Final Celebration and Catching Up

Last Thursday, through the magic of Skype, Mrs. McBride’s morning class and I had our final celebration for this Reporting Live from Tokyo blog. I told the class about some of the things that I had been up to since last updating the blog, and you guys gave me your questions.

Snow on the ground in Tokyo.

Snow on the ground in Tokyo.

Since the last blog post, Tokyo had its first snowfall. When we spoke on Skype at our final celebration, many of you asked about Christmas in Tokyo, and I explained that because Japan isn’t a Christian nation, New Year’s is actually the biggest holiday of the year in Japan.

I celebrated New Year’s Day with my host family, eating good food, relaxing and singing karaoke.

Kareoke with my host family on New Year's Day.

Kareoke with my host family on New Year’s Day.

The final celebration was also an opportunity for me to tell you all about my new part-time job as an English teacher at a Japanese kindergarten.

Some of my students at the kindergarten.

Some of my students at the kindergarten.

Recess at the kindergarten.

Recess at the kindergarten.

There were so many fantastic questions during our final celebration Skype session, it’s clear to me that all of you all developed a strong sense of curiosity about Japan. It also gave me the opportunity to tell you guys more about what Japanese education is like, and I was glad that you were all so interested.

This is a "teacher-sized" school lunch in Japan. It was tasty!

This is a “teacher-sized” school lunch in Japan. It was tasty!

This is where kindergarten students stack their empty bento boxes after they finish eating lunch.

This is where kindergarten students stack their empty bento boxes after they finish eating lunch.

It was also a nice reminder for me of just how far I have come toward integrating into Japanese society. For instance, in addition to being a student, I now have a job and like most people in Tokyo, that means I have a workday commute.

It was clear to me that you guys have paid close attention to the blog, and also that you’ve been learning on your own in the classroom and at home. The kinds of questions that I got from you guys during our final celebration also convinced me that you guys have a better understanding of Japan.

On my way to work.

On my way to work.

One of my favorite questions from our Skype session was “what is the strangest thing you’ve eaten in Japan?” Do you remember my answer? I told you about a restaurant where my host father and I were served squid that had just been pulled out of the water, and while part of it had been cut up for us to eat, some of it was still moving!

The tentacles on this squid were still moving when I took my first bite – the weirdest thing I have eaten in Japan!

The tentacles on this squid were still moving when I took my first bite – the weirdest thing I have eaten in Japan!

And do you remember when I told you a little about Japanese politics? Well, just the other day I went to the final sumo match of the season, and I saw the Prime Minister of Japan! Here’s a picture of his car parked outside of the sumo arena.

Prime Minister Abe Shinzo's car parked outside the national sumo arena in Tokyo.

Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s car parked outside the national sumo arena in Tokyo.

Our virtual final celebration by Skype was a lot of fun, but really it just made me wish that I could be there in person to share my stories, answer your questions and pass around interesting things that I’ve found in Japan. Still, I’m glad that I could at least answer your questions, tell you some stories and see all of your smiling faces. Luckily, there were no Skype malfunctions.

I hope that you bring the same sense of curiosity and the same intelligence that you’ve shown to all of your future studies of the many different and wonderful cultures around the world. Japan is a country with a lot of stereotypes, and now you guys know more about this culture and what is wrong with the stereotypes than most adults that you know. Isn’t that interesting?

Now, I will leave you with a few more pictures that I’ve taken since the last time we spoke.

For now, so long from Tokyo, Japan – It has been a pleasure and an honor to be your reporter. Who knows, maybe one day I’ll be your reporter once again when I’m working for a newspaper and you’re reading stories about Japan!

I hope that you guys continue to learn about Japan, and I really hope that you pass along what you’ve learned to people that you know.

Your friend,


A cheeseburger with a slice of apple on it? Only in Japan – by the way, it was delicious.

A cheeseburger with a slice of apple on it? Only in Japan – by the way, it was delicious. (Oh, and “Ringo” is the Japanese word for apple.

A temple near the school that I teach at.

A temple near the school that I teach at.

Advertising for a new Tom Cruise movie – do you think anyone will ask me for my autograph?

Advertising for a new Tom Cruise movie – do you think anyone will ask me for my autograph?

Some famous sumo wrestlers sign autographs outside of the arena.

Some famous sumo wrestlers sign autographs outside of the arena.

Just another day on the streets of Tokyo – a city where tradition and modernity meet.

Just another day on the streets of Tokyo – a city where tradition and modernity meet.

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Middle School in Japan

Hiroko Sato, left, with her younger sister, Koko-Chan, on the right.

Middle school in Japan is serious business – unlike the United States, where most middle and high school students don’t have to worry about serious tests until after they’ve been studying for a while, the Japanese educational system has serious entrance examinations beginning with grammar school.

In order to get into a good university, students have to attend a good high school, and in order to get into a good high school, they have to attend – you guessed it – a good middle school. This makes getting into the right middle school a very competitive process, which means extremely tough tests for students who want to attend.

Hiroko Sato is 13 years old, and recently entered 早稲田中学 – Waseda Middle School. Her parents attended Waseda University, as did her grandfather – my host father here in Japan – and they want her to attend the famous university as well. First, they made sure that she tested into Waseda Elementary School, and now being at Waseda Middle School gives her a good chance at getting into the high school – which more or less guarantees her a spot at the prestigious university.

What does attending Waseda University mean? Well, in Japan it means a promising career and a bright future – several of Japan’s recent prime ministers attended Waseda, as did the famous novelist Haruki Murakami. This means that for many Japanese kids like Hiroko, a test taken at the age of 12 can determine a big part of one’s future.

I spoke with Hiroko about the life of a Japanese middle school student – the following has been translated, by myself, from the original Japanese.

Hiroko Kato and Koko-Chan.

Josh: How difficult was the test to get into your middle school?

Hiroko: It was pretty difficult, but I studied very hard. It was very stressful.

Josh: What is the school calendar like?

Hiroko: I have school from April until July, then September until December, and January until March.

Josh: And you go to school Monday through Saturday, right?

Hiroko: Yes, but we only have four periods on Saturday. It’s six on weekdays.

Josh: How long is each period?

Hiroko: 50 minutes.

Josh: American middle school students don’t have class on Saturdays.

Hiroko: They are lucky! But Japanese have to prepare for high school entrance exams, so maybe it’s necessary.

Josh: Getting into a good high school is just as important as getting into a good college in Japan, is that right?

Hiroko: If you don’t get into a good high school, it is very hard to get into the university that you want. I have some friends who did not pass the entrance exams for Waseda middle school, and they were very upset.

Josh: This is why they have “cram schools” in Japan, right? Can you explain those?

Hiroko: Cram schools are like special tutoring to help students prepare for the entrance exams. It’s a lot of hard work and means no free time for students.

Josh: In your regular middle school classes, what are some of the subjects you focus on?

Hiroko: There is a lot of kanji and language instruction, mathematics, and social studies and sciences. Probably similar to American schools, except for language studies. We also have physical education each day.

Josh: Because Waseda University is famous for its sports clubs, I have heard that your school has these as well?

Hiroko: Yes, we have dozens of sports clubs. I am in the volleyball club.

Josh: What do you enjoy about it?

Hiroko: Because school keeps us very busy, our club is where we meet our closest friends. Volleyball is fun, but mostly I like being with my girlfriends in the club, to spend time with them and talk and have fun.

Josh: Is there lots of homework at your school?

Hiroko: Yes! I have writing homework each day, and a lot of reading also. It’s very serious. I hate it.

Josh: One thing that is very different about Japanese schools are the uniforms – all of the schools have uniforms, which is different from most American schools. What do you think about them?

Hiroko: They are fine. I don’t really think about it. It’s just school, and we can dress how we want to the rest of the time, so I don’t think people mind.

As you can see, Japanese high school students can still manage to have their own style, even if they all wear uniforms. Each high school and middle school has its own different uniform, with a special crest representing the school.

Josh: I know that you live at home, with your parents, but some of my friends have known other middle school students who lived with family friends during the week, so that they can be closer to their cram school, until they get into high school – have you known people who do that?

Hiroko: Yes, because commuting takes so long in Tokyo, and the city is so big, sometimes people do this, especially if they live far outside of the city. I have a friend who does this, but her parents work a lot also, so it would be the same if she was at home.

Josh: Do you like your school?

Hiroko: Yes, I like it a lot. Even though it is a lot of work, it’s not all so difficult. I have lots of fun, and I get to see my friends a lot during the day.

Josh: Do you have any questions for the middle school students in America?

Hiroko: Umm…is it hard to be a middle school student in America? What is the hardest part and what is the most fun part?

Josh: Thanks, Hiroko! I will ask them and let you know.

So, that is my conversation with Hiroko Kato – are there any other questions that you guys think I should ask her? Let me know in the comments section.

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Opening the Book on the World of Manga

Editors of shojo manga hard at work at the offices of Shogakukan, one of Tokyo’s largest publishing companies.

Last week, I had the rare opportunity to tour the offices of Shogakukan, one of the largest publishers in Japan since 1922. While this is probably the first time you’ve heard of the company, I’d be surprised if many of you hadn’t heard of some of the more famous manga that they publish: Doraemon, InuYasha, Pokemon, and Sonic the Hedgehog, among others.

The bookshelves in my bedroom have been filled with manga by study abroad students who stayed with my host family in recent years.

But have you ever stopped to think about what manga really is? How do you think it is different from American comic books?

Well, for one thing, manga has been around a lot longer than traditional American comic books have. The manga industry that now generates hundreds of billions of dollars in profits each year, began with the Eshinbun Nipponchi, a magazine first published in 1874.

The cover of the first manga magazine, Eshinbun Nipponchi, published in 1874 – only three issues of the magazine were ever published, but it was the beginning of what is now a major force in worldwide publishing.

Manga didn’t come out of nowhere: Japan had a long history of storytelling through painted scrolls, and, later on, Ukiyo-E woodblock prints. This scroll, from the Edo-Tokyo Museum, tells the story of an ancient palace eating and drinking contest, with images and text.

Before explaining the process of creating manga, some editors at Shogakukan gave us a wonderful tour of their offices, where we ran into some characters that you might recognize.

This Doraemon electric car actually works – but I think Doraemon is much happier in the lobby of Shogakukan than he would be on the streets of Tokyo. It’s dangerous out there!

I have no idea what it’s supposed to be about, but it sure looks like a lot of exciting stuff going on in the upcoming Pokemon movie. I’m not sure about America, but it comes out this summer in Japan.

Any ideas on why manga is so much more popular in Japan than American comic books are in the United States? Well, there’s one reason that I can illustrate by giving you a peek between the pages of one of the publications from Shogakukan’s literature division – that’s right, they don’t only publish manga.

This is the first page from the Man’Youshu – “Collection of 10,000 Leaves” – which is Japan’s oldest collection of poetry, dating from about 759. Even though it has been translated into modern Japanese, it’s no easy task to read, is it?

In order to read a newspaper article, the average Japanese adult has to know three alphabets – all of the hiragana and katakana syllabary alphabets, which work a little bit like the English alphabet, with each character representing a sound, as well as about 2,000 kanji. The kanji are Chinese characters, and most of them have multiple readings and meanings. Even for Japanese people they can be difficult to remember, and reading manga, which have pictures and oftentimes less kanji, can be a more pleasurable experience than reading a novel, which could require more than 8,000 kanji. Yikes!

Another reason that manga could be so popular is the fact that they are cheap – usually between $5-$9 American dollars in Japan. Cheap and easy to read means that they are perfect for reading on the train, where many Japanese spend a lot of their time – especially in Tokyo. On top of all that, you can find manga on just about anything.

This baseball manga was free at a game that I went to.

What a game!

Many of the most popular manga titles revolve around action and fantasy for boys, or romance and love for girls, but my personal favorite manga is something that you’d never find in an American comic book: A story about a businessman’s daily adventures as he works his way up from “subsection chief” to “company president.”

Believe it or not, this manga is actually really popular in Japan. Sorry to spoil the ending, but he eventually becomes the company president!

The manga editors who gave us our tour work with what is called 少女漫画 – Shoujo Manga – which is short for “little girls manga.” It is marketed toward 10-18 year old girls, and includes stories about friendship, romance, and even historical drama and science fiction stories about magical heroic young females. One editor explained the process of creating a manga, from beginning to end.

Back to the drawing board: From the initial idea, all the way to the end, but I promise you, making manga is harder than they make it look on this board.

Each editor works with anywhere from 4-8 different artists, and are basically responsible for keeping them happy and productive – some of the more famous artists sound like they can be a bit hard to deal with, kind of like an American rock star!

I learned a lot during our tour of Shogakukan, and the editors were nice enough to give us some free Shoujo manga – which I gave to my host family’s granddaughter – as well as some very famous historical texts, which I’ll enjoy reading in Japanese for the first time. But I was in for another surprise: After telling my host mother about my trip to Shogakukan, she told me that her oldest daughter had written her own manga – about my host family!

The book on the left, “Atama no naka ni” – which means “Inside my head” – features a very funny drawing of my host mother making a mean face on the cover. I don’t think she really looks like this, and she’s actually very nice – I guess that’s why it’s so funny.

Now I have the opportunity to read manga about the family that I’m living with, which is really incredible because I absolutely love them. It’s kind of like reading a comic book about your own family, or a close friend, with stories that you’ve never heard before. Can any of you draw? Maybe you could team up with a few friends and make your own manga about your family, a friend whose life you think is interesting – or just make up characters and write crazy adventures for them to have!

American comic books probably say a lot about us as Americans, just like any other piece of popular culture. After coming to Japan and being immersed in the world of manga that surrounds me – they are sold everywhere, and read by everyone, young and old – I believe that manga say something about the Japanese as well. I’m not sure what exactly that is, but what I am certain of is that art and literature are both amazing things that transport us to other worlds, and manga seem to be a special way of capturing this.

One of the most amazing things about Japan is the fact that there are so many bookstores, and that they are always full of curious people, each of whom might be searching for something very different – and the will all probably find what they are looking for.

“New National Kid” is a conservative super hero teenager, and he has his own manga. Can you imagine a comic book with Mitt Romney as a teenager? That’s pretty much what this is. If you can imagine it, they probably have a manga all about it in Japan.

Now reading: A manga about a couple of guys, eating McDonald’s on a bench. Actually, I don’t know what it’s about yet, but because manga is so cheap, I could afford to buy it just because I thought the cover was interesting. So far, it seems like they want to start a band together, but I’ll let you guys know if anything interesting happens.

COMING UP NEXT WEEK: Interview with a Japanese middle school student. This is going to be my final “regular” post, to be followed by one final celebration post, which I will tell you more about next week.

I’ve caught a cold and I’m not feeling so great, but if I find myself with some extra time I’ll try to come up with a bonus post for you guys this week. You guys have earned it – you’ve been great, and I’m really going to miss being your reporter. The good news is that I can still keep writing things now and again for any of you who want to keep on reading – as long as you get your parent’s permission, of course.

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Mapping Tokyo

The Shinjuku ward’s skyline, as seen from the Tokyo Tower observation deck. No matter where you look, the view surrounding the tower is the same – city stretching out as far as the eye can see.

Tokyo, the world’s largest and most densely populated metropolitan center, has often been called a “city of villages.” While this might sound strange, it makes real sense to me the more I walk around this great city.

Amid Tokyo’s many densely populated urban wards, many “koen” – Japanese gardens – provide a sense calm, and a reminder of the city’s past.

On days off from school, I’ve often picked a train station at random and spent hours exploring a previously unknown neighborhood. One of my favorite things about this city is the fact that around any corner you might find a temple that is hundreds of years old, a Japanese garden that belonged to a wealthy samurai during Japan’s feudal-era, or you might just find a 7-story electronics store and arcade.

The Tokyo Sky Tree, on the left, stands opposite the famous Asahi Corporation company. Asahi own a major Japanese newspaper, but their primary product is beer – hence the golden yellow building.

Another view of the Asahi building, along with a famous statue that sits next to it, as seen from the Sumida river. The Sumida has played an important role in the development of Tokyo throughout history.

One of the reasons that Tokyo has become a “city of villages” is because while earthquakes, fires, and bombings have all continually re-shaped the city, it has continued to re-build with an eye toward the future. Meanwhile, Tokyo has also maintained important links to the past, through parks, temples and other sacred historical places.

A lone building breaks the skyline above a beautiful field in one of Tokyo’s many Japanese gardens. Japanese gardens typically feature a pond, sculpted gardens, and often a shinto shrine.

In fact, a great deal of history can be found just by investigating the names of the different train stations – each of which is named after the neighborhood it resides in. For instance, 高田馬場 (TakadaNoBaba) is a word made up of four different kanji characters. The first character, 高 (taka) means “high.” 田 (da) means “rice field,” 馬 (noba) means “horse” and the final character, 場 (ba) means “place.” So what kind of nonsense is “high rice-field horse place” and what does it have to do with history? Well, when Tokyo was first built, it was divided into what was called the “High City” and the “Low City.” The High City was on higher ground, and safer from flooding and the stink of the fish market. The Low City was, well, the opposite – and you guessed it, the rich samurai lived in the High City while fisherman and other common people lived in the Low City. The neighborhood now known as Takadanobaba was in the high city, surrounded by rice fields – and as for the “horse place,” that’s where it really gets interesting. Traditional Japanese archery, which was a very important tradition for samurai, was practiced on horseback. Takadanobaba is where archery was practiced in old Tokyo, and so it is where many samurai families kept their horses stabled.

This section of a screen panel, painted with a map of what was then present-day Edo, is more than two-hundred years old. This section of the panel is the area which is still called what it was called then – Takadanobaba.

Takadanobaba isn’t the neighborhood that I live in, but as it is a part of the area where I go to school each day, I feel a strong connection to it. It is also the area where I first stayed in Tokyo, in a hotel, for a week after arriving. Isn’t it interesting how quickly we can feel a connection to certain places? In fact, even though Takadanobaba is not the center of Tokyo, in my mental map of the city, it is – simply because it was my first real impression of the city, with everything that I learned afterward spreading outward from there. I think this fits with something that Japan scholar Paul Waley once said about Tokyo: “It’s a city where you make your own map.”

What do you think he meant by that? If you were to draw your own map of Portland, marking only the places that you think are important, what would it look like?

Tokyo has 23 special “wards,” such as Shinjuku and Meguro, and within them many neighborhoods, such as Takadanobaba. Each neighborhood has its own unique history, and plays a special role in Tokyo’s overall character. Ginza, for instance, is the home to Tokyo’s grand kabuki theaters. Nearby Marunouchi, meanwhile, contains both the Imperial Palace, as well as Tokyo Station – both of which I’ve told you about in a previous post. Another place we’ve talked about is Yanaka, which has survived earthquakes and bombings to become one of Tokyo’s oldest and most unchanged neighborhoods.

Yanaka is full of stray cats, and the shop owners and neighborhood residents have adopted these famous felines.

Walking through the section of Yanaka known as “old Ginza,” with my classmates.

We’ve also talked about Ryogoku, the neighborhood famous for being the home of Tokyo’s grand sumo arena. Isn’t it interesting how many neighborhoods in Tokyo are defined by cultural or commercial activities? Well, it’s no coincidence: Japan used to have a caste system, meaning that people of different professions had different levels of respect and opportunity within society. Old Japan wasn’t a place where anyone could do whatever they wanted; most people were born into the same profession as their parents, and they were stuck with it.

A sumo wrestler leaves Ryogoku Sumo Arena, after finishing his match. Lower ranking wrestlers ride the train home, just like everyone else.

People who worked in professions that dealt with death – butchers, funeral directors – were always considered the lowest people in society, and therefore the funeral industry in Tokyo is all located in Yanaka. Because people didn’t want to associate with these workers, they were all forced to live in one area, near the graveyards, for many, many years. Even though the caste system is long abolished in Japan, its influence on Tokyo’s geography can still be felt.

Kabuki actors, now famous and highly paid, were also once considered to be lower class, at the same level as prostitutes – in fact, hundreds of years ago, many of the kabuki actors were also prostitutes in addition to being actors. While times have changed, the kabuki and all of the surrounding excitement remains in Ginza, a neighborhood that was once place where the wealthy would sneak in and out of for fear of being seen.

This life-sized replica of the original Tokyo Kabuki-Za (kabuki theater) sits in the Edo-Tokyo Museum.

I snapped this picture last week, at Tokyo’s National Kabuki Theater in Ginza, just before a performance.

Japan’s national history, as much as Tokyo’s own incredible history, have influenced how the city’s many neighborhoods and districts have formed, changed and grown throughout the years. While natural and man-made catastrophes have helped to shape the city, its residents have unsentimentally managed to constantly rebuild, one village at a time.

I always feel as though I’m a resident of Tokyo, but at the same time, I never feel that I’m in Tokyo – when I step off of the train, I’m in Meguro, or Shibuya, or Harajuku – each of these places has its own distinctive feeling and mood. And while one can walk and not know exactly where one place ends and another begins, the fact that everyone in Tokyo travels by train greatly influences how we experience these many little villages that make up the massive city called Tokyo.

This entrance to a mall in Harajuku’s famous shopping district is covered with reflective mirrors. It must be a famous mall – in the background you can see a couple having their wedding pictures taken.

In modern times, no single thing has been as important in defining the “map” of Tokyo as the system of trains and subways. When meeting friends for dinner or karaoke, going shopping or out to see kabuki or sumo, there is only one thing that people talk about: What station is it closest to? I’ve never once heard people talk about street names or addresses during my entire time in Tokyo.

And with so many train stations and so many different lines, you can bet that there’s always one nearby, no matter where you find yourself on the Tokyo map.

A map of Tokyo’s rail system.

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Japan and America

This woodblock print shows Commodore Matthew Perry, center, flanked by two other high-ranking American seaman.

On July 8, 1853, Commodore Matthew C. Perry of the United States Navy landed his ship at Uraga Harbor, near the city of Edo – now modern-day Tokyo. It was the beginning of what would become the forced “opening” of Japan, which had successfully isolated itself from the world.

On a recent trip to the Edo-Tokyo Museum, I was forced to confront some unpleasant aspects of America’s history with Japan, up close and personal. The amazing collection if important artifacts, art, and historical documents drove home just how much involvement America has had in Japan’s history – and it all began with the arrival of Commodore Perry’s “black ships.”

For years, under the Tokugawa Shogunate, Japan had remained almost totally secluded from the outside world and foreign influence. In an effort to maintain peace, preserve and incubate Japanese culture, and maintain the strict caste system, the Tokugawa Shogunate had closed Japan from all outside visitors. Foreigners who became lost at sea and washed ashore would likely be executed.

This rare image of Tokugawa Ieyasu, one of Japan’s greatest historical figures, sits in the Edo-Tokyo Museum’s special collection. Ieyasu had this portrait of himself painted after he had lost an important battle, which is why he looks so troubled in this painting. He wanted to remember the feeling of defeat, so that he could never let it happen again. It worked.

Only the Dutch, who the Japanese felt had a superior knowledge of technology and medical science, and the Chinese were allowed to trade with Japan – and only by landing at the small island called Dejima.

In some ways, Waseda University is like my own little Dejima – an island where plenty of foreign exchange students can visit and meet up with Japanese, but instead of trading goods we are trading culture, ideas and conversation. Just like there are many American students studying at Waseda, and living in Tokyo in general, there are also many Waseda students who study abroad at Portland State University each year.

This foreign newspaper article, announcing Perry’s successful landing in Japan, sits in the Edo-Tokyo Museum. The Tokyo museum is home to many important historical objects and documents, and I was lucky enough to visit just last week.

Perry arrived in a large black-hulled ship, and even today the term “black ships” is used to describe the use of technology and force by the west against Japan. Having been isolated from the world, Japan’s military technology was behind the times, and Perry used his superior cannons to intimidate the Japanese, threatening to fire on Edo unless he was allowed to come ashore with a letter from the American President. This was the dark beginning of what has become a long, complicated, and very close history between Japan and America.

There were always some Japanese who wanted the country to open itself up to the world, and so Japan’s relationship with America, and the west in general, has always been a complicated one. On one hand, America forced Japan to open its doors to the rest of the world, in order to benefit from trade with Asia. On the other hand, this opening of the country forced Japan to modernize, and in the process brought an end to the samurai rule. This allowed the rest of society, from farmers to merchants, to benefit from their own hard work and made Japan a “meritocracy” – a society where people advance based on merit, rather than simply by being born into a samurai family.

This samurai armor also sits in the Edo-Tokyo Museum. During samurai rule, Japan was a feudal society with a caste system – only the samurai class had access to education.

These days, Japanese society, much like American society, is divided between those who are more politically conservative and those who are more politically liberal. The conservatives want to preserve traditional Japanese values, and keep foreigners out, and the liberals seem largely okay with western influence. But if my tour of the Edo-Tokyo museum was any indication, this is pretty much the way it has always been – half of the country want to progress and the other half want to preserve.

What do you guys think of this? Do you think that people in America talk about similar things when discussing politics?

One Japanese girl, who is in my International Journalism class, told me about her feelings on political issues concerning America.

“Most Japanese people aren’t worried about the past,” she said. “Most of us don’t really care very much about politics, we just want to live our lives and be happy. Politicians are the ones who always want to talk about history and problems, either with America or with China.”

She mentioned China, of course, because this is another country with whom Japan has a long and complex history, full of violence, war and disagreement.

This is the actual document signed by leaders from both Japan and the United States, recognizing the surrender of Japan to allied forces at the closing of WWII.

Among the things from history that many Japanese don’t want to think about are the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by America, and the consequent surrender of Japan to allied forces at the closing of WWII. What many of you may not know is that Japan’s current constitution was actually written by Americans. Even today, Japan is not allowed to engage in military action because of this constitution.

However, when I asked one scholar of Japanese history why the Japanese haven’t re-written their constitution, his answer was both quick and simple: “Because it’s a good constitution, and it has been good for the country.”

Ironically, Japan’s restrictive constitution has allowed it to focus more on developing its economy, which quickly grew into one of the world’s strongest, while America meanwhile spent billions on its military. This doesn’t mean that the wartime occupation of Japan was a good thing, of course. Many aspects of Japanese culture and entertainment were heavily censored by Americans in the time immediately following the war.

This sign was placed in Tokyo during the occupation of Japan, when American armed forces occupied the capitol city while negotiating the terms of Japan’s surrender.

The kabuki theater, Japan’s traditional popular theater form, was heavily censored by the American forces during the time when Americans occupied Japan just after WWII. Can you guys think of why Americans would have wanted to censor kabuki? What might they have been afraid of happening if they left kabuki theater alone, as it had always been?

Since opening its doors to the rest of the world, Japan has always been a forward-thinking and progressive country, in contrast to its image as a place where “tradition” rules. It is a testament to this forward-thinking manner that only a few generations after America bombed Nagasaki and Hiroshima, Japan enjoys many aspects of American culture, including baseball, some American films and music, and even western fashion.

The television is an important piece of western influence on Japan. However, Japanese television programs couldn’t be more different from those in America. Even watching the news is very different, partially because Japan has such little violence. There are many more “nice” stories to report.

However, it’s important to remember that Tokyo is an international city, full of foreigners from all over the world. I’m told that were I to venture out in the country, I’d find many more people who might not be so welcoming of western influence.

It’s also important to remember that these stories are not always one-sided; just as America forced Japan to open its doors, Japan at one time colonized and occupied Korea by force. This is another possible reason why Japanese are more willing to “forgive and forget” some of the misdeeds of the past.

The samurai were Japan’s upper-class, but even among the samurai were lower, middle and upper-class people. This game, which sits in the Edo-Tokyo Museum, was basically a version of the “Monopoly” board game, but for samurai.

The truth is that most of the people I meet are indifferent to foreigners. However, within Japanese society, there are a large number of people who feel more strongly one way or the other – most of them feel more strongly in favor of American culture. That is to say, many Japanese are curious about and interested in American culture.

One potential reason for this is that the English language is associated with success and education in Japan. Many of the best-educated Japanese begin learning English in middle school, but those who master it are truly considered to be very well educated. Even more lower-class Japanese often pay for hour-long English instruction courses each week, or visit cafes where foreigners speak to them in English while they have a cup of coffee or tea.

While I want to practice my Japanese with many of my new friends, a lot of them want to speak English with me – which usually means we have to take turns or compromise. Sometimes, it just comes down to whether or not their English is better than my Japanese. Either way, we usually end up talking about the American Presidential elections lately.

The question that I keep asking myself every day that I am in Japan is the same one that scholars have been asking themselves since the day that Commodore Perry forced Japan to open its doors to the west: Is Japan becoming too westernized, and if so, what are the consequences?

Thanks to Commodore Perry’s “black ships,” it’s a question that we can probably never really answer. However, as my walk through the Edo-Tokyo Museum reminded me, sometimes it is more important to ask ourselves the question than to be able to come up with an easy answer.

In 1964, Tokyo hosted the Olympic Games. This was an important symbolic moment in Japan’s history, as it was truly recognized as an important part of the international community in the modern era.

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Fox Gods, Buddha and A Town Full of Cats: The Temples, Shrines, and Sights of Old Tokyo

This shinto shrine, in Tokyo’s Yanaka neighborhood, is dedicated to Kami Inari (Fox God) – a mythical fox who was said to be the messenger of the God of the Harvest.

Tokyo’s Yanaka neighborhood is truly sacred ground – full of Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, and also full of history, as one of the few corners of the city to survive both the 1923 earthquake and World War II bombings. Yanaka is one of the rare places to glimpse life in old Tokyo.

As I spent the day walking through many of Yanaka’s temples and shrines, I couldn’t help but think about the important connection between the festivals that we discussed in last week’s post, and these sacred places.

This path leads from the entrance to the various ares of the shrine.

Japan has two primary religions, and most people practice a mixture of both – Shinto (which means “the way of the gods”) and Buddhism (which came to Japan from Korea during the 6th century). Japan is full of both Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples, most of which have been around for hundreds of years. During the Meiji Restoration, when Japan’s government stopped supporting the temples and shrines, they were forced for the first time in history to support themselves.

Shinto shrines often have a well of some kind, where people entering are supposed to wash their hands before entering. In this ritual of purification, one uses a wooden cup attached to a long handle  to pour water first over the left hand, then over the right.

The temples managed this by hosting festivals, where food, games, and entertainment for the whole family could be found – for a small fee, of course. Maybe some of you been to a similar event at your church or school?

The atmosphere of the temples I visited in Yanaka was much, much different than the lively festival that I described last week, and definitely different than a church bake sale. The Shinto shrines, which are often dedicated to deities associated with nature, featured many different rituals of purification and prayer.

Some of the deities from Shinto folklore may have even ended up in manga or anime that you are familiar with – can you think of any?

The entrance to a Buddhist temple, where monks chanted just behind this great door.

Buddhist temples, meanwhile, often feature many images and statues of the Buddha, as well as sutras (kinds of writings or prayers) on peace and compassion. This isn’t surprising, considering the fact that Buddhism flourished in Japan during times of extreme violence, war, and widespread poverty. Buddhism provided many of Japan’s most poor and miserable people with something to look forward to – reincarnation into a better life, if they are good in this one.

The Buddha.

This sign sits near the Buddha.

Much to my surprise, many of the temples that I walked through on this day also contained something else: Graveyards. That’s right, these same places that served as the beginning point of so many happy festivals are also home to many family graves. But maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised – after all, Buddhism has long been associated with Japan’s burial rituals.

These graves are empty, as statistics show that 99.81% of Japanese are cremated after death. The wooden plaques are called Sotoba, and carry the new name of the deceased – tradition states that the deceased be given a new name after death.

I was just as surprised by the different purposes that temples and shrines serve as I was by how well preserved and cared for these beautiful temples are, considering that many of them are hundreds of years old. Have you ever happened upon a graveyard in America? I usually find them creepy, but these old temple graveyards were beautiful, peaceful and gave me an idea of just how much the Japanese respect their deceased loved ones.

In fact, there are special days of the year set aside for the entire family to go visit the graves of family members, say prayers for them, and leave offerings.

While many graveyards in America have statues of Angels or Jesus Christ, Buddha is a common sight in the graveyards of Japan. This statue in particular was a sight to behold.

While walking from one temple to another, I happened through Yanaka’s famous Ginza shopping district. Food vendors, fish markets and sellers of keepsakes retain some of the old atmosphere from Tokyo’s Edo Period. As it turned out, Tokyo’s hidden graveyards weren’t my only surprise for the day: According to a large sign at the entrance to the shopping district, I had just entered “Cat Town.”

Cats, cats, cats.

This cat was just one of many hanging around this feline heaven.  Many Japanese people stood around, eagerly waiting to take pictures of the cats.

Many of Yanaka’s shops take their neighborhood mascots quite seriously – this one sells cat-themed candies and baked goods.

On my way out of the shopping district, I saw a few Japanese children dressed up for Halloween. It was only then that I realized how strange it was that I’d spent the whole day in graveyards, and didn’t once think of zombies. None of these kids seemed to be worried about zombies either.

All dressed up for Halloween. Notice “Batman” in the background – but not Catman, surprisingly.

I asked their parents if Halloween was a holiday that the kids looked forward to.

“Oh, yes, many of the kids in the neighborhood really look forward to it,” one father told me. “They love to dress up, and of course they love the candy.”

Because Halloween isn’t celebrated by everyone in Japan, many of the parents told me that they arrange with their local butchers, fish mongers, and markets to bring their children by for trick-or-treating.

Even in a large city like Tokyo, most Japanese households do their grocery shopping every single day, a little bit at a time. Japanese families often have very close ties to the shops and markets in their communities.

Can you think of any special shops, farmers or other merchants that your family has a good relationship with? Do you think that these kinds of relationships are important, and if so, why?

A shopkeeper in Yanaka gives out candy to neighborhood kids on Halloween. Well, a few days before Halloween, actually.

One parent was dressed up as Batman, in what appeared to be a home-made costume. I asked him about his costume, and he simply replied “Batman desu!” – which means, “I’m Batman.”

After my run-in with the caped crusader, I headed to my final destination for the day – the famous Nezu Shrine. This Shinto shrine, which was built in 1705, is a perfect example of what we’ve been talking about, as it is famous for an Azalea Festival, held each year in April.

The entrance to the famous Nezu Shrine.

While Buddhist temples tend to have a strong connection to funeral rites and rituals, Shinto shrines often honor various gods, aspects of nature, or even aspects of daily life. For instance, there are shrines dedicated to couples, to famous mountains and streams, and even one dedicated to doing well with your school studies!

All you need to do is throw a five yen coin into the shrine’s well, clap your hands together twice, bow your head and clap twice again, and all your worries about getting good grades could be over. At least that’s what they tell me.

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Huge crowds of people flocked to a festival at Waseda University, where they enjoyed food, drink, gifts and entertainment.

Celebrations are an important part of every society, and today we’re going to look at two different kinds of celebrations in Japan – one will likely seem very familiar, while the other may surprise you.

Over the weekend, I was lucky enough to attend both a massive festival at my university campus, and also a small family birthday party for my host mother. We’ll start with the familiar, and talk a bit about my first experience at a Japanese birthday party.

Luckily for me, birthday cake is just as delicious in Japan as it is in America.

I arrived home tired after a day of classes and errands on Saturday, and was surprised to find my host family preparing to leave the house. It was my host mother’s birthday, but nobody had told me! I had to drop everything and rush off with them to the home of their daughter, Kaori, who was hosting the birthday party.

My host mother was turning 72, and her husband is 74 – the daughter who hosted the party, Kaori, is in her 40’s and she and her husband have two daughters. It was my first time meeting all of them, and it was very interesting to get to spend an evening talking and celebrating with three generations of the Kato family.

Grandma Kato gets a birthday dance from her 7-year-old granddaughter.

Mr. Kato relaxes on his daughter’s couch, while the youngest Kato keeps a close eye on the birthday cake.

Overall, this birthday party was not that different from many that I’ve attended in America. There was lots of food (Japanese food and also pizza), birthday cake, and they even sang the “happy birthday” song in English. However, one thing that I did notice is that this birthday party was more about the family than it was about one person. Often, birthday parties are about celebrating one person, making their day special, and showering them with gifts. This, however, was just a really nice family gathering, with everyone talking, watching baseball (it’s the playoff season for Japanese baseball as well), and playing games with the kids. The only time the birthday girl was singled out was when we proposed a toast, the standard “omedetou gozaimasu” – which means “congratulations.”

The Kato girls, aged 7 and 13.

Because it was my first time meeting Kaori’s family, everyone had a lot of questions for me – and some pretty funny comments as well. The youngest has a small dog, whose name is “choco” but whom she likes to call “buta-chan” – “chan” is similar to “san,” but is usually used for either young girls or pets. It just has a cute kind of ring to it, I guess. The funny part is “buta,” however – “buta” means “pig.”

“Buta mitai yo!” she giggled – “He looks like a pig!.”

And while she thinks Choco the dog looks like a pig, she (and the rest of the family) kept telling me that I look like Tom Cruise. I have to say, it’s the first I’ve heard of it!

I don’t see the resemblance. Do you?

I’m pretty sure Tom spends more time doing his hair than I do.

I asked Kaori’s husband a little bit about Japanese birthday parties, and what they mean to the family.

“For children, it’s very important to celebrate their youth and to spoil them a little bit,” he said. “But for adults, it’s very important for us to celebrate our elders and show them how much they mean to us.”

(This is a rough translation of what he said in Japanese, which doesn’t translate exactly).

I was really touched to be invited into this family, whom I’ve only known for 5 weeks, and to have them share with me such an important moment in their lives. Plus, the birthday cake was delicious.

There are some stereotypes about Japan that are true – one is that they really do have cute, adorable characters for everything.

The very next day, I was off to a “matsuri” (Festival) at my university, Waseda. Festivals are very, very important in Japan and it’s rare that I’ll go more than a few days without seeing a small parade of people drumming and celebrating, or holding festivities at a shrine. Japan is a largely Shinto country, and this religion recognizes many, many gods and deities, all of whom are worshipped at various shrines throughout the country. There are shrines for famous mountains and streams, one’s dedicated to the god of thunder, and to literally hundreds of other deities, most of them associated with nature.

Waseda is a very prestigious university in Japan, similar to Harvard in America. Even here, at Japan’s respected educational institution, you’ll find cute mascots. Meet the Waseda bear.

Some festivals celebrate deceased loved ones, others a special time of year or a special place. This festival was dedicated to past Waseda graduates, but even though it basically amounted to a party for a bunch of old people, it was done in the traditional style of Japanese festivals – food, drink, games, and all kinds of fun stuff to buy.

Japanese festivals are very family oriented, and I wasn’t at all surprised to see many people enjoying games with their young children. There was, however, one bit of entertainment that I did not expect to see. An earthquake simulator.

This earthquake simulator began shaking, and moved up from a “1” on the Richter Scale, to a “10” – simulating the most powerful earthquake measurable – as a family and their child demonstrate proper earthquake safety.

I remember once, when I was in elementary school, being instructed on what to do in case of an earthquake – but NEVER anything as cool as this. Then again, earthquakes are a constant part of life in Tokyo. In fact, it’s impossible for an American to imagine just how used to earthquakes people in Tokyo are, because no place in America has as many of them as they have here.

What do you guys think of this approach to earthquake safety? Do you think that this kind of safety education is more likely to stick with these young kids?

I asked this family what they thought of the ride – “sugoi ne” – “It’s awesome,” they both said.

Earthquakes were not all there was for the kids to experience at this festival. Clubs and social groups are an important part of life in Japan, especially at the university level. In fact, many students at Waseda take their “circle” (club) more seriously than their classes, which may not be a bad idea because the people in these clubs will help them move into careers after they graduate. Also, Japanese high school is very difficult, so university is a time for them to relax. There are all kinds of clubs – sports, literature, comic book fans, martial arts – Waseda has thousands of clubs. Many of the alumni seemed to have certain clubs already in mind for their little ones.

There were many groups of cheerleaders, dancers, and other sports groups for small children. Waseda has a reputation for its famous college sports programs.

At every turn there were vendors selling delicious food, kids playing, and parents enjoying a chat with one another, or buying the various crafts – it’s kind of like a cross between a farmer’s market and a county fair.

No festival would be complete without music.

Can any of you think of ways that the county fair or farmer’s market seem different from what I’ve described? Do any of you have ideas about why these festivals happen so often, and are so important in Japan? Post your ideas, and I’ll give you some answers next week.

Just don’t count on seeing “Hannah-chan” at the county fair or the farmer’s market.

I’m actually not sure what “Hannah-chan” is a mascot for, but she seemed pretty popular!

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