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Category Archive: Japanese Culture

Traditional Japanese Architecture: Sukiya-zukuri and Shoin-zukuri

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  • December 18, 2014

Each country has its own unique style of architecture that tells a lot about its history and people. Japan can tell us interesting stories as seen in the wealth of its architectural history—from grand castles to humble farmhouses in the countryside. Staying at a traditional Japanese ryokan (inn) acquaints any visitor with the authentic vibe and feel of Japanese culture, hospitality, and way of life for hundreds of years.

Traditional Japanese architecture4388403129_ac9a79a60c_z made use predominantly of wood because of the abundance of timber. Timber is particularly resistant to natural disasters such as earthquakes. Wood is also an ideal type of material for Japan’s humid climate.

Japanese traditional style house exterior design. | TANAKA Juuyoh (田中十洋)

Sukiya-zukuri (数寄屋造り) is an architectural style prominent in many traditional residential structures. Suki is defined as having well refined and cultivated tastes that delight in the pursuit of elegance as observed in performing the tea ceremony. The origins of the word describe a building where tea ceremony was done as well as ikebana and other traditional Japanese arts. Sukiya-zukuri’s architectural style is characterized by the use of natural materials and is based on tea house aesthetics in building and designing homes, villas, restaurants, and inns.

ShoinToyotomi Hideyoshi ( 1536-1598), a notable daimyo, warrior, general and politician during the Sengoku period, was regarded as Japan’s second great unifier. He succeeded Oda Nobunaga; the time of his rule is called Momoyama period. Toyotomi Hideyoshi employed  Sen no Rikyū  (1522-1591), who was known for the Japanese “Way of Tea.” The lavish Jurakudai castle in Kyoto is said to be the first sukiya-zukuri architectural structure in Japan.

Katsura Imperial Villa, Kyoto, example of sukiya style.

Sukiya-zukuri is characterized by small rooms—usually four and a half tatami mats or less—with a tokonoma (built-in recessed space) and shelves. The traditional sukiya-zukuri layout has rooms that opened to a garden through an indirect diagonal or curved path that permitted a view of the tea house.

Shoin-zukuriGinkakuji-Togudo-M1992 (書院造) is another another Japanese residential architectural style used in mansions for the military, quarters of Zen abbots, and temple guest halls during the Azucho-Momoyama period through the Edo period.  It adapted its name from shoin, a term derived from a study and place for lectures on the sūtra inside the temple.  The characteristics of the shoin-zukuri style include square posts and floors completely covered with tatami mats.

 Ginkaku-ji’s Tōgu-dō, oldest extant example of shoin-zukuri.

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Japan’s Elegant Imari Porcelain

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  • December 15, 2014

We have evolved a great distance from our cavemen ancestors, who roasted and ate food on twigs over a fire and, from the burnt wood, began drawing on cave walls. The discovery of kaolin (clay used for pottery) in the village Kao-Ling, China, began our love affair with fine porcelain.  Today, we have become much more refined in how we prepare our food as well as the way we eat, some using porcelain plates with intricate designs. The quiet town of Arita, surrounded by mountains in Nishimatsuura District, Saga Prefecture, Japan is known for manufacturing some of the finest porcelains of the world.

Yi Sam-Pyeongimari1 (1579–1655), also known as “Kanage Sambei”, is considered the father of Imari porcelain, the type of porcelain made in Arita. He was a potter from Korea who discovered a fine-quality white porcelain mineral in Mt. Arita-Izumi-yama.  Because he was offered a privileged position in his adopted country, Kanage Sambe travelled to Japan with along with 180 of his extended family. When he discovered kaolin, he began producing “Shoki-Imari,” Korean-style blue and white porcelain known as Ai-Kutani ware in Japan.  In the mid 17th century, many Chinese sought refuge in Northern Kyushu when they fled from China, then experiencing unrest. One of the Chinese refugees introduced the coloring technique to Arita. Shoki-Imari then developed into Ko-Kutani Imari ware. Kanage Sambei is still honored, in Sueyama Shrine of Arita.



Imari porcelain is world-famous because it was widely coveted and exported in the Western countries during the 17th century. There are three types of Imari porcelain:

Ko-Imari ware  – decorated in either three colors known as sansei,  or five colors (green, yellow, red, blue and purple), known as gosai.

Sake ewer.

Kakiemon ware – with elegant brushwork using persimmon on milky white background with touches of greens, light blue, grayish purple, brown and yellow. Common designs were birds and flowers and clouds and dragons.

Iro-Nabeshima – smooth body with a slightly greenish glaze.

Want to know how Imari ware is made? Check out this YouTube video by NHK – Begin Japanology:


Click image or here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w0NfMi7mu-w

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Looking Back on the Boshin War

  • Posted by:
  • December 11, 2014

The Boshin War is a notable conflict in Japan’s history. It finally ended the military rule of the Tokugawa Shogunate and returned political power to the imperial court.

The Boshin War (), “War of the Year of the Yang Earth Dragon,” was a civil war in Japan from 1868 to 1869 between the Tokugawa Shogunate forces and those opposed to their rule. The war stemmed from the dissatisfaction felt by many samurai and Japanese noblemen on how the shogunate handled trade issues when they opened Japan’s trade to other countries, and the increase in Western influence on the local economy.


Powerful domains of Satsuma, Tosa, and Chōshū  influenced the young Emperor Meiji to ally with their beliefs. The reigning shogun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, saw the danger of his impending predicament and agreed to relinquish his political power to the young emperor. Tokugawa Yoshinobu initially believed that doing this would preserve the Tokugawa house as part of any future government. Consequent imperial decrees by Satsuma and Chōshū that abolished the house of Tokugawa, military advancements by imperial forces, and partisan violence in Edo prompted Tokugawa Yoshinobu to make a desperate military attack to seize control of the the emperor’s court in Kyoto. The imperial faction had less troops but more modern capabilities, and after a series of battles, forced Yoshinobu to surrender. Others who were still loyal to the Tokugawa fled to northern Honshū and later to Hokkaidō where they formed their own Ezo republic. The Battle of Hakodate put an end to the last few stragglers, made imperial rule supreme all throughout Japan, and finally completed the military aspects of the Meiji Restoration.

Satsuma samurai during the Boshin War.


The imperial reign adopted a policy of continued modernization, and Tokugawa loyalists were shown clemency. Many of the shogunate leaders were given positions under the new government. Japan adopted a level of development similar to industrialized Western nations but vehemently rejected Western enforced free trade, since it undermined the local economy. The Boshin War is often romanticized and some view the Meiji Restoration to be a “bloodless revolution” even though thousands perished in the battle.

Bafuku troops near Mt. Fuji. | Jules Brunet

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The Humble and Rustic Himono

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  • December 8, 2014

Japan is an island nation, so fish has been an abundant staple in the Japanese diet for hundreds of years. According to early documents, nobility from the Heian period had fish and vegetables as their typical meal. Banquet settings during that time consisted of common fare food such as rice, soup, and condiments such as salt, vinegar, hishio (fermented soybeans), and a dried fish called himono.

14968705320_79484a305b_zThe Japanese custom of drying fish under the sun can be traced back to the Nara period (710–784). The Shosoin storehouse documents mention that early people dried small whole fish (an early form of himono) and offered them to the gods. The Honcho Shokkan, an illustrated anthology of food published in 1697, recorded the catching and drying of horse mackerel during the Edo period.

Himono. | halfrain

Before the invention of the ice box, electricity, and the refrigerator, drying and salting fish was a common method of preservation. The innards of the fish were removed, and the flesh was then salted and dried under the sun. This way, the fish would keep longer without spoiling. The fish was grilled over a hot flame before being served. This made a simple, cheap,  yet delicious meal. Nowadays, himono is still very much a Japanese staple and is often served at breakfast with steamed rice and fermented soybeans called natto.


There are two types of himono: maru-boshi are dried fish in their whole and original shape, and hiraki  are cut open (butterfly style) before drying. There are several advantages in salting fish before drying it—proteins in the fish are not as easily broken down by enzymes, there are more taste compounds such as inosinic acid and amino acids present in the preserved fish, and fish can keep longer. Himono can be easily prepared at home without any special equipment. It is a frugal and healthy way to enjoy fish for a healthier lifestyle.

Hiraki. | tokyofoodcast.com

How to prepare himono:


  • Butterfly the underside of a fresh fish.
  • Remove the innards and wash the fish well.
  • Pat the fish dry with a paper napkin.
  • Sprinkle salt all over the fish or, if you prefer, make an evenly distributed salt brine with 1 part salt to 5 parts water.
  • If you used salt and water to salt the fish, drain it first before drying under the sun.
  • Dry the fish under the sun until the surface of the fish is dry.

Himono lunch. | Hajime NAKANO

You can keep the dried fish in an airtight container until ready to eat.  Grill the dried fish until the skin is scorched. Enjoy!

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The Tokugawa Bafuku

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  • December 4, 2014

Japan’s feudal era brought about a great warrior class we know as the samurai. Japan was in so much chaos that strong leaders and strict reforms were needed to bring the whole country together.

Nobunaga_by_YoshitoshiThe Tokugawa bakufu (徳川幕府) also known as the Tokugawa shogunate or the Edo bafuku, was preceded by the Sengoku period (warring states.) It was the last feudal Japanese military government that ruled over Japan from 1603 through 1868. It was during this period that Japan adopted a policy, Sakoku,” that isolated the whole country from the outside world.

Oda Nobunaga was largely responsible for establishing Japan’s central government during the final phase of the Sengoku period. This led to political unification and the foundation of the Tokugawa shogunate. Oda Nobunaga and his successor Toyotomi Hideyoshi sanctioned strict order over the chaos that still pervaded the country.

Depiction of Oda Nobunaga by Yoshitoshi.

Life for many Japanese during the Tokugawa bafuku was based on a strict class hierarchy established by the strong hand of Toyotomi Hideyoshi.  The caste system is as follows from the highest ranking:

Daimyo or lord
Warrior-caste of samurai
Farmers, artisans, and traders

Toyotomi_HideyoshiIn some parts of Japan, the daimyo and samurai were at the same level if the daimyo was also trained as a samurai. The daimyo would be considered the local ruler. Taxes imposed on the peasant class were a fixed amount over the years and did not take into consideration changes in monetary value such as inflation. This resulted in taxes becoming worth less and less over time. The daimyo class became poorer while the peasant class grew more prosperous. This inflexible nature of imposing taxes led to numerous disputes between noble landowners and peasant classes.

The end of the 19th century saw an alliance between several powerful daimyos and the titular Emperor. They succeeded in overthrowing the shogunate after the Boshin War. This brought about the culmination of the Meiji Restoration. The Tokugawa shogunate officially ended in 1868 when Tukugawa Yoshinobu, the 15th Tokugawa Shogun resigned. Despite the flaws of the Tokugawa bafuku as time progressed, Japan still saw the longest period in its history, of peace and stability—well over two hundred years.

A portrait of Toyotomi Hideyoshi.

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Jamming with J-pop Music and Artists

  • Posted by:
  • November 17, 2014

Western music was introduced to Japan during the Meiji Restoration (1868-1912). The Japanese initially experienced Westernized pop music, kayōkyoku, in a dramatization of the Tolstoy classic Resurrection.  Shinpei Nakayama’s 1914 song Sumako Matsui was a best-selling record in Japan. The pre-war period saw the ryūkōka genre as a popular form of music from the 1920s through the 1960s; it developed from Western classical music.  The progression of music genres in Japan mostly follows Western influences from rock ’n’ roll in the 60s (which contributed to the Rokabirī and Wasei pop genre), folk music in the 70s, and city pop in the 80s. It was only in the 1990s that the term J-pop came to refer to all Japanese popular songs except for traditional Japanese music (enka).

J-pop (ジェイポップ jeipoppu), Japanese pop or pops, was coined by the Japanese media to differentiate foreign music from Japanese music.  The J-pop musical genre has gained such immense popularity among other neighboring regions that other countries are borrowing the style. Some popular J-pop artists include:

B’zBz_hollywoodrockwalk (ビーズ Bīzu) – one of the best-selling music artists in Japan (and the world) with  75 million or more in record sales. B’z is a rock duo with members Koshi Inaba as lyricist and vocalist and Takahiro “Tak” Matsumoto as guitarist, producer, and composer. They were the first Japanese band to have their handprints and signatures in Hollywood’s RockWalk.

B’z RockWalk. | Jmaeshawn

GlayMTV_VMAJ_2014_Glay – composed of members Teru, Takuro, Hisashi, and Jiro. The band formed in 1988, and their songs are arranged with a wide variety of genres such as punk, R&B, electronica, and ska. As of 2010, the band has sold around 37.5 million copies in Japan alone.

Glay at the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards Japan. | Norio NAKAYAMA

Sekai no Owari (世界の終わり, aka “End of the World”) – band members include Satoshi Fukase, Saori Fujisaki, Shinichi “Nakajin” Nakajima, and DJ Love.  They initially performed a live concert at a club with only 15 people in the audience.  Their styles are mostly indie pop, pop rock, and alternative rock.  Their song “Dragon Night” is number 2 in the Japan Hot 100 Billboard Chart as of November 2014.

 Ayumi Hamasaki 2958995972_5aa5f439b8_o(浜崎あゆみ) – known as the “Empress of J-pop,” Ayumi Hamasaki  is popular across Asia. Her musical styles are varied and include progressive rock, classical, pop, metal, dance, and R&B. She uses her own lyrics and uses different types of instruments such as Japanese traditional string music boxes, piano, and guitar. She also incorporates techniques such as clapping and scratching into some of her songs.

Ayumi Hamasaki Asia Tour 2008. | Uma machi


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Kazoku: the Exalted Japanese Lineage

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  • November 10, 2014

Japan’s culture and traditions are greatly influenced by Shinto and Buddhist beliefs. Several gods or spirits called ”kami” are revered by many Japanese. One of them is the goddess of the sun, Amaterasu who, according to Shinto belief, is the Emperor of Japan’s direct ancestor. Japan is also known to have the oldest continuous hereditary monarchy in the world. The Chrysanthemum Throne is the term that embodies the Japanese monarchy and the legal authority of the existence of the Japanese government. The kazoku was considered the accepted  hereditary peerage (legal system of hereditary titles) of the Empire of Japan between 1884 and 1947.

The_Emperor_of_MeijiThe Meiji Restoration of 1868 saw the restoration of practical imperial rule to Japan under Emperor Meiji. It put in place practical abilities and secured the political system of the country. This led to many changes in Japan’s political structure as well as its emergence as a modernized nation. Kazoku (華族) literally means “exalted lineage” or “magnificent.”  The ancient court nobility of Kyoto (kuge) regained its status when several of its members played crucial roles in overthrowing the Tokugawa shogunate.  The Meiji government nominated kuge to head all seven of the newly established administrative departments.

The Emperor Meiji.

The new ruling class of Japan was known as the Meiji oligarchy. One of their Westernizing reform strategies was to unite the daimyo (feudal lords) with the kuge to build an expanded aristocratic class distinct from other social classes of shizoku (former samurai) and the heimin (commoners). The kazoku peerage was intended to provide the political and social foundation for the newly restored Japanese imperial institution.  Any kazoku without any official government appointments in provinces were obligated to reside in Tokyo.


The Peerage Act as promulgated by Hirobumi Ito of 7 July 1884 expanded the awarding of kazoku status to people who had performed outstanding services for the country. The kazoku was divided into five ranks based on the British peerage system but with titles derived from ancient Chinese nobility:

Prince or Duke – Kōshaku  (公爵 )
Marquis – also Kōshaku  but written with a different Chinese character (侯爵 )
Count – Hakushaku (伯)
Viscount – Shishaku  (子爵 )
Baron – Danshaku (男爵)

The 1946 Constitution of Japan abolished the kazoku. This ended the use of all titles of nobility and rank outside the immediate Imperial Family. But many of the descendants of the kazoku families continue to hold influential positions in Japanese government and society up until today.


Related post:

Amaterasu and the Imperial Regalia of Japan

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Taiko Drums: The Symmetry of Music and Movement

  • Posted by:
  • November 6, 2014

Ensemble taiko drumming is catching on fast in the U.S. The first organized American taiko groups started in California in the 1960s. Today, there are over 300 groups across North America that incorporate influences from different types of musical genres such as hip-hop, Latin, and jazz.


Taiko (太鼓) encompasses a wide variety of Japanese percussion instruments. In Japan, the term refers to any type of drum.  But outside the country, taiko is used to describe the types of Japanese drums called wadaiko,  as well as the form of ensemble drumming officially known as kumi-daiko (drum collection).

Tokara Taiko Drummers. | Notreshuggle


According to the myth mentioned in the Nihon Shoki (the second oldest book of classical Japanese history), taiko originally came from the Shinto gods Ame no Uzume (goddess of dawn, mirth, and revelry),  Amaterasu (goddess of sunlight), and her brother Susanoo (god of the sea and storms). At one time, Susanoo was so angry he brought forth raging waters from the sea that reached the land. Amaterasu became so upset with her brother’s actions she fled to a cave, sealed it with a boulder, and refused to come out. The other gods knew that without sunlight from Amaterasu, life on earth would dwindle and eventually die. Ame no Uzume thought of turning herself to look like an old lady, emptied out a barrel of sake, and started to pound on it creating percussive and compelling rhythms that moved all the other gods to sing and dance. The sounds of the music and the revelry caused Amaterasu to come out of her cave to see what all the commotion was about. As she saw the joyous scene before her, light once again shone on earth and banished Susanoo.

 Kita no Taiko Performance. | Kurt Bauschardt

The exact origin of the taiko is unknown. However, archaeological evidence suggests that ancient Japanese during the Jōmon period used drums. The Kofun period also indicated the use of drums for rituals and as a means to communicate.

For some people, the attraction to learning taiko is the depth and breadth of what the instrument offers not just as a musical instrument but in the movement of the body as well.  There are so many different sounds and styles that can be produced from one single drum. When many drums are played together by an ensemble, in various styles, movement, and positioning, the artistic possibilities are endless. For others who are looking to combine movement and music in a form other than dance, playing the taiko offers the best of both worlds.  Taiko involves full body drumming and can be likened to a fully body workout that satisfies the physical, mental, and musical aspects. It’s no wonder taiko is fast catching on as a great way to flex your musical creativity while exercising at the same time.


Click image or here: http://youtu.be/pZO47QxV-iY

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The Craft of Japanese Swordsmithing

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  • October 20, 2014

Scene-de-forge-edo-p1000665Japanese samurai, the military nobility of medieval and early-modern Japan, have long captured the interest of many. The teachings of the samurai are an important aspect of Japanese culture and way of life. It isn’t difficult to be in awe of their strict adherence to their set of rules known as bushidō, their code of conduct, their mastery of martial arts, their unique armor, and their swords.

The samurai sword is commonly called a katana. It is known for its characteristic curved, single-edged, thin blade with a rounded or square guard and long grip so it can be held with both hands. It is known for its strength and incredibly sharp blade. The katana and other traditional Japanese blades are made with legendary Japanese swordsmithing techniques that involve labor-intensive bladesmithing processes unique to Japan.

Forging a blade. Print from an Edo period book. | Rama

katanaThe steel used in creating a katana is called tamahagane or “jewel steel,” produced from ironsand (sand with heavy concentrations of iron). The smelting process of transforming ironsand to kera (steel bloom from ironsand) is a tedious and rigorous. Forging the blade can take weeks and is considered a sacred art, accompanied by Shinto religious rituals and traditional processes. It involves several other master craftsmen with their own specialties in swordmaking such as  the smith, the smith’s apprentice, a polisher, a specialist for the edge, and a horimonoshi or engraver. Most of the blades are decorated with designs, grooves, and file markings, usually at the hilt of the sword. This is never supposed to be cleaned because it is meant to show how well the steel ages. Some of the more notable swordsmiths include:

Samurai katana with koshirae (ornate mounting) and shirasaya (plain wooden mount.). | Samuraiantiqueworld

Shintōgo Kunimitsu (新藤五国光) 13th century – considered the founder of the Soshu-den tradition that combined the knowledge and traditional methods from Yamashiro and Bizen. The oldest dated sword he created was from 1293.

MasamuneMasamune_Portrait (正宗) 1264–1343 – also known as Gorō Nyūdō Masamune, is considered Japan’s greatest swordsmith and was a student of Shintōgo Kunimitsu.  His swords are of superior quality and  possess remarkable beauty. Masamune is thought to have brought perfection to the art of “nie” where steel becomes crystalline structure resembling stars in the evening sky.

Hikoshirō Sadamune (相模國住人貞宗 ) 1298-1349 –  learned his craft from the  Sōshū school. He was originally from Gōshū (also known as Ōmi province) and he was a student of Masamune.

Portrait of Masamune.

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The Sakoku Years of Japan

  • Posted by:
  • October 16, 2014

The 17th to the 19th century saw Japan adopting a policy that isolated the whole country from the outside world. This long period of national isolation was called sakoku.  During sakoku no Japanese could leave the country on penalty of death, and very few foreign nationals were permitted to enter and trade with Japan.  Sakoku literally meant “chained country.”

Sakoku (鎖国) was a policy enacted by the Tokugawa shogunate (the last feudal Japanese military government)  under Tokugawa Iemitsu through several policies and edicts from 1633 to 1639 and had remained effective until 1853 when the Perry Expedition forcibly opened  Japan to Western trade. The rationale of the shogunate  behind the implementation of sakoku in Japan was to remove any religious and colonial influence, primarily from Portugal and Spain, considered a threat to the shogunate. Japan strictly traded with only five entities from four gateways:


Matsumae Domain – located in Hokkaido, formerly known as Ezo, traded with the Ainu people.

Sō clan daimyo of Tsushima – had trade relations with Joseon Dynasty Korea.

Dutch East India Company – was permitted to trade in Nagasaki along with private Chinese traders.

Ryūkyū Kingdom – controlled by the Shimazu family daimyo of Satsuma Domain.

Commodore Perry’s second fleet. 

Dutch_tribute_embassy_to_EdoTrading between these entities was further divided in two: Group A included the Dutch and Chinese who fell under the jurisdiction of the Bafuku in Nagasaki, Group B included the Kingdoms of Korea and  Ryūkyū which dealt with the Satsuma (the Shimazu clan) and the  Tsushima (the Sō clan) domains.

Dutch tribute embassy to Edo. | Engelbert Kaempfer

The Convention of Kanagawa on 31 March 1854 established formal diplomatic relations between Japan  and the United States when Commodore Matthew Perry had the Shogun sign the Treaty of Peace and Amity. The United Kingdom also signed the Anglo-Japanese Friendship Treaty at the end of 1854, followed by treaties with other countries in the next few years.

The sakoku period is now a part of Japanese history, but the Hirado Dutch Trading House established by the Dutch East India Company dating back to 1609 is a reminder of the time when Japan closed its doors to the Westerners. It was once the only trading base that linked Japan to the West. There are a dozen buildings in this historical site. One of them is a stone warehouse considered the very first Western building in Japan, now a museum open to the public. The Hirado Dutch Trading House remains a lasting testament to the proud culture and history of the Japanese.


Hirado Dutch Trading House. | 陳 ポーハン

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