Category Archive: Japanese Culture
The month of May ushers in a number of festivals in Japan, starting with the much anticipated Golden Week (Gōruden Wīku). This week-long holiday starts on the 29th of April with the Emperor’s birthday and Showa day, followed by Constitution Memorial Day on the 3rd of May, Greenery Day on the 4th, and culminating with Children’s Day on the 5th. Golden Week is the longest vacation for the Japanese and many take the opportunity to travel this time of year.
Showa Day. | Jose Fernando
Aoi Matsuri (葵祭) Hollyhock Festival, on the 15th of May, is another festival to look forward to. This annual Tokyo festival celebrates the two Kamo shrines, Shimogamo Shrine and Kamigamo Shrine, located in the northern part of the city. According to the ancient historical records Nihon Shoki, Aoi Matsuri Festival began during the reign of Emperor Kinmei (C.E.539–571). Natural disasters plagued Japan, destroying many crops, and an epidemic spread among the people. This was considered divine punishment caused by the Kamo deities. The Emperor then sent a messenger to the shrine to perform various rituals to appease the deities, including the galloping horse performance that developed into an equestrian archery performance. This has became an annual ritual.
Aoi Matsuri. | yeowatzup
Sanja Matsuri (三社祭) Three Shrine Festival, is held every third weekend in May at Tokyo’s Asakusa Shrine. It is one of the biggest Shinto festivals that honors the three men—Hinokuma Hamanari, Hinokuma Takenari and Hajino Nakatomo—who founded the Sensō-ji Temple, the oldest temple in Tokyo.
Sanja Matsuri. | Ari Helminen
Sanja Matsuri is a weekend-long religious celebration dedicated to the spirits of the three founders. Two of these, the Hinokuma brothers, were believed to be fishermen. They found a statuette of the Bodhisattya Kannon that was caught in a fishing net in the Sumida River on May 17, C.E.628. The third founder, a wealthy landlord named Hajino Nakatomo, was responsible for converting the brothers to Buddhism. The three men together devoted their lives to the Buddhist faith and consecrated the statue found in Sensō-ji Temple. During the festival, millions of people come to witness the spectacular parades, traditional dancing, and music.
Cleanliness is important in Japanese culture. The traditional custom of removing shoes when entering a home and even a doctor’s clinic in Japan is still observed today. Toilets were always kept separate from bathing areas until only recently. But many of us may squirm at the idea of using a squat toilet when having to do the deed, not to mention that it would be practically unimaginable to not have a book, newspaper, iPad, or iPhone to keep us company while we sit on our thrones. Squatting while we do the deed seems simply ridiculous. You may have to just hold that thought . . .
Washiki. | Matt Perreault
A squat toilet is a type of toilet used in a squat position rather than sitting. It is commonly made of porcelain and can even be just a hole in the ground. It is essentially positioned much lower on the ground to make it easier for the user to squat. The “pedestal” squat toilet is probably the only exception: it is the same height as a sitting toilet.
A common complaint among washiki users is that most of their weight is placed on the thighs and calves. In fact, this position is healthier according to some medical experts who say “the anoretical angle is much better when in a squatting position and the rectum is “straighter”, allowing the browns to slip by unobstructed.” The late Dr. Denis Burkitt, of the U.K., believed that defecating in a squatting position can even help prevent colorectal cancer. Here are some other health benefits of squat toilets:
Instructions on how to use a washiki. | Yuya Tamai
- Prevents fecal stagnation, a factor in colon cancer, inflammatory bowel disease, and appendicitis.
- Squatting prevents pressure on the uterus for pregnant women and the practice helps them prepare for a more natural way of giving birth.
- It is an effective, non-invasive treatment for hemorrhoids.
- The position helps the thighs support the colon to prevent straining which can cause hernias, pelvic organ prolapse, and diverticulosis.
- It relaxes the puborectalis muscle that normally constricts the rectum.
- It protects the nerves responsible for controlling the bladder, prostrate, and uterus from strain and damage.
- It effectively seals the ileocecal valve that is found between the colon and small intestine. Usually in the conventional sitting position this valve remains unsupported and wastes can contaminate the small intestine.
The next time you encounter a squat toilet, keep all its health benefits in mind.
Nakamura Jirokichi (仲村次郎吉, 1797 – 1831) was a Japanese thief who became a folk hero by stealing from the rich and giving to the poor, much like the infamous Robin Hood. He was also nicknamed Nezumi Kozō (鼠小僧). Nezumi means “rat” and Kozō is a term used for errand-boys in the Edo period. Kozō is a nickname usually given to pickpockets, often young girls and boys with nimble fingers.
During the Edo period, Nakamura Jirokichi supposedly robbed more than 100 samurai homes, amassing a huge fortune that he gave away to the poor. In 1822, he was eventually caught and subsequently banished from Edo (now known as Tokyo). He was caught yet again on the 8th of August 1883, when he confessed to burglarizing over 100 samurai estates and 30,000 ryō in a span of 15 years. When Nakamura Jirokichi was arrested, very little money was found on him. The daimyo also felt publicly humiliated by his stealing from them. This gave birth to the popular legend that he gave the money he stole back to the poor, turning Nezumi Kozō into a legendary folk hero.
At the time, the punishment for theft was very cruel. Prior to being caught, Nezumi Kozō served his wives divorce papers to save them from perishing from the same kind of persecution and punishment, as devreed by the law of the time. He was tied to a horse, a true spectacle as he was paraded around the town, and was eventually beheaded at the Suzugamori execution grounds. Nakamura Jirokichi’s head was placed on a stake for public display and his body was buried at Ekō-in, in the Ryōgoku area of Tokyo. So many pilgrims gathered at his grave site and chipped away pieces of stone for keepsakes that it had to be reconstructed.
Nezumi Kozō has become a legend throughout history. He is popularly depicted in folk songs, kabuki theatre, video games, and today’s pop culture.
When asked about Japan’s traditional theater, noh, kabuki, and bunraku immediately come to mind. But there is one other form of theater that has captivated the Japanese audience – Takarazuka. It is considered Japan’s youngest form of traditional theater, and it turns 100 this year.
The Takarazuka Revue (宝塚歌劇団 Takarazuka Kagekidan) is an all-female musical theater troupe and is based in Takarazuka in Hyōgo Prefecture. Women play all the roles in performances as lavish as any Western Broadway-style musical production. At times, some acts are adapted from Japanese folk tales and shōjo manga but none lack the pomp and grandeur expected from any Takarazuka Revue act.
Ichizo Kobayashi, president of Hankyu Railways and a prominent industrialist-turned-politician, founded Takarazuka Revue in 1913. Takarazuka was already a popular tourist destination because of its hot springs. Adding another attraction would only boost ticket sales to the area. Western song and dance shows had become increasingly popular compared to kabuki, they were also considered fresh and something new. Kobayashi thought an all-female theater group would be welcomed by the Japanese people.
Takarazuka Revue had its first performance in 1914 and a decade later, the troupe was so popular it merited its own theater in Takarazuka. The theater was named Dai Gekijō, or Grand Theater. Women who play male roles are referred to as otokoyaku (“male role”) and women who play female roles are referred to as musumeyaku (“daughter’s role”).
Cover of the Takarazuka Girls’ Revue Plot Summary, vol. 181.
Members of the troupe have to train for two years in the Takarazuka Music School, considered one of the most competitive performing arts schools in the world. Each year, thousands of aspiring young women come from all over Japan to try out for a place in the school. The chosen few undergo rigorous training in dance, music, and acting. Gifted and deserving students are given seven year contracts.
Dance lesson at Takarazuka Music School in 1919.
The company is composed of five main troupes: Hana, Tsuki, Yuki, Hoshi, and Sora (Flower, Moon, Snow, Star, and the Cosmos). Another troupe named Senka (Superior Members) is comprised of senior members who no longer want to be a part of the regular troupe. The performances of Takarazuka Revue are a spectacle to behold with its lavish costumes, lighting, and set designs. Today, the troupe performs for about 2.5 million people every year.
Summer in Japan is extra special with traditional Japanese desserts such as kakigōri to stay cool.
Kakigōri (かき氷) is a Japanese type of shaved ice dessert. It differs from a snow cone because it is flavored with syrup and condensed milk. The ice in Kakigōri is fluffier and smoother, much like newly-fallen snow, and is best enjoyed eaten with a spoon rather than directly from the paper cone.
Pink Kakigōri. | nSeika
Kakigōri is traditionally hand-cranked in machine with sharp blades that turns a block of ice into a finely shaven consistency. Though electric ice shavers can also be used, many kakigōri street vendors are still using hand-cranked machines during hot summers. Kakigōri is one of Japan’s best loved desserts. It’s sold at festivals, most restaurants, and convenience stores all year round.
Hand-cranked Kakigōri machine. | carpediem37
Some popular kakigōri flavors are green tea, strawberry, grape, melon, Blue Hawaii, cherry, lemon, and sweet plum. If you can’t decide on just one flavor, you can choose to try two or even more flavors in one serving. You can also add sweet red beans, tapioca pearls, and ice cream to spruce up your kakigōri. One traditional type of kakigōri is called Uji-kintoki, made with green tea syrup and sweet azuki beans (anko). It’s a delicious and easy treat anyone can make and enjoy on a hot day.
Uji-kintoki. | GinkgoTelegraph
Here is a simple recipe you can try. All you need are:
- 1 tsp green tea powder
- 2 tsp granulated sugar
- 2 tbsp hot water
- 2 tbsp sweetened condensed milk
- 2 tbsp anko
- ice cubes
Mix the green tea powder and sugar in the hot water. Allow the mixture to cool in a serving bowl. Shave the ice cubes finely using an ice shaving machine. Place the shaved ice on top of the green tea and sugar mixture. Top it with azuki beans and condensed milk. Enjoy!
Ancient Japanese folklore is full of fascinating stories rich with fated love, spiritual artifacts, and the supernatural. Due to their popularity, many museums dedicated to Japanese folklore are scattered around the country.
Murotsu Museum of Folklore. | 663highland
A prime example of a classic folk story is the Golden Hairpin, a tale of supernatural love.
Once upon a time, there was a samurai named Hasunuma from the northern city of Sedai. He was honorable and much loved. He and his wife were soon blessed with a daughter whom they named Hasu-ko (Little Lily), or Ko. On the same day Hasunuma’s daughter was born, his close friend Saito, also a samurai, had a son named Kônojô. Being such old friends, the two fathers decided to have their children wed each other when they came of age. Both of the wives were also thrilled with the decision. To bind the promise, Saito gave Hasunuma a golden hairpin that had been in his family for many years. After a few months, Saito caused his feudal lord displeasure. This in turn caused him to be dismissed from service. Saito , his wife, and Kônojô left Sendai without telling anyone.
Many years passed, and O Ko San grew to be the fairest woman in all of Sendai. She also had a younger sister named O Kei who was just as beautiful. Many men sought the love of O Ko but she remained faithful to her promised Kônojô. She waited in vain for him; soon she grew ill and died.
On the day O Ko was to be buried, her mother lovingly prepared her remains and placed the golden hairpin on her hair to bind O Ko’s spirit with Kônojô even in death because he was thought to also be dead. But Kônojô was far from dead. He came calling on Hasunuma to claim his betrothed. Kônojô explained that his family had gone to Yezo island where his father had lost all his money and had died in poverty. His mother soon followed. Kônojô wanted to be worthy of O Ko’s hand in marriage and earn enough money–that’s was why it took time for him to come.
Kônojô found a golden hairpin on the floor one day and kept it without knowing it was O Kei’s. One night, O Kei professed her love to Kônojô who learned to love her as well. Fearing Hasunuma’s disapproval, they decided to leave Sendai. A year later they returned and Kônojô was prepared to beg for forgiveness from Hasunuma. But Kônojô found out that O Ko’s spirit had taken the form of O Kei and that the only way for her to rest in peace is if Kônojô would marry O Kei.
O Kei and Kônojô were married with Hasunuma’s blessing. The golden hairpin was given to a shrine at Shiogama for crowds to worship.
Anime (アニメ ) are Japanese animated productions that can be either computer generated or hand-drawn. They can be anything, from television series and short films to full-length feature films. Manga (漫画) are Japanese versions of comic books. Both anime and manga are popular forms of entertainment in Japan and over the years, also around the world. Most anime series are derived from manga. Here are some anime and manga favorites:
One Piece (ワンピース) – a manga series written and illustrated by Eiichiro Oda since August 4, 1997. In 1999, it was adapted into an anime series by Toei Animation and is still ongoing. One Piece follows the adventures of Monkey D. Luffy, a young man whose body develops rubberlike qualities after eating Devil’s Fruit. He goes on various adventures with his crew of Straw Hat Pirates, to searches for the ultimate treasure known as One Piece. Monkey D. hopes to become the next Pirate King.
One Piece figurines.| Stéfan
Bleach (ブリーチ) – written and illustrated by Tite Kubo. Bleach has been serialized manga since August 2001 and has been developed into an anime television series by Studio Pierrot since 2004. Bleach is about the adventures of Ichogo Kurosaki who has the powers of a Soul Reaper (死神 Shinigami, literally, “Death God“). His powers enable him to guide spirits into the afterlife and defend other humans from evil spirits.
Cosplayer with Bleach mask. | Hiraku Kazushime
Elfen Lied (エルフェンリート) – written and illustrated by Lynn Okamoto. It was initially serialized by one of Japan’s leading manga publishing companies, Shueisha, from June 2002 to August 2005. It means “Elf Song” in German. It was adapted into a 13-episode anime television series by Arms Studio from July to October of 2004. Elfen Lied revolves around the lives and the many differences in views and emotions between humans and the Diclonii, a mutant human strain who have vectors and horns in their heads. It follows the life of a Diclonius girl named Lucy, who is struggling to cope with human rejection because she is different.
Screen capture of Elfen Lied. | Quasic
Interested in learning more about Japanese anime and manga? Enroll in our Summer Japanese Anime and Manga program! Visit our website for more details.
Japanese cuisine is famously eclectic, and tastes range from the traditional to well beyond avant garde. Here are some Japanese foods to hook your attention, if not your tastebuds.
Tokyo Banana (東京ばな奈) is one of the more popular presents people bring back from Japan. It is similar to a Twinkie, but banana flavored. Tokyo Banana is elaborately packaged and is typical of any quality Japanese product. The banana flavoring is not too overpowering; it is light, creamy, and a refreshing snack. An interesting and delicious gift to give to family and friends.
Tokyo Bananas. | Mark Yang
Shirouo no Odorigui (Dancing Ice fish)
Shirouo (シロウオの踊り食い) are small transparent fish that are usually eaten raw. You can still feel them moving or dancing in your mouth as you swallow, hence their other name: Dancing Ice fish. Your food can’t get any fresher than this! Shirouo can be found at most restaurants and fish markets in Japan. If your palate is itching for an adventure, try it.
Shirouo no Odorigui. | Poohjay
Matcha Green Tea Kit Kat
Kit Kat, a wafer biscuit covered with chocolate, is a commercially manufactured candy bar initially made by Rowntree’s of England. It is now being distributed worldwide by Nestlé since it purchased Rowntree in 1988. In the United States, Kit Kat is under license by The Hershey Company. Kit Kat is typically packaged in two to four wafer biscuits but there are larger variants called Kit Kat Chunky. It is a popular candy bar found in most candy aisles.
The addition of unique variations to Kit Kats helped the brand gain a strong foothold in the confectionery industry. Limited or special edition variants are only offered for a few months, a strategy now also adopted by other key players in the candy business. Some flavors are less successful than others, but one flavor that has captured Japan by storm is the Matcha Green Tea Kit Kat. Its distinct green tea flavor pairs well with chocolate and wafers. A must-try, whenever you can get your hands on one.
Matcha Green Tea Kit Kat. | James Whatley
I’ve tried eating Chinese, Korean, and Japanese food with a spoon and fork. Somehow the experience is not the same. I always find myself wanting chopsticks to complete the meal and make it more enjoyable. Chopsticks are an important part of Asian culture. Their long and colorful history that dates back centuries. Their practical uses are undeniable and their popularity has spread to all parts of the world.
Chopsticks (箸) were developed in China about 5,000 years ago. The earlier versions were twigs used to retrieve food from the fire. Around 400 BC, as the population grew and resources became scarce, the Chinese thought of cutting their food into smaller pieces to decrease cooking time as well as to conserve wood. This made it more convenient to make do without conventional cutlery such as knives and forks at the dinner table. Also, the use of chopsticks is in perfect harmony with the teachings of Confucius: “The honorable and upright man keeps well away from both the slaughterhouse and the kitchen. And he allows no knives on his table.” This further boosted the popularity of chopsticks.
Chopsticks. | Neil Conway
Chopsticks spread to Japan, Korea, and Vietnam in 500 AD. The Japanese used chopsticks strictly for religious ceremonies. They were made from a piece of bamboo that was joined at the top, which made them appear similar to tweezers. By the 10th century, Japanese chopsticks had evolved into two separate pieces, usually seven to eight inches long. They are more tapered than Chinese chopsticks (which are also a bit longer).
Chopsticks and sushi. | geezaweezer
Some health benefits have been attributed to using chopsticks such as memory improvement and finger dexterity. They are also excellent tools in learning character printing and brush painting.
Neon Genesis Evangelion chopsticks. | sunxez
Read our previous post to learn how to use chopsticks.
Hagoita (羽子板 ｢はごいた｣) are Japanese wooden paddles used in the traditional game hanetsuki (羽根突き, 羽子突き). The game, something like badminton, is usually played during the New Year. Hanetsuki’s popularity may have declined over the years, but hagoita are still much in demand with their intricate designs and continue to be a decorative item in many Japanese households.
A hanetsuki game photographed by Kusakabe Kimbei.
Hagoita are usually rectangular, lacquer-painted with conventional Japanese symbols and characters from kabuki dramas and decorated with silk collages. The origins of the Japanese tradition of playing hanetsuki with hagoita can be traced back to 14th-century China. The game was brought to Japan during the Muromacho Period (1337-1587). The ancient document “Kanban O-nikki” describes Hanetsuki as played by the Imperial Court.
The ancient Japanese believed that diseases could be acquired from mosquitoes, which were eaten by dragonflies. The shuttlecocks in the game Hanetsuki resembled dragonflies. The Japanese started playing the game during New Year to wish that their children would not be bitten by mosquitoes.
The hagoita were also believed to ward off evil spirits during the Sengoku Period (Warring States Period) during the mid 15th century to the early parts of the 17th century. It was during the Edo Period that the wooden paddles gained popularity as gifts to wish family and friends good fortune for the coming New Year as well as for baby girls in their first new year.
Every late December, the Hagoita-Ichi (Battledore Fair) is held at Senso-ji Temple, Asakusa, one of the most popular destinations in Tokyo. Numerous hagoita in different sizes and designs are sold in dozens of market stalls there each year.
Hagoita-Ichi at Senso-ji Temple.| udono