A bowl of ramen is a self contained eating experience that goes beyond and differs from that provided by its soup counterparts around the world. For the most part, a bowl of soup is either blended or at least uniform in look and in taste-no matter where you put your spoon you will be met with a mouthful of taste and texture that will be repeated till you reach the bottom of the bowl. Ramen is much more than that of even a typical noodle soup in that it ever so majestically props up 2, 3 or even up to 9 or 10 ‘toppings’, spanning from ‘Cha-shu-‘ (slices of fatty, roasted pork), a boiled, raw or marinated egg, moyashi (bean sprouts), and/or several other ‘toppings’ that I will cover later.
To begin your anticipated eating adventure it is fairly standard to dip the Renge (Chinese ceramic spoon) into the soup upon which you will then slurp the hot broth into your mouth to get your first taste of what is to come. This slurping of the soup, and of course of the noodles as well, serves to both cool the temperature of the soup a bit as well as to increase the the taste and texture of the overall experience.
From here you are ready to selectively enjoy toppings one at a time, focus on a bunch of noodles that you have expertly gathered with your chopsticks, entwine the noodles together with a single topping, or float around taking a sampling approach targeting 1, 2 or a few toppings at a time.
You will notice that not too much talking is going on with your Japanese friends as the Japanese tend to be quiet and reserved at the best of times and when the TPO (I have heard that this is a uniquely Japanese term meaning ‘Time, Place and Occasion’) calls for it. As we all know eating ramen is definitely one of those times that calls for quiet and speed. Fast, focused and quiet is the way to eat ramen, no ifs, ands or buts when it comes to ramen.
How did ramen originate in, or come to Japan, and in what manner did this come about? Debate on to what degree ramen is uniquely a Japanese dish and to what degree is it an import from China.
The origin of the name ‘Ramen’:
Hypothesis #1:’Ramen’ ＜ラーメン、らーめん, 老麺, 老麺＞is said mostly likely to come from a type of noodle that has been in existence in China since way back in time. This noodle type is called, lā miàn, lamian,<拉麺>, and is made by repeatedly stretching out a flour based dough until it results in long elastic noodles. ‘Lamian’ literally means ‘pulled noodles in Chinese. As you can probably already surmise, it is theorized that the name ramen came from a Japanization of the Chinese pronunciation of ”Lamian’ and while this seems to be the most obvious explanation, there are others.
Hypothesis #2: This proposal is that ‘Ramen’ is a derivation of a type of noodle in China that makes use of a fermentation process when making the flour based dough which is referred to using the Kanji of ,’老‘ <meaning ‘to age’ and read as ‘Rou’>, and ‘麺‘ <meaning noodles>. So this hypothesis proposes that ‘Ramen’ comes from, ‘老麺‘, or Roumen, meaning ‘aged noodles’.
Hypothesis #3: This one proposes that the word ‘Ramen’ comes from a restaurant named, ‘Takeya’ <竹屋> that opened in Hokkaido’s Sapporo city in 1922. Apparently the wife of the owner of the shop really enjoyed the way the Chinese cook would yell out, ‘Haora-!’- meaning, ‘It’s ready!’ when he would declare the soup was ready to be served. The pronunciation then went on to morph into ‘Ramen’ amongst the customers of this shop. This one sounds a bit far fetched to me personally, but it is kind of fun to consider anyway.
Hypothesis #4:The name of a certain Chuuka Soba restaurant in Asakusa called ‘柳麺‘ <Ryuumen> went on to the derivated name of ‘ramen’.
A brief history of the birth of Ramen:
It is speculated that the first person to eat ramen in Japan was none other than the famous Ibaraki Daimyou, Tokugawa Mitsukuni who was fictionalized as the ridiculously popular character of ‘Mito Koumon’. This take on things proposes that a Chinese adviser to the Daimyou had prepared and served to Mitsukuni a Chinese soup later called ‘Shiru Soba’. But it would be stretching things a bit to equate ‘Shiru Soba’ with ramen and it was most likely nothing more than the aforementioned ‘Lamian’ noodles served in a light broth of some kind. That said, once again, it is fun to ponder on such an occurrence.
From some time around the second half of the Meiji period (ran from 1868 to 1912) small outdoor stands began to appear in the China town area of Yokohama that sold a noodle soup called, ‘Nanking soba’. This soup however was still quite far from what could honestly be called equivalent what we consider to be ramen today. It was, apparently lacking in any of the toppings like cha-shu-, menma or dried seaweed that are so common now and only featured chopped green onion placed on top of a salt flavored, clear soup with simple ramen noodles and was not called ramen regardless. It can, however, be considered to be the authentic roots of present day ramen. Most people who study ramen in Japan consider the birth of ramen to be toward the end of the Meiji period, in 1910 when a shop in Asakusa, ‘Rairaiken’ ＜来々軒＞began selling a soy sauce flavored, pork and chicken broth soup that was called ‘Chuuka Soba’ <Chinese noodles> and yet which could not be mistaken for anything other than ramen. The owner of ‘Rairaiken’, Ozaki Kanichi, opened up the shop with a staff of 12 Chinese cooks that he lured away from Yokohama’s China town to help him in his endeavor. Ozaki’s courageous and risky move of selling a pork/chicken bone based noodle soup amidst an environment in Japan where there was not a single shop doing so, as most restaurants in Japan up until then were Katsuo <Bonito> and/or Konbu <kelp> based soups, paid off. ‘Rairaiken’ proved to be a huge hit with its simple menu of Chuuka Soba, Wan tan and Shumai and a catch copy that doesn’t sound out of place even today – ‘Chuuka Soba is cheap, delicious and will fill you up’. Unfortunately, this historic shop closed its doors in 1976.
The further development of the popularity and standardization of ramen took its next step with a noodle shop in Sapporo around 1922 with the opening of this shop, ‘Takeya’. A Chinese cook working at the shop added genuine Chinese recipes to Takeya’s menu which resulted in an explosion of popularity that prompted one of its regular customers, university professor, to request that they change the name to ‘Shina Ryouri-Takeya’ <Ramen cuisine- Takeya>. This Chinese cook, Ou Bunzai, went on to adjust the taste of his soups to more suit the taste of the shop’s Japanese customers by making the, until then, oily soup to a more miso based one topped with Cha-shu-, menma, and green onions resulting in the ever popular, Sapporo ramen. This development as added great impetus to the growth in the popularity of ramen all across Japan and can perhaps also lay claim to being the first ‘real’ ramen of Japan.
Another rather unknown factor behind the booming popularity of ramen in its early years was non other than that of General MacArthur. In an effort to spur on political unrest, leftists in Japan were playing up on the food shortages at the time for their own benefit were cleverly bypassed with MacArthur’s diverting of extra American wheat supplies to ramen shops and ramen carts. He even ordered the distribution of fliers saying things like, ‘America is spending $250 million for your food’, and ‘Learn to appreciate it properly’. These efforts resulted in a further boom in the popularity of this wheat based noodle soup.
Not to go overboard (too late?) in looking at the spread of ramen it would be negligent of me to not mention the iconic ‘sound’ of ramen. This is the sound of the ‘Charumera’ that vendors would (and in some places still do) play to announce the arrival of their ramen carts (or trucks). The Charumera is also used as part of the musical accompaniment section of Kabuki plays.
It is said that even the great writer, ‘Edogawa Ranpo’ <江戸川乱歩>, (and yes that is a play on Edgar Allen Poe – but I won’t go into that any more here because, well…..) used to pull one of these ramen carts around to make money before he became a best selling author.
Mentioning one more piece of trivia about the popularization of ramen, or instant ramen, was surprisingly the ‘Asama-Sansou incident’.
In 1972 members of the United Red Army took a Nagano inn keeper’s wife hostage in the Asama Sansou (inn) which resulted in a 10 siege on the inn by the Japanese police. Over the 10 days of which much was covered on Japanese TV, the police as well as the hostage takers were seen to be subsisting on Cup Ramen in styrofoam cups. This precious free advertising in a particuarly high tension event helped to make Cup ramen perhaps the most long running and popular comfort food in all of Japan.
From one year to the next for as long as I have lived in Japan ramen is always ranked in the top 3 favorite foods usually following in 2nd or 3rd place behind sushi which is always #1. What explains this, and what exactly IS ramen?
It is commonly known amongst ramen aficionados that ramen is composed of the following 5 elements:
Chuuka soba noodles
Tare <たれ、垂れ> (a liquid blend of various elements)
An oil blend
Chuukamen <Chinese noodles>
Ramen noodles are made using wheat flour, salt and the ingredient that really separates ramen noodles from other types, ‘Kansui’ water which is an alkaline water that contains sodium and potassium carbonate. This ‘Kansui’ water was first employed when it was discovered that the water taken from salty lakes in China (Mongolia) would add firmness <Koshi> and a shimmering look to the noodles. It also apparently gives ramen noodles their unique, slightly yellowish look. Up until the end of World War 2 in 1945 most of the Kansui water used was imported from China. Following the war it was discovered that alkali carbonate produced in domestic Japan was perfectly acceptable. In recent years it has further been discovered that if the wheat flour is of a high enough quality it is easy to create ramen noodles made using salt that are indistinguishable from ‘Kansui’ water ones.
The noodles vary greatly in thickness depending on the type of soup they are to be used with. Generally speaking, the ‘heavier’ and richer the soup is the thinner the noodle. They also can be shaped in the wavy style that you often see with instant ramen noodles, or in a straight style that is often the preferred type amongst ‘ramen maniacs’.
Types of soup/ramen
This is a ramen made centered around a light pork and/or chicken broth that is flavored with soy sauce and a light Japanese ‘Dashi’ of dried seafoods and seaweeds and is quite often often taken to be ‘Tokyo ramen’, or kind of the standard image of ramen and is even a ‘Space food’ as this type of ramen has been consumed on space shuttle flights.
This ramen is based around a pork bone broth that is blended in with miso and originated in Sapporo, Hokkaidou. On the scale of thickness the noodles used in Miso ramen tend to be a bit thicker than than norm and the soup itself often features such toppings as corn, various vegetables and even a slab of Hokkaidou butter.
Tonkotsu (pork bones) ramen
Tonkotsu is made based on a rich, milky broth that is created by boiling pork bones over high heat for an extended period of time creating a thick broth full of collagen. In addition to this, the inosinic acid, fat and gelatin also play a part in producing a soup rich in umami that has a deep satisfying taste (can you guess what type I like the best?). The only drawback is that it can on occasion give off a slightly gamey smell which calls for a greater use of garlic, ginger and other spices. Tonkotsu ramen is most strongly associated with the Hakata ramen ＜博多ラーメン＞ of Kyuushuu.
Significance of the designs in Ramen bowls
Dragon mark <龍、Ryuu, Tatsu＞
This design is a symbol of a fictitious dragon that had the power to rain down sweet nectar and to make crops grow. As a general rule, only the Emperor could make use of this mark, but in the event that it was to be used by his vassals the dragon had to have only 4 claws distinguishing it from the Emperor’s design that had 5.
Phoenix mark <鳳凰, Ho Ou>
This mark is also a fictitious phoenix-like bird that in China was thought to be the greatest symbol of good luck.
The ‘鳳‘ represents the Emperor while the ‘凰‘, the Empress.
Lightning mark <雷文, Raimon, Kaminarimon>
This mark, ‘Raimon,Kaminarimon’ is the most orthodox ramen bowl design made up of repeating squarish whirlpools. It symbolizes the awesome power of nature in the form of lightning.
Happiness, Joy mark <双喜文, Soukimon>
This design is literally the Kanji ‘喜ぶ‘ doubled up. ‘Yorokobu’ means happiness or joy and so this obviously means tons of happiness and since 1 can represent the groom and 1, the bride, this mark is also often used for wedding ceremonies.
Have you heard of this social phenomena known as ‘Noodle Harassment’?
Briefly stated it is another in a long line of real, or subjectively real, or purported to be real, but is in actuality a mode of simply complaining about any and everything that supposedly ‘hurts’ one. This very recent, and luckily rare complaint by non-Japanese that the act of someone sitting next to, or near you who is slurping their ramen, soba or udon noodles bothers you to the extent that you suffer a mild to beyond mild form of trauma. Yes, this is apparently true. There are even shops in Tokyo (and perhaps elsewhere) that now offer partitioned seats so these ever so tender hearts do not have to be exposed to the, gasp, horrendous act of a Japanese person happily slurping away at their noodles in their vicinity.
Why is this such a silly claim (as if you needed to be educated about it)?
First, slurping cools the noodles and the broth and makes it more easy to eat. Sure, this factor does not apply to cold noodles, but the other ones do. Read on.
Second, slurping aerates the noodles and more importantly the broth which makes the tastes mellow out and expand in flavor on your taste buds before you swallow. Scientifically speaking it actually makes the soup and noodles taste better. I have seen this explained in detail on TV before (the Japanese love these kinds of shows) and I for one was totally convinced. Wine tasters frequently do this ‘slurping’ effect when tasting wine. You will also notice that after a liquid is in your mouth, giving it a chew will release extra aromatics for you.
A quote found on line about this:
“‘Deliciousness” is conveyed by the sound of slurping, and further, slurping does in fact make the noodle taste better. In a graphic, the expert showed how wine connoisseurs gurgle wine, sucking air through their mouths to force air into the nasal passage, allowing the flavors to spread. The concept is the same with slurping noodles. The flavors of the noodles and soup are multiplied when slurping. The gaijin panel as well as the Japanese host and observers had their “aha” moment and the gaijins decided they would practice slurping.”
Thirdly, to some degree eating ramen is a battle with speed. If you take too long to eat your ramen, the noodles will get mushy (or as the Japanese say, ‘Nobiru’) and that is never a good thing.
Fourthly, and I don’t want to just say, ‘Hey, when in Rome, do as the Romans’, but it just looks bad; I mean really bad when someone (I never seen a Japanese person over the age of 5 do this) gently places noodles in their mouth and politely chews on them. It honestly ruins one’s appetite, I mean it ruins it for the one witnessing such a freakish act.
Following are a few quotes from Japanese upon hearing about Nu-hara ＜ヌーハラ＞：
I saw an announcer on TV who was so proud of herself for taking care not to slurp her noodles in front of a foreigner in a ramen shop. How crazy is that? So much for ‘Nu-hara’, it is the foreigners who blasphemize Japanese culture that are in the wrong. That’s it, ‘culture harassment’….abbreviated as, ‘Karuhara’.
‘Noodle harassment?! This is Japan! Noodles taste good precisely because you slurp them!’
‘It is totally out of place for foreigners to tell the Japanese how they are to eat noodles.’
‘So what is next? Are Indians going to come here and tell us to eat rice with our right hand?’
I am sure that there will continue to be foreigners who are put off and apparently even mildly traumatized by the sound of Japanese who make a slurping sound when they (we) eat noodles, but I personally can see no compelling reason to not do so.
It would not be fair to write a bit about ramen and not mention the great movie, ‘Tampopo’. If you haven’t seen it and you love Japan and Japanese food and culture, you must put it at the top of your list of movies to watch. It is a comedy, but through this kind of Japanese ‘Shane’ as Japanese ramen master, you will learn a great deal about Japan and ramen.
*Note: Other than the ‘Inazuma’ story all of the translations are my own. (I was unable to find the Japanese source of the Inazuma story and so made use of a translation by an unknown Japanese person.)
This selection of mine naming Nakamoto Suzuka, aka ‘Su-metal’ and Utada Hikaru as the two greatest Japanese woman singers is obviously an almost totally subjective determination. I mean, how could it not be? I am sure there are some more or less objective measures of the skill level of a person’s singing voice such as range of octave, decibel levels, lack of contour errors, pitch accuracy and on and on. That said since I personally have no knowledge or understanding of these units of measurement I, and most likely you as well, can only go on my own personal sense of what constitutes a great singer. It is funny that I originally thought of doing a short 6 or so page post about the 4 greatest Japanese singers which of course started out with Su-metal and Utada and then went on to include Imai Miki and Takeuchi Mariya. However, once I began researching what I wanted to say, first of all, about Su-chan I realized that I would have to trim it down to include only Su and Utada.
There are an almost uncountable number of beautiful phenomena in the world that move one’s heart running from sunsets, flowers, good food and starry night skies. However, for me, the most enthralling ‘thing’ in the world is the sound as well as the performance and all that entails of Japanese women singers.
What is it exactly about Su-metal and Utada that so captivates and touches the hearts and minds of so many people? In the end I would have to say from my perspective, and even following upon a few weeks of considering this question after deciding to write about it, that their attractiveness is an elusive charm that goes beyond verbal or even mental understanding. While I will try to express the possible reasons for their loveliness herein, I will say that I will most likely not be able to do so to a satisfactory degree. Both women visually lie in that realm that lies between, and overlaps into, cuteness and beauty, and without any sense of projected sexiness. They both move with a gliding sense of grace and dignity that seems to be backed up by a hidden power source and yet neither comes off as an overly crafted dancer in spite of the fact that you simply can not take your eyes of them when they move on stage (or off, for that matter). Internally, both are ridiculously confident. In fact, when my students have asked me to sum up Utada with one word, it was always ‘Confident’ that I would respond with. And I mean a confidence that goes beyond just an assumption that they can pull off a good show, but rather a rock solid sense that they almost CAN NOT fail- a confidence that is seemingly divinely gifted. In spite of this, neither of these two women conveys even a hint of arrogance and in fact are extremely humble almost to the point of being self-deprecating. And then there is of course their vocals, their voices. Words can obviously not do them justice and their is no need to try to express the power, the clarity, the cuteness, the at times frailty with which they express lyrics with their voices when a simple listen is all that it takes.
So, to dive in to actually writing about these two giants it is best to get to know their backgrounds a bit even though we may not in fact need to know anything about a singer to be able to enjoy and appreciate their singing. I have often thought, though, what it would be like to listen to Karen Carpenter’s voice without knowing anything about the tragic nature of her life. In fact I am pretty sure that I remember feeling a deep sadness or melancholy in her voice when I listened to the Carpenters on the radio as a little boy, so there may be something inherently in it that evokes sadness. That said, I am certain that knowing about the life and background of a singer affects they way we perceive their vocals.
Nakamoto Suzuka (中元すず香）
Su-chan was born as the 3rd and youngest daughter in 1997, December 20 in Hiroshima. It is said that when she was still only two years old that she would become so absorbed in the background music playing at shops that she would sing and dance so intensely that she would often get separated from her family. It is reported that she was considered to be a prodigy by those who heard her sing when she was still an infant.
She began her childhood modeling career at the age of 5 and won the Grand prize of Bandai cosmetic’s Jewel Drop, ’Image girl’ contest.
This was followed by another Grand prize at the age of 8 Alpark Scholarship Audition which played a huge role in her being able to be granted admission to the Actor’s School of Hiroshima (ASH).
I can not go much farther in chronicling her early history and achievements as it would go on for several pages and have been recorded both in English and, to a much more detailed extent in Japanese elsewhere. I will just say that she apparently went on to win basically every contest that she entered either solely or with her sister, Himeka, with the exception of one where they most likely basically bowed out because of a scheduling difficulty and yet still took runners up place.
Here are some of her early vocals prior to and following that fateful occurrence of being one of the three members of the iconic, ‘Karen Girl’s’ group that led directly into the formation of Sakura Gakuin to ‘Juonbun’ or as what we now know as ‘BABYMETAL’.
And my personal favorite…
Two of Su-chan’s most recognizable characteristics are evidently revealed in a short interview with her and her Karen Girl’s co-members, Mutou Ayami and Shima Yuika before they embark on their stage at the Animelo Summer Live 2008 – CHALLENGE, (Saitama Super Arena). What are those characteristics? One is Su’s constant scanning, constant taking in of what is happening in her surroundings. This characteristic of one’s eyes actively scanning one’s surroundings and of not letting the eyes settle into a ‘dead stare’ is something we often see with not only Su-chan but also of such mysterious intellectuals and mystics such as Krishnamurti
and contained in the teachings of Takuan Osho,
a zen master who taught the mental side of sword fighting to Yagyu Munenori and I would include the way my favorite fictional character of ‘Sugishita Keibu from the incredibly popular and long running Japanese TV series, ‘Aibou’
uses his eyes in constantly scanning any situation for clues. While this is often looked upon at least in the West as a sign of deceptiveness or an unsettled state of mind, it is more correctly seen as a sign of intelligence and wakefulness, at least in certain individuals. Of course I would include Su-chan in this latter category. There is something truly wonderful and actually quite rare going on with her as she does this and is something that I believe the reader can verify for themselves right now. See how you feel when you do not let you eyesight rest on a single item in your line of sight for more than a fraction of second before you move on to the next, the next and then the next object as compared with letting your eyes kind of rest on a single point. I believe you will see the almost animalistic sense of aliveness that this flitting of the eyes conveys.
Now, not to go too off into wild ramblings, I want to focus on the what could be called ‘Vacant mind’ of Su-chan as compared with ‘Su-metal’. And not to draw the comparison with one of my favorites, the aforementioned, Krishnamurti, a person who is well known to have a side to himself that was best summed up as ‘Vacant’, to the point of over embellishment, I would like to draw attention to this, what could derogatorily be referred to as sign of below par intelligence that is often pointed out in reference to Su-chan, this aspect of her character that is, I would say, rather a sign of exceptional and in fact genius level intelligence. We know of Su from the countless anecdotal stories that exist (often from Su-chan herself) that:
[Please remember that most of these were either 1 time, or limited in frequency, occurrences that happened early in Su-chan’s life. They are glimpses into her unique make-up and not on-going (I would assume) characteristics. Anyway, here are some of them.]
‘Su can not tie her shoe laces by herself’
‘She is unable to make a sound with a whistle as she blows on it holding it upside-down’
‘Su-chan has been known to walk along with her shoes on the wrong feet not noticing until someone points it out to her’.
‘Su has apparently, at least once, when singing ‘Megitsune’, mistakenly sung ‘Joyuu yo’ <actress> with ‘Kyonyuu’ <big breasts>’.
‘In order to collect <Bell Mark> stamps <stamps that schoolchildren collect from various products to exchange for school related goods>, Su-chan would cut the stamps out of her older sisters’ notebooks, for which she was of course scolded by her sisters.’
‘Su-chan would often leave her family in bewilderment as she ripped off <Bell Marks> from their Sesame oil bottles.’
‘There were numerous occasions where Su-chan would be left behind yelling, ‘Hey, wait for me!’, as the filming crew would move from location to location.’
‘Su-chan would occasionally (OK, so at least once) show up for lessons only to find that she still had her pajamas on under her long skirt.’
‘Su-chan was happy to have moved from the 12-member Sakura Gakuin format to the 3-member BABYMETAL one because it reduced the need to fight for staff boxed lunches by 9.’
‘As her self-selected research assignment during summer vacation when she was in the 1st grade of Jr. High, Su-chan chose to do a joint research project with her sister, Himeka, into <The secret behind how pudding solidifies>.’
‘Her big ears that are tilted rather forward are great for hearing sounds in the front of her, but she has a difficult time hearing what people are saying when they are speaking in hushed tones behind her.’
‘She enjoys joking around with e-mails to herself where she does both the <Boke> and the <Tsukokomi> roles. Note: You will have to look these up for yourself as it would take too long to explain. In other words, she does a kind of 2-person comedy skit, ‘Manzai’ with herself in her e-mails’.
‘A question from Himetan’s blog! Where does a snake’s tail begin. This was
the topic of discussion amongst our family.’
* Mama: Where does a snake’s tail begin?
* Himeka: A snake doesn’t have a tail.
* Suzuka: Snakes have hands, don’t they? Maa, if they do or don’t who cares?
* Anyway, Mama wants to know the borderline between a snake’s body and it’s tail. If you happen to know please let me know.’
All of these examples that are mostly well known amongst the vast
BABYMETAL lore all show a side of a girl who walks to the beat of
a different drummer. Now don’t get me wrong, this side of Su-chan makes
her all the more charming and enchanting and is a property that I personally
absolutely adore along with probably all BABYMETAL fans. This property is
called, ‘Tennen’ in Japan and said for the most part as an enduring, if not
almost admirable characteristics usually found in girls and women.
So lets now shift gears and focus on the other side of the equation that is Nakamoto Suzuka, Su-chan, Su-metal, which is that side of this enigmatic person that is so incredibly talented, creative, skilled and captivating that it kind of exceeds the power of words to describe.
First of all is her high work standard and stoicism. She is one who has a high degree of professionalism and has determined to herself that she will never cry on stage, no matter what the circumstances. Virtually all of her singing on stage is done live and since these lives performances go on to be recorded products for sale as is, there is absolutely no room for errors to be made.
Himeka wrote in her blog that she often goes to Karaoke with Su-chan where they will sing for 7-hours straight at times. Upon writing this she was so swamped by questions about what goes on in these Karaoke sessions with Su that she has vowed to steer away from writing about her sister in the future.
Nakamoto Suzuka is an interesting blend: she is not able to do some things that we mere mortals can do easily, but is able on the other hand to do things easily (or make them seem easy) that we can’t begin to dream of. There is no denying it; she is a very unique person.
Babymetal’s choreographer, Mikiko-sensei said this about Nakamoto-san’s work ethic and abilities as a professional singer, ’Su-chan memorizes the lyrics to new songs faster than anyone else in Sakura Gakuin or BABYMETAL.’ She also conveyed in an interview that while Su-chan is not as naturally gifted as a dancer as the other two members of the trio, Mizuno Yui and Kikuchi Moa, she will work on the choreography until she masters it and invariably surprises even Mikiko-sensei with how she has done so and even added a little something uniquely hers to the movements. Apparently she does not dance in accordance with a count as most dancer do, but rather subjectively adjusts herself to the song itself. It is even said that she sees the song/dance in a kind of color code that makes sense to her. Mikiko-sensei also has said that she is amazed at how she approaches regular rehearsals with the same all-out energy and concentration that most artists tend to save for ‘the show’ – to the extent that after rehearsals she is often scolded by the make-up artists because she has sweated so profusely that her make-up gets totally messed up. We even know that she broke a cardboard guitar that was made for the ‘Graduation Toss’ MV due to moving around so aggressively.
Quote from Mikiko-sensei
Su-metal as seen by Mikiko-metal
‘She is so full of natural, in born performance related talent that it is as if the word genius was created just for this girl. She undergoes a transformation on the stage that you could not imagine based on who she is in daily life. It is not to say that she is particularly good at dancing a particular dance movement exactly as set up, but rather she makes the movements her own to the point that her expressive abilities overpower the song. And so if she is required to simply extend her arms out in front of her she will do it in a way that emotionally moves those watching it. I think it is the non-sense concerned passion that she has within her that makes this possible. Up until recently I felt that whatever she sang had a uniform, ‘Su-metal’ feel to it, but recently she has become able to lay on a wide variety of emotions in her performances and is able to control or regulate herself song by song. Her English pronunciation has also dramatically improved.’
Quote from Su-chan’s ‘homeroom teacher’, Mori Hayashi-sensei at her
graduation ceremony from Sakura Gakuin
‘Last year, THOSE three graduated, and now…This girl, Nakamoto…she who is unable to deal properly with others is now the Student Council President?! I was filled with worry. But now she is able to make a speech and is able to touch the hearts of the listeners to an amazing degree. In the past it would have been a miracle for her to say ‘My name is Nakamoto Suzuka’. I have the feeling that she has kind of turned into a totally separate person. No, but really, this girl called Nakamoto is an extremely stoic person. I think that her ability to stand on this stage today like this is due to the efforts she has made outside of the view of all of us. Anyway, that is how she has carried out so many achievements since she was in Elementary school to the present day. But, regardless, since she is still in the 3rd grade of Jr. High school I am sure that in this entertainment world that she will encounter times when she could not exhibit her best. And while Nakamoto’s stoic nature is a wonderful thing, I hope that she will be able to find a place within herself that forgives herself when things don’t go well. But, really, honestly speaking, when Nakamoto …makes a mistake or messes up on something…even then I think everyone here thinks of her as a lovable girl. I feel that that also is a part of her attractiveness.As her teacher I hope that she will put great value on this side of herself as she grows as well.
As for her talent as a singer, there is nothing better than for the reader to listen to any song, perhaps especially the solo ones of ‘Akatsuki’, ‘Akumu no Rhondo’, ‘Amore’, and ‘No Rain, No Rainbow’. And we must never forget that she is truly singing a totally new genre, one that mixes Idol with Heavy Metal and thus there are demands on her voice that literally no one has ever experienced before and that alone commands our total respect.
This is an interesting audio track that has been manipulated to take the musical components out of a performance of ‘Akatsuki’ leaving only Su-metal’s voice. If this doesn’t blow you away, nothing will.
‘Tamashii no Rufuran’
Before I move into and then close out with the side of Su-metal/Su-chan that I find the most fascinating, I want to add one of the cutest stories I have ever come across about Su-chan as well as Yui and Moa.
This is one of my favorite stories about Babymetal ever. There is something very touching and yet profound about it.
The picture here is called “The Coronation” by Hirokazu Sato.
Many have seen it and there are many stories associated with it. This is one of my favorites. It’s about the grasshopper. If you zoom in close on the left, next to the toad, you’ll see the grasshopper. Here’s the grasshopper story….enjoy.
It comes from the comments on Twitter posted by Mr. Kenta suzuki who is an announcer of MBS TV. Inazuma Rock 2013 was the first big stage for three girls at that time (around 20,000 attendance) and many Japnese BM fans were worried about how the show would go.
“BABYMETAL-san, this was their second appearance at Inazuma Rock Festival with the Metal Idols performing using live-singing and a live band. They put on a magnificent performance on the main stage! However, in the backstage area before the show, Yui-chan and Moa-chan were chasing grasshoppers together in harmony, and Su-chan quietly watched over them with a smile like a female bodhisattva, I saw that and was very healed.”
“A continuation of the previous tweet… A grasshopper was caught by Moa-chan but managed to escape (since Moa grabbed it too gently). Then, Moa-chan said to it “Bye-bye” waving her hands… I would say once more… she bade it good-bye waving her hands… (It’s so adorable that) I was nearly floored.”
The most amazing thing to me about Nakamoto Suzuka though is the uncanny and virtually inexplicable transformation that takes place whenever she steps on the stage. It is well known in the BABYMETAL world that Yuimetal and Moametal also talk of this phenomena where they don’t remember what has happened on stage due to the ‘Kourin’ <divine descent or intertwining of a god or spirit> of the Fox god. Now this of course may be, and probably is a gimmick to make BABYMETAL more fun and interesting, but at least, or especially with Su-chan/Su-metal, I don’t think we can write it off so easily. There really does seem to be something bordering on the miraculous that takes place. Using the aforementioned Krishnamurti as an example, he reported throughout his life the presence at times of what he called ‘the other’. This ‘other’ was strong presence that would appear invisibly and yet tangibly and intertwine with him bringing his mind to state that he reported could be ‘untouched by thought’ for long stretches of time. Could it be that something like this happens with Su-chan as well? Well, it is best to let her state it in her own words (translated by yours truly, actually).
Su-chan speaking on Su-metal:
‘Particularly in recent shows I have come to be aware of the moment when the Fox God descends into me. There are more and more instances where I feel as if someone inside of me is taking me by the hand and leading me making it so I can sing and express myself just exactly as I wish to do. So, more than saying I am making use of self control it is more like there is someone inside of me doing it for me (laughs).’
‘I really feel this way. And that is that I feel like I am a totally different personality on the stage. When I exit the stage I immediately feel like something has gone away from me. And so I think that there is a separate personality that is assisting me. When I am in good condition for a live show, it feels like there is a someone or something taking me by the hand and leading me along so that all goes well. So, I feel a high sense of pride when on stage. It is as if I must carry out a mission to mysteriously be really cool on stage.
It is like when I am singing and I think I will sing in a certain way and the voice that I thought would come out comes out exactly as I hoped. And when I am dancing I think this is how I want to dance in a cool manner and as I think that I am able to pull it off exactly as I had hoped. It is as if I am 1 or 2 seconds ahead in time watching
At that time, I realized that there is a ‘me’ who is different from the normal, day to day, ‘me’. From that point on I started to look upon a Babymetal ‘me’ that is different from my everyday self. That feeling has not changed from that point to now, and now there is a ‘me’ that enjoys performing as that separate personality. At times I am able to view myself from a 3rd person perspective and my usual self is kind of able to design my other self you could say to do things in a more interesting manner. Doing things like this I am able to enjoy things from my side of things. Since I am now of the understanding that there are things that ‘this me’ can do there are things that most likely only this created version of myself can do. I would not go so far as to say it is a manga like character but I do at times feel that this version of myself will be completely fine with whatever she does. And so I feel that there is nothing I can not do in a live performance.’
Nakamoto Suzuka is at once and at times, beautiful, cute, playful, fierce, as well as silly, down right badass, mesmerizing, totally down to earth, but most of all she is someone you literally can not take your eyes off of.
And one more final point. I will be truly exciting to see how her English speaking and comprehension improves over the next few years. I am amazed at how much she has already progressed in just a couple of years. When I am writing or translating often my wife sits on the other side of the table and is unable to see the computer screen. The other day I was going through videos of Su preparing for this. When I was listening to a compilation of Su-chan’s English interviews my wife blurted out, ‘Is that Su-metal!? Her English is so wonderful!’. (The other time she has responded so enthusiastically to the way someone speaks English was when she heard Brian Cox <the scientist> speaking)
Su, Su, Su…. the amazing Nakamoto Suzuka…..and remember she has been crucified 4 times and yet is still going strong.
EPSON scanner image
Utada. That is the name I know her by and the name I use. Utada-Hikaru (宇多田ヒカル)。Think about it, her name is うた…だ。That name itself means ‘Song’. While the Kanji is different, the wording is the same…Uta Da. Now, you may say, ‘OK, that must be a stage name’. Actually her name comes from her father’s family name of ‘宇多田’ and is just by chance, or by fate, her family name.
Utada Hikaru (宇多田ヒカル)
Now matter how you slice it Utada Hikaru is one of the greatest artists in the history of Japanese music. Just take a look at her stats:
Records 1999 – First Love: Best-Selling Album in Japan
2001 – Distance: 4th Best-Selling Album in Japan (All Times)
2nd Best-Selling Album by a Female Artist in Japan
2002 – Deep River: 4th Best-Selling Album by a Female Artist in Japan (All Times)
Distance: Best-Selling Album of 2001
‘Can you keep a secret’ was the best selling single in 2001
In the top 10 of overall sales in Japanese history ‘First love’ is still the number 1 seller of all time
The blockbuster, mega musician/producer, Komuro Tetsuya
said of Utada, ‘I felt that it was Hikaru who finished me off’. I am sure that he meant that he could not go on to compete or compare with what Utada brought to the Japanese music scene in 1999. He also reportedly said, ‘It was Utada Hikaru and the iPod that revolutionized the music (Japanese) scene’.
There was also this amazing quote by someone high up in the music industry made on the 15th anniversary of the release of ‘Automatic’.
‘It would not be an exaggeration to say that Utada Hikaru’s debut was like nothing that had ever occurred in the Japanese music world and she went on to be genuine social phenomena’.
‘Utada Hikaru has a music sense that is so complete unto itself and so unique that it makes all the western songs and artists that have been popular up until this point all look like complete fakes’.
Utada was not born in Japan, but rather in New York in 1983 to Utada Teruzane and Fuji Keiko (more about her famous mother later) . Her father, along with being a musician in his own right, worked as the manager of Utada’s mother, Fuji Keiko – a singer of such great renown as to be hard to explain in words. To put things simply, she was a thoroughbred from the start. So in spite of being a full blooded Japanese she grew up for the first 15 years of her life living in New York where she debuted with a cover of The Carpenter’s ‘Close to you’ in 1998 under the name of ‘Cubic U’, a play on her being the 3rd factor of the ‘Utada’ family.
Stating that Utada is a true thoroughbred refers to what she received from her renowned mother, Fuji Keiko who may not be well known to people of the present time, but she was undoubtedly one of the greatest Japanese singers in the ‘70s. One only need to listen to her sing for a brief minute to appreciate what an amazing singer she was.
‘Shinjuku no Onna’
It is so tragic and so mysteriously uncanny that she took her own life in 2013, jumping from a building in Shinjuku.
Nature or nurture, or nuture and nature, there is no doubt that Utada is who she is to an unmeasurable degree because of her mother. And it seems to go beyond that as we can see that their lives are uncannily almost mirror images of each other (at least to a point).
First of all, there is the obvious remarkable similarity in the way they sing as well as their looks and the way they hold themselves.
And looking at their respective histories we see:
Fuji Keiko got married in 1971 (to Maekawa Kiyoshi) at the age of 20.
They divorced in 1972.
Utada got married in 2002 (to Kiriya Kazuaki) at the age of 20.
They divorced in 2007.
Fuji Keiko suddenly and unexpectedly announced her retirement at the age of 28 in 1979 and then moved to America.
Utada also suddenly and unexpectedly announced her retirement at the age of 27 and then moved to the UK.
Fuji Keiko got remarried (to Utada Teruzane) in 1982 when she was 31 and gave birth to Utada Hikaru the following year.
Utada got remarried to an Italian man in 2014 when she was 31 and gave birth to a baby boy the next year.
I don’t honestly think there is any real supernatural or unexplainable factor that led to this string of coincidences, but it is interesting nonetheless. What can not be denied is that Utada Hikaru is the inheritor of some very outstanding genes. Adding to that, growing up under the influence of her incredibly talented mother and a father that was/is so steeped in the musical industry surely played a major factor as well. There is one more interesting but not really significant point I would like to make in this vein. In one of her fabulous ‘Kuma Power Hour’ radio shows….
[let me go off tangent for a minute as I want to tell you that this series of, I believe, 8 one-hour shows titled ‘Kuma Power Hour’ is something that you really must take a listen to. Utada talks a fair deal about herself as well as her mother, as well as displaying a vast amount of knowledge about the music scene both in and outside of Japan. The most interesting thing about the series is is that Utada speaks 50% of the time in fluent English and 50% of the time in fluent Japanese and it is a great deal of fun to listen to both versions of her talks back to back. As far as I know, Utada Hikaru is the only artist in the world that can truly be considered genuinely fluent in both Japanese and English. That in itself makes her a special presence in the music world. I know at times when she had just made her debut in Japan and her Japanese was not perfectly in mesh with the way Japanese girls would speak who had lived their lives only in domestic Japan, I got the feeling that that was rather stressful and difficult for her at times. She is a unique figure in that way in that she doesn’t really fit perfectly into ‘America’ and she also in a sense doesn’t fit perfectly into ‘Japan’ either-kind of an outsider. I know the feeling well having lived half of my life in the States and half here in Japan.]
…….Utada spoke about about her mother’s way of singing resembling very closely that of Patsy Cline’s. And it is true if you compare them back to back they do have the same feel. Patsy Cline also, it seems to me, implemented in some of her songs a kind of ‘Kobushi’ (tremelo) effect similar to that used in Enka. Sadly, she met a tragic end when she died in a car crash when she was just 30 years old which also seems to echo a bit with Fuji Keiko.
Obviously when someone asks who Utada is, the answer would be that she is a first class singer, but she needs to be equally praised for her songwriting. I love everything she has written (and sung) and it is interesting to see just how different she comes across when you compare her songs written in English with those in Japanese. Lets explore first of all one of her songs written in English, ‘Me Meuro’. The way she paints a picture of a young woman being totally devastated when her boyfriend leaves her is, well, it is a masterpiece of lyrical expression.
Please follow along using the following Youtube videos:
Me Muero (This is the One 2009)
‘Everyday my life’s in shambles
Since you took your love away
I got nothing left to gamble
I’ve thrown it all away’
<She starts out saying there is nothing left in her life. She has obviously given all she has to this man that she is in love with. Well, to start out it is perhaps typical of countless ‘love’ songs written and sung over the ages. But to start out like this in itself is atypical, I would say.>
‘Now and then I’m suicidal
Flirting with a new temptation
Happiness inside a bottle is what I need today’
<So we are seeing that she is herself most likely an alcoholic as who other than an alcoholic would find love inside a bottle. And she is professing to be considering killing herself over the loss of this boyfriend. Do you see how Utada has just added a layer of paint to this canvas? I personally begin to picture a young girl in perhaps a hotel room in a cheap hotel in Mexico (being that the title is in Spanish) talking with herself on how to live after her love has left her.>
‘Oh, my lover’s gone away, gone to Istanbul
Light as a feather
I lie in my bed and flip through TV channels
I’m smoking my days away reading old emails
In my old pajamas
What a day, me muero, muero, muero’
<And now Utada really starts to stack on the images, giving us more details about the state this girl is in. Her playboy lover has flittered off to Istanbul without a care for her. And she is left to lie on her bed trying to kill time flipping through TV shows and eating Godiva chocolate. Next, we get an image of her puffing away on cigarettes, reading old emails from her boyfriend without even bothering to change into new pajamas much less into proper clothes. Are you beginning to see the genius behind Utada’s lyrics?>
<And forget for a moment the big picture of her being thrown away by her boyfriend and focus on how she little by little adds to the image of what is going on with her, this young woman.>
‘Loneliness makes its arrival
Depression starts to settle in
Should I go Wynona Ryder?
And do some crazy things.’
<And now the depression and loneliness really shows itself. How many days have passed? We don’t know. But if you are really listening, her desperation and sadness really starts to show itself to you. This use of ‘Wynona Ryder’ as a verb is absolute brilliance. The way she phrases it not as, ‘Should I do something crazy like Wynona Ryder?’ but rather as ‘Wynona Ryder’ as a something that you can do is only a sensitivity that someone like Utada could conjure up.>
The rest of the song more or less echoes these themes and images, but I would guess that you will appreciate why I feel this girl is so damn skilled at painting a picture, be it suicidal levels or depression or…..the way to deal with these feelings as we find in the, what I feel, is the greatest song she ever wrote, ‘Show me Love (not a dream)’- this time in Japanese.
Show me Love (not a dream) (Utada Hikaru Single Collection Vol. 2 2011)
This is an extremely deep song that speaks about dealing with psychological pain in such a poetic and concise manner that I feel I get more out of this one song than could be found after reading tomes of psychological/philosophical books. It is as if Utada has condensed the deepest thoughts of say, Krishnamurti or the Buddha into a little pill that all one has to do is swallow. And because it is done so artistically it is a pleasant tasting one to boot.
It was released as the theme song for the film version of ‘Ashita no Jo-‘ in early 2011 and was performed at her final 2 shows in the Yokohama Arena where she laid down her microphone and went into retirement at the ridiculously young age of 28 (more on that later).
–I have tried to suppress this feeling (psychological pain) but it
won’t fade away, it sinks slowly once again to the bottom of a lake
<This is such lovely, poetic way to describe the way most of us try to deal with psychological pain or feelings. We think we can push them aside to some place unconnected to us, but they almost always reappear.>
–If you chase after two things at once, you end up with neither
My heart and mind grow heavy as I become totally fatigued with
all the contradictions
<That first line is well known parable or saying in Japan and needs no explanation except to say that it is very good in expressing one of the factors of psychological pain-that trying for two opposing things and the contradictions and fatigue such efforts produce.>
(Inside my lavender dreams)
–I thought I understood that running away from this pain (feeling)
only makes it more terrifying
I know that almost certainly there will never come a day where
I will be free from worry
<This is such a profound understanding-that you only make your problems worse by running away from them. They will come back bigger and more terrifying the more you escape from them.>
私の内なるパッセージ Show me love
内なるパッセージ Baby show me love
It’s all in my head Can you show me love
It’s all in my head Not a dream
–If I give into my lack of confidence I will
never be able to take this journey inside myself
Show me love
This journey within
Baby show me love
It’s all in my head Can you show me love
It’s all in my head Not a dream
<She is now expressing (I believe) that she knows the way
to deal with her psychological pain is to go within and face it
directly. I can’t correlate the ‘Show me love’ with the way I am
interpreting the lyrics so I may be off base, but….
And the ‘It’s all in my head’ is the realization that all of her (our)
psychological suffering is something that we ourselves have created or
prolonged through our own thought processes. This is so Krishnamurtian.>
–A purple signal flashes and my mind goes completely quiet
Only the unease and trepidations continue on
<I used to do a weekly podcast for about 3 years, where I interviewed scientists, writers, professors, etc and I tried unsuccessfully to get Utada on as a guest. If I had succeeded this was the number one thing I wanted to ask her, ‘What in the world is this ‘purple signal’?!>
(Inside my lavender dreams)
–I am weak. But, that is not something
that I particularly ashamed of.
痛みの元を辿って Show me love
元を辿って Baby show me love
It’s all in my head Can you show me love
It’s all in my head Not a dream
–In fact, each and everyone of us should
embrace some kind of deep darkness
At times in sickness we need to struggle, to scream
and shout and go right to the source of our pain
Show me love
It’s all in my head Can you show me love
It’s all in my head Not a dream
<It is hard to tell if she means we need to at times get sick and
go through it and get to the source of pain to deal with it, or if she
means ‘at times of sickness’ we need to do so. Either way, when you see her perform this, you really get the feeling that she personally KNOWS that you must go all out, get kind of raw and tenaciously trace the pain to its roots. Deep stuff.>
自分を認めるcourage Show me love
認めるcourage Baby show me love
–Lets forget all the theories that we have built up
Whatever goes up, must come down
In actual fact, no love is perfect no matter how deep it is
Only I can have the courage to be able to accept myself
Show me love
The courage to accept myself
Show me love
It’s all in my head
It’s all in my head
–After all it was only when I realized that I had just
been dreaming it all that I was able to
take my first steps under my own power
This journey within
The journey within
It’s all in my head
It’s all in my head
<I love how she brings this to a conclusion with the
profound realization that all of her (our) problems are nothing
more than dream stuff and that realization sets one free to
really start living.>
Following are some shorts clips from various songs highlighting her lyrical genius.
Workout (Exodus 2002)
I was talking with a born-again Christian
“So what’s it like to start life all over?”
He said “Amen,
I feel like I’ve been rediscovering the tomb of Tutankhamen.”
<I am not sure what it actually means, but it certainly makes you stop and think>
Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence – FYI (This is the One 2009)
Like Captain Picard
I’m chillin’ and flossin’
It’s seven o’clock
I issue you the warning
That’s right, we’re stealing this show
Damn right, letting him know
We’re sipping Chardonnay on 2 PM on our working day
<I love the utter brashness of this song. And it is such a tragedy that this album, ‘This is the One’ didn’t get the attention nor sales it deserves. I mean EVERY song on it is a masterpiece.>
Take 5 (Heart Station 2008)
–Take off your coat and come inside
There is no beginning nor ending
I want to live this day true to who I am
Deep River (DEEP RIVER 2002)
–This sword was not entrusted with the task of
clashing with other swords.
With contradictions like this just who can you protect?
<Kind of hard to translate but I think she is saying that if this sword is
used for fighting, for battle, it is not fulfilling its true purpose which is to
protect and defend. If, in other words, we go on the attack and battle we
are actually losing the ability to defend and protect those whom we are entrusted
to defend and that is the contradiction>
Prisoner of Love (Heart Station 2008)
–The blues, the sadness that is created by desiring after things
one can never attain
Everyone is looking for some kind of tranquility
We fight and steal in spite of fact that we have everything
We are all chasing after a shadow of love
<This rant on the world is so spot on and the feeling behind it really comes across in ‘Wild Life’>
Utada went into retirement from late 2010, in fact, I would imagine that you could say it started when she laid down her microphone in the manner of Yamaguchi Momoe at the conclusion of her 2nd night show at the Yokohama Arena. It is truly amazing that an artist of her stature could suddenly announce that she was going into retirement for 「人間活動に専念するため」<in order to devote herself to human activities>, or to live a life as an ordinary person. She stated several times that she felt strange that she knew nothing of how to balance a family budget or indeed do any of the daily tasks that most of us take for granted. She also stated, in all sincerity, that she would be happy to work as a cashier at a 7-11 (I don’t think that ever panned out). So, she gave it all up with no intention or set date for a return. That is some pretty heavy fortitude I would say. Now, of course, we know that she returned to the music world in the spring of 2016 after getting married and having a baby boy. I would love to add to this blog entry sometime in the near future when I have more to say on the fabulous album, ‘Fantome’.
I will sign off on this for now with a quote from Utada’s thoroughly enjoyable book, ‘Sen’.
I believe she wrote this when she was 18 and it really gives insight into how she approaches singing and performing.
I could have sworn I was reading one of Tohei-sensei’s books when I ran across this comment written by the loveliest singer/songwriter to ever grace this planet-Utada Hikaru. Pure Aikido is this.
A lot of people say, “It must be tough to strengthen your abdominal muscles”. As for myself, Utada Hikaru, I am not thinking anything when I sing! And I certainly do not put tension in my abdomen (laughs). To the contrary, I release all the tension from every part of my body and sing with every part of my body from the top of my head to my mouth, throat, lungs, wind pipe, stomach, intestines to the tips of my toes as one single connected musical instrument. I feel that concentrating, and digging in by filling your body with tension are TOTALLY different animals. So, when I sing I don’t get tired at all. I could sing all day without my voice giving out. In fact talking and laughing tire me out way more than singing.
I sat down wanting to simply write about the elusive and ever charming Japanese smile from both an explanatory and a linguistic point of view. You understand, I believe, what I mean by the Japanese smile. For those of you who do not, there is a subtle, almost unreadable, subtle feeling about the nuanced Japanese smile that is understandable but yet not understandable about how the Japanese can smile without just saying ‘I am happy’, or ‘ I am smiling, but my smile is communicating something else’. I want to expound upon this and perhaps much more in this post. I knew that I could just overwhelm the reader with examples both visually and linguistically but I realized I need to talk about so much that happens behind the scenes to make it understandable.
First of all we have to look at the concept that is so embedded in the Japanese mind of Honne and Tatemae.
Honne, <本音>, or literally stated as ‘the real sound’, or in understandable terms, ‘one’s true thinking, feeling, or opinion’
Tatemae, <建て前 >, or literally stated as ‘a structure build in front’, or in understandable terms, ‘thinking, feeling, or opinions expressed to not cause friction with those you are dealing with’.
In other words, Honne means one’s held to the chest, authentic thoughts, feelings or words. In the West these would be held above all others as authentic and those thoughts and feelings that we should honor and express beyond all else. I mean, of course, to do otherwise would be to be inauthentic and bordering upon or actually entering into the realm of dishonesty and lying.
So, Honne, one’s true feelings. When would it NOT be a good thing to express these thoughts? Even in the West, one would not say, ‘Hey, you are fat!’ upon seeing a friend who has grown in stature over the years. OK, so how about Japan? That would be the same in Japan. You would not draw attention to something unflattering to one in Japan either. But, yet it is different.
One the most imprinted on my memory experiences, and one that I wish beyond all things had never happened. What did happen was when two newlyweds (and I will leave their names out of this blog) died in a car crash when they were on their way to my house in the countryside town of Ujiie. I do not actually want to talk about this as it is too personal and yet I will will use it as an example of the way the Japanese deal with that most defining emotional state of life and that is Death. My friend M-san was on her way to to my house with her newlywed husband, T-san, when they were hit by a truck as they attempted a U-turn. I heard, along with my friend, K-san, a crash on the main road outside of my house. Upon going to the crash site we saw that they had both died upon impact. I went to the hospital and I gave my final words to the two of them.
It was the next day or two days later, that I experienced Honne/Tatemae upon going to the wake preceding the funeral. 25 or so friends were gathered in my friend’s coffee shop. Everyone was dressed in black, formal wear and yet everyone ‘seemed’ to be having a great time- having fun and talking about everything other than M and T’s lives. I couldn’t take in the brevity and the fun, almost off hand nature of what was happening. I lost it. I blew up and threw a wall mounted clock on the floor and yelled at everyone, ‘What are you doing?! This is supposed to be a time to honor our friends. How can you be so cheerful and insensitive to act like nothing has happened?’. This, it goes without saying did not go over so well.
It was only years later when I realized that I had experienced a full bore example of Honne and Tatemae.
In the country I come from, the United States of America, I was taught from the earliest age to express directly what I actually felt. You know, ‘if you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands. If you’re angry and you know it, stomp your feet’. To express your true thinking at all times was a sign of being an honest and strong individual. To not do so was to be two-faced. How does this go over in the unique society of Japan? Well, not so well.
Let’s take a look at the differences between Japan and the West, and even between Japan and its neighbors in Asia. To facilitate things I will give examples of differences between Japan and America knowing that these examples can be extrapolated out to the differences between Japan and other countries as well.
The degree of homogeneity
The percentage of Japanese living in Japan at the present time is around 98.7% The 1.3% who are Non-Japanese are comprised in order by Koreans, Chinese, Brazilians, Filipinos and, followed by Americans in 5th place making up a shocking total of 0.0003% of the total number of human beings living in Japan.
The percentage of Americans living in America if you consider the Native American Indians as being the true inhabitants of America the percentage would be from 1 to 2 percent.
You may be saying that that is an unfair calculation but considered from the scope of historical time I would say at least to express the degree of homogeneity that this is perfectly fair.
Japan as a Nation has the longest unbroken history in the world, by far.
Japan began with Emperor Jinmu in BCE 660 making Japan over 2,600 years old with an unbroken lineage of 126 Emperors.
Historical Emperors of Japan
America by contrast could be considered as having started with the Declaration of Independence in 1776, or the inauguration of Washington as the first president in 1789. Either way, its history is still less than 1/10th that of Japan. For longer than the period of time that United States of America has been a country, Japan was an isolated country (and isolated by deliberate choice) where only the very, very few were allowed either in or out of the country. This period is what we know as the Edo period, the period of Sakoku (isolated country), or the reign of the Tokugawa Shogunate. This was a period in World history that historians agree was one of the most amazing periods of peace, a flourishing of the arts, manners and sophistication as well as a deepening of highly refined culture that ever took place on the world stage. Anyway, my point is, is that the Japanese over hundreds and hundreds of years developed a society and culture wherein every Japanese knew to a deep degree what another Japanese was thinking and feeling with just a brief glance. This ability developed to the degree where in Japan they can it, ‘Ishin Denshin’ ＜以心伝心＞, meaning the ability to convey one’s thoughts or feelings without relying on words – something that comes close to telepathy without relying on a supernatural explanation. The Japanese also talk now and in the past about the importance of ‘reading the air’ – ‘Kuuki wo yomu’, ＜空気を読む＞. This refers to reading the atmosphere of the situation and knowing how to act so as not to cause friction or to dispel the harmony of what is taking place amongst the people you find yourself with in a given situation. The comedian Dave Barry in his book ‘Dave Barry does Japan’ talks about this saying that to him it felt like the Japanese could communicate to one another in the way two comedians who had memorized a joke book. In the joke book all the jokes were numbered. And as each comedian had perfectly memorized all the jokes in the book, they could merely say to the other, ‘Hey, what about number 273?’ to send the other comedian into stitches. It is much in this manner that the Japanese are able to communicate a huge amount of subtle meaning with a short, pithy word or even a slight physical expression. And it is here that I feel I can finally dig into the idea I had for this blog, which is the subtle nuances both physical and linguistic of the Japanese smile.
OK, here we go.
In Japan, or rather in Japanese, almost going against what I have proposed in that there is a deeper level in sublimity, in Japanese there is only one base word for smile/laugh and that is Warau ＜笑う＞、(わらう). Warau can be used for smile and warau plus voice for laugh. I did at least one time ‘laugh out loud’ when someone would ask me to ‘waratte’ when taking a picture when they were asking me to just smile.
Japanese is funny. It is based on a long, long period of time of Yamato kotoba or purely vocalized language up until around 500 CE when the Chinese Kanji entered into the way the Japanese communicated.
Apparently the roots of the word ‘Warau’ came from a variation of the word, ‘Waru’ ＜割る＞, meaning to break or split. This referred to the mouth opening or splitting and it is not a far stretch to go from ‘waru’ to ‘warau’. And this refers to the kind of smile where you emit a voice as well, or what in the West we would call a laugh.
When one ‘splits’ the mouth without vocal emission the word ‘Emu’, ＜笑む＞, (えむ), was used for smile.
Imai Miki singing ‘Hitomi ga Hohoemu Kara’
There is also the word, ‘Hohoemu’, ＜微笑む/頬えむ＞、which means the cheeks、＜頬＞、’Hoho’ relax in a slight splitting mannerwhich refers to what we in the West would call a smile but is in a way in modern Japan a more refined or subtle word for smile than how we would use the word. In fact, for daily life and for things like taking pictures and so on, the Japanized version of smile, ＜スマイル＞, is used.
And now on to the Kanji that is used for ‘Warau’ – that is to say if you are still with me on this, and believe I would not blame you if you are not. Even the Japanese do not usually delve into things this deeply.
The Kanji used for ‘Warau’ is ＜笑う＞.
According to some, this represents two hands (the upper characters) held out in an expression of ecstasy with the bottom part being a variation on the Kanji for the human body. So what kind of ecstasy is this talking about? Well, it is said to be a representation of a Miko (Shintou maiden) raising her hands
and dancing wildly in the ecstasy of a magic spell.
The bottom part of the Kanji is a derivative Kanji representing the human body. This makes for quite a exorbitant and wild depiction of someone laughing.
The ‘ON’ or Chinese reading for ‘Warau’ is ‘Shou’ and this is how it is read and pronounced in word combinations.
So, at long last, lets dig into the some of the variations of words and expressions for the Japanese smile.
Words using ‘Warau/Shou’
The laughter of a group of people that erupts all at once in unison.
*Also, the name of a famous comedy duo, ‘Bakushou Mondai’
A faint, kind smile.
A sneer. A mocking smile.
Literally means a cold smile.
Literally means to make fun of someone by laughing at them.
A sardonic or disdainful smile.
A seductive, enticing, alluring smile.
A laugh or a smile used to dismiss or disregard something.
A forced, feigned or fake smile or laugh.
Literally means a ‘created smile/laugh’.
A laugh that bursts out when one is unable to hold back a laugh in a situation where it is most inappropriate to laugh or smile.
A wry smile.
Literally, a bitter smile.
This is when one laughs softly or smiles in an embarrassed way having made a mistake or having done something awkward.
にやりと笑う ＜Niyari to Warau＞
ニヤニヤと笑う ＜NiyaNiya to Warau＞
ゲラゲラと笑う ＜GeraGera to Warau＞
To laugh in a loud voice without concern for others.
げらげら笑いのどん腹立て ＜GeraGera Warai no Donbaratate＞
Someone who suddenly goes from laughing joyfully to being angry all in a split second, or someone who emotionally unstable and filled with a wide variety of uncontrolled emotions.
笑う顔に矢立たず ＜Warau Kao ni Ya Tatazu ＞
Meaning if someone meets you with a smiling face your feeling of
animosity and hatred will nature drop away.
Literally means an arrow can not stay standing up on a laughing face.
笑う門には福来る ＜Warau Kado ni ha Fuku Kitaru＞
Happiness comes to those who are happy and cheerful.
<This is a Shintou-based analysis of Nakamoto Suzuka’s name according to
stroke number and positioning>
Basically what is written as far as explanation goes is:
Heavenly, or (Ancestor related fate) has 8 strokes and is considered ‘Good luck’, or ‘Kichi’
<Apparently, the Heavenly reading is based on all of the characters of the family name, so in
Su’s case the is 4 strokes for 中 and 4 strokes for 元.>
[Hard worker, makes efforts, succeeds]
The Heavenly (Ancestor related fate) refers to what has been passed down through your family name and thus has no relation to one’s personal powers or abilities. It is a representative symbol of your family lineage. Generally speaking, the influence of this fate grows stronger the older one becomes.
Personal fate (Main core fate) has 7 strokes and is considered ‘Good luck’, or ‘Kichi’
<Not sure why す is counted as 3 strokes as I would think it would be 2, but…>
[Strong Will, Independent mind]
A strong person who knows nothing of defeat throughout their life.
A type of person who is able to achieve his or her aims through the possession of a strong will and talent. This stroke count is somewhat not too fitting for girls.
Signifies a person with a clean, straightforward temper. This type is able to overcome any type of hardship with their powers of determination and ability to take action.
I had never considered the need to write about ‘Setsubun’ in my blog as apparently I had forgotten that it might not be very well known outside of Japan. It has only been in the last few years when I have casually talked with Japanese people about ‘Setsubun’, or, ‘Setsubun no hi’ that I realized that many, if not most, Japanese don’t understand it very well themselves.
First of all, spoken concisely, what is ‘Setsubun no Hi’?
It is a date falling on February 3rd where people all over Japan gather at temples or shrines, as well at their own house or school, and throw roasted soy beans while chanting, ‘Oni ha soto, Fuku ha uchi’ <Happiness in, Demons out >.
So, why do the Japanese do this? It seems to be such a strange custom.
The main meaning behind Setsubun is to celebrate the coming of Spring. Yes, that is right, Spring begins astronomically speaking on February 3rd or 4th. That does not mean it starts on this date in Japan, it means for the Northern Hemisphere winter ends on this date and thus Spring begins. It is easy to calculate this for yourself if you don’t believe me.
The shortest day of sunlight is December 21 to 23 making it the middle of winter, while June 21 to 23 is the longest day of the year, or the middle of summer. If you calculate out from these days you will come to the fact that Spring starts around the 3rd of February and Fall begins around the 7th or 8th of August.
Anyway, now that we know astronomically speaking that the 3rd of February is the end of Winter and the start of Spring we can look at why it is called Setsubun in Japanese.
Setsu, or 節, referring to the Fushime, 節目, or connecting part of the stem of a plant like a bamboo shoot. People studying Japanese may also see the connection into ‘Kisetsu’, ＜季節＞ meaning season (s). So, now that we know Setsubun means the turning or connecting point leading into Spring we can ask why is it that Japanese throw roasted soy beans while asking the demons to go away.
The common understanding is that around the time of the changing of the seasons it is easy to catch a cold and so one needs to pay attention to one’s health and ‘throw out’ harmful germs, bacteria, viruses, etc in the name of demons. And that is not by any means a bad concept to have as it does seem that it is easier to catch a cold around the changing of the seasons probably more to due with not adapting properly to the change in temperature in regards to how one dresses, heats the home and on and on. But the roots of why Japanese throw roasted soy beans at demons actually goes way back to the first written history (mythology) of Japan, the Kojiki.
In the Kojiki, the creators of the islands of Japan were Izanami and Izanaki.
As the two gods went about the arduous task of creating the islands and the gods needed to manage the lands the wife, Izanami, died giving birth to the final god of the lands – a fire goddess.
After losing his wife to the underworld <Yomi no sekai>, Izanaki ventured into the underworld to attempt to lure his beloved wife back to the land of the living. His attempts to do so eventually only infuriated his wife when he looked upon her decaying, worm-eaten body injuring her pride and breaking his promise of not trying to look at her.
Izanami mounted a full-fledged attack upon him along with her army of little ugly women demons. To flee from her Izanaki threw off the decorative vines he had in his hair to stave off their pursuit. Doing so, the vines turned into grapes which the little ugly women demons stopped to eat. Gaining a bit of time he next threw the bamboo kushi he had used as a decoration in his hair which turned into bamboo sprouts further gaining him some time as the little ugly women demons stopped to devour them.
Safely gaining access to the world of the living he only now had to repel his once beloved wife, Izanami and seal the entrance to the underworld. To do so, he threw peaches, known to have anti-demonic powers at his dead wife and her army and then sealed the entrance with a giant rock.
So, in fact, the most effective way to celebrate ‘Setsubun no hi’ is to throw peaches beseeching the demons to go away. That however, is not so readily possible in modern Japan, so we settle with roasted soy beans.
I hope this has shed a bit of light on this rather arcane tradition.
Can you say Juukisei <Gun control>? (Said in a Mr. Roger’s tone of voice)
How it feels to live in Japan without guns
The subject of gun control, at least when it reaches the mouths of Americans, becomes a heated and often out of control debate. Talk about it with Japanese people and you will find that it is kind of met with a sense of ‘Does this even need to be talked about?’. It is like, ‘Why are you even talking about regulating guns? Of course they need to be so. Why are you even bringing this up as a point of discussion?’ It is as if you were asking someone to talk about how they feel about the need for licensing and registration being a good idea for cars.
This is not an exaggeration.
I grew up in the United States of America. And while I can not say that I thought about guns everyday, I will say without any sense of illusion that I wondered on a daily basis, ‘Does this guy have a gun? What if he/she is carrying?’ at least on an almost unconscious level. These were thoughts that I had on my mind on a more or less constant basis. And there is good basis for this mental state with the daily barrage of reports of people losing their lives due to either the deliberate or accidental use of guns. In fact you would be rather stupid not to have this attitude. I do not want to say out and out that gun control is the answer for the United States of America as there are good arguments for the opposite point of view. I can only say that after living in both first America and then in Japan for roughly equal lengths of time, I can say without hesitation that gun control seems to have worked wonderfully for Japan.
I often hear that it is not fair to compare Japan with America in the area of gun control because the Japanese are by nature docile and peaceful or because the Japanese have an inbuilt ethical or moral fabric that makes gun control easier. Both of these I feel are faulty arguments and I would like to look at these and the present state of gun control in Japan.
Guns in Japan before gun control
Apparently guns, or rifles to be specific, made their way to Japan on the southern island of Tanegashima which is located even farther south from Kyuushuu but northern to Okinawa in the middle 15 hundreds. There are historians in Japan at present saying that guns that came from Asia were actually in existence before this but for now we will go with the traditional viewpoint. The lord of Tanegashima, Tokitaka sequestered 2 rifles from a grounded Portuguese ship and demanded that his iron workers decipher and reproduce the rifles. From this very humble beginning Japan went on to be the world’s largest possessor and importer/exporter of rifles in the world. Let that sink in for a minute. In the span of less than a century, and more like a few decades Japan went from being a country with zero or very few rifles to the world’s largest gun possessing country. These rifles were not merely the tools of the warrior class but also of pure gun manufacturing groups, religious groups and the merchant and farming classes as well. So we have now a people armed with not only rifles but of course swords and numerous other forms of weaponry. It was from within this background that one of the great unifiers of Japan, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who had unified Japan and became its sole leader, implemented what is called, ‘Katanagari’ <刀狩り> literally ‘sword hunting’ in 1588.
This order that forbade anyone not of the warrior class from possessing swords was not the first time to have come about in Japan and had happened previously on at least 3 other occasions. Toyotomi implemented this edict based on the largely, but not totally, fictional aim of rebuilding a new ‘Giant Buddha statue’ which required the metal of the nation’s swords and guns. It is obvious that this was more a way to disarm any rebellions than it was to build a Giant Buddha statue. Incidentally the temple, Houkou-ji was completed after about 10 years of work but was destroyed in 1596 by an earthquake for what that is worth.
While we at the present time may think this was a dishonest or even cowardly way to dispel your enemy, we can also credit Toyotomi with being at least clever and can perhaps praise him for slowly changing the war based mindset of the people into one a bit more practical and peace seeking.
Remember that the Japanese are not by nature peace-loving, docile imbeciles but are rather incredible fighters. We only have to look to the 140 years or more of constant civil war that was a daily phenomena for the whole country during the ‘Sengoku jidai’ <Warring states>.
And let us not forget the ‘Tameshigiri’, or, practice cut that was employed prior to the advent of the Edo period. This was a practice of cutting a carcass to see if the blade of a sword was truly battle ready or not. In Europe apparently this was used mostly using the bodies of dead animals. In Japan it was determined that animal bodies would not be a true determinant and that human corpses were to be used. In the early years of Edo there are records of contests amongst swordsmen who would cut through not one, not two but three or even up to seven torsos with one cut. Anyway, I am trying to make the point that the Japanese are not by nature a peace-loving, docile people for whom gun or weapon control would be an effective measure to countering violence while it would not be for the peoples of other countries.
Following upon the precedent established by Toyotomi at the end of the Sengoku era the Tokugawa family of Shoguns took the regulation of guns and weapons to the next level. In 1687 Tokugawa Tsunayoshi enacted a nationwide edict that forbade anyone outside of the Bushi class from possessing weapons with some exceptions for hunting and to scare off wild animals from agricultural areas. Even these tight regulations were further constricted toward the later years of the Tokugawa Shogunate, or the Edo period.
Now, let us remember that the 250 plus years of the Edo period are considered by world historians to be an unprecedented and unique period of world history where there was relative peace within a country and has never been replicated to any degree any where else in the world.
When we enter the Meiji period in the later part of the 19th century if anything the laws regarding the possession of guns became even stricter and was heavily regulated by the Meiji government.
Now, we can skip over the horrendous years of World War 1 and 2 and pass into the post WW2 era regarding gun control. In 1958 a law was passed that for all intents and purposes forbade Japanese citizens from owning guns, swords or similar weapons. And if anything in the years following to the present day, if anything these laws became even stricter and extended greatly into the use of guns even by the legitimate police forces.
Modern day gun control in Japan
Before I get into the current state of affairs of gun control in Japan I would like to make the reader aware that in present day Japan even the thought of wanting to buy a gun is something that is so far from the consciousness of the average Japanese as to be akin to the thought of, ‘Gee, I should consider buying a Barbie doll that could fly me to the moon’. It is just something that is not considered or even thought about by the vast majority of Japanese.
How to buy a gun in present day Japan.
First of all, you are have never been convicted of gun or sword or weapon related crimes in the past.
You are not a member of, or have an immediate relative who is a member of, an organized crime organization. (And believe me these groups are well known and documented)
You have no history of mental illness or anything similar to mental illness. (Pretty vague and probably for a purpose)
You have never gone out of business or filed a Chapter 10 (10?, please forgive my ignorance of legal vocab)
You are a Japanese citizen.
You have no history of committing a crime (excluding light crimes like exceeding the speed limit by 15km/h)
You are of age (air rifle 18, hunting rifle 20)
You are not addicted to drugs or alcohol.
These are the first steps to clear.
Next, if you have cleared these criteria (and believe me they will all be thoroughly checked and researched over several months or even years)
You will attend an all day class which includes a written test on guns and which are held somewhat seldomly. You must take an of course pass a shooting test. You will be checked for whether you have properly paid taxes or not. If you pass all of these conditions you will then have to provide the police with a map to where you store your gun including the bullets which must be locked and stored in a place that is sufficiently outside of the reach of children. And the ammo and the gun must be stored sufficiently away from each other to satisfy the conditions of the police standards. Also, all of this including the tests for shooting and storage will all be repeated once every 3 years with an inspection once per year.
Sounds strict? Well lets take a comparison between what has been gained from the 4 centuries of gun restriction and current strict gun controls in Japan with the almost totally absent and ‘I love the fucking 2nd amendment over all else’ reality that exists in the US of A.
Actual figures between Japan and America
These are current figures for both countries
Average number of deaths by guns in Japan is right around a shocking-OK, drum roll please—-10!
Average number of deaths by guns in America—-33,000!
I have not separated suicides and accidents from either number because I am only talking about the impact and influence of guns and so feel their totals need to be included. If we weed out the accidents and suicides (which are basically zero in Japan) we see around 11,000 in America.
So, I am not preaching to the Americans who read this blog. In fact I am not totally opposed to the idea of Americans arming themselves in the current state of affairs in the US of A. I am saying that looking at the violent past of the Japanese and their subsequent attitude and actions towards violence and especially violence carried out by guns, I think there is something of deep importance that can be learned.
There are few things that are more Japanese in essence than Tatami and it is one of the traditional items found in Japan that you would be hard put to find an identical twin in other countries. Unlike some of the things I have talked about previously in this blog like Sushi and Kanji which have their roots in China and other parts of Asia, Tatami is something that literally grew out of the very fabric of Japan itself.
There are indications that simple straw mats known as ‘Mushiro’ were used as far back as the Jomon and Yayoi era. The very inherent knowledge that brought about the development of these mats made from ‘Igusa’, or Bulrush, fits perfectly with the extreme climatic variances of the Japanese environment and which meld perfectly with this land known as ‘Mizuho no Kuni’, or the country of luscious grasses. It wasn’t until the Nara era in the ‘Nihon Shoki’ and the ‘Kojiki’ that we first find mention of Tatami mats being used. The word ‘Tatami’ comes from the verb ‘Tatamu’ <たたむ、畳む＞ meaning to fold or stack relating to how the straw mats could be folded or rolled up in their early incarnations and then stacked as they approached the modern form that we know them as today.
In the past, and we are talking about the Nara or Heian periods, Tatami was used as a bedding item that indicated one’s status of authority. You can still see this represented in movies depicting this era. You will see a highly stacked pile of tatamis surrounded by mosquito nets. So, unlike today where Tatami are slowly but surely being replaced by flooring in Japan (unfortunately, in my opinion) in the Heian period they were used to indicate an aristocrat’s level of superiority and apparently this even went into the designs put into the borders lining each individual mat.
This special status given to Tatami continued only through the Heian period and once we get into the Muromachi era and following into Edo apparently Tatami were used in all rooms in people’s houses without connotating a sense of superiority. In the Edo period Tatami began to be introduced as a very important element in the tea ceremony and once again gained a bit of its historical importance.
“In the 16th century, the tea master Sen no Rikyu refined the Japanese tea ceremony, establishing the use of small, rustic tea rooms using rustic and natural materials, including tatami. His tea rooms were often smaller than they had formerly been, including one that is still extant that is only big enough for two tatami mats. Rikyu was instrumental in popularizing wabi-sabi, the idea of finding beauty in simplicity, which became associated with the tea ceremony.”
However, it was not until near the end of the Edo period that we see the emergence of a whole class of Tatami makers to deal with its introduction into even the farming communities. Tatami are apparently both old and yet surprisingly fairly young in Japanese society-we could even say that the development of Tatami in Japan is still midway along its journey.
What is Tatami made of?
Tatami mats are made of rushes which are herbaceous plants of the Juncus genus. Juncus means ‘to bind’ in Latin and seems to me to be an appropriate name for this plant which is known in Japan as ‘Igusa’ <い草> and is a name that I like because it is almost identical to one of the words for battle in Japanese ‘Ikusa’ <戦>. Igusa made its way from India by way of the silk road, through the Korean peninsula to Japan.
Igusa nows grows abundantly from Hokkaido to Okinawa and due to the fact that its plant stem possesses the ability to draw up oil it was used as a wick in lamps to such a degree that Igusa is also called the ‘Lamp wick plant’ <燈心草>
The efficacy of Igusa/Tatami
Experiments have shown that if Igusa is placed in a cup with tobacco smoke Igusa has the ability to almost completely remove the smoky smell. Powderized Igusa is also sometimes added to Oolong tea or Shocchu to remove impurities and make these beverages easier to drink. This sponge-like characteristic of Igusa excels in removing toxic elements from the air in our daily lives.
We are all aware of the effect of relaxation given off by simply having lots of house plants in our rooms. But with Igusa we get the added effect of Vanillin which could more simply be expressed as Vanilla extract. This is an element that is contained in Igusa and which apparently supplies an aromatic effect somewhat similar to eating foods that contain vanilla.
The softness of Tatami mats is apparently extremely effective in reducing unwanted ‘shocking’ sounds and background noises.
To prevent senior citizens from becoming bedridden
A study group promoting longevity in Japan announced that a ‘Japanese lifestyle is the ideal one for fighting off osteoporosis and helping people to live long lives’. One example of its benefits are that when living in houses with Tatami mats one does not rely on chairs and sofas and is thus obliged to move from a full sitting to standing, standing to sitting position often throughout the day promoting strong leg and back muscles. And since one does not use a western bed on top of Tatami but rather a traditional futon this life style also requires you to spread out the futon at night and then fold it up and put it away in the closet in the morning in addition to having to air it out from time to time. All of these activities serve to promote a strong body. Further, sleeping on a futon on the rather firm (yet soft) foundation of Tatami is wonderful in helping to keep one’s backbone straight and reduces the chance of spinal deformities resulting from sleeping on too soft of a bed. And since one often walks barefoot on Tatami (and certainly, never, ever with shoes on) the stimulus to the sole of one’s feet is apparently beneficial to proper brain functioning especially in babies and senior citizens. There is also the added benefit of the soft nature of Tatami easing the shock of the occasional tripping and falling down that happens with the elderly.
From an early age in Japan you are told not to step on the border section, the ‘Tatamiberi’ <畳縁> the of Tatami.
One reason for this is quite a simple one and that is that you will wear it down or damage it. Another reason is that it represents the dividing line between the material world and spirit one or that it shows the dividing line between the guests of the house and the owner and that either way of looking at it, it is not considered appropriate to step on it with your feet. It is also thought that in the older days of Japan this border on the Tatami signified a physical dividing line between the common people and the ruling or aristocratic families who would obviously be on the Tatami side of things while the commoners would be socially compelled to stay on the dirty flooring, earthen room or hallway and to cross this, much less step on the actual border was unthinkable.
Still another reason for not stepping on the border that has been put forth is that since the border design was most often the family crest design itself, to step on the border would be equivalent with stepping on the faces of your ancestors.
And yet another reason, and this is the one I was told of early on after coming to Japan, is one that reflects the mind of the ancient Bushi, or warrior. It is possible that an enemy warrior or even a Ninja could sneak in under the Tatami, lie in wait for you and as you stepped on the border area, stab you will a katana or a poisoned needle. Or, more simply such an enemy could leave poisoned needles embedded in the space between mats which would prick you as you stepped on them. Either way, it was considered a sign of a true warrior to never step on this part of the Tatami mats.
Japanese proverbs or saying that make use of Tatami
“女房と畳は新しい方が良い”-Nyoubou to Tatami wa atarashii hou ga yoi
As far as wives and Tatami go, it is always best to have a new ‘fresh’ one.
This does not necessarily mean it is a good idea to always be exchanging your wife for a new one. Rather it most likely means that that fresh exciting feeling a man has about his wife when freshly married is one that we should try to keep or reinvigorate into one’s married life. Perhaps. Or it simply means one should get remarried to a younger woman once every 7 years or same same as with changing your Tatami mats. I will leave the interpretation up to you. There is also a proverb that is the opposite of this, “女房と鍋釜は古いほど良い”– Nyoubou to nabekama wa furui hodo yoi. This means that when it comes to wives and cooking pots the older the better.
“悪人は畳の上では死なれぬ” – Akunin wa Tatami no ue de wa shinarenu
This means that a person who does bad things can not die on a Tatami in front of his or her family. In other words, a good person may die with his or her family looking after them in their dying hours but a really bad person will die away from them in prison or while embarking on some dark, dangerous outing.
“起きて半畳、寝て一畳” – Okite hanjou, nete ichijou
This literally means, when you are awake you occupy a space of about ½ a Tatami mat and about 1 full mat when you sleep. What it is trying to say is that no matter what kind of a rich mansion or Tokyo condominium you live in, in actuality all you occupy at any given time is a very small space. So I guess it kind of means be humble and be happy with what you have.
“畳の上の水練”– Tatami no ue no suiren
This literally means to practice swimming on a Tatami mat. Meaning of course, no matter how much you study, practice or envision something in your head, in theorizing, it will not do you much good and that you need to get out and experience things first hand for them to have any real meaning or effect.
“新しい畳でも叩けば埃が出る”– Atarashii Tatami demo tatakeba hokori ga deru
Since Tatami is made of Igusa and straw, if you beat on it dust and small particles will come out. So even a nice, new looking Tatami will produce trashy kind of stuff if you pound on it enough and in the same way even a serious looking, sincere looking person may not actually be so wonderful once you get to know them or look into their past. So, in other words, don’t judge a book by its cover.
Anyone who has spent any time living in Japan knows just how serious the Japanese are about keeping Tatami clean and the absolute taboo against ever walking on Tatami with your shoes on. Many times I have, in a hurry, had to do what I call the ‘Kataashi Ken Ken dance’. That is what happens when after you have put on your shoes (or Jikatabi in my case as I now do not own even one pair of shoes)
you remember you have forgotten something in the Tatami room and to save time you take off one shoe and hop back into the room jumping around trying to keep your balance as you look for your keys. Anyway to highlight this respect for Tatami I will conlude with a short story well known in Japan about a Dutch man, Anton Geesink.
Mr. Geesink was a 2 time world champion and 1964 olympic gold medal winner in Judo. In the Tokyo Olympics of ’64 Geesink defeated the famed Kaminaga-san on his home turf (mat?) at the Nihon Budoukan. The moment of his victory several media related men and supporters began to run onto the Tatami mats with their shoes on in the excitement. They were stopped immediately by Mr. Geesink as he charged at them waving them off with a stern face and by waving his hands in disapproval. Even now the Japanese regard his actions as a true expression of his understanding of the almost sacredness of Tatami and as an expression of the spirit of a real Bushi fighter.
OK, so thinking about things Japanese the existence of Fujisan comes up if not immediately at least in the top ten images of Japan.
There is something so harmonious, so symmetrical, so Japaneasy about this enigmatic mountain that I felt I should say a few things about it. I do not like to talk about myself as I think you will understand from the numerous posts I have made on this blog. But in taking on the subject of Fujisan I will have ask you to allow me to touch ever so briefly on my own personal history. When I was in the first year of Jr. High school in Montana I remember looking around the room at my classmates in a period of not so unusual boredom. I looked to the left and realized this student was rather dull and only interested in totally meaningless pursuits. I looked to the right I saw that this girl was a brainwashed Christian, the teacher was hopelessly boring and and actually not educated himself in anything I wanted to study, and so it went and could be applied to basically all the students in my Jr. High school class. I resolved at that point that I would escape from this country known as the United States of America as soon as was practically possible.
I remember going to the library and pulling down picture books on countries that I could possibly escape to. First came France with the Eiffel tower and St. Michelle. ‘Nah, this does nothing for me’. Then China and the Great wall and the invention of gunpowder. Again, ‘No, this doesn’t do it for me’. And then somewhere along the line I picked up a book on Japan and the first page opened to a fold-out of Mt. Fuji. Well, that was all she wrote. That was all that needed to be seen. Of course I went on to look at pictures of Geisha, Samurai, Bullet trains, Sushi and all that, but it was the first view of Fuji-san that did it for me. It was 10 years later that I actually found my way to Japan. And it was another 20 years or so further down the road that that I decided to take on a Japanese name and convert my nationality to Japanese (which I have yet to actually do the paperwork on).
In order to convert to Japanese nationality one of the things you need to do is select a Kanji name for yourself. And it was here that by chance, or by Fate, that I chose ‘Tomimasu’, or ‘Toumasu’ for my first name of Thomas.
The kanji for this is ‘富増’. And remember at this time I was not deliberately trying to tie my name to Fuji-san (currently written as 富士山but this ‘冨’ <Tomi> or <Tomu> fit perfectly for my first name. It seemed to me at a later date that Fate had stepped in and put Fujisan into my Japanese name perfectly in line with my search for a way out of insanity so many years before.
The Creation of Mt. Fuji
The science behind the creation of Mt. Fuji
It is speculated that that way in the distant past a protruding segment of the philipino plate moving gradually over thousands and thousands of years approached the mainland of Japan. Around 3 million years ago this segment that was unable to submerge into the subduction of the underseas trenches instead rode over the plate and collided with Honshuu (the mainland of Japan). As a result of this over the following 2 million years this pressure moved on to create the mountains to the north of this collision. And then over the following span of time became the creation of not only Fujisan but also the volcanic mountains of Hakone which are of such great interest at this present time due to their heightened volcanic activity of late. This was the creation of Fujisan part 1 you could say. In relatively recent events dating back to only about 10 thousand years ago, a series of eruptions and magma flows very close or almost identically to the original Fujisan began to take place resulting in the creation of the what we currently call Fujisan or what should perhaps actually be termed the ‘new Fujisan’. So in actuality, Fujisan is a very, very new creation in geological terms. This ‘New’ Fujisan has erupted numerous times in its short history. Among these are the famous ‘貞観‘ <Jougan> eruption in 865 and the 宝永大噴火<Hoeidai eruption> in 1707.It is reported that in this 1707 Hoeidai eruption the ashes were expelled to about 10 thousand meters into the atmosphere and that the ashes from this eruption rained down on Edo <Tokyo>. Since this most recent large eruption Fujisan has been rather inactive even though it is most certainly classified as an active volcano and is even way behind in its projected schedule to erupt again.
Why is Fuji-san so named?
The reason behind the written name is veiled in mystery. There are countless books published in Japan delving into various theories on why Fuji-san is named Fuji-san. Some of the more accepted ideas are as follows. First if we look at the pronunciation we see that the Ainu, or native race of Japan, call ‘fire mountains’, or volcanoes, using the words ‘Funchi’ or ‘Pushi’ which sound quite similar to ‘Fuji’ and on a separate note the word ‘Funchi’ seems quite similar to my ears at least to the modern Japanese word for erupt ‘Funka’ 噴火‘. In Korean we also see the similar sounding words of ‘Putto’ and ‘Puru’ meaning fire so there may be some connection here as well. In ancient Japanese there is also the word, ‘Fuji’ meaning a slope or something hanging down, as well as the word, ‘Fuse’ referring to a bowl that has been turned over which obviously looks a lot like the shape of Mt. Fuji. These are some of the possible origins of the verbal, spoken name for Mt. Fuji.
Now how about a look at Mt. Fuji when it is put into its written form and possible origins in that arena. The earliest written mention of Mt. Fuji appears in a record from the Nara period known as the ‘Hitachi no Kuni Fudoki’ where it is written as ‘ 福慈” which apparently can be read as ‘Fuji’. A bit later in the famous
”Manyoushuu” of the Heian period it is written using a rather interesting combination of Kanji ‘不尽山‘ <Fujisan> which most likely means something that never runs out or that never dies-something that is eternal.
The first time Mt. Fuji is named in writing using the present day Kanji of ‘富士‘ was in the famous record of Japanese history, ‘Shoku Nihongi’ at the end of the 8th century. At other times it has been written as ‘不死‘ <Fushi> meaning immortal, without death and as ‘不二‘ <Funi or Fuji> meaning, and I love this one, ‘Not two’ or ‘Non dual’ or obviously as some of you may see where this is going ‘Advaita’ or the teaching of Non-dualism.
Now, we also have the famous ‘Fuji Kikai’ or ‘Aokibara Jukai’ located in Yamanashi prefecture at the base of Mt. Fuji where people go to kill themselves. This is a location known throughout the world and so I will not talk about it in modern terms because it is as it is and you can research to your heart’s content. This area of the present day Yamanashi prefecture is noted in the 1,200 year ago ‘Manyoushuu’ under the name of Kai no Kuni. This area was considered to be the area of the dead, or the ‘Yomi no Sekai’ that appears in the Kojiki. But it also refers to the image of an egg or of rebirth. I have to leave a description of this out of the conversation (But will cover it asked to) as it is just way too confusing and involves plays on Kanji and meaning that I would have to devote too much time to to make much sense of. Anyway, this area around Mt. Fuji was considered to be the place where spirits would or could come back to life and so Mt. Fuji was referred to as ‘不死‘ <Fushi or Fuji> meaning eternal or beyond death. And so this is another possible reason behind the naming of Mt. Fuji. In other words, it was the presence of Fuji (or ‘Non death’) that would bring dead spirits back to life.
Fujisan and “Taketori Monogatari” <The tale of the bamboo cutter>
Now, I am sure that most of you reading this blog are well versed in all things Japanese and are most certainly familiar with the Kaguya-hime story and so I will skip retelling it here and pick on the part relevant to this point about Mt. Fuji.
When it came time for Kaguya-hime to return to her place of origin, the moon, on a night of the full moon, the Emperor of Japan was extremely depressed at the thought never seeing her again. Just before she departed she left behind an elixir of immortality (不死の薬)
<Fushi no Kusuri> and some writings to serve as her ‘Katami’ <形見>.
Now, as a side note and not to detract from the story, but this concept of a ‘Katami’ is so important in Japanese culture that I should at least mention that it is an article of importance to someone like a ring, a coin, a sword, a necktie, a necklace, etc that is left behind after they die that serves as a kind of link or spiritual connection to someone who has gone on to the other world. The actual Kanji used ’形見‘ is extremely interesting in that it seems to imply a ‘visible form of me’ in a literal translation. In other words something that reminds the person remaining in THIS world of one who has passed to THAT world and is the source of countless stories in Japan.
Anyway, back to the story. The Emperor stated that if he could never see Kaguya-hime again then the elixir of immortality would mean nothing and so upon meeting the army of skilled soldiers sent to stop him from his actions, he burnt the writings and the “不死の薬” and the smoke from this rose to the top of mountain and that mountain came to be known as the “不死山” or ‘Fujiyama or Fujisan.
Interesting facts about Mt. Fuji
Who owns Mt. Fuji?
If you ask 100 Japanese probably 99 will answer that Mt. Fuji is the property of all Japanese citizens. Of course.
However, from the 3,360 meter and above point, Mt. Fuji is actually private property. So, who owns this tip of Mt. Fuji?
The tip of Mt. Fuji is owned by the shrine of ‘Asama’.
The ‘Asama shrine’ family governs over 1,300 shrines around Japan. This Shintou family was loved by the great historical figure of Takeda Shingen who to this day perform the opening ceremony allowing people to begin climbing Mt. Fuji. In 1606 the authority to govern these activities and the upper regions of Mt. Fuji were given to the unifying Shougun of Japan, Tokugawa Ieyasu.
Painting Fuji-san red
During WW2 a project was proposed that would have changed the way we look (literally) on the beauty of Mt. Fuji. The US entity that existed prior to the current CIA, the OSS came up with a plan to nullify the resistance of the Japanese military. In other words, they wanted to convey to the Japanese military that any resistance was now futile and that they should lay down they arms and surrender. A group in the OSS researched the Japanese and realized that if they could destroy the beauty of this mountain known as Mt. Fuji, that they could largely impact the fighting spirit of the Japanese. They came up with the idea of somehow painting the top of Mt. Fuji in Red and this would somehow destroy the fighting spirit of the Japanese military. It was calculated (and this was apparently calculated after the war by the Japanese themselves and not the Americans at the time) that it would have taken 120,000 tons of red paint and about 30,000 B29 jets to accomplish the task. And the fuel needed to propel these jets from the Mariana islands would have cost about 600 million dollars and the project was dropped. Once again we see the incredible effort that lay behind the American effort at the time to stop the fighting spirit of this little island country and its people. We can just be thankful that such a preposterous idea was abandoned.
The earthquake and tsunami of 2011 March 11 in Japan is something everyone all across the globe is well aware of and knows of its incredible destructive impact on the NorthEastern region of Japan. For us living here in Japan, especially in the Kantou and Touhoku regions of Japan it was an event that for obvious reasons impacted those who lost loved ones but also influenced the lives of those who were not so directly impacted. I live in Tochigi prefecture which is about 210 kilometers south and to the west of Sendai. I would like to look a bit at this earthquake and its background, human impact and uniquely Japanese connections as well as the way the Japanese dealt with it on a technological and social level.
Earthquakes are anything but unusual in Japan. Anyone who has visited or lived here even for a short time will invariably remember their first experience with an earthquake in Japan. Most likely you as the visitor were shocked into amazement, fear and confusion as to what to do and yet as you looked around at the Japanese in your vicinity you may have been almost equally amazed at the apparent lack of concern to the point of wondering if they were even feeling the shaking going on. At times when earthquakes are happening on an increased level for some time it seems as if no one even looks up and takes notice and if you have lived here long enough you might even find yourself acting in the same way. It is like, ‘Heh, another one. Doesn’t feel so big, so back to whatever I was doing’.
You have most likely heard of the ‘Ring of fire’.
The ‘Ring of fire’ is a roughly ‘U’ shaped rim upon which over 75% of the world’s active and dormant volcanoes sit. <image> Between 80 and 90% of all the world’s earthquakes including the largest ones are generated in this area. The vast majority, somewhere around 90% of the largest volcanic eruptions in the past 12,000 years have occurred along this ring. While earthquakes happen in the range of minor tremors literally everyday the occurrence of major ones is relatively speaking, not so common. In the past 120 years there have been 4 major and disastrous ones which are the Meiji Sanriku earthquake of 1896 (more on this in a bit), the Great Kantou earthquake in 1923, the Great Hanshin earthquake in 1995 and of course the 2011 Touhoku Chihou Taiheiyouoki earthquake (hereafter, ‘3/11earthquake’).
Brief look at the mechanism of the 3/11 earthquake
Japan is in a perfect storm environment for earthquakes geographically speaking as it a sits atop four huge tectonic plates- the Pacific plate, the North America plate, the Eurasian plate and the Filipino plate.
These plates move into, under and away from each at very slow rates, with the average movement being just slightly faster than the rate at which our fingernails grow. Over particular importance is the subduction zone where the 3/11 earthquake was generated from off the coasts of Miyagi and Iwate prefectures. This subduction area is one of the most active in the world. Subduction refers to two plates pushing against each other and where one of the plates slides under the other. In subduction zones oceanic trenches are created in which undersea volcanoes are found and these volcanoes are connected to the generation of deep focus earthquakes. On 3/11 the accumulated pressure of these two plates that had built up over 1,000 years without release (in this specific plate area) snapped with a power strong enough to shift the land base of Honshuu by 5 meters to the east. The scale of the power was recorded as being 9.0 magnitude which is the highest in the measurement recording history of Japan.
1896 Meiji Sanriku earthquake and the 3/11 earthquake
In what could be considered recent history we find that the Meiji Sanriku earthquake of 1896 was remarkably similar to the 3/11 earthquake 115 years later.
The Meiji Sanriku earthquake had a hypocenter located about 200 kilometers off the Iwate coast and a magnitude of 8.5 while the 3/11 was about 130 kilometers from the coast and a magnitude of 9.0. The heights of the ensuing tsunamis were also similar with the Meiji Sanriku one generating a tsunami that reached 38.2 meters and 3/11 about 2 meters higher at 40.5 meters.
While being similar in statistics the two earthquakes were quite different in essence. The Meiji Sanriku earthquake rocked and swayed rather slowly for about 5 minutes. The damage to houses and structures was so light that basically no one was overly concerned. It was into this state of affairs that the tsunami suddenly appeared resulting in the tragic loss of over 21,000 lives. This type of earthquake is called a ‘Tsunami earthquake’.
On the other hand, the 3/11 earthquake continued to violently rock the land over a vast area for over 6 minutes and further produced a larger scale tsunami.
The Meiji Sanriku earthquake damaged greatly the coastal areas of Iwate and yet did not have much impact on the coasts of Miyagi and Fukushima. The 3/11 earthquake however generated a tsunami that spread its destructive power from Iwate all the way down to Chiba and due to the immense uplift of deep underwater plates it raised up about 3 times more ocean water than its counterpart.
My experience of 3/11
2011 March 11th, 2:45PM Sakura, Tochigi, Japan
After coming back from my daily training/wandering in the mountains in the vicinity of where I live in Tochigi, Japan, I was sitting in front of my computer watching the latest “Charlie Sheen Cooking Video” and figuratively laughing till my jaw fell off (sorry for using a Japanese expression) when I felt the beginnings of an earthquake. (the cooking spoof of Charlie doing a short food show has been deleted from Youtube.)
Being used to earthquakes after living in Japan for 23 years, I leisurely made my way to the kitchen to turn off the gas still thinking I was just convulsing in laughter from the video. Immediately upon turning off the gas the real show began.
Crash, smash, pop, bang, boom and the house was shaking in the manner of riding on the back of a bucking bronco. Deliberating on whether to run outside or try to find a “safe” place inside, the immense power picked up a notch forcing my decision to cling onto a wooden pillar bordering the 2nd story of my living room and the attic.
The shaking increased and I got the feeling that I was floating on the back of moth hovering over a gigantic dragon that is roaring at full pitch. The strange thing is that perhaps due to the fact that I have experienced near death experiences on countless occasions and perhaps due to an inordinate fascination with death since the age of 10, my heart beat didn’t rise an iota and I felt completely relaxed with a desire to “totally” live these final seconds of life. I was certain that at any moment the whole world of physical reality was about to explode into countless shards of glass.
It was then that I had the thought, “Why am I not screaming and yelling. Why am I just clinging to this pillar?” Immediately I screamed out at the top of my lungs, “Listen to me Earth–settle down damn it!”. And strange as it may seem I felt a split second reprieve. Again I yelled out, “Knock it off, what are you thinking!?!?!”. Again it felt like the Earth responded, like “Who is calling me?” As this went on for what seemed forever (in fact the whole span of the earthquake was just over 6-minutes, which is a long, long time in these circumstances). I was certain that not only was I going to die-I mean of course I was as nothing could withstand this any longer and much more I felt the whole world was going to shatter away into nothingness. It was at the point where I was sure my life and the indeed the whole world was all about to end that I felt as if the presence of the Earth suddenly turned towards me and kind of said to itself “what am I doing? This is rather excessive” And boom, the rocking and rolling just stopped in a heartbeat and I felt an immense sense of being released from the jaws of death.
I then proceeded to walk outside in a both relaxed and heightened state of mind and start checking in on the safety of my neighbors. Once I checked on the first house I remember sprinting at full speed to another 3 or 4 houses, screaming ‘Daijoubu desu ka?’ <are you alright?> and then went on to clean up about 20 huge blocks each weighing an easy 20 kilograms that had fallen from a stone wall and were blocking the road in what seemed like about about a minute. And then when my wife returned home and I was standing around talking with a couple of the neighboring housewives I went into a burst of laughing fits, fits of hysteria about the surreal nature of what had just occurred. It is so strange to reflect upon as I remember we were pondering the possibility based on one of the housewives’ information that she had heard all of Tokyo had been swept out into the ocean.
After merging with my second son on his march back home from Jr. High school and making our way to my wife’s parent’s house in the 20 kilometer separated city of Utsunomiya-all of which took about 3 hours with all the other Japanese lined up so quietly and respectfully in orderly lines of self governing traffic rules we finally reunited with my first son and found refuge in the largely unaffected house of my in-laws.
We stayed here for a few days and learned of the destruction and possible radiation exposure of the Fukushima plants. In the ensuing days we had to take care not to use too much gasoline as the lines of delivery had been cut off and were to remain cut for about 2 weeks.
We eventually made it back home but had almost no gasoline, no electricity and no gas. And I remember the intense fear we all felt every time an after-shock (of which there were countless numbers of) and the wondering of when gasoline would be made available again. It was over these 2 weeks that I actually wept in amazement and gratitude at the reaction and response to the earthquake and calamity of the Japanese at least 10 times. Despite the total cut-off from the usual supply of food, gasoline and utilities as well as the on-going 5+ magnitude aftershocks, there was not even the hint of anyone panicking, looting or rioting. In fact all I saw was a calm and extremely respectful of the situation of others type of response. In fact, the owner of the wall of stones that I had repaired shortly after the earthquake came very next day with a lovely cake to express her gratitude. I learned later that she, an elderly woman herself, had lost family in Miyagi and yet she took time and effort to buy a damn cake in the midst of all this and come to thank me. I had no words then and no words no now for just how deeply the attitude of the Japanese affected me.
After getting through over 10 days of no gasoline and long periods of having no electricity, gas and other lifeline related services we finally got word that limited amounts of gasoline would begin to be made available. I think it was about 4 liters per car but can’t truly remember the details. Anyway, on day following this announcement I woke up at 3:30 AM and made my way to the closest gasoline stand only to find that the line had already stretched out about 2 kilometers. I lined up still in the dark and waited for almost 4 hours to get my few liters of gasoline. In that time I saw no a single account of anyone cutting in line, honking their horn, flipping the finger, or even making an expression of disgust or irritation. I must have broken down in tears of amazement and gratitude twice in these few hours in the realization that I was indeed living in a culture that so surpassed the one I was raised in that it was imperative that I up my active efforts to truly comprehend and integrate into myself the magic of this country called Japan. It was then that I decided to get back in to Aikidou which I had cut myself off from for about 8 years. Let me stress one more time that the hundreds of Japanese lined up to get gasoline after being without for close to 2 weeks did not even hint at being unruly or even miffed. All one felt in the early morning air was a sense of let’s work together and we will get through this.
I sure hope this doesn’t come off sounding like the writings of a mad man, but then again the way one responds to a disaster like this is not always what one may imagine it to be.
The teaching of the Japanese ancestors protects the residents of Miyako city from the 3/11 Tsunami
“Do not build houses beyond this point!”
The Aneyoshi ward in which the city of Miyako (Iwate prefecture) resides has been the victim 2 times in past of the destructive power of large scale Tsunamis. Because of the teachings of the ancestors of this area written on a memorial stone all of the houses and structures of this 11 household, 30 member community were spared from the destructive power of the 3/11 tsunami. Following the disaster of the 1933 Showa Sanriku Earthquake a memorial stone was placed about 100 meters from the village that was affected by the ensuing Tsunami. In the Meiji Sanriku Earthquake (mentioned herein) 2 people in the village survived while the rest of the village was swept out to sea and in the Showa Sanriku Tsunami 4 people survived out of the entire village. “Even in the event of a small earthquake assume a Tsunami is coming and please escape!”. These words of a 91 year old nursing home grandmother were inscribed on the mind of her daughter. This grandmother stated that, “those of us in the village along with a few Wakame (seaweed) gatherers fled our homes at the outbreak of the earthquake”. According to the on-site survey of this Tsunami it was discovered that the ensuing Tsunami reached historically record breaking expansion of 38.9 meters. The waves of this Tsunami stopped just short of the stone memorial and all members of the village who went beyond this memorial were saved. However, some lives were lost. A mother who went to save her children was lost along with the children she went to save. This village has been wiped out 2 times and it is for this reason that the wisdom of this stone memorial stands out literally as an effective and almost miraculous guide that saved so many in the 3/11 earthquake/tsunami.
Stories and reports
Japanese police say people have returned $78 million in missing cash after quake. “The fact that a hefty 2.3 billion yen in cash has been returned to its owners shows the high level of ethical awareness in the Japanese people,” :
Introduction of the following article:
“Japanese citizens have shown incredible honesty in the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami that brought the country to its knees.
It emerged yesterday that the Japanese returned almost $78million in cash found in the quake rubble.
In the five months since the disaster struck, people have turned in thousands of wallets and purses found in the debris, containing nearly $30 million in cash.”
“The Japanese Self-defense force is the only similar entity in the world that has saved more lives than it has taken. This is a pride of Japan. Thank you to the Self-defense force of Japan. Ganbare Self-defense force!!”
When I was working as a part-time worker at a restaurant when the earthquake hit we were filled to capacity. We helped the customers to escape. I assumed that most of the customers would flee without paying But almost every customer came back and paid their bills. The 1 or 2 customers who didn’t come back on that day came back later at much time and expense and paid their bills. Japan is a wonderful country.
Providing pork soup
When we started a volunteer task of providing pork soup a high school boy ran up to the front of the line. I thought he was being selfish and ignoring the needs of the others standing in line. But I saw him run back with the soup to a handicapped elderly woman asking her to enjoy her soup. He then went back to the back of the line to stand waiting for his own serving.”
Up to the neck in cold water
A woman escaped to the second floor of her house where the Tsunami came up almost to the ceiling. There was only a small space, about 20cm for her to breath. She grasped a curtain rail to prevent her from being swept away for more than 30 minutes until the Tsunami receded. She was lucky to be rescued the next morning but she had to spend a very cold night being wet in below zero degree temperatures.
In the aftermath of the earthquake/tsunami at times only 1 car could proceed through a green light due to the back-up of congestion. Because of the back-up sometimes only 1 car would make it through the intersection in one cycle of red/yellow/green (or blue in Japan). In a 10 hour period I did not see a single example of a horn sounded other than that of a well mannered slight beep of ‘you can go ahead’. Fighting with fear but still respecting the overall situation of cooperation I found only heart-warming reactions. I have come to love Japan more and more because of this.
One elementary school’s report
According to the report of a 5th grader in the Ookawa elementary school, some of the younger grade students started to vomit because of the long shaking of the earth. The teachers were demanding that the students write their name in order to go to the bathroom, but some of the elder students said it is silly to demand this and would escort the younger students to the bathrooms. ‘Where are we going to escape to?’.We saw that some children were wearing helmets as they prepared themselves for the tsunami in the neighboring houses. Some of the parents were trying to pull their child from out of the children lining up. “The car radio said that a 6 meter tsunami is coming”. Some of the 6th grade girl students said that they heard from the radio that a 10 meter tsunami was coming. At around 3:10 some parents coming to pick up their child traveling along the river saw that the river had reduced by about half of its usual amount of water. Behind the school there was a mushroom cultivation plant to which the students had climbed before on school trips. But because of the presence of elderly people it was decided that everyone would have to move toward the overall community area. At 3:25 it was announced that the tsunami had advanced beyond the treeline surrounding the school area. An announcement came from the school megaphone requesting the students to escape to the high ground behind the school. At 3:37 the tsunami began to come over the concrete guarding blocks. In the front line of the 6th grade students a “blast of wind swept by, followed by the arrival of the tsunami cracking it way through the school. The students made their way in the opposing direction but came across a younger student who couldn’t move because of fright. Out fright the student couldn’t move but upon seen the approach of the tsunami wave was finally able to act. Along the way of escape the students grabbed the chest area of some students who were slunk down in fear but were unable to move them. Failing to move them they escaped to the mountains. Many people were trying to climb the foothills to safety. But they were unable to climb due to the snow. And as they were trying to escape they were swallowed up by the tsunami wave.”
I was born and raised in the Ookawa ward of Ishinomaki, Miyagi prefecture which was drastically affected by the 3/11 earthquake/tsunami.
It is a small community and every day when I would pass by other people on the way to school everyone would yell out “Sayaka-chan, have a good day at school!”
On that day a great earthquake happened when I was on my way home following the graduation ceremony for Jr. High students. In what seems like an instant the seismic screams of the earth and the attack of a tsunami swallowed up the 5 members of my family in an instant.
Shortly after this surge of water I was luckily transported to the top of a mountain of debris. At that time I could hear people calling out my name, and upon closer attention I could see my mother whose shape had been distorted by being pierced in the legs by nails and wood. I tried to remove my own right leg to help her but it was pinned in by rubble and there was nothing I could do against the overwhelming weight. I wanted nothing more than to save my mother but I knew that if I stayed behind I would be swept away and killed as well. To the screams of “Don’t leave me” from my mother I could only say “Thank you. I love you!” and somehow swim to the nearby elementary school where I spent the night.
It has been 4 years since that day.
It has been both an unbelievable fast 4 years and an extremely long 4 years. I have thought of my family and cried on uncountable occasions. There was so sadness than myself at the age of 15 was unable to take on. Everything still even at this day seems like a dream.
However, following the earthquake I have seen so many people who “just wouldn’t give up”. There are so many people who have lost so much in the disaster but they have not lost their smiling faces. There are many people who are doing their very best to recover joining their voices in the effort to “let’s do our best”. There are so many people in Japan and indeed in the world who are extending their hands in an effort to help with the recovery of the Touhoku area. We here in the Touhoku area are also always filled with the feeling of “We will do our very best not to be beaten by this disaster”.
The things we have lost in the earthquake and tsunami will never come back to us. And I don’t think that we who have been affected by the disaster will ever forget our sadness. However, I feel that according to the way we act and feel about this situation that there are things positive things that we will be able to increase. I feel that the very act of living our lives in a forward looking and positive manner itself is a way to pay things back to our lost families. I want to live my life strongly and regain the things that were lost in this disaster.
In conclusion, I want to thank all those who helped with so much support following the 3/11 earthquake. And I want to pray for the rest and peace of mind of all those who lost their lives on this day.
Suggestions for eating Sushi at an authentic Sushi shop (or even at a conveyor belt Sushi shop)
Eat with your fingers. While it is acceptable to eat using chopsticks, Sushi was originally a hand eaten fast food and since it is acceptable take advantage of simply eating with your fingers as it is much, much easier to do so anyway.
Take sips of hot tea and a slice or two of pickled ginger (Gari) in between bites to cleanse your palate and wash away fish oils.
Eat each Sushi piece (一貫) ‘Ikkan’ or Gunkan、 or roll <Maki> in one bite. It is rather unbecoming to eat half and place the uneaten piece back on your plate.
Dip the Sushi fish side down into Soy sauce and at all costs do not dip the rice side in as it will both fall apart and absorb too much Soy sauce.
Do not mix your Wasabi into the Soy sauce. This ruins the ascetics as well as the taste. Best yet, in my opinion and especially at good restaurants do not add Wasabi at all as the chef has calculated the proper amount beforehand and it can seem a bit disrespectful.
Within the realm of common sense and good manners, eat each serving as soon as it is placed in front of you.
Don’t go to a Sushi shop wearing perfume.
Start with light, white colored fish and work up to the more oily ones.
If you are at a loss on what to order, or if you just want to have a new and adventurous experience, leave the ordering to the chef.
Politely and in a sincere voice let the chef know that you are enjoying the Sushi.
When you are finished eating and drinking the Agari tea served at the end, leave the shop as soon as possible. A Sushi shop should not be treated like a coffee shop where you can sit around and talk till the cows (Maguro) come home.
Soy sauce <醤油>
Soy Sauce is based on a substance originally used in fermentation, a paste known as ‘Hishio’ <醤> in Japanese.
It was made using various source foods including meat, fish, plants, seaweeds and grains and each type created therein is given a different name. In Japan it is a form of ‘Hishio’ that was made with soy beans that became the basis for what we know as ‘Soy sauce’ <醤油>. This ‘Hishio’ was used in the Nara era, or the 8th century, only by the elite class of aristocrats while the average person was forced to be content with salt.
As an important side note I feel we must not forget about the role of Kouji ＜麹＞in the development of Soy Sauce.
Kouji is a form of bacteria that is essential in understanding the development of Japanese food and especially Soy Sauce. Kouji is a bacteria that is able to break down protein into a variety of amino acids especially those of the grain variety. Kouji is used in the creation of not only Soy Sauce but also Miso and Sake. And Kouji is extremely popular in Japan as we speak and is treated as a kind of starter bacteria the way the West may consider Sourdough bread bacteria starter kits.
When we get into the Kamakura era, 1185 ~ 1333, Buddhist priests strongly promoted the adoption of a vegetarian diet known in Japan as ‘Shoujinryouri’ and so ‘Hishio’ made of soy beans and other plants became the predominant form of seasoning. In the middle of the 13th century a Buddhist priest called Kakushin conveyed to the townspeople of a town in Wakayama a method for creating a form of Miso that he learned on his travels in China. Over time the townspeople realized that the liquid that seeped out from the bottom of the barrels was remarkably delicious. This liquid came to be called ‘Tamari Shouyu’ as it was a form of Soy Sauce that ‘had gathered’ <Tamari or Tamaru –溜まる＞ means liquids that collect or gather in one place- under the Miso block. This is considered to be the true beginning of what is now called Soy Sauce or, 醤油 <Shouyu>. This brings up the question of why the Japanese use the Kanji for oil <油> for Shouyu when it is in fact not an oil. It is apparently because at this time in the Muromachi era the people felt that it had a viscosity that was thicker than water and more closely resembled oil and so Hishio plus Oil became the Kanji for Shouyu. Now in recent years many if not most manufacturers of Shouyu have adopted the Kanji of ’正‘ meaning ‘correct’ with abura ‘oil’ ＜油＞. One can not blame them too much as with the current adoption of the traditional way of Japanese sitting (whether that is indeed correct we will look at later) being written most often as ‘正座‘ meaning correct sitting when in fact it may actually, and is now written in the form of Aikidou that I study as ‘静座‘ read the same way but meaning sitting quitely. Again this is not a criticism of Japanese but is rather a praise of the flexibility of the form of Japanese.
Tamari Soy sauce is not the be all and end all of Soy sauce but for our purposes is sufficient to explain the emergence of Soy sauce into the food culture and especially the Sushi culture of Japan.
One of the great functions of Shouyu is its ability to eliminate the smell of meats and fish. There was and to some degree is a movement toward a vegetarian/Buddhist way of eating and in this Shouyu plays a integral part. Shouyu is excellent in erasing the smell of meat and fish. If you do not believe me try eating Sushi without either Wasabi or Shouyu and see how different is the experience. Umami is a word that you may not be aware of but it is the 5th taste sense following upon salty, sweet, sour and bitter and is recognized as an actual sense of taste. Some Japanese feel that only the Japanese palate is able to experience Umami but I personally feel that it is only a lack of knowledge of the word Umami that keeps other people from recognizing it. Once you do experience it you will always know the taste of Umami. Anyway, Shouyu is one of the very embodiments of this taste, Umami.
Eating is of course not only the experience of taste it also involves at least the senses of sight and smell. In these spheres Shouyu is also outstanding. The smell and appearance of Shouyu especially in cooked food, which by the way are both used in Sushi which is not limited by any means to being 100% raw, are of extreme importance. Not only is the base smell of Shouyu appealing but especially the cooked smell of Shouyu takes on an enticing smell that we are all aware of. This also applies to the look of the shining glimmer of Shouyu when seen on a grilled rice cake or a piece of white fish. This is even called ‘Teriyaki’ <照り焼き> Teru or Teri ＜照り> meaning to shine and ＜焼き> meaning baked. The Japanese are so far ahead of the West in recognizing the importance of these concepts that I feel the West would be best off just to study and mimic the Japanese way of cooking especially when it comes to Soy sauce.
Finally, let us not forget about the powerful anti-bacterial power of Shouyu. In the world of fermented foods, Shouyu also takes on the effectiveness of salt, alcohol and organic acids. Because Shouyu employs the anti-bacterial properties of salt as well as alcohol and organic acids it is supreme in its placement as a food condiment. Just a few drops on a piece of dried seaweed eaten with rice or as an ingredient in a stew I think you have grasped the power of Shouyu as not only a flavor enhancer but also as something neighboring on being a medicine.
Nori or as it is usually rather incorrectly translated as ‘Dried seaweed’ derives from the Japanese word ‘Nura’ or the onomatopoetic ‘Nurunuru’ ‘ meaning slimy.
This term from ancient Japan referred to a moss like plant that adhered itself to rocks submerged in the ocean. As I said usually Nori is translated into English as ‘dried seaweed’ which it actually is not. It is really dried algae.
The earliest records of Nori go back to the ‘Kojiki’ in which it states ‘Yamato Takeru (one of the most important figures in Japanese mythology/history)
was totally taken with the beauty of Nori being dried on the tranquil shores of Kasukaseki’ So we know that Nori has been prepared and eaten since way in the past in the earliest stages of Japanese history. However, tis it was so difficult to make as a food it was considered to be a delicacy and was only eaten by the upper classes of the even the aristocrats for the longest time. It is recorded in the Asuka era (592 ~710) that Nori could even be used to as an acceptable medium to pay taxes. It wasn’t until the middle of the Edo period that the Japanese came to be able to cultivate algae and make it more easily available to the masses.
In the early years of Post World War 2 Japan the Nori farming world was struck with a sudden drop in seaweed production. While the scientists in Japan had some ideas on the causes for this disaster they were unable to correct it as they could not solve the mystery of how the life cycle of algae actually works. It was so confounding that they referred to this algae as the “gamblers’ grass”. It was only when they came across the research of Dr. Kathleen Drew-Baker, a botanist in England, that they were able to correct the situation.
Dr. Drew-Baker discovered that in order to trigger a new growth cycle every year the spores of algae needed to conceal themselves in old seashells. However, because of a lack of young men working in the coastal industry due to the influence of the war seashells that had been fished out of the sea were not being returned to the ocean as they had in the past. Once this was corrected the production of Nori was revitalized and prospers to this day.
A couple of decades later a monument was erected in the Sumiyoshi Shrine Park in Oosaka dedicated to this ‘Mother of the Sea’ and a Festival celebrating her and the prosperity of Nori production called the ‘Drew Festival’ <ドゥルー祭> is held every April 14th.
As mentioned, Nori was called the ‘gamblers’ grass’ due to the unpredictable nature of harvesting it. It was also known as ‘Ungusa’ <運草>, or the ‘Lucky weed’ obviously for the same reason in that if you were lucky enough to get a usable harvest that in itself was considered a remarkable, fortunate blessing. And that is why even today the Japanese often choose to send Nori as a gift at the ‘Ochuugen’ or ‘Oseibou’ gift giving times in the summer and winter.
Indeed, one of the greatest and simplest pleasures in life is a bowl of white rice, a few pieces of Nori and a touch of Shouyu to slightly dip the Nori in and then fold around the rice with your chopsticks. Life does not get much better than that.
For those who read this blog because of my translations of Babymetal the connection with ‘Inari’ will already be apparent and for those who have stumbled upon it for research into Japan will most likely not be interested in the connection. Either way it tumbles, I feel I don’t need to stress the connection too much.
First of all, what is Inarizushi?
Inarizushi < 稲荷寿司> is a thin layers of Toufu that have been deep fried in oil (Aburaaage) <油揚げ> that serve as the pocket.
EPSON DSC picture
In to this is inserted cooked rice that has been seasoned with Soy Sauce, Sugar and Mirin. As a portable and easily eaten power source it is a close second only to ‘Rice balls’ or Onigiri <おにぎり>.
The word ‘Inari’ <稲荷> refers to the god that protects ‘Ine’ or rice saplings known as ‘Ukanomitamasatabiko’ <宇迦之御魂佐田彦>. Now, mice love to eat rice saplings. So, of course Foxes were employed to take out of the equation these mice. Mistakenly along the course of history Foxes have been equated with the fried Toufu <Aburaage> in part because the color of their fur has the same light brown coloring and because of this we get such famous dishes in Japan as ‘Kitsune Udon or Kitsune Soba’ <images>. In fact these dishes should properly be known as ‘Nezumi Soba or Nezumi Udon’ with ‘Nezumi’ <鼠> being the Japanese word for mouse. Another component that makes it all gets a bit confusing is that the god that watches over the harvest of rice in Japan in the ancient past was not the Fox <Kitsune> but rather the god ‘Miketsukami’ which mistakenly took on the Kanji <三狐神> ‘Miketsukami’ meaning the ‘3 Kitsune god’. And in order to appease this Fox god the practice of laying out or of eating fried toufu around the time of harvest was put into practice. See, it all gets a bit confusing but that is part of the fun of studying Japan and Japanese history/customs. But if you think about it for a minute you will see that putting out fried toufu to appease foxes does not make much sense as foxes are carnivores and would much rather be eating the mice that they are employed to keep in check in the first place!
So to sum things up and to try to make sense of this, Inarizushi was originally packets of seasoned rice in fried toufu that were presented to gain the favor of the ‘rice sapling god’ <Inari-sama> which got all tied up in a Chinese telegraph game with the obvious resemblances with foxes. Adding to this is one more confusing factor in that ‘Inarizushi’ were prepared to look like bags of rice <米俵>
which can also be thought of as resembling the ears of a fox.
Japanese is indeed a very interesting language. It is so filled with subtleties and nuances that I personally being an country boy from Montana had never encountered and it had not been until after living here for many years that I slowly began to appreciate just how deep these characteristics of Japanese ran.
Linguistic scientists have analyzed how many words in each language are necessary for 2 native speakers to be able to carry on a normal conversation at a level of about 90% comprehension. In French it is around 2,000 words while in English it is about 3,000. They found that under that same conditions it takes about 10,000 words when it comes to Japanese. This is quite a testament to not only the difficulty but also the richness and variety of Nihongo. Here I would like to explore some more of these aspects of the subtleness of Japanese.
Take the Kanji of ’溢れる‘ <Afureru> meaning to overflow or spill and use the same Kanji ‘溢れる or 零れる‘ <Koboreru> but assigning it the reading of <Koboreru> you get totally a different meaning and feeling. The former being a flowing over of water or liquid from its container as when you add more water to a glass that is already nearly full. The latter, ‘Koboreru’ is a situation where water spills out of a glass due to an impact or bump. You can also see the difference in what should be identical words since they come from the same Kanji in the following examples.
We can say a person is ‘overflowing with confidence’ <自身に溢れている/Jishin ni Afurete iru> and this state of abundant confidence is seen from the outside without the person even saying anything.
Or we can say a ‘smile floats on a person’s face’ <微笑みが溢れる/Hohoemi ga Koboreru> which is something that wells up from the inside appears naturally as a facial expression. The slight nuances of Japanese are truly amazing.
In the same line of feeling, when you use the written word of ‘女子大学生‘ <Joshidagakusei>, or female university student compared with ‘女子大生‘ <Joshidaisei> also meaning the exact same thing, the former has a neutral meaning just the conveying of information of the existence of a female university student while the latter has a rather erotic or erotically suggestive feeling to it which I am sure every Japanese man who run this by would agree to.
More overtly, when you use for example ‘女性‘ or even ‘女の人‘ (Josei and Onna no hito) respectively they both mean woman. But, if you use ‘女‘ (Onna) which also means woman and let me stress linguistically these are all equally the same meaning, the feeling projected or the feeling received are totally different. Josei is neutral-just a woman, Onna no Hito is also equally neutral meaning a woman but implies a feeling of a woman of adult age. However, when you use the equally meaning word of Onna it takes on the derogatory meaning of ‘woman’ in its most base, biological sense and is almost only used in reporting on women criminal suspects or convicts, or in a rather patriarchal and sexually explicit nuance. The same can be said for in the opposite for men.
Simple greetings that everyone even non-Japanese know are also interesting in how they are put together and what lies behind them.
When you meet someone for the first time in the afternoon you say, “Konnichi ha (read as ‘wa’).
Konnichi written as ’今‘ <Now> and ‘日‘ <Day> ‘は‘ literally means ‘Today is…’. On its own it does not make much sense. However, apparently back in the Edo period at least for some time people would upon meeting ask something like, ‘How is your health today?’, or, ‘How are things going for you this day?’. And over time it became easier to simply reduce the verbosity as the meaning was already well understood and that is why even today when writing this greeting out it is written using ‘Ha/は‘ instead of ‘Wa/わ‘.
The exact same goes for ‘Konban ha’ written as ’今’ <Now> and ‘晩‘ <Evening> plus ‘は‘ where this pithy greeting is an evolved and reduced version of a longer greeting inquiring into how a person is doing in the cold or muggy or rainy, etc evening.
Everyone knows how to say goodbye in Japanese, ‘Sayonara’. Breaking it down and looking at its roots is quite interesting. ‘左様‘ <Sayou> means ‘as it is’ or ‘so that is how things are’ <そのような> and ‘なら‘ or a version of ‘成‘ <to become or to change> is a derivant of ‘ならば‘ <Naraba> meaning ‘if it has become like that’. So putting it all together we can imagine two people discussing something and when their conversation has reached a suitable place to end the conversation and part ways one party might initiate the conclusion of the exchange by saying something like, ‘So, if that is how things stand I will now make my exit’. ‘Sayonara’ short but sweet and yet backed with logical meaning.
When you pick up the phone in Japan you most often say, ‘Moshi, Moshi’.
In America for example you would most likely say, ‘Hello, John here’ or something similar. In Japan you do not answer the phone with ‘Konnichi ha’ but rather this cute little ‘Moshi, Moshi’, or has it often comes out sounding more casual something like, ‘Mosh, Moush’. This phrase comes from the word ‘Moosu’ or ‘Mooshiageru’ <申す、申し上げる> meaning ‘to state or to speak’. This ‘Moosu, Moosu’ phrase changed over time to ‘Moshi, Moshi’ literally meaning I am about to speak. Apparently when phone lines were first introduced in Tokyo in 1890 it was not Moshi Moshi that was used but rather a more coarse way of letting the person on the other end of the line know you are ready to speak, ‘Oi, Oi’.
That kind of talk is fine for elite government officers or company presidents but not for the telephone operators interacting with them and so these operators naturally began to initiate calls with the polite ‘Moshiagemasu’ which then progressed or changed into the above mentioned ‘Mosu, Mosu’ and then ‘Moshi, Moshi’ used in general society ever since.
There is also the greeting that you may be familiar with-‘Ossu’ that is used in certain situations as a replacement for Konnichi ha or Ohayou Gozaimasu, etc. It is used nowadays mostly in Martial arts, Yakuza or hoodlum circles but is not limited to them. That said you would basically never use it in a typical or especially a formal situation. It is usually explained as a derivation of ‘Oyahou Gozaimasu’ where ‘Oyahou’ became ‘Oha’ and ‘Gozaimasu’ was shortened to ‘Su’ and then the whole phrase reduced to simply ‘Ossu’ said in a strong, quick masculine manner and can be used as a reply of agreement or understanding as in ‘Yes, I will do it! Another explanation is that it is a derivation of ‘押して忍’ <Oshite Shinobu> meaning ‘bearing through something while suppressing your own desires or feelings’.
Horrifying roots of some Japanese Kanji
Look at the Kanji for `Ken`, or Prefecture`. I have yet to meet a Japanese who has any idea of the rather horrendous roots of this Kanji. That is not a condemnation of the lack of lack of understanding of the roots of their own language nor is it a pointing out of the sadistic roots of the Japanese language. Remember that this comes from a Kanji that was created in the Sengoku or even pre-Sengoku era of Japan where the struggle for territory and authority was of all importance. Nonetheless, it is horrifying in its creation.
It shows a severed head, that has been stabbed from the top by a sword and then turned over and placed as a place marker to define the bounds of one’s territory. In other words, `Don`t come beyond this line as this is my territory and you will be treated just like this poor headless warrior`. I have also heard that it represents a bodiless head hanging upside down from a tree with the bottom lines depicting the hair draping down. Either way is like something out of a horror movie.
How about a simple element of Japanese? You know Ichi, Ni, San….and you come to Shichi (or Nana), or Seven,
Shichi, 7. What could possibly hidden in the Kanji that goes with this numerical word? This goes way back in Japanese history which demanded that a traitor to cut out his own intestines and kill himself and which as you all know became the honorable practice of committing suicide for failing in a battle or for dishonoring own’s clan, known as `Seppuku` or `Harakiri` (not Harikiri as it is stated in so many western movies). The cutting of the stomach should most logically be represented by the Japanese Kanji for 10 ‘十‘ <Juu> which is a movement of cutting straight down, pulling out the blade and then straight across and is even how the relatively few Christians in old, or even present Japan refer to ‘making the sign of the cross, or in Japanese `Juuji wo Kiru`<十字を切る>. After the first cut is make vertically and as the person moves to make the second horizontal cut (if they were able to actually get this far) their intestines have already started to spill out which is represented by the lower part of the Kanji for Shichi
`Shichi` is also used as part of the Kanji `to cut` <切り> and in this light that makes sense. That would be the combination of the cutting of the intestines into a derivated cross cut plus the Kanji for a Japanese sword, <刀> resulting in `Kiru` <切る> to cut.
Now that leads a word that uses ‘Kiru’ <切る> that simply has no equal word in English and that is ‘Setsunai’ <切ない>. I find this one of the most expressive and beautiful even poetic words in Japanese. The closest single word to it in English would be sorrow, but it is much more subtle and deeper than that. It indicates a state of mind where you are under extreme pressure and you feel a strong tightening in the chest. And this pressure comes from a feeling of not being able to satisfy your desires and especially refers to unrequited love or one-sided love where your feelings have been rejected or ignored. It is both and at once a feeling of loneliness and one of continued love for someone that will not ever come to fruition. The ‘切‘ <Setsu> in this case does not indicate ‘to cut’ but rather indicates a feeling of thinking importantly about something, or ‘大切‘ <Taisetsu> )(literally big cut in Japanese meaning, and that is a another long winded explanation) that simply means ‘important’. The ‘Nai’ part does not refer to ‘Not’ as in ‘Shinai’ or ‘Tabenai’, etc where it is a denial of something but rather refers to the ‘Nai’ in ‘Adokenai’ which means ‘innocence’, ‘childlike playfulness’ or ‘a carefree state of mind’ So, put those all together and try to get a feeling for what this eloquent word means. If you live in Japan for any length of time you will certainly hear it being used.
The Kanji for `the people, civilians` ‘Min’ <民> actually goes way back to the Chinese origin of the Kanji, If you look at the rectangle know that this should have a line drawn down the middle indicating two eyes.
In this Kanji this is left open representing someone with no eyes and actually this word or Kanji for `People`, `Civilian` represents a person whose eyes have been removed so they can not escape and must for the rest of their life serve as a slave to the leader or King. Makes it a bit difficult to proudly can yourself a citizen of Japan <国民> ‘Kokumin’ after learning of this horrific origin.
In that vein, I was often told in Aikido that the word for the collar bone, `Sakotsu` <鎖骨> in Japanese refers to the way the collar bone rotates around the upper arm bones like the links in a chain. This refers to the `鎖` being chain and `骨` being bone this made a bit of sense to me. Upon research I found that the word for collar bone actually comes from slaves being captured in ancient China and being drilled through the skin around the collar bone and inserted with an actual metal link which is attached to a chain so they could not escape. Imagine that. Imagine being chained up by a metal chain drilled into and around your collar bone and attached to a chain. I personally can not imagine a worse way of being treated.
To continue in this gruesome (and I am sorry to expose you to this) thread of research we come across the lovely Kanji for Happiness-<幸>, Shiawase. Surely this must be a Kanji made of lovely puppy dogs and cafe latte. But no, it too has rather ugly underpinnings.
This Kanji represents a person who has had both his or her hands and head locked in bounds (If you look at the Kanji you can see the opening for the head and handrests on either side). How does this mean happiness? It means that you have escaped being killed and are merely bound, so be happy that you have been left alive.
One more example of a Kanji that has terrifying roots would be the neutral sounding word ‘了‘ <Ryou> meaning ‘to end’ ‘to bring to a conclusion’. It is not usually used in a stand alone way but rather in combination such as ‘Ryoukai’ <了解> which means ‘I comprehend you’ and usually with a nuance kind of like ‘Roger that! I will get on it.’ This innocent looking Kanji comes from the Kanji for Child ‘Ko, or Kodomo’ <子、子供>. If you look at ‘子‘ you can imagine a child standing with his hands extended out in joy. Well, ‘Ryou’ is that child with his arms chopped off <了> meaning I would guess that an armless child’s life has basically come to a close, or that an armless child is not useful for much of anything, indicating conclusion.
Interesting and fun Kanji origins
I learned this one from my Aikido teacher, Touhei Kouichi-sensei many years ago and have verified that it is indeed veracious. The Kanji for the Japanese warrior <武士> ‘Bushi’ or the ‘way of the warrior’ <武士道> ‘Bushidou’ includes the Kanji <武> ‘Bu’ (also read as Takeshi) is made up of a derivative of <矛> ‘Hoko’ which is a spear. In other words it represents weapons.
In the lower part it contains the Kanji for <止める> ‘Tomeru’ meaning to stop. So what this ‘Bu’ actually means is ‘stopping fighting/stopping war’. And not in a non-realistic pacifist way, it seems to indicate one being so strong and skilled that any attempts to attack or go war with a ‘Bushi’ would be meaningless and futile.
So, ’武士道‘ could accurately be called ‘the way to end war/fighting’.
Wasureru/忘れる (to forget)
This one is very easy to understand and is well known in Japan.
The upper part of the Kanji is <亡くす> ‘Nakusu’ meaning to lose something.
The bottom is <心> ‘Kokoro’ meaning mind or heart.
Put the two together means literally misplacing your mind or simply put ‘to forget’.
Another easy to comprehend but less well known one.
The left side is <身> ‘Mi’ meaning oneself or one’s body.
The right side is <美しい> ‘Utsukushii’ meaning beauty.
So meaning-wise it most likely means takes care of oneself, one’s body properly makes on beautiful and is used as the Kanji for
‘Shitsuke’ or discipline.
Mousou/妄想 (fantastical imaginings or delusion)
This one was unknown to me until recently and is interesting.
‘Mou’ ＜妄> is a Kanji made up of <亡く> ‘Naku’ meaning not existent or not present at least and ＜女> ‘Onna’ meaning woman. So a woman who is not present, not in your vicinity. And this is combined with the Kanji for imagine or imagination <想> ‘Sou’. Putting them together we get something like a man imagining or going into flights of fancy about a beautiful woman who is out of his reach. And pushing this just a bit farther it comes to be used as the Kanji for ‘Delusion’. Wow, deep!
The Kanji for husband is <夫> ‘Otto’ and this turned on its head becomes the symbol for Yen/En, or more direct-money. So a husband made to work until he basically flips over symbolizes money. Of course this not a legit analysis, but funny nevertheless.
Before I begin please take 10 minutes out of your day to renew your understanding of the 1,800 `Jouyou Kanji`-the Kanji used frequently in daily life and in the media.
To me English now comes across as a very clumsy language at least when compared with Japanese-clumsy and filled with indecisive grammatical `rules`, rules that always have exceptions making the idea of even having rules a rather mute point. The formation of verb tenses in Japanese is extremely easy, logical and with basically no exceptions to the `rules` evident. I want to show you for example a fairly active verb and run it through its progressively complex formations and see how it plays out in Japanese and in English.
The verb `Ateru` <当てる> meaning to move an object so that it hits or contacts another object. It has of course many other meanings, but I will stick with this simple one for this example. The English equivalent in this case would be `to hit`. As you can see it already has two words compared with the single one in Japanese.
In this example I will use the barest expression needed to make logical sense of what is happening.
I hit you.
I am hit by you.
I make you hit him.
I am made to be hit by him by you`
I am made to be hit by him by you wherein you have no choice but to hit me.
I am made in the most probability to be hit by him by you wherein you have no choice but to hit me.
I don`t know how this feels to your ears, but to me the Japanese has a nice flow to it and always progresses in a logical and basically none variating manner. Once you learn the way the verbs change in different situations it is very easy to click things into place where the English equivalent has a disconnecting and case by case feel to it.
Variety of vocabulary available for expressing nature
In describing nature the built in and collective resources of the Japanese language really shines through. I do not know if this is an inherent quality of the Japanese character or if it is the length of the history of the Japanese language developing unhindered in its development and environment for so long, or because of the structure of the language itself and it is probably a conglomeration of all these factors, but regardless the variety of the ways to express subtle nuances in the natural world is simply astounding in Japanese.
Let us look at words for differences in the quality of rain for example as we are just about to enter the rainy season `Tsuyu` <梅雨>
here in Tochigi as I write this. And remember I am not talking about the effect of the rain and the expressions used in those cases, but rather just how rain itself is expressed.
It is raining.
It is raining heavily.
It is raining lightly.
It is showering.
It is pouring.
It is raining cats and dogs (yeah, right)
It is drizzling.
It is pissing down.
It is pelting down.
As a side note I always wondered what the `it` was that was doing all this, but that is not important here.
Ame agari <雨上がり>
The point in time just after the rain has stopped falling. It conveys a sense of quietude and a sense of well being and relief. It literally means the rain has concluded.
Meaning the passing stage of falling rain. This expression is used to talk about how fast or how strongly a rainfall is coming to an end. Literally means `the legs of the rain`.
Kitsune no Yomeiri Ame <狐の嫁入り雨>
Meaning the sun is shining brightly but it is raining. Literally rain when the man receives a fox bride-don`t ask for an explanation as it would take 3 pages to explain.
A type of rain where the individual droplets are small but extremely large in number and density.
Ame Moyou <雨模様>
Indicating a state where it `feels` like it is about to rain. This does not mean it is actually raining or even based on data that it is about to rain, but rather just that feeling one gets before it rains.
Meaning either or both a small rainfall or a small drops of rain.
Rain that falls down soundlessly like mist. A kind of rain where it doesn`t feel like it is raining but rather like water is pushing quietly against you.
A slightly different way of referring to the rain of the rainy season. This expression refers to the quality of rain itself in the rainy season and literally means May rain.
A blessing of rain that comes in the middle of summer following day upon day of hot rainless weather. Literally means `Glad rain`.
Rain that falls off and on as it passes by in the course of a few hours coupled with sudden strong winds in the late fall to early winter period. Literally reads as `Time rain`.
Shinotsuku Ame <篠突く雨>
This refers to rain that comes down fiercely and that strikes the ground like bamboo that has been tied up into tight bundles. Literally, `Rain that strikes like tightly bundled bamboo`.
Rain that falls strongly and then in a flash lessens up and then repeatedly falls in this manner and is often accompanied by lightning.
Rain that falls at night.
Rain that falls in late March to early April when the flower `Na no Hana` <Rapeseed blossom> is in bloom and is a light but cold rain that comes just after the weather has warmed up a bit bringing a recollection of winter.
The long lasting rains of autumn.
Rain that falls in one specific place even though the surrounding areas are filled with sunlight. Literally read as `Sunlight rain`.
Toori Ame <通り雨>
A brief and passing falling of rain followed immediately by fine weather.
Namida Ame <涙雨>
Means literally `Rain of tears` and can be both used for rain that comes in times of collective happiness or in times of sadness. It can also mean rain that falls only for a brief time and is thus a kind of nuisance.
Written as `white rain` it means a rain that comes out of a bright blue sky.
Rain that falls when wheat is being harvested in May. Literally `wheat rain`.
Cold rain or even sleet. There was even an Enka hit song by this same title. Although it is a cold rain that chills the body it is usually welcomed as a way to cool oneself off when it is too hot in the summer.
Yarazu no Ame <遣らずの雨>
This expression is truly beautiful. It refers to a rain that prevents someone from going home whom you wish would stay longer, like a girlfriend or even a special guest.
Literally meaning an evening shower. And it usually refers to not only an evening shower but one that is quite severe and is often accompanied by lightning.
Watakushi Ame <私雨>
Interestingly named as literally meaning `My rain` and refers to rain that falls suddenly in a very limited location and is usually on top of a mountain even though the base of the mountain is enveloped in sunny weather.
These are only some of the names of rain that you find commonly in Japanese daily life and did not even mention the onomatopoetic words that are used such as `ShitoShito` or `Zaazaa` as I would never get to bed it I did.
And let us not forget the lovely `TeruTeru Bouzu`
a cute `monk` who is hung out by children the night before an important event like a field trip where they ask for the `Teru Teru Bouzu` to make the following day a sunny one.
`Teru Teru Bouzu Teru Bouzu
Ashita Tenki ni Shite Okure`
`Teru Teru Bouzu Teru Bouzu
Please make it good weather tomorrow`
And there is of course the Babymetal version of `Teru Teru Bouzu` as well.
Babymetal`s 6-string bassist is known as `BOH`
and his trademark skin head and white attire makes him look like a vicious `Teru Teru monk`.
And speaking of Babymetal and rain there is no better expression of the intertwining of rain with human emotions than Babymetal`s Su-metal`s version of `Endless rain`. I mean truly if you can find a more heart wrenching, passionate expression of rain used as an expression of love and devotion for another I would really like to hear it. Absolutely lovely and I hope you listen to it to the end (pun intended) when you have ample time to fall into it. Bookmarking mode.
Since I am in the mood for exploring the incredible flexibility and bountifulness of the Japanese language I would now like to look at the various ways the Japanese language is geared to represent oneself-the words we use to say `I`.
In English that would be basically,
Well you get the picture.
How about Japanese?
I will break these down into terms that are used commonly and terms that are used less commonly but are still used in certain situations of theater, demeaning oneself on purpose, or rather elevating oneself.
Common words for `I` used in daily life in 2015 Japan.
A rather neutral word and the one I choose to use most often for myself. This can equally be used by men and women. Women however would most likely used as its equivalent in meaning…
Used by women as a derivative of `Watashi`.
Used widely by men (and even sometimes by women, Utada Hikaru I know uses this often) as a somewhat more base or almost rough way to refer to oneself. I use it when I am being really casual with friends.
Babymetal`s Moametal making superb use of `Ore`.
Used usually in a casual way but fine also in formal situations.
Note that it is the same Kanji as `Watashi> and is used more formally and denotes a feeling of regality or superiority.
Still used sometimes without a sense of oddness. This was used in the Edo period for both men and women.
Used to denote a more militaristic or stoic sense of self.
Used more in the Western side of Japan and usually for women.
Wai, Wate <わい、わて>
Old form for women but still used in the Kinki region of Japan.
Older forms used mostly for deliberate effect in modern day Japan.
Used by Bushi or Samurai with a feeling of elevating one`s status. There was a short lived (short in that his time in the spotlight was short, I am sure he is still alive) comedian, Hata Youku <波田陽区> who used this term in his comedy routines.
Asshi, Achki <あっし、あちき>
Used by women of the common class in the past as a way to hide their past or where they were raised.
Used in pre Edo period by men first as a form of modesty and later as a sign of being elite.
Wagahai <我輩, 吾輩、我が輩>
A form used by men in a real or fanciful form of boasting. Used in the title of the famous book by Natsume Soseki `Wagahai ha Neko`- `I am a cat`.
Oi, Oidon <おい、おいどん>
Used mostly in Kyuushuu even today to some extent for both men and women.
Used by men of the Bushi class.
Used in the past by women to indicate that they are still young, innocent and naive.
Used in the past in a self deprecating way.
Used similarly to `Gusei` but for women.
Used apparently in the Heian period.
Used sometimes today but has a rather old fashioned feeling to it.
Obviously the English word used in a comical or fashionable way.
Used in Edo as a form of `Ore`
Bokuchan, Bokuchin <僕ちゃん、僕ちん>
Used even now by little boys to refer to themselves or by others to refer to little boys.
I was planning to go into much more about the flexibility and bountifulness of the Japanese language in this post but it is getting so long that I will cut this one off for now.
I want this time to talk about the name of Japan. Sounds like a simple task, but lets remember that Japan is recognized as the country with the longest running, uninterrupted status as a country in the world. Sure India and China were around before Japan as Nation states but they have repeatedly fallen over the course of their histories. Once Japan was established in 660 BCE with its Imperial lineage that has spanned one after the other through 126 Emperors it has not once been overtaken from the outside. If that does not impress you I do not know what will.
So, before we start talking about the names Japan has been known by in the past it is best to state its current, official name which is `日本国｀<Nihon Koku>, the `country of Japan`, or more commonly as simply Japan.
Japan has a land mass of spanning over a length of about 3,000 kilometers. This is stretched across in an arrow-like, or rather more similar to a bow shooting an arrow kind of posture that spans from Okinawa to Hokkaidou. Japan is an island country as are Britain or the Phillipines and is surrounded by 4 seas and those are for your knowledge the Sea of Okhotsk, the Sea of Japan, the Pacific Ocean and the East China Sea. While Japan is seen as a small island country let us remember that the oceanic regions measured out to 22 kilometers from the coastline are considered to be in possession of said country. And if you consider that certain rights are granted up to around 370 kilometers on top of this regarding the basic concerns of fishing, resource acquisition, etc you can begin to see that Japan is not such a small country in actuality when all of its remote islands are calculated in and comes out to be the 6th largest country when these sea territories are included.
The most northern lands possessed by Japan are the Hoppouryouchi or Northern territories.
The most eastern islands of Japan are the `Minamitorishima`, or the Marcus Islands.
The most western islands are those of Okinawa. The most southern island of Japan is `Okinotorijima`.
And then if you have been reading/watching the news of recent times you will know of all the disputes and troubles regarding the island located to the west of Japan `Takeshima`, as well as with the hot topic of the Senkaku islands located between Japan and China.
Now to get into the names assigned to Japan we first need to look at Japanese mythology as it is written in the `Kojiki` where the first name of Japan appears. You may all be familiar with this image depicting the creation of the Japanese islands by Izamami, the wife and Izanagi, the husband.
This is something I will start writing about soon, but for now it is enough to know that these two gods created the first island of Japan by stirring a spear in the primeval sea and when Izanagi, the male god, pulled the spear out the droplets that fell off formed into the first island of Japan. It was of course not called Japan at the time but rather `Onogorojima` <淤能碁呂島> which roughly translates as `an island that is formed from itself`. So I guess we could say that the first name of Japan is `Onogorojima`. The complete creation story in the Kojiki is much, much more complicated than this and it involves all kinds of fascinating and wild stories including deformed fetuses that are thrown away only to change into some of the smaller islands of Japan but we will suffice with this for now.
Let us look at the geographical form of Japan.
As you will no doubt know it runs greatly from South to North and thus experiences the 4 seasons in their greatest degree, a lovely fact about living in Japan. Further, being an island country without access to oil it is dependent upon imports to a degree that is not known amongst other developed, or even non-developed countries. The other major feature (and there are so, so many to discuss other than these) is the volcanic and earthquake prone nature of the country.
Japan is situated on the Ring of Fire
and is perhaps the most volcanically active country in the world. And apparently in a close but not well understood relationship along with volcanoes goes earthquakes as well as the sea sourced tsunamis. In fact I started writing this blog on the 28th of June and as I was researching about volcanoes the news came in of the eruption of a volcano on the small, remote island of `Kuchinoerabujima`
The eruption was/is so severe that the entire population of 137 people had to be evacuated.
It is hard to establish exactly what the next name of Japan would be thinking chronologically as Japan did not have a written form of language until the 4th or 5th century and so it is difficult to tell when and where these names first appeared so we will look at them simply as being `ancient`.
`Ooyamatotoyoakitsushima` < 大倭豊秋津島>
The name `Ooyamatotoyoakitsushima` < 大倭豊秋津島> appears in the Kojiki and refers to the initial birth of the main island of Japan, `Honshuu`. `Akitsu` is the ancient name for dragonflies and thus the name creates the image of a land so plentiful in crops and vegetation that the air is filled with flying dragonflies. A lovely image indeed.
Also appearing in the Kojiki and it seems to refer to a time a bit later on in the story of the mythical history of Japan is the most beautiful name of Japan you will come across- Toyoashiharano Chiioakino Mizuhonokuni <豊葦原千五百秋瑞穂国>. `Toyoashihara` means fields plentiful in `Ashi` (a plant with the bland name of `common reed`) obviously meaning fields bountiful in crops. `Chiinoaki` means a very long time or an eternity. And `Mizuhonokuni` means a country that grows luscious saplings which flower into crops, like rice. This name was granted from the gods residing in the heavens, `Takamanohara`<高天原>somewhere around the time the Japanese were beginning to come together as a somewhat unified country and so it appears to be a kind of message or request to the people of the land to ensure a country resplendent in delicious crops for the future descendants into the distant future.
`Kotodama no sakiwaukuni` <言霊の幸はふ国>
This name blew me away as I had never heard until starting to write this. It comes from the book of poetry `Manyoushuu` written in the 8th century and it is written as `Kotodama no sakiwaukuni` <言霊の幸はふ国>. This refers to the idea of spirits or energy latent in words themselves, Kotodama, and literally means a `country that brings happiness through the latent power of words`. Amazing that back even in this time way in the past that the Japanese put such incredible emphasis on the importance of the spoken word.
From sometime before the dawn of the Common Era to around the 6th century CE the Chinese referred to the Japan of the day using the Kanji `倭` which can be read as `Wa` or later `Yamato` in Japanese. Thus Japan was called `Wakoku` and the Japanese people `Wajin`. This Kanji `倭` is not a complimentary word and is kind of like calling someone a little runt. When the Japanese used the pronunciation of `倭` when referring to themselves or to Japan as a country they replaced it with `和` or `Harmony` and also wrote it as `大和` <big harmony>
but read it as `Yamato` which is one the most important and long lasting names of Japan even though it was originally used referring to the extremely powerful clan of the `Yamato` in the Nara area of Japan.
You have probably heard of the expression `Yamato Nadeshiko` if not for any other reason than that that is the nickname of the Japanese women`s soccer team who won the World cup in 2011. Yamato Nadeshiko <大和撫子> refers to the pure, innocent yet strong beauty of a traditional Japanese woman. Yamato -`great harmony`- is combined with Nadeshiko meaning a child that is so cute and charming that you want to stroke their head with affection <Naderu means to pet, stroke or rub with affection>. Nadeshiko is also the name of a flower
and thus adding to the depth of the concept of `Yamato Nadeshiko`. I would say if you want to compliment a Japanese woman to the highest level you could find no better thing to say than that they are a prime example of `Yamato Nadeshiko`.
The Kanji that we use now for Japan `日本` which can be read as `Nihon`, `Nippon`, or even `Hinomoto`. Up until the middle of the 7th century the Japanese used `倭`<Wa> as the name of Japan in diplomatic dealings and as said earlier `和` <Wa> for internal matters.Early in the 7th century the famous Prince Shoutoku、the man (or some say he was actually a woman) who could reportedly carry on 7 conversations at a time without missing a beat,
took letters of an official nature to China and in these letters was written the name of the Emperor of Japan as`Hiitzurutokoronotenji` <日出処天子>, or `The Emperor of the country in the East from which the sun rises`. Somewhere in the temporal vicinity of Emperor Tenmu and Emperor Jitou (673 to 697) this new name for Japan came into general use. Meaning-wise it translates as `the country from where the sun rises`. Surely this has to do with Japan being further to the East of China but it also has to do with the mythology of the Sun goddess, Amaterasu as the lineage of all the Emperors of Japan, including the current one, trace their unbroken ancestry back to this central goddess. After looking at this for quite some time I would say that it is this connection to the lineage of Amaterasu that is the dominant if not the only reason for Japan being called the land of the rising sun.
Apparently in ancient days the `Ho` <ほ> of `Nihon` was read as `Po` <ぽ> and even today one (at least I do) gets a more `Japanese` feel when pronouncing the name of Japan or Japanese things as `Nippon` rather than `Nihon`. By the way there is a great song by `Radwimps` called `Nipponpon` which I highly recommend which goes into the feeling of being Japanese in a very light hearted yet skillful way.
In 701 the name `Nihon` became the official name of Japan and yet was most likely still read as `Yamato` or `Hinomoto` for quite some time after that.
`Dainippon Teikoku` <大日本帝国>
In 1889 the `Dainippon Teikoku KenpouHou`, or the `Constitution of the Empire of Japan` also known as the Meiji constitution was formally created and announced. `Dainippon Teikoku` means the `Great Japanese empire` and with the creation of this constitution and reformation of the government the world saw Japan begin its surge to expand out into East Asia. This name of Japan continued roughly until the end of the second World War in 1945. And ever since Japan has been known as simply `Japan` or `The country of Japan`.
Names given by other countries
The pre-Edo period Portuguese sailors, missionaries and traders devised their own word for Japan where they changed the initial sounds of `Nippon` into `Jippon`.
This also apparently comes from a Portuguese derivation of the Mandarin Chinese of Japan which is already a derivation coming out to `Riben` to `Cipan` meaning `sun origin` to which is added, `Guo` which means kingdom and was thus spoken as `Cipan-guo`. This is first noted in Marco Polo`s accounts were `Cipan-guo` goes back and forth between English, Japanese and Chinese and comes out as `Jipangu`.
Why Japanese people?
I have often wondered in closing, why the Japanese call America `Beikoku` <米国> `the country of rice`, in certain map making of old and in some arcane writings. I mean if any country should be called `the country of rice` it should be Japan and certainly not America which along those lines of thinking should be called, `Poteto furai kuni` <ポテトフライ国>, or `the country of french fries`. Apparently America was written in Kanji long ago as, `亜米利加` `A Me Ri Ka`and since the second Kanji there is the one for `Kome` or rice this was taken out to indicate America or `Beikoku` <米国>.
Not to come off as dissing my home country of the USA, but I have wracked my brain and have traveled in mind through my experience of living 23 years in America comparing it with my 27 years in Japan trying to find things that the American way of living, the American culture (if you can even assign culture to the brief history of America) excel those of Japan. To date I have only come up with two things. One is Tex-Mex cuisine and the other escapes at the moment. In this post I would like to take a brief look at one example of a technological innovation of Japan in the past and one that is coming in the near future to shed some light on just how `out of the box` and how pragmatically the Japanese approach technology. Almost literally drawing an example out of a hat I have decided to first look at the art of paper making as it is so basic and illustrative since in cultures that choose to write down their thoughts (all I would guess) you need something to write upon.
There are two main theories on just how paper making developed in Japan. The first recorded documentation of written Japanese-at least written on paper- is purported to be the `Senjimon` <千字文>
, a set of prose that makes use of 1,000 Kanji used to teach Kanji to the children of the day. This is documented in the Japanese `Kojiki` of which I plan do a series on in the near future. One theory says that paper making started naturally within the land of Japan of the day and others say it came from outside influences, most giving this influence to China. However, either way we look at it, it seems this happened at the earliest around 350 CE. And it is well documented that there was the profession of `Kamisuki` ＜紙漉>, paper maker, in the early 6th century. When we get into the Heian era (of which I am more and more realizing was an incredible time where the Japanese culture became incredibly refined and uniquely `Japanese`) the practice of writing began to spread. The ordinary person was mostly writing, and I mean ordinary in the sense of one who was skilled enough to read and write which is already an amazing skill, on what are known as `Mokkan`<木簡> or boards for writing.
The development of paper for writing made use of a wide variety of natural materials including hemp, paper mulberry <楮、Kouzo>, rice paper and a few others. What I am really interested in here though is to show how the greatest paper making in the world developed. That would point to the use of `Kouzo` as the prime source for making paper.
Kouzo is a plant that is especially appropriate for making Japanese paper, or `Washi`, <和紙>. The first part of the process involves removing by hand the outer bark of this thin plant. Next, the remaining parts of the Kouzo are stewed in boiling water. After this the impure remains from the outer bark are separated by hand in a mind numbingly tedious process all carried out by hand. If this is not done the resulting paper will not have the pure color and texture of Japanese paper.
The cleaned fibers are soaked in water for anywhere from 1 day to a week depending upon how whitish they want to make the finished product with a longer time being employed for whiter paper. These strips of fiber are then beaten with wooden bat-like mallets for an extended amount of time and pigments are added if the paper maker wants to create colored Washi. There are several other steps that I am omitting just because this would turn into a 5 page explanation if I did so and I simply want to give the idea of how much work goes into making Washi. This is once again boiled and then placed in a bath of very hot water and is then transferred to a wooden machine that looks kind of like a weaving mill called a `Sukibune`.
Here the papermaker adds a glue like goo called `Tororo`. Tororo is made from either the Aibika flower or the Hydrangea paniculata flower. Usually if a Japanese person hears the word `Tororo` he or she will think of the gooey mountain potato that has been grated down into a thick lava like flowing form that is mixed with stock and soy sauce and served over rice-truly one of the most delicious and healthy dishes you will ever have the good fortune of eating.
By adding this glue like gel to the Sukibune the papermaker is able to stick the fibers of the Kouzo together in the final product. Moving the frame around in certain back and forth and side to side manner the papermaker expertly aligns the fibers together in certain way to give a smooth and yet strong sheet of paper.
These are then removed from the Sukibune and allowed to dry in stacks of these filtered, cleaned future paper sheets being careful not to allow any air to get trapped in between. Once dried they are pressed down using the weight of rocks or a press machine until all the excess Tororo is squeezed out.
Next each sheet is carefully peeled off and then spread out on a wooden board whereupon each sheet is dried in the sun.
Compared with the paper that is commonly used in daily life which tends to change color and degrade after a few decades Washi has been known to retain its original white color for more than 1,000 years. This is due to the long fibers used and the way they are naturally entwined together in the Sukibune and the fact that Wash is dried in the sun and does not employ chemicals that break down and cause the paper to take on that old, brown paper look.
On the 27th of November 2014, Japanese Paper making technology `Nihon no Tesuki <日本の手漉>` was registered as an Intangible Cultural Heritage. There are many reasons it was designated as such but some of the factors are probably the soft, smooth yet strong and long lasting properties it possesses as well as the the fact that the techniques used today are basically the same as those utilized over a thousand years ago. There is also simply the beauty of the paper with some types made with extremely thin strips of real gold folded in, types enhanced with various plants added for visual impact or designs created with wood blocks all of which make paper that far excels what is used even by the aristocrats in Europe.
It is said that textbooks made and used in temple classrooms in the Edo period would last being passed down from grade to grade for a over 30 years in some cases. This is something that is very hard to imagine with today`s textbooks.
The technology of making Washi has been around for over 1,500 years and is still going strong today. Now we all know what Japan can do in the realm of technology from Toyota cars that simply will not break down and purr along without a sound to androids and robots almost indistinguishable from their human counterparts to Bluray disks and to Playstation and Nintendo. But have you heard about Shimizu Kensetsu`s (Shimizu Construction) plan (and this is only one of their amazing ideas) to begin to build a gigantic solar panel belt around the moon in 2035? They call this the `Lunar Ring` project.
The Lunar Ring project
Knowing that there is a fast coming limit to the availability of fossil fuels and this goes especially true for Japan which does not have its own source of oil and relies 100% on imports and knowing the havoc that the pressure to secure crude oil causes on the world stage, Shimizu Kensetsu has come up with a totally out of the box and uniquely Japanese answer to this conundrum.
Actually when you think of it (coming up with at first was the hard part), it is quite a simple idea really. They will construct a 11,000 kilometer long band that is anywhere from a few kilometers to 400 kilometers in width that encircles the entire lunar circumference so it will be able to always receive sunlight. Being on the atmosphere free moon surface there will be nothing to block the sunlight such as clouds making it possible to function 24 hours a day. The solar energy that is collected will be transformed into electricity which will then be transmitted to antenna stations on the Earth using Microwave conveyance and Laser transmission.
They calculate that this band around the moon would create enough energy to meet the entire world`s 2030 estimated demands. The other amazing thing is that most of the work would be done ON the moon using the MOON`S OWN raw materials and the work would be done on a 24 hour basis mostly by ROBOTS! I mean it doesn`t get any better than this. Unless of course you mention Shimizu Kensetsu`s plan to build floating cities, but we won`t go there as my head may pop.
Anyway, that is the plan in a very small nutshell, but I think you get the idea. Leave it to the Japanese to come up with such a brilliant, practical and awe inspiring solution. `必要は発明の母` `Necessity is the mother of invention`.
When a Sushi chef prepares Sushi rice he refers to the rice as Shari. It is said that when the Buddha was cremated his bones were crushed into very small fragments that in shape and color resembled white rice grains. In Sanskrit the remains, or bones, of a deceased person are called `Sarira` which changed into the Japanese version of the sound of the word to `Shari` (written as 舎利). This Shari or Busshari (仏舎利-the remaining bones of the Buddha) then returns to the soil and in the Buddhist tradition is reincarnated into various grains (including rice) which come back to assist people on their way to becoming Buddha realized and escaping the cycle of birth and death. So each individual grain of rice must be treated with the utmost respect as it is both at once the bones of the Buddha as well as his reincarnation.
Perhaps this is one reason behind, or more likely a reflection of the intense love that the Japanese have for rice in general and Sushi rice in particular. Maybe not to the extent to which it was in the past but a Sushi chef apprentice in Japan will spend a good part of his first few years learning the art of making Sushi doing not much more than learning how to clean, cook and prepare the Shari. In contrast to this, outside of Japan it is apparently possible for a person to become a licensed Sushi chef and all it entails in as little as 3 months.
It is interesting to note that very small gravel-like stones and sand are called `Jari` in Japan which apparently is a further adaptation of this word but is written as (砂利).
Noren, or the shop curtains that hang outside of restaurants in Japan did not begin with the advent of Sushi in the Edo period although they did take on a different form at that time. Noren were first used in the Heian period of Japan but not as curtains advertising the name of a shop but rather as curtains on the houses of ordinary citizens to block the sun, wind, blowing sand as well as the eyes of people passing by.
Sushi stands began to be popular as kind of a fast food shops in the middle of the Edo period where we would find the Sushi vendor sitting behind the counter of his shop while the customers would stand-the opposite of today. Since the customers would eat with their fingers their fingertips would get oily and messy. As a service the Sushi vendor came to put up a pole with paper or cloth attached to it for the customer to wipe his or her hands on when leaving. Over a period of some time this gradually got larger and was stretched out over the heads of the customers becoming the forerunner of today`s Noren with the counter found at Sushi shops being a kind of sentimental recreation of the food stands of the Edo period. Back then the dirtier the Noren was the more delicious and popular the stand was assumed to be.
In a slightly off topic note, it is reported that many of the Sushi stands of the Edo period were stationed outside of Sentou, or public bath houses.
When asked about this in an interview, Beat Takeshi answered as follows:
Q: In the Edo era Sushi stands were a kind of fast food and were often located in front of Sentou baths. Do you know the reason for this?
Beat Takeshi: After you come out of the Sentou your hands are clean and so there is no hesitation in grabbing up a couple of pieces of Sushi for a light meal.
Gari (Pickled Ginger)
Everyone who has eaten at a Sushi restaurant even one time is well aware of the pickled ginger that is always near at hand. This thinly sliced pickled ginger is called `Gari` in the world of Sushi and was originally done so only by the Sushi chefs themselves, not the customers. The word apparently comes as an onomatopoetic rendering of the `Garigari` (crunchy) sound made when eating it, or more likely as an onomatopoetic replication of the sound made when thinly slicing the raw ginger. Similar to the roles played by Ocha and Wasabi, Gari is also effective to some degree in killing bacteria and is especially useful in refreshing the palate between selections of Sushi. It is also useful in dabbing Soy Sauce onto certain types of Sushi, like Gunkan
that can not be dipped easily into Soy Sauce without making an ugly mess. One merely needs to pick up a slice or two of Gari, dip it in Soy Sauce and then dab that on the Sushi for an elegant and accepted kind of paint brush. Apparently back in the early days of Sushi the stands did not provide the customers with `Oshibori`
as they do now and the Gari was used to clean one`s fingertips as well.
How can you talk about Sushi without mentioning that beautiful and so hard to cultivate plant, Wasabi?
I have often wondered if the name Wasabi has any connection with the Japanese concept of `Wabisabi` as it is after all only one character short of filling out this word. After researching about Wasabi for this entry I found that there is no relation whatsoever and I would love as a side note go into the elusive concept of `Wabisabi` but after thinking about it I realized it would take a whole blog entry to do so.
In the Heian era Wasabi was called `Hajikami`. It took on its present name later and of the 3 or 4 hypothesis on the roots of its name the following is the most convincing one I found.
`Wase` (早生 meaning early birth – Springtime) plus, `Hibiki` ((疼 meaning an intense burning sensation <in the mouth> put together gives you `Wasehibiki` which over time changed into the present word of `Wasebi`, or `Wasabi`.
Shimane-ken, Nagano-ken and Shizuoka-ken are the locations most famous for Wasabi which naturally grows in mountain rivers and needs very clean and cold water to thrive. It is very rare to find in nature and is now grown in highly sophisticated water fields that resemble rice fields but needs the costly factor of having cold water running at all times.
And that is why it is so expensive and why most of us, especially those not living in Japan (and even most living here) have never or very rarely eaten real Wasabi. The real thing is a bit different than what is called wasabi which is a paste made from Western horseradish, green food coloring and a kind of mustard. The taste is not that different but the effect on your sinuses is noticeably stronger and sharper.
Then why use Wasabi at all if it is so difficult to find and even to cultivate? Like many of the side actors in the world of Sushi it is used as a counter measure against the parasites and bacteria that are found in raw fish that can be so harmful to the digestive tract of us fragile human beings. Although the actual effectiveness of its anti parasitical powers is up to debate and actually probably in the end is used more for its taste and enhancement of the eating experience than for its actual medicinal properties. And in fact the more I look into Sushi the more I realize that it probably wasn`t until very recently with the advent of advanced refrigeration technology in the early 20th century that Sushi was eaten with raw fish at all. Remember, Sushi began as a way of fermenting the fish which is a way of cooking it. And throughout most of its history the fish used was either slightly braised or marinated both of which are a way of `cooking` and dealing with parasites and bacteria.
That is not to say that Wasabi should be done away with as anyone who enjoys Sushi knows a reasonable amount adds a delicious dimension to the enjoyment of the taste of Sushi. And it is known to have properties mostly in its fragrance that heighten a person`s appetite. It is also known that from the time it is grated the beneficial effects both in anti-parasitical, anti-bacterial functions, and in its effect on the appetite all drop off quickly and thus fits in nicely with the overall adage of eating Sushi as soon as it is presented to you.
Remember also that you shouldn`t mix your Wasabi into Soy Sauce. The reasons for this are two. One is that Sushi is deeply rooted in the world of the Tea Ceremony as it was often served as part or as the main course following a ceremony and since so much emphasis is placed on appreciating the essential beauty of each item used in the Tea Ceremony this sense of aesthetics asks the participants to not change the visual beauty of what is served. The other reason is obviously that by mixing Wasabi into Soy Sauce you have erased the inherent taste of both these ancient pleasures in what the Japanese of old would consider a barbaric action. If you choose to add Wasabi to Sushi it is advised that you place a small cluster on one side of the Neta and then dip the other side of the Neta (if you choose to do so) in your Soy Sauce. If you really love Wasabi you can always order `Namida, or tears` which is a thin roll with only Wasabi as the Neta, so named obviously because the Wasabi affects you strongly enough to make you cry.
Ocha-Green Tea (お茶)
Another one of the side actors in Sushi is of course Ocha. With most other meals or ways of eating Ocha, like Coffee, is served at the end of the meal. With Sushi however it is served very hot and right from the beginning. This is apparently done so you can immediately wash away the oils that remain on your tongue and to refresh your palate in a way that slightly differs from the pickled ginger that is used in a similar manner. And that is why the Ocha must be hot as it is more effective in removing these oils than lukewarm Ocha. And further that is one of the reasons the cups (Yunomi 湯のみ) that you see in Sushi shops are so big and thick.
If they were the thin, delicate types usually used in Japanese cuisine it would be almost impossible to hold the cup and apparently the heat of the Yunomi is also used to help melt the oils on your fingers a bit as well. (Remember Sushi should, if you want to be authentic, be eaten by hand).
The famous director and comedian Beat Takeshi (Kitano Takeshi) also mentioned the use of Yunomi in an interview.
Q: The Yunomi used to serve Ocha when you eat Sushi are so big. Do you know why that is?
Beat Takeshi: That is because in the past the Yunomi were used also as fingerbowls to wash the oils off your fingers when you finished eating.
Q: Is that right!? I had always thought about why they are so big. This has remained in a corner of my mind for a long time. Thank you for removing that thorn in my brain. By the way, I have heard that the reason conveyor belt sushi shops use powdered Ocha and that even good Sushi bars don`t use high quality Ocha is so that it doesn`t clash with the main actor on the stage, the Sushi itself.
The Ocha served as you are eating Sushi is of this lower quality and is called, `Debana- 出花` or the flower that makes an appearance. The better Ocha served after you have finished eating is called, `Agari- 上がり` or `I`m finished`. However, even Japanese often mistakenly call any Ocha served at a Sushi shop as Agari. This is not just some meaningless custom lingering on from the past. There is a very logical reason for doing so and that is for the anti-bacterial benefits found in good Japanese tea. The catechin contained in Japanese tea works effectively both to kill bacteria as well as to neutralize any pesky forms of toxins. But to get the most out of Japanese green tea it must be made with near boiling water.
One final note about Japanese tea is that a recent 2015 study by the Japanese National Cancer Center and the University of Tokyo came to the following conclusions:
“The researchers found that the chance that men who said they drank at least five cups of green tea a day died during the study was 13 percent lower than that of men who did not. Men who drank that much green tea were at a 13-percent lower risk of dying from a heart condition than those who did not, 24-percent lower risk for cerebrovascular conditions, and 45-percent lower risk for respiratory conditions.”
That is all for now, but I will have a part 3 coming up sooner or later.