The Japanese Smile

     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’

爆笑 <Bakushou> 

The laughter of a group of people that erupts all at once in unison. 

*Also, the name of a famous comedy duo, ‘Bakushou Mondai’

微笑 <Bishou>

A faint, kind smile.

冷笑 <Reishou>

A sneer. A mocking smile. 

Literally means a cold smile. 

嘲笑 <Choushou>

Scornful laughter. 

Literally means to make fun of someone by laughing at them.

引き攣り笑い <Hikitsuriwarai>

A sardonic or disdainful smile. 

 

艶笑 <Enshou>

A seductive, enticing, alluring smile. 

笑殺 <Shousatsu>

A laugh or a smile used to dismiss or disregard something.

 

作り笑い <Tsukuriwarai>

A forced, feigned or fake smile or laugh. 

Literally means a ‘created smile/laugh’. 

失笑 <Shisshou>

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. 

苦笑 <Kushou>

A wry smile.

Literally, a bitter smile. 

照れ笑い <Terewarai>

This is when one laughs softly or smiles in an embarrassed way having made a mistake or having done something awkward. 

Other expressions/words/proverbs

にやりと笑う <Niyari to Warau>

To grin. 

ニヤニヤと笑う <NiyaNiya to Warau>

To smirk.

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.

笑って損した者なし <Waratte Son Shita Mono Nashi>

No one has ever lost by laughing.  

 

A Shintou-based analysis of Nakamoto Suzuka’s name

<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.>

Characteristics:

[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…>

Characteristics:

[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. 

Setsubun no Hi and its roots

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 ?

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.

 

Toyotomi_hideyoshi

 

14-3

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.

s48houkouji2

   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.

Ikidou

    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.

 

 

 

Tatami <畳>

 

Tatami

Roots and History

   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.

 

rekishi

   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.

 

e0171614_1142015

   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. 

heri

   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. main_pics2Rikyu 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’ <>. Igusa made its way from India by way of the silk road, through the Korean peninsula to Japan.

nc_gpf09Photo0220120906100717

 

e71b349f

   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>

 

s-IMG_7667-3aa9b

The efficacy of Igusa/Tatami

Air purification

   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.

Relaxation effects

   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.

Soundproofing

    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.

 

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Tatami etiquette

   From an early age in Japan you are told not to step on the border section, the ‘Tatamiberi’ <畳縁> the of Tatami.

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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)

 

bigyou 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.

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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.

 

Fujisan

Fujisan

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   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.

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   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.

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  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.

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   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>

 

 

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   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’.

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   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

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    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 2011 March 11 Earthquake/Tsunami Part 1

 

The Touhoku Chihou Taiheiyouoki Earthquake

(The 2011 March 11 Earthquake/Tsunami)

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   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’.

Ring of fire tectonic plate

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.

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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.

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    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.

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    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!”

 

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     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.”

Japanese return money lost on 3/11

Stories following 3/11

Pride

    “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!!”

Part-time job

    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.

Traffic manners

    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.”

One girl’s speech given after the disaster

Sugawara Sayaka’s speech in Japanese

     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.

 

Video of the earthquakes of 2011 Japan

 

Note: I will add a part 2 at a later date.

 

Sushi part 3

 

Sushi part 3

   Suggestions for eating Sushi at an authentic Sushi shop (or even at a conveyor belt Sushi shop)

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Eat each Sushi piece (一貫) ‘Ikkan’ 120816ebi2 or Gunkan、a1ecf3b2f8c754a6580565343a29f891 or roll <Maki> 2007_0907_B9BEB8CDB0C2A1A68EC88EB78EDE8EC48EDBB4ACA4AD in one bite. It is rather unbecoming to eat half and place the uneaten piece back on your plate.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. Within the realm of common sense and good manners, eat each serving as soon as it is placed in front of you.
  7. Don’t go to a Sushi shop wearing perfume.
  8. Start with light, white colored fish and work up to the more oily ones.
  9. 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.
  10. Politely and in a sincere voice let the chef know that you are enjoying the Sushi.
  11. 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’ <> in Japanese.

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   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>marukawa-9021-500x375in 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 <> 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 ’‘ 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.

 

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    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.

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   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 <海苔>

   Nori or as it is usually rather incorrectly translated as ‘Dried seaweed’ derives from the Japanese word ‘Nura’ or the onomatopoetic ‘Nurunuru’ ‘ meaning slimy.

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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.

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   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)

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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.

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   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.

Inarizushi <稲荷ずし>

   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.

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First of all, what is Inarizushi?

 

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   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

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’ <> 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> 22451029559

which can also be thought of as resembling the ears of a fox.

 

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Nihongo part 3 IroIro

 

Nihongo part 3

Nihongo IroIro

  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.

Afureru/Koboreru 

 

    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.

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   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.

女子大生

   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 ‘‘ (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.

Greetings

   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’).

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   Konnichi written as ’‘ <Now> and ‘‘ <Day> ‘‘ 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/‘ instead of ‘Wa/‘.

   The exact same goes for ‘Konban ha’ written as ’今’ <Now> and ‘‘ <Evening> plus ‘‘ 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 ‘‘ <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.

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   When you pick up the phone in Japan you most often say, ‘Moshi, Moshi’.

 

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   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’.

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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’.

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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.

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   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.

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   How about a simple element of Japanese? You know Ichi, Ni, San….and you come to Shichi (or Nana), or Seven,

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   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 ‘‘ <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 

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   `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, <> 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 ‘‘ <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’ <> 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.

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   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 `` being chain and `` 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-<>, Shiawase. Surely this must be a Kanji made of lovely puppy dogs and cafe latte. But no, it too has rather ugly underpinnings.

Shiawase siawase

   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 ‘‘ <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 ‘‘ you can imagine a child standing with his hands extended out in joy. Well, ‘Ryou’ is that child with his arms chopped off <> 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

Bushido/武士道

   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 <> ‘Bu’ (also read as Takeshi) is made up of a derivative of <> ‘Hoko’ which is a spear. In other words it represents weapons.

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   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.

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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 <> ‘Kokoro’ meaning mind or heart.

Put the two together means literally misplacing your mind or simply put ‘to forget’.

Shitsuke/(discipline)

Another easy to comprehend but less well known one.

The left side is <> ‘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 <> ‘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!

Otto/(Husband)

The Kanji for husband is <> ‘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.

The immense variety and flexibility of Nihongo – 雨と私

 

The immense variety and flexibility of Nihongo

雨と私

   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.

 

 

`Ateru` <当てる>

I hit you.

`Aterareru` <当てられる>

I am hit by you.

`Atesaseru` <当てさせる>

I make you hit him.

`Atesaserareru` <当てさせられる>

I am made to be hit by him by you`

`Atesaserarenakerebanaranai` <当てさせられなければならない>

I am made to be hit by him by you wherein you have no choice but to hit me.

`Atesaserarenakerebanaranaikamoshirenai` <当てさせられなければならないかも知れない>

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>

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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.

First, English.

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.

Next, Japanese.

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.

Amaashi <雨足>

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.

Kirisame <霧雨>

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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.

Kosame <小雨>

Meaning either or both a small rainfall or a small drops of rain.

Konuka <小糠>

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.

Samidare <五月雨>

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.

Kiu <喜雨>

A blessing of rain that comes in the middle of summer following day upon day of hot rainless weather. Literally means `Glad rain`.

Shigure <時雨>

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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>

 

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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`.

Shuuu <驟雨>

Rain that falls strongly and then in a flash lessens up and then repeatedly falls in this manner and is often accompanied by lightning.

Sayoshigure <小夜時雨>

Rain that falls at night.

Natanetsuyu <菜種梅雨>

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.

Shuurin <秋霖>

The long lasting rains of autumn.

Sobae <日照雨>

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.

Hakuu <白雨>

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Written as `white rain` it means a rain that comes out of a bright blue sky.

Bakuu <麦雨>

Rain that falls when wheat is being harvested in May. Literally `wheat rain`.

Hisame <氷雨>

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.

Yuudachi <夕立>

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 `Shito Shito` 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.

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`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`

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and his trademark skin head and white attire makes him look like a vicious `Teru Teru monk`.

 

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   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,

`I`

`Me`

`My self`

`One`

`Oneself`

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.

Watashi <>

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…

Atashi <あたし>

Used by women as a derivative of `Watashi`.

Ore <俺/おれ>

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`.

Boku <>

Used usually in a casual way but fine also in formal situations.

Watakushi <>

Note that it is the same Kanji as `Watashi> and is used more formally and denotes a feeling of regality or superiority.

Ora/Oira </己等>

Still used sometimes without a sense of oddness. This was used in the Edo period for both men and women.

Jibun <自分>

Used to denote a more militaristic or stoic sense of self.

Uchi <うち/>

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.

Sessha <拙者>

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.

Soregashi <それがし>

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`.

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Oi, Oidon <おい、おいどん>

Used mostly in Kyuushuu even today to some extent for both men and women.

Midomo <身ども>

Used by men of the Bushi class.

Warawa <わらわ>

Used in the past by women to indicate that they are still young, innocent and naive.

Gusei <愚生>

Used in the past in a self deprecating way.

Shousei <小生>

Used similarly to `Gusei` but for women.

Yo <余、予>

Used apparently in the Heian period.

Ware <我、吾>

Used sometimes today but has a rather old fashioned feeling to it.

Me <ミー>

Obviously the English word used in a comical or fashionable way.

Orecchi <おれっち>

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.

Japan by any other name is Toyoashiharano Chiioakino Mizuhonokuni <豊葦原千五百秋瑞穂国>

 

The names of Japan

   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.

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The most northern lands possessed by Japan are the Hoppouryouchi or Northern territories.

NorthernTerritories

    The most eastern islands of Japan are the `Minamitorishima`, or the Marcus Islands.

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    The most western islands are those of Okinawa. The most southern island of Japan is `Okinotorijima`.

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   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.

Japan_Korea_provisional_zone_J.svg

 

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Senkaku-islands

 

 

 

`Onogorojima` <淤能碁呂島>

   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.

izanagiizanami1

   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

fig_2_volcanoes_pac_ringfire

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`

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 The eruption was/is so severe that the entire population of 137 people had to be evacuated.

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   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.

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Toyoashiharano Chiioakino Mizuhonokuni <豊葦原千五百秋瑞穂国>

   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.

`Yamato`<大和>

    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 `` which can be read as `Wa` or later `Yamato` in Japanese. Thus Japan was called `Wakoku` and the Japanese people `Wajin`. This Kanji `` is not a complimentary word and is kind of like calling someone a little runt. When the Japanese used the pronunciation of `` when referring to themselves or to Japan as a country they replaced it with `` or `Harmony` and also wrote it as `大和` <big harmony>

t-time_tl-kanji-yamato

   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

250px-カワラナデシコ_Dianthus_superbus_var._longicalycinus

   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`.

`Nihon/Nippon` <日本>

   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 ``<Wa> as the name of Japan in diplomatic dealings and as said earlier `` <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,

Prince_Shotoku

 

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Su-tokutaishi

    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` <> of `Nihon` was read as `Po` <> 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

Jippon

   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`.

Jipangu

   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>.

Why Japanese people?!

 

 

Paper Moon-Washi to Tsuki

 

Paper Moon-Washi to Tsuki

Past and future technologies of Japan

   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.

Washi (和紙)

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   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>

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, 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.

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 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.

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   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.

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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`.

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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.

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  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.

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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.

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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.

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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

 

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   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.

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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`.

Sushi Part 2

 

Sushi

Part 2

Sushi rice (舎利)

 

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.

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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 (暖簾)

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.

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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.

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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.

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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)

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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

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 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`

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as they do now and the Gari was used to clean one`s fingertips as well.

Wasabi (山葵)

How can you talk about Sushi without mentioning that beautiful and so hard to cultivate plant, Wasabi?

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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` ((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.

 

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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.

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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)

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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.

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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.

Sushi (Part 1)

 

Sushi

Part 1

  When people living outside of Japan hear the word Japan one of the first things that comes to mind is Sushi. It is to that degree that this way of preparing, serving and eating vinegar rice with various toppings has become a representative icon of Japan. Knowing more about its roots, development and flowering enhances the experience of eating this incredible cuisine even more.

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  It is widely accepted that Sushi has its roots in a way of preserving fish using rice that was common in Southeast Asia as far back as the 4th century BCE. After the fish was gutted it would be heavily salted and then placed into cooked rice where it was allowed to ferment over several weeks. The rice would be thrown away and only the fish eaten and is know as `Narezushi`  (熟れ鮨), or `aged fish`.

`Narezushi`

  After making its way through China this `Narezushi` came to be eaten in Japan in the middle of the 8th century where we see the Japan once again adding their own twist to an already accepted tradition. The Japanese veered away from throwing away the rice and began eating the fish and rice together. It was this new way of consuming `Narezushi` that converted this practice from one of simply preserving the fish into the early form of a whole new cuisine.

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  So already an ancient form of preserving fish has begun to transform into a eating style all its own. We will see in a minute just how drastically this `Narezushi` then branches off into the modern form of Sushi we know today several centuries later. For now let`s look at the word `Narezushi` itself. You will notice the `Sushi` part (熟れ鮨) or second Kanji can be written as:

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or

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`鮨`(Sushi in the top example)  is composed of Fish () and Delicious () meaning, obviously, delicious fish.

`鮓`(Sushi in the bottom example)  is composed of Fish () and Sour (Part of the Kanji ) meaning, of course, Sour Fish.

  The thing to remember here is that the early roots of Sushi was a food preservation method that was concerned with the Fish and not the rice. We will see later that this changed gigantically and is reflected in the way Sushi is written now.

  In the lactic acid fermentation process the starch and sugars in the rice are broken down and become rather gooey. The lactobacillus create acetic acid adding vitamins and a tart vinegary taste to the rice and fish. It was this delicious taste that brought together rice and fish and propelled the later flowering modern day Sushi.

Hayazushi/Oshizushi

  Sometime in the early Edo period around the late 16 hundreds the Japanese began to enjoy the taste of rice that had not been fermented but rather made with the addition of vinegar. This would be mixed in with not only fish, but also vegetables or dried seafoods popular in the region. Since this was made without the fermenting process it was known as `Hayazushi` as the `Haya` of the word means fast or quick (早い). If it was left overnight it was called, `Hitobanzushi` (一晩すし).

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  Along with this non-fermented form of `Narezushi` there also came into being a variety Sushi which usesmarinated, seasoned, or not, fish or vegetables called `Oshizushi` or directly translated as `Pressed Sushi`.

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押し寿司

  This was a form of vinegar rice that had placed on top of it sliced fish and then further topped with a weight such as a rock and then left for a few days. This box of Sushi was much bigger than one serving of Sushi that we see today and in fact when it was cut up into about 9 pieces it became the shape of `Nigirizushi` that we know today.

Nigirizushi and Edomaezushi

  Edo, or current day Tokyo, in the 1820`s was populated with single men trying to cut out a life for themselves in this bustling capital city. Edo was filled with all kinds of food stalls selling Soba, Tempura and other foods catering to the demand for quick and easy to eat foods. And though there were of course shops selling Oshizushi the demand of the day was for something that required even less time to prepare. And what developed was the idea of simply slapping fish or shellfish freshly taken from the Tokyo bay or rivers onto Vinegar rice, slightly squeezing the toppings and rice into bite sized rectangles and hence the word, `Nigirizushi` is what came to be called. `Nigiru` means to grip or squeeze. Since the fish and shellfish were taken abundantly from the Tokyo bay and rivers this style of Sushi is also called `Edomaezushi`, (江戸前寿司-in front of the Edo bay). However, at this time refrigeration had not been properly developed yet and so the early stages of `Edomaezushi` were usually lightly seared with fire, marinated or soaked briefly in vinegar. While this type of what we consider modern day Sushi or `Nigirizushi` quickly became the standard in Edo, the custom of eating `Oshizushi` continued to be favored in places like the land locked cities of Kyoto or Oosaka where it was not so easy to get your hands on fresh fish.

  With the gradual ease in the ability to transport fish using ice and early forms of refrigeration in the early 1900`s, this Edomae style of Sushi began to become more and more popular throughout Japan. But it was the Great Kantou earthquake of 1923 that really gave the final boost to the spread of Edomaezushi.

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  With the vast destruction of Tokyo countless cooks fled Tokyo back to their ancestral homes taking with them this Tokyo/Edo style of preparing Sushi.

  So I find it so interesting that what began as a way to preserve fish using rice and fermentation without actually eating the rice over the course of more than 2 millennia changed into almost its opposite. For with the advent of Edomaezushi, Sushi now refers to an unfermented rice, flavored with a fermented ingredient, Vinegar solely for taste that is of course eaten topped with completely fresh (basically) fish and other items.

This is reflected of course in how Sushi is now written as well.

While no one knows exactly why the present day name of Sushi is written as it is, the best hypothesis I have heard is as follows.

Current day Sushi is almost always written in Kanji as:

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寿 (Kotobuki/Ju) is a word meaning literally to celebrate (especially weddings) with words and is also used for long life. In other words a feeling of gratitude and joy.

(Tsukasadoru) means many things but one meaning is to perform the role you are assigned or to control.

So perhaps due to the fact that one of the most welcomed foods served to celebrate, especially weddings, is Sushi we can perhaps see it meaning to `perform the role of helping to celebrate a joyous event`.

Maguro

  Maguro (Tuna) which is now considered to be one of if not the most favorite Neta was looked down upon and very rarely eaten as Sashimi or Sushi until quite recently-somewhere around the end of the Edo period in fact. The Japanese of the Heian period (roughly the 8th to 11th century) are not reported to have eaten Maguro preferring white fleshed fish. Even as the fishing routes became more developed in the Kamakura era (1185 to 1333) the power structure of Japan moved increasingly from the aristocrats to the Bushi or warrior class. Maguro at that time was known as `宍魚` read as `Shibi` with the `Shi` meaning `the meat of beasts` since the Maguro meat resembled that of animal flesh. Now, this is what is interesting, you would think the warriors, the Samurai of the day would have no trouble eating `the meat of beasts` but since the word was written and read as `Shibi` it could also take on the reading of `死日` or `Day of death`. Now since this was considered to be obviously a bad luck word for those going out to fight this superstitious meaning of the word for Maguro prevented them from enjoying it.Instead of Maguro, or `Shibi` they preferred the similar fish, the Bonito, or `Katsuo` because it could be read as `勝つ魚` meaning `the winning fish`.

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Maguro

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Katsuo (Bonito)

   On top of all this, Maguro was always documented as being a foul tasting fish regardless of all the superstitious stuff surrounding it. This stuff just amazes me.

   In the early stages of the Edo period it is not to say that Maguro wasn`t eaten, it was but it was eaten by the lower classes, by the poorer people and was sold at a very low price. In fact, in times when there was a over abundance in the market place the excess would be sold as a source of manure. Not only were the white fish more expensive but they were even forbidden to be eaten by the average Japanese citizen and so the consumption of Maguro spread even wider. It came to be eaten as a Neta for `Nigirizushi` in the mid 1800`s but since there was no reliable and widespread method of refrigeration and since Maguro spoils rapidly it was first marinated in Soy Sauce before being served.

  Maguro did not take its place as the King of Sushi Neta until after WW2. For 7 years following the war the Americans occupied Japan and being Americans they preferred to eat red meat. Seeing the popularity of meat amongst their temporary captors the Japanese not only began to long for beef but they also saw Maguro almost literally in a new light. The red color of Maguro along with its almost steak like texture and shape helped to elevate the status and approval of Maguro to the level of popularity and price that it now occupies.

  Almost every year Ootoro or the fatty, underside meat of the Tuna is ranked as the favorite Sushi Neta amongst men in Japan and near the top for women as well. California Roll is almost always ranked last by the way.

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  The most expensive fish ever sold was a 222 Kilogram Blue Fin Tuna sold at Tsukiji Market (Tokyo) in 2013 for 1.8 million dollars. That is about 8,000 dollars per Kilogram. And that is a long way to have come from being called `the meat of beasts`.

Kiyomura Co's employee holds the head of a 222 kg bluefin tuna after cutting its meat at the company's sushi restaurant outside Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo

 

That is about all I can write for the day. Looks like this will have to go on to a part 2 (or 3).

The Last Samurai, Yamaoka Tesshu

 

Yamaoka Tesshu

One of Japan`s great real Samurai, in fact the last Samurai perhaps.

They say that a true Samurai in Japan (where else would they be?) was a warrior who was a master of 3 arts. Spelled out those are a master of the sword, a master of Zazen and a master of the brush.

You would have to look long and hard to find a better exemplary of these than the man who is often called the Last Samurai, Yamaoka Tesshu.

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Yamaoka was born in 1836 when Japan was in the final stages of 252 years of peace and isolation from the rest of the world, a time that most World historians would agree was the most amazing times in world history wherein there was relative peace in a country, at the time known as the Edo period. At the tender age of 9 he began to study the way of the sword. Remember during the Edo period the possession of real swords was outlawed and practitioners of the sword would work with either the wooden sword known as a Bokkuken or a bamboo sword known as a Shinai. When he was 17 he began to study the way of the spear under a teacher known as Yamaoka Seizan. When this master died Tesshu married one of his daughters and went on to carry the name of Yamaoka throughout his life. This was a practice that has continued until the present day although less common in Modern Japan.

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Yamaoka was intensely focused on the sword and sword fighting throughout his life but along the way he was the subject of countless stories that border on the mythical in stature.

In his late 20s a senior member of his group announced when they were drinking that he was about to set off on a 1-day trip out to Narita and back. It was only Yamaoka who was brave enough (or foolish enough) to vow to go along on this 140 Kilometer adventure. When Yamaoka arrived at the senior`s house early in the morning he found he was too hungover to go and so Yamaoka steadfastly undertook the journey out and back in less than 24 hours on his own in a tremendous downpour, And in wooden Japanese clogs, or Geta (下駄)to boot (no pun intended).

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In another story, Yamaoka was drinking with his friends when they got to talking about a horse that no one could tame, ride or even get near. Yamaoka was nonplussed by this and boasted that he couldn`t believe that there was an animal that man could not control and stated he show them how it is done. He stomped into the stall, took the animal by the tail and pulled it out into the open. Apparently later he explained that animals have an instinctual ability to know when another is stronger than themselves and will easily give up their will to the stronger animal-man included apparently. He said that the sake in his belly didn`t hurt the situation either.

In another example, a companion of Yamaoka claimed he could eat 30 boiled eggs at one sitting. Yamakoka said, “Huh, only 30 I can eat a hundred”. And sure enough he consumed them all in front of witnesses and then made his way home where he vomited for 3 days.

Not to give you the image that Yamaoka was nothing more than an overgrown frat boy, we find him making an appearance in a couple of the most famous Zen koans.

The Zen story, “Nothing exists”

In his younger days Yamaoka Tesshu, traveled around Japan studying from various Zen masters. On one of his excursions and in a desire to show his comprehension of Zen, he stated to the master, “The mind, Buddha, and all sentient beings do not actually exist. The true nature of this world is in fact emptiness. There is nothing to realize, there are no delusions, no sages, and no mediocrity. There is nothing to be given nothing to be received.”

The master who had been quietly smoking his Kiseru

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remained silent for a time. Then suddenly he whacked him on the head with the Kiseru. Yamaoka naturally fumed up in anger. To which the master said, “If nothing exists as you say from where does this anger come from?”

 

They say that Yamaoka divided his days into 4 parts, Swordfighting, Japanese calligraphy, drinking sake and sleeping.

Yamaoka when he was in his early 30s was defeated by a skilled swordsman named, Asari Yoshiaki

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Yamaoka became his student and even though he was larger than his teacher standing around 182 centimeters which was gigantic at that time in Japan and was known by the nickname of the Demon Tesshu ,

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he could not come close to dealing with his teacher`s greater mental skill. It is said that Asari would drive Yamaoka to the back of the Dojo, out onto the street and after knocking him down would slam the door shut. For years Yamaoka thought about little else than sword fighting and immersed himself in sword skills, mental training and meditation. It wasn`t much later when he was 45 years old that while sitting in Zazen he attained enlightenment (悟り). Following this, when he went to the Dojo and stood in Tachiai with Asari, the teacher realized immediately that Yamaoka had become enlightened and could no longer defeat him and backed away from the fight. He told Yamaoka that he had arrived at his destination and that there was nothing more he could teach him. Yamaoka went on to open his own form of swordfighting known as “Mutou Ryuu” or, “The No-sword way”. That is 無刀流 and not 武藤 as in Ayami (武藤彩未).

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Sorry I couldn`t help myself. 

 

 

Being an incredibly skilled and powerful warrior he became a tutor for Emperor Meiji when he was a teen.

It happened that the young emperor challenged Yamaoka to a wrestling match after he had been drinking. Yamaoka refused the ridiculous request, but the Emperor in his drunken state tried to grapple and throw Yamaoka to the ground only to find him to be completely immoveable. Being an Emperor and not bound to give up he tried to strike Yamaoka but he simply moved slightly aside causing the Emperor to fall to the ground due to the momentum of his own attack. Yamaoka gently went on to pin the Emperor to the ground. The emperor’s aids demanded that he apologize. Yamaoka refused saying he had done no wrong but that he would commit Seppuku if so demanded. The Emperor realized the wisdom of his bodyguard and tutor and gave up his silly wrestling pranks and his drinking as well and ever since relied upon Yamaoka as one of his most dependable advisors.

There is much said about his self-less, beneficial character as well. When the Emperor gave him money to buy clothes to replace his worn out ones he apparently took the money only to give it a number of poor people and continued to wear his worn out grubs.

When asked to write a sign for a man`s shop Yamaoka`s disciples got angry at the shop owner for disrespecting their master. Yamaoka however responded calmly saying it would not bother him at all if it would help bring prosperity to the man and proceeded to fulfill the man`s request.

Back to his sword master there is the tale of him and match with the Headmaster of the Jikishinkage school of swords, Sakakibara Kenkichi. After the two had faced off and bowed they stood facing each other becoming ever more focused, ever more deep in their calm breathing. This went on for 40 minutes until they both unable to find an opening or gap in the other`s defenses, sheathed their swords and bowed to each other signifying the match was over.

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It is said that he wrote over 1 million Japanese calligraphy writings which is most likely the largest number in recorded history. His art works are considered important and are studied now, even as they were in his lifetime.And I have heard that when the writings are examined with a high power microscope that the way the ink is embedded in the paper differs from ordinary or even supposed highly regarded works by other artists. There is something about the way the molecules of ink are lined up that is most unusual.

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What is most commonly associated with Yamaoka though in and beyond his sword and calligraphy was his incredible strength of mind. It was said that when he would sit in Zazen in a temple or other structure that even the mice that had been squeaking away behind the walls would rather quickly become a part of the quiet blanket he threw over the room. This reminds of Krishnamurti as much the same was said about his presence as well.

I have not the time or energy to go into the important parts of life surrounding the advent of the Meiji era and just what a crucial figure he was and will save that for another time.

Yamaoka died of the very painful disease of stomach cancerage of 53. It is said that the day before he died, he realized that the training Dojo was rather quiet. He was informed that the practice had been called off to honor his weakened state. Upon hearing this commanded out “Training is the only way to honor me!” telling them to get back to work.

In a show of bravery and dignity that has rarely been seen in history and especially in relatively modern history, Yamaoka gathered his disciples together on his last day. He wrote his Death poem in classical Samurai style, sat in front of his students in Zazen and died. An act that is scarcely be comprehended much less copied. His final writing in the Death poem was:

「腹張りて苦しき中に明烏」

Translated as:

Tightening my abdomen

against the pain.

The caw of a morning crow.

 

Bushido is the proper way of life for the Japanese. In order to learn about the Way, forget about self and awaken to the truth… Exerting self is a mistake… We should not say “myself” — in truth there is no such thing… When there is no thought of self, true Bushido develops.

Yamaoka Tesshu, 1836 – 1888

If you have made it this far I will add on one more little tidbit to the story.

Around 100 years ago one of Japan`s most famous and severe Dojo`s for Zazen and Misogi was established by Yamaoka Tesshu`s last disciple, Ogura Tetsuju. This Dojo was named the Ichikukai `19 association` to honor the date that Yamaoka passed away.

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Anyway, I am sure that in its early days it was an honorable and legitimate place to train the mind and spirit. However, I went there for a 4 day session 3 and ½ years ago only to experience the most horrendous and ugly couple of days of my life. I have added a 8 minute clip from a podcast show I used to do where I talk about it in detail. Take a listen if you please.

 

My ordeal at the Ichikukai (Thomas Malone) taken from a Grok the Talk podcast 2011/September