a single-mother home in Kobe, Ed received his formal education through the international school system.  There he found himself feeling disconnected from the surrounding Japanese community and upon leaving for university in the US, he felt no desire to return. But a few years later, he returned to Japan to take care of his aging mother and discovered a vibrant online community of mixed people, prompting him to form the offline community Mixed Roots Kansai (MRK). Through MRK, Ed is working toward realizing his dream of raising multiracial and multicultural awareness by pushing forward public dialogue and understanding of the changing demographics of Japan


No one can tell that Fusae (35) is hafu just by looking at her. Fusae was born and raised in Kobe, to a Korean father—now a naturalised Japanese citizen—and a Japanese mother.  Until she was 15, she was raised to believe that she was entirely Japanese. Upon finding family documents alluding to her Korean roots, she confronted her mother to discover her mixed heritage–a traumatic experience for her at the time. After this revelation, she began looking into the differences between Japanese and Korean cultures. But 20 years later she is still struggling to redefine her place in society as a Korean/Japanese descendant. She has become actively involved in Mixed Roots Kansai. She feels by helping to organize such social events, she is helping younger people like her find acceptance with their mixed identities.

Meaning of “Hafu”

Hafu refers to somebody who is Half Japanese. The word Hafu comes from the English word “half” indicating half foreignness. The label emerged in the 1970s in Japan and is now the most commonly used label and preferred term of self-definition. Half-Japanese persons commonly introduce themselves by saying “I’m Hafu (Hafu desu)”. In modern Japan, the Hafu image projects an ideal; English ability, international cultural experience, western physical features – tall with long legs, small head/face, yet often looking Japanese enough for the majority to feel comfortable with. Yet the label Hafu highlights the genetic make up of half Japanese people, emphasizing the existence of foreign blood. Fashionable images of half Japanese people have become prominent especially with the increased appearance of Hafus in the Japanese media. Hafus now fill the pages of fashion magazines such as Non-no, Can Can or Vivi equivalent to Teen Vogue or Elle in Europe. Hafus are frequently seen on TV, often in the role of newsreaders, celebrities or DJs. To name a few, these include people like Becky (British/Japanese) – a young celebrity, Christel Takigawa (French/Japanese) – a newscaster, Kaela Kimura (British/Japanese) and Anna Tsuchiya(American/Japanese). The appearance of Hafus in the media has provided the basis for a vivid image of half Japanese people.

Why Hafu and not Daburu

In order to correct the negative nuance of half foreign-ness, a new term was created in the 1990s: “daburu,” deriving from the word double. It emphasises that Hafus are not half anything but one person with two different heritages. However this word has largely not been adopted by the Hafus themselves due to its overemphasis of positive self-assertion, and many feel that the term Hafu is acceptable.

Hafus in Japan

Japanese governmental statistics tell us that there were only 5,545 recorded international marriages in 1980. This more than doubled in 1985 when 12,181 international marriages were recorded. The figure doubled again 5 years later in 1990 with 25,626 marriages consisting of one foreign national. The number has steadily increased since then. It reached its peak in 2001 with 39,727 interracial marriages – this is 7 times the 1980 figure. Multiracial individuals or more specifically Hafus are therefore growing dramatically in Japan. Owing to the fact that data on ethnic/racial background is not collected anywhere in the Census in Japan (i.e. only nationality), it is hard to say exactly how many Hafus or mixed ‘race’ individuals live in Japan. However in 2004 we know that there were 39,511 international marriages, which accounted for about 5.5% of all marriages in Japan. A high number of them were between Japanese and Chinese (13,019), Philippines (8,517) and Korean (8,023) individuals. There were only 1,679 American Japanese, 524 Brazilian Japanese, 403 British Japanese marriages. So we can say that visible Hafus are a minority of the minority.

Internationalization in Japan

The number of foreign nationals living in Japan has increased in recently years. In 1985, about 850,000 foreigners lived in Japan. That figure doubled to 1,700,000 in the year 2000. Over the last few years the number has been steadily growing and in 2006 there were about 2,100,000 residents with foreign nationality. Therefore the number of foreigners in Japan in 2006 was almost three times that in 1985. This is a firm indication of Japan’s increasing internationalization.

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Flowers brighten up former no-entry zone in Fukushima

Volunteers and residents in the Odaka district of Minami-Soma, Fukushima Prefecture, a former no-entry zone after the crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, have planted colorful flowers in empty fields to encourage evacuees to return to their hometowns.

In an effort to keep the fields colorful throughout the year, volunteers and residents are planting seasonal flowers such as sunflowers in the summer and cosmos in the autumn.

The area’s no-entry restriction was lifted in April last year and it was rezoned as an area, where residents are allowed to return home during the day.

However, they were greeted by gardens overrun by weeds and houses ravaged by mice. Some residents were disheartened by the sight and came to believe they would not be able to return home.


Kenji Yamashiro, 65, who moved to the area from Shimane Prefecture as a volunteer after the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, started planting flowers with four other volunteers. “If we filled the fields with flowers, the scenery would brighten up a bit,” Yamashiro said.

In June last year, the group cultivated an about 1,000-square-meter field after mowing down weeds and other plants that had grown as tall as a person.

About two months later, several hundred of the sunflowers they planted have begun to bloom. According to Yamashiro, one delighted resident tearfully said, “The flowers make me feel as if they were welcoming me.” Since then, Yamashiro has received requests from other farmers who want flowers to be planted in their fields.

Local farmer Satoko Kohata, 77, who was one of the first to lend her fields for the project, said: “If we continue leaving unkempt fields unattended, we won’t be able to grow crops. By planting flowers, the fields will survive and we’ll be able to farm again.”

After preparing about two hectares of land at 15 locations and planting dozens of kinds of flowers, such as marigolds and salvia, the group’s efforts have started to bear fruit. In May this year, field mustard were in full bloom at five locations, and salvia and rosemary are currently at their peak.

The group is also calling for help on its website, and so far, more than 500 people, including those from the United States and other countries, have participated in the project.

In the future, Yamashiro intends to make bouquets by planting lavender and giving them to residents. “I hope the lavender bouquets will be a source of income for local residents in the future,” he said.

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Kimo-kawaii: It’s gross and cute at the same time!

Kimo-kawaii, the slang that mashes up kimoi (yucky, gross; which is a shorter, slangier version ofkimochiwarui, itself) and kawaii (cute, sweet) has become an apt description of more and more things over the years. While aficionados might disagree on what defines kimo-kawaii, generally if something has an eerie, sweet creepiness that makes it hard to look at but harder to look away, it’s kimo-kawaii.

Here are 13 things deemed so in Japan, in chronological order:

1999: Dancing Baby, a funky CG animation, became a meme in United States in the ‘90s (evenappearing on the TV showAlly McBeal”), but it became so popular in Japan that Toyota put it in a Cami ad (above). Young people of the time who had already begun saying kimo-kawaii applied it here in an early use case.

Mid 2000s: Ungirls, the comedy duo comprised of Takushi Tanaka and Yoshiaki Yamane became known as kimo-kawaii, somewhat cruelly, mostly due to their looks. Over the years and depending on whom you ask the assessment seems to change from “Tanaka is kimoi, but Yamane is kawaii” to just deciding that Tanaka himself is kimo-kawaii. Or maybe not even kawaii. . . Last year on the variety show “London Hearts” when Tanaka ranked high (low?) on a list of most disliked celebs, hesaid everyone should give being him a try because it’s a hellish life, but he will keep doing it as long as he lives.



May 2006: ”Kobito Zukan“ originated as a picture book illustrated by Toshitaka Nabata. Literally “dwarf encyclopedia,” these weird little humanoids were first aimed at children. Adult fans, however, greatly expanded the fan base and the dwarves became a popular Nintendo 3DS video game last year. The official online store is also chock full of figurines, which one could argue are an art form all their own.

By the way, 2006 is the year that the word “kimo-kawaii” isconsidered to have really “arrived.”

August 2007: Face Bank, the piggy bank designed by artist Eiichi Takada that actually pigs out on your savings, went on sale. When you place a coin near its mouth, it opens and swallows the currency — a perfect way to add some kimo-kawaii to your everyday life.

2008  Noi Asano’s manga “Chiisai Oyaji Nikki” (something like “Little Old Man Diary”) about a girl who one day discovers a tiny man began airing as a series of anime shorts  last year and most recently got promoted with latte art at Double Tall in Shibuya.



October 2010 Nishiko-kun (right), the mascot of Nishi-Kokubunji, was born. The “fairy” is one of many regional mascots that have become widespread across Japan in recent years. Unlike its traditionally cute counterparts, however, Nishiko-kun is a lanky, armless thing with a huge head that evokes the image of a happy manhole. His proportions have made for some especially awkward dance moves, but he remains oddly alluring, don’t you think?

October 2010 Jigokuno No Misawa‘s “Kakkokawaii Sengen” comic was collected and published. Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, the extravagantly eccentric singer known for being the current flag-bearer of Harajuku kawaii fashion, is a big fan of series. In fact, she had a cameo in the comic last year — of course with the artist’s trademark pudgy-faced style.



June 2011 BeeWorks‘s “Mushroom Garden” (aka “Nameko Saibai Kit”) smartphone game series has exploded in popularity since its release two years ago. These nasty-yet-endearing fungi have gained quite the following (ask almost any elementary schooler), leading to an avalanche of merchandise, including a Nendoroid that reaches back to its “Touch Detective” roots on Nintendo DS.

June 2012 Body part jewelry makes a kimo-kawaii splash from across the globe. Handmade in the U.K. and sold on crafty website Etsy, these doodads allowed people to attach ears to their ears, mouths to their fingers and noses to their necks, among other things.



Fall 2012: Later that year, the freaky-looking toy with its own language, Furby, relaunched with a smartphone app and a Momoiro Clover Z campaign (including the above commercial).

March 2013: There are plenty of kimo-kawaii videogames, butCocosola‘s smash hit “Alpaca Evolution“ is a textbook example of how strangely addicting bizarre characters can be. Your objective is to absorb other alpacas in a cannibalistic fashion as you mutate into a more and more grotesque creature. A prequel has already been released and it looks like the merch parade is marching along.

June 2013:  Isopods are something like gigantic, aquatic cockroaches. Naturally, the Numazu Deep Sea Aquarium decided to make a life-sized stuffed animal based on the critter, because who wouldn’t want to cuddle one? As evidence to the popularity of kimo-kawaii nationwide, all 140 were sold out within a few hours, despite costing a hefty ¥6,090 (around 60 USD) apiece. Another creepy aquatic sensation is based on the NHK television documentary that captured footage of a giant squid  for the first time. With help from the National Museum of Nature and Science, the TV channel is selling a variety of tentacle-related merchandise.


“Attack on Titan” stamps for LINE

June 2013: “Attack on Titan”-branded LINE stamps feature a number of human characters from the anime, but also explore a kimo-kawaii side of the monstrous titans that will give fans a chuckle (or surprise/gross out the unsuspecting friend on the other end of your LINE chat).

This is by no means a comprehensive list, nor do we presume to be authorities on the matter. In fact while researching we noticed Tofugu had nicely summarized the trend recently. We’re sure the wave of kimo-kawaii will be good surfing for years to come, so remember this useful word when you come across a sort-of-cute character that makes you feel kind of icky at the same time.

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Things to do: (With the little ones) Kids’ theater to offer ballet, opera, story-telling

Kids’ theater to offer ballet, opera, story-telling

The Nagoya Touring Children’s Theater project will offer opportunities to enjoy opera on July 25 and 26, Aug. 1 and 2, ballet on Aug. 15, 16, 17 and 18, and traditional “kyogen” on Aug. 20 and 21, Classic concerts will be performed on Aug. 24 and 25. Kyogen is a theater form of short comic or satirical plays.

Admission is ¥700 for children 3 years old or above.

For details, please check (in Japanese) or call 052-249-9387.

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Gender bending in Japan, all is not as it seems

From myth to ‘postsex,’  an intrinsic feature of national life

‘Spring Pastimes’, a silk scroll circa 1750 by Miyagawa Issho, shows a tryst between a samurai and a boyfriend.

Do our genitals define us? Increasingly, they do not. Is sexuality more complicated than male/female? Increasingly, it is.

Or maybe not increasingly: Maybe the only thing that’s changed over the ages is how much of our true selves society lets us show.

Sex and the bible

The Bible, keystone arch of Western civilization, had it all figured out. “Male and female created he them,” says the Book of Genesis; “he” being God, “them” being us.

Turn now to Deuteronomy 22:5: “A woman must not wear men’s clothing, nor a man wear women’s clothing, for anyone who does so is an abomination to the Lord your God.”

What would the Lord our God have made of the 21st century and its explosion of sexual alternatives? Same-sex marriage, legal (as of now) in 13 countries and 12 U.S. states, is the barest tip of the iceberg. Language strains to keep up with new practices, or old practices no longer cloaked in shame or social disapproval: cross-dressing, transgenderism, androgyny, hermaphroditism and more — much more.

Individuals proudly proclaim themselves genderqueer, bi-gender, agender. Last month an Australian court approved the right to officially label oneself “gender nonspecific.”

Same sex marriages in Japan

Japan, where same-sex marriage is hardly an issue, let alone a right, would offend the biblical God less than other places — which is ironic, because Japan is among the modern world’s least Judeo-Christian countries. Sexually, though, it is — on the surface at least — overwhelmingly male/female.

Is the surface deceptive?

“Cool Japan” — manga- and anime-land — springs to mind as evidence that it is. Japan in fact was “cool” long before government PR machinery invented the label.

Myth takes us back to the formless void, where among the first generations of gods and goddesses are Izanagi (“He who Invites”) and Izanami (“She who Invites”). The biblical God’s creation of the universe is awesome and mysterious. Not so Izanagi and Izanami’s begetting of Japan, recounted in the eighth-century chronicle “Nihon Shoki.”

The Japanese creation myth

Imagine sexually awakened gods who, like children, don’t quite know what to do. They look at each other and are enchanted. Izanami speaks first: “What a splendid young man!” To which Izanagi replies, “What a splendid young woman!”

Their first offspring was a “leech child,” born without limbs or bones. What had gone wrong? The older gods explained: Izanami, the female, had spoken first. Initiative was the male’s prerogative. Chastened, they tried again. This time they got it right. Izanami gave birth to the islands of Japan, and to gods and goddesses without number. The poor deformed baby, placed in a boat of reeds, floated away, never to be heard of again.

Sex and sin

Japan, begotten child of childlike gods, escaped the stern sexual discipline imposed by an asexual creator god whose grim intolerance of human passions caused him, for example, to destroy a city, Sodom, for a “sin” known ever since as sodomy. Japan acknowledged no sexual sins, least of all that one, as the 16th-century Christian missionaries who saw this “land of the gods” in its pristine state noted with squeamish disgust.

The missionaries were banished and Japan went into isolation for 250 years. In the mid-19th century it was “opened.” Powerless to resist American and European bullying, it feverishly set about “modernizing.” Science and technology were not all it felt it had to learn from the West. Though it never turned Christian, it did adopt a quasi-Christian morality, toning down almost to the point of squelching the indigenous sexual playfulness (whose dark side, alas, is exploitation, of women in particular). The result was the buttoned-down Japan of the familiar stereotype — which must be taken, like all stereotypes, with a grain of salt.

Cross dressing in Japan

‘Have you ever wondered how you look as a female?”

A man not predisposed to answer “yes” probably wouldn’t be visiting a website that presumes to inquire. “Cross-dresser’s paradise” — that’s how the Elizabeth Club bills itself. Located in Tokyo’s Asakusabashi district, it is one of hundreds of similar establishments whose existence on the fringes of conventional society suggests conventional society’s failure to accommodate certain aspects — call them deviant if you like, but fewer and fewer people do — of human nature.

“Don’t you want to become a lady of your dream?,” the website’s enticement continues.

It’s easy enough. “At Elizabeth, we want your feminine experience to be all you hoped for. There is a shop that carries everything you need to become a female: lingerie, stockings, wigs, high-heels, clothing, makeup goods, accessories, breast forms. … After you change into women’s clothes, our makeup artists, all young girls, will transform you to a girl or lady of your dream. … There is no limit except for your imagination.”

Clubs like this, and the widening appeal of cross-dressing and prime-time transgender TV stars such as Matsuko Deluxe, Ai Haruna and Ikko, to name some of the more famous, point to a restlessness within our conventional sexual boxes. Is it fanciful to foresee a time when we’ll burst out of them altogether? If so, there’s a lot of fanciful thinking around. Collectively it’s called “postgenderism.” One of its boldest exponents was feminist thinker Shulamith Firestone (1945-2012).

In “The Dialectics of Sex” (1970) she wrote, “The end goal of feminist revolution must be … not just the elimination of male privilege but of the sex distinction itself: genital differences between human beings would no longer matter culturally. The reproduction of the species by one sex for the benefit of the other would be replaced by artificial reproduction.”

Females at the bottom of society

Male privilege, 43 years later, is alive and well, much more so in Japan than elsewhere, if the World Economic Forum’s oft-cited 2012 “Global Gender Gap Report” is a fair measure. It ranked Japan a wretched 101st out of 135 countries in terms of female professional, economic and political empowerment.

Behind that is a long past which showed scant regard for women. Warriors despised their weakness; Buddhism dismissed them as polluted beings incapable of attaining Enlightenment; Confucianism stressed the obedience a wife owed her husband and a mother her son. The modernizing regime of the Meiji Era (1868-1912) assigned woman her post-Confucian place — no corporate warrior or captain of burgeoning industry, she, but a “good wife and a wise mother” (“ryōsai kenbō“); it was written into the Meiji Civil Code, which remained in effect until 1947.

Postgenderism? Not Japan’s forte, it seems. Even the grand coming-out party that was Tokyo Rainbow Week, much lauded for its celebration, over 10 heady days in April, of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) life, showed Japan to be rather behind most of the developed world, though slowly catching up.

Gay pride

The gay pride movement in the United States goes back at least to 1968 (kindled, it is true, by a prevalent homophobia more virulent than anything Japanese LGBT people ever faced); Japan’s did not begin until 1994.

All the same, there is a touch, sometimes more than a touch, of “postgenderism” in Japanese culture, going all the way back to Izanami and Izanagi’s confusion over gender roles. Perhaps it’s not quite what Firestone had in mind. Perhaps, though, it hints at a latent capacity, to be realized over time (for better or worse), for what she did have in mind. A whimsical notion, admittedly. Let’s see if it holds.

Futanari, transsexuality in Japan

Manga and anime fans will be familiar with the term futanari, or “new half” — hermaphrodite characters endowed with feminine curves, voluptuous breasts and a virile penis.

Their popularity goes back to the 1990s and endures to this day. Possibly this has something to do with the economic downturn that started around then, eroding the socially sanctioned and officially promoted orthodoxies — sexual and otherwise — that had gone more or less unchallenged during the Meiji and postwar economic surges.

Possibly, too, there’s a futanari element in the psychology of the nation itself.

The chrysanthemum and the sword

American anthropologist Ruth Benedict (1887-1948) captured it in the title of her classic 1946 work on Japan, “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword” — beauty and strength; female and male. Among the book’s Japanese admirers was novelist Yukio Mishima (1925-1970). A year before his famous suicide by ritual samurai disembowelment and beheading, he made a speech in which, citing Benedict, he declared, “After the war the balance between these two (chrysanthemum and sword) was lost. The sword has been ignored since 1945. My ideal is to restore the balance. To revive the tradition of the samurai, through my literature and my action.”

“The chrysanthemum and the sword” — they’re in Japan’s blood; both, together; at odds but inseparable. No man is all male; no woman is all female. Femininity was despised, but not the femininity in a man. The fiercest warrior was likely to be something of a poet, shedding unashamed tears over the beauty of cherry blossoms and the dew on a morning glory flower. Buddhism, the principal religion during the first 1,000 years of Japanese civilization, declared women to be unfit for Enlightenment — but not for reincarnation as a man in the next life. In some Buddhist sutras she changes her gender by meditating.

The female within the male, and the male within the female, seem closer to the surface in the Japanese tradition than in the standard Western ones. The 13th-century “Heike Monogatari,” an epic tale of the 12th-century Genpei Civil War that marked the transition to military government under a succession of shoguns, tells of two brothers slain in battle and their widows who, to comfort their bereaved mother-in-law, present themselves to her clad in their late husbands’ armor. This is a long way from the cross-dressing at the Elizabeth Club, but it had to start somewhere.

Some 450 years later, in 1686, the Osaka novelist Ihara Saikaku (1642-93) wrote “Gengobei, the Mountain of Love,” a cross-dressing tale whose most striking feature, besides the throbbing passion that animates it, is its perfect naturalness. Saikaku is evidently writing for readers who will be amused, and moved — but not shocked.

Gengobei is a young rake who “devoted himself to the love of young men. Not once in his life had he amused himself with the fragile, long-haired sex.” When two of his especially beautiful lovers die suddenly, Gengobei enters the priesthood and renounces the world — not dreaming of the passion he has stirred in a pathetic young girl named Oman, “graced with such beauty that even the moon envied her.” Who should she fall in love with but Gengobei, “who had never in his life given a thought to girls”?

Cutting her hair and dressing like a boy, Oman boldly sets out for Gengobei’s mountain retreat. As a boy she is irresistible to him, but the truth is bound to out, and when it does, “‘What difference does it make — the love of men or the love of women?’ (Gengobei) cried, overpowered by the bestial passion which rules this fickle world.”

Kabuki theater

By Saikaku’s time, the theater known as kabuki was already a flourishing art form. Its roots lay in popular entertainments, circa 1600, on the banks or the dry bed of the Kamo River in Kyoto — singing, dancing, acrobatics, skits, burlesques. The earliest performers were female, some of them dressed as men.

Then came the onnagata — male players of female roles. They were Japan’s first stars. The most famous of them all, Yoshizawa Ayame (1647-1709), was Saikaku’s contemporary. No woman, it was said, was more womanly than he — neither onstage nor off, for though unambiguously male (he was married and the father of four sons) he lived his private life in women’s clothes and with feminine speech and mannerisms.

“Unless the onnagata lives as a woman in daily life,” he wrote in a treatise considered a handbook of the art to this day, “he won’t be an accomplished onnagata.”

Yoshizawa set the feminine fashions of his day. Women learned from him, not he from them, how to dress, apply makeup and comport themselves for maximum coquettish effect.

So it was with his artistic descendants as well. “Why should women appear when I am here?” demanded Nakamura Utaemon V, a famed onnagata of the 1920s. “There is no woman in all Japan who acts as feminine as I do.”

Two words often used today to sum up a progressive attitude toward sex are “tolerance” and “diversity.” Human beings are not all of one sort; no one set of practices is “right,” “good” or “natural” as against others that are “wrong,” “evil” or “unnatural.” A glance at the sexual frolics of premodern Japan might suggest precisely those qualities of tolerance and diversity.

Was Japan, before the West molded it in its own image, tolerant? One element it lacked might make it seem so — a “Lord your God” frowning on his creatures’ “abominations.”

“Sodomy” was an early casualty, the stigma remaining until the gay pride movement of our own time began to erode biblically-sanctioned homophobia. Japan, in that sense, was way ahead of its time.

In 1763 a satirical writer named Hiraga Gennai (1728-79) penned a gem of a story titled “Rootless Weeds.”

His tale opens with Enma O, the Buddhist lord of the underword, about to pronounce judgment on a young monk who has just died of love for the onnagata Segawa Kikunojo II (a real-life actor who died in 1773). Counsel for the dead monk’s defense pleads for leniency: “How about letting him off with a soak in a boiling cauldron?”

“Most definitely not!” thunders Enma O. “I’m told that something called ‘male homosexuality’ can be found all across the human world, and I absolutely cannot allow that kind of thing.”

To make a long story all too short, defense counsel produces a portrait of the onnagata — with whom Enma O (did counsel foresee this?) promptly falls head over heels in love. What an unholy predicament!

“I hereby resign,” declares Enma O, “as supreme ruler of the underworld. What’s a precious throne worth when I can go to the human world and share a pillow with him?”

Samurai loving men as a sign of masculinity

“Homosexuality (in Japan) did not mean delicacy and effeminacy,” writes historian Hiroshi Watanabe (in “A History of Japanese Political Thought: 1600-1901″; 2010). “Quite the contrary. From the Tokugawa Period (1603-1867) into the Meiji years (1868-1912), to say of a man that he ‘disliked women’ was to express a certain amount of approbation. … For many samurai, excessive contact with women ran the risk of diluting their masculinity, notwithstanding that heterosexual sex was essential to the continuity of the house. To work at winning the heart of a woman was even more demeaning.”

Buddhist monks had other reasons for avoiding women. Religious celibacy vows do not seem to have precluded boys, however. “Boys appear often to have served as surrogates for the females absent from the lives of the monks,” writes historian Gary Leupp in his 1997 book, “Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan.”

“Various Tokugawa Period jokes indicate the conflation of boys and women, and of the anus and vagina, in monastic society. In one, a priest on a religious retreat asks a friend to make him an onyake (artificial leather anus) for use in lieu of a boy. But he adds the request that it taste like a vagina.”

Chigo, young apprentices and their relationships with their sensei

This is homosexuality not as a lifestyle choice but for lack of anything better. Senior monks took under their wing acolytes young enough to look feminine, sexual relations being accepted as part of the acolytes’ education. The boys were called chigo.

“Some monks during the medieval period,” writes Leupp, “shaved (their chigos’) eyebrows, powdered their faces (and) dressed them in female garb.”

One tradition has Minamoto Yoshitsune, a hero of the 12th-century Genpei civil war, spending his early years as the chigo lover of an abbot. “During this period,” writes Leupp, “(Yoshitsune) wears cosmetics, wears his hair up in a girlish bun, blackens his teeth [as women of the day did], and thinly pencils in lines over his shaven eyebrows.”

Is this tolerance, or exploitation? It can be a fine line between the two, and though it’s hard to enter into the feelings of people of bygone times, it’s the persistent hint of exploitation that disqualifies premodern Japan, sexually liberated though it seems in some ways, as a model for our own sexual liberation today.

If liberation for some means slavery for others, it’s damaged goods. Women in particular have little reason to regret the passing of the past. “A wife must think of her husband as her lord and look up to him with humility,” explains “Onna no Daigaku” (“The Greater Learning for Women”), a manual for female conduct written in the early 1700s. “A woman regards her husband as heaven.”

Custom was custom; force was force. Most women submitted — with varying degrees of willingness, resignation and despair. Some did not submit. The mid-19th century gives us the example of Matsuo Taseko (1811-94), an obscure peasant poet from a village in present-day Niigata Prefecture who, in the 1850s and ’60s, embraced the radical Imperial cause against the Tokugawa Shogun who had shown himself helpless against the intrusive foreigner.

The year 1862 found her in Kyoto among swordsmen, assassins, poets and rabble-rousers, all bent on overthrowing the shogun and “restoring” the Emperor to real, not merely ceremonial, power. These were the birth pangs of the Meiji (Imperial) Restoration of 1868.

Female emancipation

What was Matsuo doing in the thick of this maelstrom? The only violence that she herself perpetrated was in her vituperative anti-Tokugawa poetry. More startling than her presence was her husband’s absence. “No other woman abandoned husband and family for the chaotic conditions in the capital (Kyoto),” notes her biographer, Anne Walthall, in “The Weak Body of a Useless Woman” (1998).

Japanese history is rich in women of indomitable courage: a wife fighting and dying at her husband’s side; a widow defending to the death her husband’s name and cause. Matsuo acted alone. Her husband, a well-to-do peasant, stayed home and minded the farm.

“(Matsuo) Taseko,” explains Walthall, “became androgynous, an onna masurao (a ‘manly woman’). … By appearing in (Kyoto) at this critical juncture, she usurped the male prerogative to move about and to act on one’s own. … Not for her was the role usually assigned to women in revolution, that of ‘giving moral support to their men folk.’ ”

In becoming an onna masurao, did Matsuo sacrifice her gender, or free herself from it? One of her poems suggests that the sacrifice, if such indeed it was, meant little to her: “How awful to have the ardent heart of a manly man and the useless body of a weak woman.”

Postgenderism. When Matsuo’s femaleness hindered her, she shucked it. And women today? Among shōjo manga (comics for young girls), none has ever matched the inexhaustible popularity of “Berusaiyu no Bara” (“The Rose of Versailles”), which, since its original run in 1972-73, has been recast as anime, films and musicals — all smash hits.

The story, set during the French Revolution, is about one Oscar François de Jariayes, born a girl but raised as a boy by a father who wanted a son. As a boy she masters fencing, horsemanship and combat; as a man she flings herself into the revolutionary drama and falls in love with a man. The all-female Takarazuka Revue has performed it over the years to audiences totaling millions. Its starring role, that of Lady Oscar, is a sure vehicle to superstardom for the luckyotokoyaku (female player of male characters — Takarazuka’s answer to kabuki’s onnagata) who is appointed to play it.

How to account for popularity on this scale? Evidently, today’s young women see the sexually ambiguous Lady Oscar as a kind of role model. What does she say to them? That a female gets nowhere in the world as a mere woman? That any single gender — female or male — falls short of being fully human? That both genders are equally meaningless, relics of an outgrown stage in the evolution of our species?

Otaku, Japanese asexual uber nerds

Men, in that case, seem to be traveling the same road. Postgender male par excellence is the otaku, the hyper-computerized “nerd” whose absorption in manga, anime and computer games renders him unfit for, uninterested in, and contentedly detached from, anything previous generations have recognized as “real life.”

Here we are in the heart of “Cool Japan.” In October 2008, a young man named Taichi Takashita circulated an online petition demanding the legal right to marry an anime character. “Nowadays,” the petition explained, “we have no interest in the three-dimensional world. If it were possible, I think I’d rather live in a two-dimensional world.”

The desire to escape into a fantasy world is not new. What may be is the possibility of actually doing so — permanently. The 2-D girl of Takashita’s dreams is Mikuru Asahina, a beautiful but shy time traveler who figures in an anime series titled “Haruhi Suzumiya” — concerning which there is this interesting sidelight: In 2010, it hit the electronic grapevine that Aya Hirano, the 22-year-old voice actress who voices the series’ eponymous heroine, was not a virgin. The indignation and sense of betrayal that swept otakuland! One 23-year-old male fan told the weekly Spa! magazine at the time, “An idol must embody men’s ideal. To otaku, virginity is an ideal.”

Takashita may never win the legal right to marry Mikuru (though his petition drew 3,000 signatures within two months), but he — like many others nowadays — commands the technology to spend as much time with her as he pleases. Isn’t that as good as legal marriage? It is, if “postgenderism” takes on the added meaning, as it seems to be doing, of “postsex.”

Categories: history of Japan, Japanese customs, Stories about Japan | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Decendants of famous Edo families plan meeting to tell all their secrets

The present-day descendants of four renowned movers and shakers of the late Edo period (1603-1867) are set to gather for a forum in Tokyo on Monday to share little-known stories that have been handed down in their families over generations.

The descendants will also discuss the spiritual legacies they hope to pass on to future generations. One of them says the group “wants to search together for the source of our ancestors’ aspirations.”

The five participants are Minako Koyama of Kanagawa Prefecture, 51, a great-great-grandchild of Katsu Kaishu; Noboru Sakamoto of Tokyo, a descendant of Sakamoto Ryoma’s elder brother; Hirotsugu Okanoue of Yamanashi Prefecture, 72, a great- grandchild of Ryoma’s elder sister Otome; Kei Konishi of Kanagawa Prefecture, a great-great-grandchild of John Manjiro; and Takamichi Enomoto of Tokyo, a great-grandchild of Enomoto Takeaki.

The “Katsu Kaishu Forum” will be held in Sumida Ward, Tokyo, also known as Katsu’s birthplace.

Takayama works as a freelance writer while Konishi has served as an adjunct instructor of Japanese language at Sophia University after studying linguistics in the United States. Enomoto, a guest professor at Tokyo University of Agriculture, has written and published many books on Takeaki.

Once a mentor to Ryoma, Kaishu became a Tokugawa shogunate retainer along with Takeaki. He also traveled to the United States together with Manjiro. As there are no historical records suggesting that Ryoma and Manjiro met directly, it is highly unlikely that the four major figures were ever present in the same place. However, Kaishu is known to have maintained relationships with the other three.

The forum’s organizer, an association established to commemorate the achievements of Katsu Kaishu, said, “The event offers a rare glimpse of the four greats from the perspective of their descendants 150 years after the end of the [Tokugawa] shogunate.”

The forum will start at 9:30 a.m. at Sumida Ward Office’s Sumida Riverside Hall.

Categories: history of Japan, Japanese customs, Must see, News about Japan, Stories about Japan | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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