My Internship in Japan: Kyushu travels I

kyushu travels banner

In my previous post, I wrote about my internship from mid-September to mid-November 2017. My main place of residence was with a host family in Minamata, but I also traveled quite a bit during those twee months. I visited the following places: Kawaminami, Aya, Nishihara, Furuishi, Hita, Yufuin, Oyama, Shimonoseki, Ube, Yamaguchi, Hisayama, Hitoyoshi, Mizukami, Itsuki, Morotsuka, Tōgo, Miyazaki, Kobayashi, Yatsushiro, Jōyōmachi, Ukiha and Fukuoka. In true paparazzi style, I took hundreds of pictures of which a selected few are published here. Although I am really bad at it, I have tried to contain myself to not include the complete history and a detailed description of natural and cultural features of every place I have set foot in. Just keep in mind that there is much more to write than I did. Enjoy! This is part I of the Kyushu travels posts.

One of my first trips involved crossing the island of Kyūshū from Minamata in the West to Kawaminami town 川南町 in Miyazaki prefecture in the East, a 4-hour drive. I actually went back once more to participate in a food event – for research purposes, of course. Kawaminami is a very versatile place to live: not only is it located at the Pacific ocean, ideal for surfers and fishing communities alike, the area is also covered with pastures and grassland for livestock farming, mountains and vegetable and tea fields. At the foot of the mountain range, there is a viewing point from where you can overlook the whole town (picture below left). Because of the sunny climate, strawberries, bananas, peanuts and other natural sweets are a local speciality. I met one surfing strawberry farmer and was impressed, but as is shown in this promo video for the town, it’s quite common…

Because the area covers such different landscapes and livelihoods that come with these landscapes, the animosity between the fishing community at the coast and the farming community in the mountains was driven to a high in recent times. The former accused the latter of soiling with manure the river water that flows from its source in the mountains to the ocean. Through talking about it instead of avoiding the subject, helping each other out and participating in common projects, the two communities grew closer. As many Japanese, they felt connected the most through food. They organized a “hot pot battle” (nabe gassen 鍋合戦) together and started the tradition of a “seasonal food event” (yotsu no shiki wo taberukai 四つの季節を食べる会), which is still organized four times a year nowadays. The events bring together both communities and their surprisingly different food cultures.

I was so lucky to attend the fall edition of this food event. It was quite the experience, I might say! Somehow we ended up as special guests at the table of the mayor and other high-ranking elder men. The food was arranged for in potluck-style. People who had brought something proudly explained the contents of the dish: all of it was local, home-grown and seasonal. Meanwhile, the presenter made non-stop jokes and cracked up the whole room. At the front an enormous swordfish was exhibited, freshly caught that morning.

newspaper taberukai kawaminamichoBefore the food was even touched, half of the participants had gotten drunk on the booze they had brought in large amount. But the fun part had yet to begin! After dinner, sponsored gifts and local products were distributed… through several rounds of rock-paper-scissors (jan-ken-pon じゃんけんぽん). Those interested in the prize had to battle against each other in the game. Nothing beats the sight of 80-year old ladies in a heated jan-ken competition to win a box of eggs. And another fun thing happened: I was interviewed by a reported for the local newspaper during this event. Apparently, I was the first foreigner to attend in the 11 years, or 44 editions the food event was being held. I got mailed the newspaper article when I was already back in Belgium. See the result, including silly picture, for yourself…

Moving on to a different place, located on the route between Kawaminami town and Minamata city: the town of Aya 綾町. I visited Aya three times in total, since it was one of the favorite travel destinations of my host. He had enormous admiration for Aya and its former mayor Minoru Gōda. Once, Aya was a “runaway city”, a town where people fled from once they got the chance. There was poverty as was common on the countryside, few jobs, little tourism, no hotels or sightseeing opportunities. In other words, Aya was not attractive to locals nor to outsiders. And yet, the city is blessed with one of the last remaining primeval woods in Japan: 2000 hectares of broad-leaved forest.


The rich vegetation provided Aya’s three rivers with minerals. There’s a saying “the mountain is the sea’s lover” (yama wa umi no koibito 山は海の恋人) that illustrates this important connection. As a result, life in the water flourished; one remarkable specimen is the local sweetfish (ayu 鮎), which has a golden color. Unfortunately, heavy industrial and mining induced pollution of the water started to manifest in health problems among the population. Mining also caused several forest fires. When the authorities eventually wanted to log parts of the forest, Gōda protested heavily – much to the discontent of local woodcutters who finally had the perspective of a steady job. Gōda argued that the forest provided fresh air and delicious drinking water, and that the inhabitants of Aya could start a better life by making use of these gifts of nature instead of destroying them.


the organic marketplace. Local farmers sell their products here.

Once he had prevented the logging of the forest (it is now a Unesco ecopark), he focused his attention on the local agriculture. Then, in the sixties, vegetables were purchased in neighboring areas. Gōda was actually far ahead of his time, because he predicted that organic veggies would increasingly gain popularity. Instead of a buying economy, he proposed a self-sufficient economy in which inhabitants grow their own vegetables without any damaging chemical substances. In the beginning there were not many different kinds of vegetables and fruits, but soon people started to grow specialities. Gōda’s daughter Mikiko exploits an organic, vegetarian restaurant in the center of Aya. I could try to explain you how good the food was, but I fear words cannot describe the sensation.

Mikiko’s food is based on kanpō (eastern medicine 漢方), featuring 5 tastes: sour, pungent, sweet, spicy and salty. These tastes interrelate as they complement or counterbalance each other. Every taste relates to a certain area of the body, such as the liver for sour, the stomach for sweet, and the ears for salty. If you encounter a physical problem, you can counterbalance by focusing on the taste group opposite to the problem area. For example, too much fatty, sweet foods (including rice, beans, chicken and corn) are to be counterbalanced by seaweed, tofu or soy sauce.

Today, Aya is an agricultural city, famous for its organic production and its touristic attractions, such as the forest  and the international crafts castle, where I made a ceramic mug! You could also try out artisanal weaving or buy art objects by local craftsman.

At the castle, I met an excentric figure called Genta. Genta has been working there for over 30 years. He migrated to Aya because of its beautiful nature. He started out as an amateur (because he thought it would be fun), but is now an expert in natural dyes. While showing me how to dye a piece of fabric in a particular pattern of fading blue, he philosophized about life. What I take away from this conversation: “Don’t think about what the future will bring, think about what you want to do. That’s your future.”

silk weavery

A little outside of Aya is another silk weaving house and dying shop, where silk textile is created according to traditional sericulture: caterpillars are bred and once spun into a cocoon, long threads of raw silk are harvested and twisted together into a fiber. The dye is naturally sourced from plants or shells. The picture on the right shows the famous Japanese indigo colors that are displayed in the shop, and a dipping pattern characteristic for Japanese dye craftsmen. The silk is very light, but keeps you warm at the same time and is incredibly strong. More than a clothing item nowadays, naturally dyed silk is an art object.

Our next stop is Nishihara 西原村, a village of barely 6,700 residents located next to Aso 阿蘇市. I participated in a couple of workshops there. Perhaps a little info about Aso is in order: Aso city is located in the center of Kyushu, and features the highest – still active – volcanic mountain in Japan. Mount Aso erupted violently some 300,000 years ago and shaped the Kyushu landscape as how it is now. Starting from a certain height, the scenery gets fascinatingly steppe-like.


on the open spots, there were houses once

Equally violent and shocking was the 2016 earthquake in the area. When I visited Nishihara, complete streets had been wiped away, whole families had moved out and houses were being rebuilt. Five people had died, and more than 60 suffered injuries. Blue sheets, indicating collapsed building, could be spotted everywhere even a year after the disaster. I was shocked because the earthquake had only briefly been featured on the news in Belgium: I could never have imagined the gravity of the situation until this day. Signs of the earthquake aftermath were visible in a 140-year old samurai house we visited: part of the gate was destructed, and the entire house had even moved a couple of centimeters to the left.

DSCF7676We hit the road to go find Nishihara’s hidden treasures. I was in the food team, a strategic choice since I got to try some stuff, like pumpkin ice-cream in a triangular cone. Because grazing land is readily available, all types of dairy products are a speciality of the region. In my team, we also noticed that the availability of fresh and tasty mountain water was key to the region’s produce. One Italian-style restaurant, for example, used only the water of the waterfall you see below on the right to grow tomatoes and other ingredients. Wells at shrines were regularly visited by locals to tap fresh water or wash products like chestnuts or beans. We interviewed one guy who drove over an hour every weekend to fill his bottles with Nishihara water. He was a police chief and distributed the water at the workplace.

In Nishihara’s Kazurame hamlet, consisting of only 5 families, an old lady showed us proudly her flower field, an enormous persimmon tree (right) and a field full of soba seeds (left). It was actually the first time I thought about how soba noodles are made. Have you? As it turns out, soba  (buckwheat) is not even a type of wheat, but it’s a seed. When crushed, it forms the flour that is used to make noodles. Further in my journey, I encountered some people who specialized in homemade soba noodles: these noodles stand out because they are unevenly shaped, melt away in your mouth and are delicious in their simplicity. In Shimonoseki, we even had tea soba noodles on a hot roof tile, but later more on that.

Furuishi 古石 is located in the Ashikita area, separated from Minamata by Yajiroyama-mountain. The village houses around 400 people, and everybody knows everybody. I stayed in Furuishi for an afternoon and then for a weekend with the loveliest elderly couple you can imagine. They had a cosy countryside B&B and spent their time like everyday was Sunday. With the same relaxed attitude, they took care of all labor-intensive tasks that living on the countryside requires: harvesting rice, making traditional sweets, logging trees, pickling vegetables and fruit, taking care of ancestral spirits and shrines, socializing with the neighbors, clearing fields from weeds, organizing the annual festival… I think the words “work hard, play hard” actually fit the rural situation very well. At the time I visited them, they were busy building a wall for their new furnace, so I helped out a little. The food on the table was homemade from scratch – the couple practically lived in a self-sustaining way and only consumed local meats like wild boar or fish they caught in the river. Dinner on the first day was creamy pumpkin soup, dried bamboo shoots and pickled greens.

The next day, I made traditional sweets with the lady of the house: rice cake (mochi) mixed with sweet potato, filled with anko, a sweet azuki bean paste, and coated with kinako, roasted soybean flour. In case you have never eaten dango before: beware, because these will get you hooked. We went to 4 local shops where the dango were distributed. These shops, all with locally produced organic products, were surprisingly popular – I was told that people nowadays in a post-Minamata/Fukushima era prioritize the safety of their food above anything else and don’t care to pay a little bit extra for it. After a couple of hours we were notified that all of our dango, even the ones I had made, were sold out. My succesful cooking adventure continued in the evening with being in charge of the sushi. For the occasion I was allowed to use a real razor-sharp sushi knife. Against all odds, I did neither hurt myself nor screw up dinner. Even Pan-chan the house cat was amazed.

furuishi kimono goto junko

kimono by Goto Junko. You can read more in English on her site:

After dinner, we chatted about life in the village. I heard the story of an older lady who drank one cup of shochū (Japanese whisky) every day until she died at the age of 99. There was once a kimono artist living in Furuishi and she created the lightest kimono in history over the span of 7 years (this sounds like a fairy tale but it actually happened a couple of years ago, I have visual proof ->). The garment weighs 150 grams and is made from hemp, woven into threads so thin you can not see them with the bare eye. The kimono itself is priceless, but you could try it on if you had a spare 20,000 Yen to buy the underwear from the same material required to wear underneath in order not to damage the piece. It is also remarkable how strong social ties are in Furuishi. One young man who had moved to the city came to help his father in Furuishi from time to time. Because some tasks like weeding were done collaboratively, the residents made it a habit to go out drinking together every month. The son liked the company and social events so much, that he moved back to Furuishi.

And then there was this couple who had a restaurants up in the mountains that is completely self-sufficient: they grow every ingredient themselves. The owner had been dreaming for a long time about an independent mountain lifestyle, but was not sure whether he could manage it on his own. But then he met a girl who shared the same dream, they married and started a restaurant far away from the inhabited world. Now it is more or less a well-kept secret that serves a great menu. The interior was designed by the owner’s wife and is full of designer books and magazines. It is a place you might not expect in a village like Furuishi! We had a fantastic lunch there, and much to my surprise,  we could enjoy a chai latte with soy milk, my favorite drink ever.

20171022_161727Since it was national election day, we headed to the village meeting center in the afternoon. Although voting is not compulsory in Japan, everybody went in Furuishi because it would be noticed if you didn’t go. I had been told that the director of the center married at the age of 50. All his life, he had been poor but the villagers encouraged him to marry anyways, and to not worry about the fact that he could not pay much for the wedding. To support him, they organized a wedding dinner in potluck style. The most recent addition to the meeting center was a rock wall for the senior ladies bouldering club. I don’t know about you, but I find this very impressive (needless to mention, I couldn’t get near the top). In Furuishi (literally “old rock” because you can find enormous and unique rock formations in the forest) outdoor bouldering contests are held as well.

That is it for now, see you back for part 2!  All pictures are mine, unless stated otherwise.


My Internship in Japan: Minamata

banner minamataWell hello there, it’s been a while! Time to bring Nippaku back to life and disclose what I have been up to during these blog-less months. On September 14th, I started my internship journey in Minamata 水俣市, Kumamoto prefecture in central Kyushu (in the South of Japan). As a Japanologist doing an advanced Master’s program in Cultural Anthropology and Development Studies, it was only natural that I chose Japan as my destination for a two-month internship with a local organization. Since one of my other interests is sustainability, I sank my teeth into the sustainable development of rural Japanese areas. I started looking for possible topics, et voilà, I came across jimotogaku 地元学, or ‘local learning’ in translation. I promise to tell you all about jimotogaku once my research is more or less wrapped up (aka when I have finished my thesis), but for now I will provide some pictures and explanation about Minamata. 


Susubaru view

I arrived on September 15th in Fukuoka, from where I took the shinkansen to Minamata and was picked up by my host and his granddaughter. The host family I stayed with is located in Susubaru 薄原, a small village in the mountains of Minamata with a decreasing population of around 100 inhabitants at the moment. Farmland in Japan is located on hills and mountains while urban areas are developed on plains. This is the complete opposite in Belgium: farmland, literally “flat land” (platteland in Dutch) encloses densely populated cities. It became a running joke when I told them that the highest Belgian mountain, Signal de Botrange, barely reaches 700 metres – a height they would not even consider worthy of the term “mountain”.


Takeyama 竹山, “bamboo mountain”, property of my host family. I regularly helped out by cutting and chopping trees, burning wood and repairing the fence.

In Susubaru, we were surrounded by a mixed forest of cypress and chestnut trees amidst sky-scraping bamboo, and everything was still lush green at that time. Due to heavy rainfall and the subtropical climate, nature is difficult to keep under control, and locals could spend a great deal of their time trimming weeds, chopping wood or clearing the roads. The forests and fields are regularly trampled by wild boar, who come down from higher up in the mountains every night and snack on fallen fruit such as persimmons and chestnuts. Farmers protect their fields with electrified fences. Apparently, these animals also hate the color pink, so occasionally I could spot flashy pink wires. Besides wild boar, there are also deer (I could hear their cry from time to time) and raccoon dogs, and the air is always  buzzing with insect sounds. Luckily, I brought my ear plugs to guarantee a quiet night of  sleep.

The city of Minamata itself has a troubled history, which was partly the reason why I went there. Starting out as a fairly insignificant coastal but mountainous village, the city’s population boomed with the arrival of Chisso, a chemical company, in 1908. At the time it all went wrong, Chisso employed or indirectly affected the livelihoods of 25% of Minamata’s inhabitants: the exponential population growth (twice the size of today’s population) paralleled Chisso’s increasing output. This was one of the reasons authorities were reluctant to stop the disaster at once: it was a dilemma of helping a few victims or helping all people in the city to make a decent living.

So what happened? Between 1932 and 1968, Chisso – consciously – dumped toxic waste water containing mercury in the Minamata bay and the inland Shiranui sea. Bacteria in the water transformed it into methylmercury when they came into contact with the toxic substance. Once consumed in large doses, directly or by eating the fish that had ingested the methylmercury, the substance causes neurological damage, going from muscle weakness to paralysis and death. The disease is also congenital, which means that unborn children can be exposed to methylmercury poisoning in the womb. Until this day, there is no cure, only drug therapy to reduce symptoms and the pain. For more in-depth information, watch this movie by SciHow [English] and original footage here [Japanese].

minamata disease eugene smith

Mother bathing her daughter Tomoko who suffered from Minamata disease, photographed by Eugene Smith – Wikimedia commons

The first signs of mercury poisoning were observed in “dancing” cats and birds who couldn’t fly, and dead fish that washed ashore. In 1956, a girl with strange symptoms was brought to the factory hospital. Many more would follow, with an alarming high mortality rate. It was discovered that the mercury had accumulated in fish and shellfish, the main source of nutrition for  fishing communities in Minamata. The condition was coined “Minamata disease”. Despite the fact that it became pretty clear it was Chisso that had caused so many living beings to suffer at the end of the 1950s, the company did anything it could to not be held responsible – and was helped in doing so by the authorities out of economic interests. They started discharging wastewater directly into the Minamata river instead of the Hyakken harbour, which led to even more pollution, and they did not cooperate with the research. Finally, in 1968, they stopped poisoning and killing people, but not before hiring yakuza to beat up protesting victims. In the end, Chisso paid hundreds of millions of Yen in compensation money. But yes, the factory is still there, renamed as JNC, among the many other branch plants they hold around the country.

Minamata’s dark history is linked with how the jimotogaku movement came into existence, but later more on that. At the time of the pollution scandal, Minamata was in full chaos. Victims’ families were enraged with Chisso, Chisso employees were enraged with patients (this contradiction occurred even within families), city people thought patients were faking it to get compensation, the mountain communities held a grudge because they could not sell their products anymore due to stigma…Today, the stained image of Minamata might still affect how people think about the city. In the aftermath of the pollution scandal, inhabitants of Minamata were strongly discriminated against: somehow, people thought the disease was contagious or that they had brought it upon themselves. They could not sell products, work outside of the city or marry non-Minamata citizens. When the train passed Minamata, travelers closed the windows. The staff at a hotel was ordered to throw away the linen of a group of Minamata school kids on a trip. One man told me that he went with his team to Fukuoka to play a baseball match, and that the arena was empty because not one supporter wanted to be in the vicinity of Minamata residents.


recycling station in Susubaru

From the 1980s on, tremendous efforts have been made to clean up Minamata’s image, leading to great results. Minamata profiled itself as an environment-friendly city when they adopted the ISO 14001 environmental management standard and became an Ecotown in 2001. Remarkable actions are the establishment of a strict 21-item recycle system, the Meister Program for local producers of healthy, safe and organic products, an eco-shop certification for craftsman and the reduction of waste in general. Knowing that Japanese people love food and deeply value safety, I noticed that people especially appreciate organic products since these are safe and healthy to eat. The Meister Program recognizes 32 “Meisters” of which I had the pleasure to meet and even befriend some.


Matsumoto Kazuya serving tea in his tea field

The Matsumoto family (桜野園 Sakura noen) and the Amano family (天の製茶園 Amano no seichaen) are two producers of organic tea in Minamata. Both housing three generations in their homes, they produce a rather rare kind of tea, Japanese black tea (和紅茶 wakōcha), among the more generic green and roasted tea. As a matter of fact, Amano Hiroshi and Matsumoto Kazuya are two of the four Japanese black tea “kings” in Japan, and they sell worldwide. I was so lucky to try Matsumoto teas on several occasions and received a guided tour around their tea fields. I was also welcomed for four days at the Amano tea farm in Ishitobi, a hamlet located 600 meters high, where I helped the family out with sorting bancha tea leaves. I learned that the reason for only producing naturally grown tea there is because of the position of the Amano’s farm on top of the mountain. Due to the pollution scandal, awareness had been raised that contaminating something as precious as water is the worst thing you could do to yourself and other people since you are responsible for the source of the irrigation that flows into other people’s wells and fields. It was also very interesting to see how the drink is made from plant till cup. Bringing back home literally tens of tea packages, I must admit I drink more tea than ever (tea related blog posts here and here). Better than too much coffee or soda, right?

Minamata people also eat lots of white small fish from the bay (safe to eat now), mikan-oranges that are grown more upward the hills (organic mikan jam in the picture left below) and local specialities like kuri 栗 (chestnuts), satoimo 里芋 (village potato), akebi  アケビ (chocolate vine, right picture) and take no ko 竹の子 (bamboo shoots). I ate several portions of chestnuts for dessert, they are delicious when boiled till soft and sweetened with sugar and red bean paste. Below in the middle you see a picture of cooked chestnuts, also great as an afternoon snack. Those who are familiar with Japanese culture, know how fascinated/obsessed the Japanese are about food. Hence, the local cuisine was a topic that came up multiple times a day. Locals are really proud of the healthy, traditional meals they serve with home-grown ingredients.

Another (organic) asset for Minamata is rice. Being the staple food of Japan, it is unthinkable that the mountains of Minamata would lack the numerous rice fields and terraces a rural area is characterized by. Traditionally, every household has their own rice paddy, which produces enough rice to provide for the whole family plus a little extra that can be sold on the local market. Farmers who specialize in rice are rather rare. Nevertheless, familial rice fields are increasingly abandoned due to depopulation, draught of the irrigation system and lack of labor force. When I arrived in Minamata, the rice plants were already bright yellow. Once they turn this shade and drop their “heads”, they are ready for harvest. If necessary, the locals call friends and family to the countryside to help out because sowing and harvesting is some labor-intensive work. They cut the rice stalks with a machine or a sickle, bind them together into sheaves and let them dry in the sun on a wooden construction. After ten days, the stalks are dehulled.   


Harvested rice stalks

Normally, harvesters use a machine to cut and bind most of the rice stalks, but I got acquainted with someone who not only grew his rice without fertilizers but also cut all stalks manually. The work is notorious for causing severe back ache. One of the reasons elder Japanese ladies shuffle around with an extremely bent back is said to be because of cutting and binding rice stalks. 20170926_173820Toiling in the heat sure is exhausting, and I talk from experience since I helped out with the harvest on the collectively owned rice paddy of Minamaru Kitchen, a community restaurant that only uses local and seasonal ingredients. After dehulling, the produced rice – between 60 and 90 kilos –  was bagged and taken to the kitchen. Speaking of Minamaru Kitchen,  I really liked the idea of its collective ownership, the many activities that were held there and the entrepreneurial spirit of the co-owners. The main forces behind the Kitchen are pastry chef Sasehara, optician Kawata and Mrs. Matsumoto, the wife of the tea farmer I wrote about earlier. The Kitchen tiess together a network of people with a shared interest in the sustainable development of the community and its small economy. I also attended a couple of lectures there and found myself inspired by new ideas and examples.

The picture in the middle shows a bottle of cider (which is a non-alcoholic sparkling lemonade drink in Japan), produced with natural spring water from Kagumeishi hamlet. On one of my last days I went along to tap some fresh water from the source. It is free from any charge and extremely clean, since the water is filtered through untouched mountain land. It is said that the people residing around the source live a long and healthy life – the current inhabitants were centenarians. I met some locals and visitors who came to fill their bottles regularly at such spots because of the taste, high quality and spiritual meaning of the water. In fact, you can often find a place of veneration close to the water source, like a small shrine from stone with gifts in it, to honor the water spirits. Bigger shrines can similarly feature a stream with spring water. I was told there are seven natural water sources in Minamata alone. Besides, there is a residential area called Yu no tsuru 湯の鶴 “crane from hot water” in Minamata with onsen 温泉, or hot springs.

Water is so important it dictates the rules of agricultural life. Irrigation is essential to a succesful rice harvest: that is why all paddies are located next to a river while at the same time water flows from the mountains in the direction of this river, creating an abundant supply of liquid for the rice plants. Behind the paddies are vegetable fields that need less water and then there are the houses, closer to the hills for wood logging and fruit picking. Concerning the climate, Minamata’s is kind of wet. Farmers do not work outside on rainy days, so they plan from day-to-day, disregarding fixed schedules for days off like weekends. On rainy days, relatives are visited and work inside the house is done. Locals also like to catch fish or play in the river in their free time. Due to its history of pollution, water is even more valued as an asset in Minamata. I was surprised by how clean water bodies are over there, certainly compared to the rivers in my home country (you can regularly spot rusty bikes and garbage floating on the surface)…

minamata river
Mountains, rivers, forests, villages… Minamata has it all.

In short, nature in Minamata is impressive, a view that locals might be used to, but spectacular for Belgian eyes. Life on the countryside is also very distinct from city life, and interesting to dive into. I must admit that this time I experienced quite a culture shock, something that was not the case when I studied in Kobe for a year!

I hope this post informed you a little bit about the city of Minamata and life in rural Japan. In the next part, I will describe the things I did and learned during my trips around Kyushu. Till next time!

[all pictures are mine, unless stated otherwise] 

Staging Madness: Nogaku vs. Kyogen

mental health 6 bannerJust before boarding my flight to Japan (this time for a two-month internship in Kumamoto prefecture – update will follow!), I would like to share another part of my Master’s thesis on mental health stigma with you. If you are new to this series of blog posts, feel free to check out part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 first before getting into this one. Part 6 is dedicated to the performance arts, nōgaku and kyōgen in particular, and how these represented “madness” in premodern Japan.

Nōgaku indicates two theater forms developed from Sarugaku during the 14th century, Nō 能 and Kyōgen 狂言. Nō is a musical performance art that presents famous tales and legends by making use of masks and a limited amount of props on stage. performances are full of symbolism and often feature supernatural elements. One leitmotiv in several Nō pieces is monogurui 物狂[1], a theatrical element representing “madness”. It can be said that Nō plays of the monogurui type are constructed around a central concept of “possession” as a sacred phenomenon[2]. Monogurui has multiple meanings: it does “not only indicate the condition in which one loses mental equilibrium, but also refers to (a) a person in such a condition or (b) such a display of madness in a performance[3]”.


a Nō performance –

A state of monogurui is caused by a psychological crisis and is in many cases expressed in the form of a “mad dance”. In this instant of “madness”, the protagonist, in almost all plays of monogurui Nō a woman, reveals her suppressed feelings. According to Zeami, “madwomen” (kyōjo 狂女) were the ideal material for an interesting play, because “women are mysterious beings by nature”[4]. Two triggers of monogurui can be identified: spirit possession (tsukimono 憑物), or excessive affection because of the loss of a loved one (omoi 思ひ)[5].  From an objective point of view, the “madwoman” as represented in Nō, tormented by a spirit or by immense grief, has a reason to act insane. The “mad dance”, the climax of monogurui, functions here as a visual representation of mental suffering and as a dramatic tool to evoke sympathy from the audience[6]. This indicates not only a high level of spirituality, but also a strong influence of Buddhism and Shintoism.

For example, in Lady Aoi (Aoi no Ue 葵上), a play loosely based on the possession scene in The Tale of Genji as described in a previous post, the evil spirit that possesses Lady Rokujō and haunts Aoi, is exorcised by sacred prayers. After her soul has been cleansed of jealousy, Lady Rokujō is capable of reaching enlightenment. In the pictures below, the anger of Lady Rokujō is expressed through her transformation into a demon. Although the play is named afer her, Lady Aoi never appears on stage: she is represented by an empty kimono. Hence, the focus is on the possessed Lady Rokujō throughout the play.

Other examples of Nō plays featuring monogurui are Mii-dera Temple三井寺, Hanjo 班女, Hyakuman The Dancer (Hyakuman 百万), The River of Cherry Blossoms (Sakuragawa 桜川), The Reed Cutter (Ashikari蘆刈), Sumidagawa River隅田川, Flower Basket (Hanagatami花筐), and Pining Wind (Matsukaze 松風) [7] . Monogurui in Nō resembles in many aspects the mono no ke concept from the Heian period. Both target “weak” women, are caused by psychological instability, are dramatic techniques to enable the protagonist to freely express their otherwise suppressed feelings, and bear a strong connection with religion and spirituality. Nevertheless, it is important to keep in mind that this embellished idea of “madness” is one dominantly perceived on stage or in literature; “during the Middle Ages, such behavior would certainly have been a frightful sight in real life[8]”.


Sumidagawa 隅田川 is a well-known example of a “madwoman’s play” – Wikiwand

The second theatrical form of Nōgaku, Kyōgen, does not use masks nor music. The plays are comical sketches, traditionally staged between Nō plays. As much as Nō is connected with spirituality, Kyōgen is intrinsically linked with “earthiness”, with its performance in vulgar language and satirical representation of daily events in common people’s life. Although the expression of “madness” is not as obvious as in Nō, there are multiple plays in which the characters act unconventionally, or are called “crazy” by others. “Madness” in Kyōgen is irrational; no clear incentive is given. Its absurdity, “playful lunacy [9]” in a sense, is staged not to evoke compassion, but laughter.

The representation of “madness” in Kyōgen appears to be closer to mental disorders in real life[10], an impression supported by the fact that the word kyōgen actually means “mad words”. Another significant observation is that the word monogurui 物狂 designates the Japanese reading for 狂 (kuru-i), while kyōgen狂言prescribes the Sino-Japanese pronunciation for the same character狂 (kyō). Moreover, when “madness” is directly expressed in a Kyōgen play, the word bukkyō 物狂 is mostly used, which is the Sino-Japanese reading for 物狂. For example:

  • なう、そなたのなりは物狂や、何事ぞいなう。(Nau, sonata no nari ha bukkyō ya, nanigoto zo inau.) From Mr. Dumbtarō (Dontarō 鈍太郎). translation: “Come now, you look like crazy, how scandalous!”
  • のう、物狂物狂や、何とわらわが名などが付けらるるものじゃ。(Nō, bukkyō ya bukkyō ya, nani to warawaga mei nado tsukeraruru mono ja.) Translation: “This is madness, it’s madness, what for a name am I getting now” From Bikusada Gets Named (Bikusada 比丘貞)
  • 「なうなうおぢやれ,物いはう」「ああ物狂や」(“nau nau odjare, mono ihau” “aa bukkyō ya”) Translation: “Here here, come on in, let us talk!” “You’re insane!” From The Second-Class Master Blindman and the MonkeySaru Zatō 猿座頭). [11]

The speaker in this play directly criticizes the appearance or action of the other or the “crazy” situation they are in, a nuance completely absent in Nō theater. Both forms of Nōgaku have a different interpretation of “madness”, which can be observed in the different terminology they utilize. Although spelled the same, when read Monogurui, it is used in the sacred, ritual and highly stylized context of Nō, while the pronunciation bukkyō is associated with Kyōgen, the theater form strongly connected with the ordinariness and vulgarity of everyday life [12]. A similar distinction between the two readings of bukkyō/monogurui can also be found back in other text dating back to roughly the same time Nōgaku was in vogue. While mongurui appeared almost exclusively on stage and in a ritual or religious context, bukkyō is a common description of “madness” in everyday life, used to express the speaker’s feelings of annoyance and vexation towards the aberrant behavior of someone else [13].


Foreword to the Sand and Pebbles – Wikimedia Commons

For example, in the work Sand and Pebbles (Shasekishū 沙石集, 1283), “mad” people are referred to as bukkyō no mono 物狂の者. Sand and Pebbles is a collection of Buddhist parables by Mujū Ichien無住一圓, “small talk reflecting the lifestyle and feelings of the general populace in the far Eastern region at that time[14]”. The influence of Kyōgen is visible in the plain and popular reciting style as well as in the humorous notes. The Rise and Decline of the Minamoto and Taira Clans (Genpei Jōsuiki 源平盛衰記, 14th Century), an extended version of The Tale of the Heike, uses bukkyō as to indicate aberrant behavior (bukkyō no hito ni te,…物狂の人にて、…[15]). A last example is from the Kenmu Code (Kenmu Shikimoku建武式目). One article promulgating “matters that should be economized” argues that wearing luxurious and flashy clothes should be strictly regulated. Such inappropriate attire is called “extreme madness” (sukoburu bukkyō 頗る物狂) and thus heavily criticized[16].


Kyogen (1)

Manzo Nomura, a famous Kyogen actor – Asia Society

One scholar mentions that during the Japanese middle ages, the difference between sane and insane was only a matter of the cultural value attached to these concepts. Nevertheless, he warns, what was once tolerated in ancient society was now being identified as “madness”[17]. In short, there existed different interpretations of “madness”, and two of these interpretations (one highly stylized as an art form, one criticized and laughed at in daily life) were acted out on stage in Nō and Kyōgen.

Footnotes & References

[1] Zeami expressed in his theoretical work The Flowering Spirit (Fūshikaden風姿花伝) his preference for this type of Nō: “it is the most fascinating form of Sarugaku theater.” Matsuo, Kōichi 松尾恒一. From Ritual to Art. Mania, Possession and Jest. 儀礼から芸能へ. 狂騒・憑依・道化 (girei kara geinō he. kyōsō・hyōi・dōke) Kadokawa Series 54. Tokyo: Kadokawa Gakugei Publishing, 2011, p. 110. [2] Oda, Susumu 小田晋. Japanese Sources on Madness日本の狂気誌 (Nihon no kyōkishi). Tokyo: Kodansha, 1998, p. 130. [3] Savas, Minae. “Feminine Madness in The Japanese Noh Theatre.” Ohio State University, 2008, p. 55. [4] Sugisawa, Haruko 杉澤陽子. “A Study of ‘Monogurui Noh’” 能の物狂いについての研究 (Nō no monogurui ni tsuite no kenkyū) in The Bulletin of the International Society for Harmonization of Cultures & Civilizations融合文化研究 (Yūgō bunka kenkyū) 7 (June 2006): 66–81, p. 72. [5] Savas, Feminine Madness, p. 53. [6] Hosokawa, Ryōichi 細川涼一. The Japanese Middle Ages of Deviance – Madness, Perversity and the Demon World 逸脱の日本中世―狂気・倒錯・魔の世界 (Itsudatsu no nihon chūsei – kyōki・tōsaku・ma no sekai) Tokyo: JICC Press, 1993, p. 21. [7] “Monogurui Nō” 物狂い能 in Digital Daijisen『デジタル大辞泉』Tokyo: Shogakukan, 2012. and “Noh Plays DATABASE”. [8] Matsuo, From Ritual to Art, p. 112. [9] “Asobi kuruu” 遊び狂う. Kitagawa, Tadahiko 北川忠彦. “Self-oblivion in Kyōgen”狂言の忘我性 (Kyōgen no bōgasei) in Tenri University Japanese Literature Research Room天理大学国文学研究室 (Tenri daigaku kokubungaku kenkyūshitsu), 20 (March 1976): 63–75, p. 71. [10] Ibid., p. 72. [11] Directly retrieved from a collection of kyōgen plays, original text. Translation by me. [12] Oda, Japanese Sources on Madness, p.132-134. [13] Yokoi, Kiyoshi 横井清. “A Memorandum of The Matter of Madness” 狂気のこと覚え書き (Kyōki no koto oboegaki), Tradition and Modernity 伝統と現代 (Dentō to gendai) 44, 1977. [14] “Shasekishū” 沙石集 in Encyclopedia Nipponica 日本大百科全書(ニッポニカ) (Nihon daihyakka zensho (nipponika)). Tokyo: Shogakukan, 1994. [15] The full sentence is物狂の人にて、悪き様にや御目に懸候はんずらん (bukkyō no hito ni te, waruki yō ni ya ome ni ken sōrohan zuran), translated as “No doubt it would be mad of me to ask a pardon for myself, but I see nothing wrong with asking one for you.” Tyler, Royall. The tale of the Heike, 2012, online version chapter 10. [16] Hosokawa, Middle Ages of Deviance, p. 19. [17] Ibid., p. 14.

Gift-Giving in Japan

bannerFor the course Economic Anthropology last year, I wrote a paper on the relation between the Japanese gift culture and the capitalist market system. In retrospect, I believe this topic might interest my readers, so I have selected and adapted the most informative bits on gift-giving in Japan (and how much money you should spend on it) to share with you on Nippaku. Enjoy! 

Just as he was leaving the morning room he had turned around and said: “When is the wedding? I would like to give a present, but since I have no money, I am afraid I can’t.” – in Kokoro by Natsume Soseki

Similar to other gift traditions all over the world, wedding presents make up for an important part of Japanese gift culture, encompassing not only a substantial amount of money but also requiring specific knowledge and skills on how, when and to whom one should present a wedding gift. This happens usually in the form of cash and is at least 10,000 Yen (around 80 euros – I will use Euro as the currency of reference from now on). Close family members are expected to give up to tenfold that amount. The character in Natsume’s novel making the quote stated above, a poor student, is clearly not able to afford an appropriate wedding gift and can, therefore, not comply with social norms. Katherine Rupp (2003), who describes in great detail the complexity of gift-giving in Japan based on her fieldwork observations, immediately points out the economic consequences of this abundant gift culture: “people invest substantial amounts of money in gift-giving. (…) Gift-giving is very important, not only at personal and household levels but on national and macroeconomics level as well. For example, ochūgen and oseibo, summer and winter gifts, provide 60 percent of annual profits of most Tokyo department stores” (p. 1).

traditional gift

traditional gift wrapping – madameriri

The economic burden of compulsory gift-giving is felt by many Japanese people and has recently come to complement an erosion of ‘traditional’ gift giving among the younger generation(s). This makes it all the more remarkable that never before, so much money was spent on gifts: The report by the Yano Research Institute (2016) on Japan’s domestic gift market mentions increased retail sales of almost 73 billion Euro in 2015, 102% of gift sales in the previous year. The report further points out that less formal gifts are purchased, and more commodities circulate in the form of casual gifts. Thus, instead of spending money on presents that are linked with obligatory gift-giving, the Japanese now prefer buying presents for their loved ones, less restrained by social conventions.

From ancient times, Japan has known a formal gift-giving culture based on  customs and traditions with a focus on ceremonial occasions, but against the social background of a decreasing birthrate, an aging population, the nuclearization of the family, and a weakening of neighborhood and kinship ties, compulsory and formal gifts such as chugen and seibo, wedding presents, ceremonial gifts, return gifts for funeral offerings and Buddhist memorial services, are decreasing. Yet, at the same time, giving gifts as an expression of gratitude, affection, respect and love towards people one is close to such as one’s parents, children and friends, is playing a big role and has become a way to facilitate communication. Regardless of the formality of the present, the existence of ‘casual gifts’, adapted to recent times, can also be observed. It is believed that these will become a factor of market growth in the near future. (my own translation – Yano Research Institute, 2016: 2)

Save for the trending ‘casual gifts’, this so-called ‘formal gift-giving culture’ is related to a rigorous wrapping etiquette, to such a degree that the packaging divulges the occasion. Hence, the content becomes subordinate to the presentation and the act of giving in se – in such a degree that in some, often business-related cases, presents are never opened and passed onto others in a continuous chain of gift-giving. Especially within the industry, business meetings and lucrative transactions go hand in hand with a whole series of gifts and ‘donations’, balancing on the verge of what Westerners would consider as bribery. Physicians usually receive a ‘token of appreciation’ (expensive gifts or a substantial amount of cash) in advance of medical procedures and during winter or summer gift season, challenging the physician with the fact that “the space between a giver’s gratitude and a receiver’s obligation can be narrow and murky” since accepting could unintentionally lead to biased treatment of the patient in question (Takayama, 2001: 139). Again, it should not surprise that all these donations generate enormous economic profit, confirming that “not only do individual Japanese people spend a lot of time, worry, and money on gift-giving, but [that] gift-giving is also a crucial part of the overall workings of the macro-economy” (Rupp, 2003: 2). Below, an overview will be provided of Japanese gift-giving customs and their (economic) significance in today’s society.

matcha baumkuchen

This matcha baumkuchen won first prize for best Japanese gift last year.


Writing my bachelor paper on Japan’s wrapping culture, I familiarized myself somewhat with the complicated etiquette surrounding gift-giving on several occasions, but putting it in practice during my one-year stay there turned out to be a different matter. As an exchange student, I quickly realized how little I had to be concerned with giving adequate presents in Belgium. Luckily in Japan, foreigners, as well as children and young adolescents, are often forgiven in that respect. The wife of a Japanese composer (an elderly couple with a traditional mind-set I acquainted and whom I used to visit regularly), offered me the following explanation, while reluctantly accepting the box of Belgian chocolates I had brought her as a thank you gift for the invitation (temiyage 手土産): “young people do not have much money, so you really shouldn’t have bought that for us. You should just receive the presents from older people until you are earning enough money to treat other people”. It appears that this gift-giving obligation for the Japanese evidently involved a lot of expenses and effort. Below, I give a non-exhaustive overview of the main gift rituals currently performed in Japan and their economic consequences.

nihon no okurimono

Catalogue of Japanese presents featuring regional products of every prefecture.


Omiyage (お土産, written with the character for ‘earth’ and the character for ‘produce’, thus meaning ‘products from the land’) are souvenirs, usually local foodstuffs such as sweets and cookies that have a connection with the place visited. Every region in Japan has its own specialty (meibutsu名物). Mantell (2012) suggests that the local production of omiyage can contribute to the community’s identity and pride. Because of this link with the travel destination, homemade souvenirs are to be avoided. Upon return, omiyage are distributed among colleagues at the work place and given to family members and friends. In the research office where I had my desk while studying in Japan, foodstuffs were regularly brought in and placed on the shared table, accompanied by a note of the returned traveler offering everyone to serve themselves.

omiyage uji

Omiyage for sale in Uji.

The ‘hunt’ for souvenirs is expensive and time-consuming, certainly taking into consideration that even a one-day trip involves omiyage. As such, some people “hide travel plans from friends and neighbors so as not to have bring back presents from trips” (Rupp, 2003:1). This is especially the case when omiyage are strongly experienced as giri (義理, ‘social obligation’; Krag, 2014: 69), yet souvenirs can also express gratitude and indebtedness for ‘holding the fort’ whilst away, the strengthening of social ties, or a desire to share the travel experience (Park, 2000:86-7).

According to the Japanese government’s latest white paper on domestic tourism (2016), the Japanese population spent more than 21 billion euros on shopping alone, which surpasses the travel expenses for food and drinks (p. 251). Although it is not entirely clear how many of the purchased goods were bought as souvenirs and not for own use, Tsujimoto e.a. (2013) point out that in 2010, 72.4% of shopping expenses went to food products that were not consumed during the trip (p. 226), and 97,5% of the goods indicated as omiyage were foodstuffs, mostly sweets. It is customary to pay between 8 and 48 euros on omiyage for each person; Tsujimoto e.a. calculated an average of 47 euros in total spent on souvenirs per trip (p. 238).

Seasonal Gift-Giving

* Ochūgen and Oseibo

There are two gift-giving season in Japan, rooted in ancestral offering traditions: during summer in July (ochūgen お中元) and during winter between 13 and 20 December (oseibo お歳暮). These gifts are sent out to personal and business relations such as to superiors, clients, doctors, teachers, landlords and – in a lesser degree – family members, as an expression of gratitude for taking care of them. Again, mostly foodstuffs are given, and similar to omiyage, regional products are popular. Rupp (2003) lists, for example, watermelons, canned fruit, curry sauce, eggplants, cheese and other specialties (p. 29). Household products are frequently sent as well. Important to note is that both gift seasons coincide with the semiannual bonus many Japanese employees receive, amounting to at least two months’ salary (Lebra, 1976: 98). Hence, summer and winter gifts are heavily advertised as slightly more expensive gift sets or basket in stores all over Japan. Online and in most department stores, it is possible to have the gift delivered directly at the receiver’s doorstep, wrapping and gift card included.


Popular ochugen gifts. The site also mentions how much money should be spent based on the type of relation between giver and receiver, somewhere between 3,000 and 10,000 yen – Rakuten

According to the Yano Research Institute (2016) gift report, ‘casual’ gift-giving has also pervaded the domain of seasonal gifts. As a result, the demand for presents that convey one’s feelings towards close friends and family, has increased, along with the emphasis on the act of ‘giving’ in itself (p. 2). This in contrast to the ‘courtesy’ gifts rooted in tradition that are less frequent today, especially among the younger generation. Nevertheless, due to the increased sales of ‘casual’ gifts, expenses nationwide accrued to almost 8 billion euros for ochūgen, and 6.5 billion euros for oseibo. Compared to the previous years, this is only a ‘slight’ decrease of 30 to 40 million euros. Shopkeepers tend to respond to the demand for more personal gifts by allowing customers to assemble an original gift basket instead of offering pre-packaged gift sets.

* Doll Festival and Children’s Day

hina matsuri

Full set of Japanese dolls, displayed for the Doll Festival.

Among the ‘five seasonal festivals’ (五節句 gosekku), Doll Festival (雛祭りhina matsuri), or Girls’ Festival, and Children’s Day (子供の日kodomo no hi), or Boys’ Festival, bear the most economic consequences. During the former, traditional dolls are displayed on a staircase-like structure every year. As is the custom, these dolls are purchased by the maternal grandparents (if not already in family possession) at the birth of their first female grandchild. Due to the high cost of these dolls (prices for a full set start at 680 euros and go up to more than 10,000 euros), it is not uncommon anymore that other family members chip in as well. The family of the mother is also responsible for presents such as carp banners and warrior dolls for their grandson on Boys’ festival. Yet recently, it has become normal that other relatives and friends give presents as well.

Business Gifts

Business gifts are more frequent in Japan than in Europe (Mba, 2012). Apart from seasonal gifts, omiyage and New Year cards, it is customary to exchange gifts at the end of a (first) business meeting or on formal occasions. The value of the gift mirrors the company’s hierarchy: high-ranking employees receive the most expensive items (Alston & Takei, 2005: 55). Business gifts are elaborately wrapped items that are never opened in presence of the donor. Underlying these gifts is a complex etiquette, defining how the gift should be presented, what items are to be avoided and how the gift should be received in an appropriate manner. For those who want to play it safe, department stores and high-end chains promote a series of commodities in varying price ranges as ‘ideal’ business gifts.

business gift

Business gifts on the website of Shinise Mall

Religious Offerings

Shintō ceremonies (e.g. purification of a house) involve offerings to ancestral spirits, and cash money given to the officiating priest. These offerings include sake and food such as rice, fish and vegetables (Rupp, 2003: 13). When visiting a Buddhist grave, incense and flowers are often placed on the stone. In traditional households where ancestors are daily commemorated by means of a small altar or shrine in the house, ‘unusual’ specialty food are offered first to the ancestors. The food is placed on the shrine and “when the ancestors have finished (Smith, 1974: 136)”, it is removed and eaten by the family. On Japanese New Year’s Day (oshōgatsu お正月), it is common to offer traditional food such as sake and soup with rice cakes first to the ancestors.

offering to ancestors

Offering of fruit to ancestors during obonNandaikinjo

During the religious observances of ohigan (お彼岸, equinoctial Buddhist services lasting one week in Spring and Fall) and obon (お盆 festival to honor the ancestors’ spirits, held in July or August), the Japanese return to their hometowns and visit family graves. They bring along food for ancestral offering (often luxury fruits such as melons, but also wine and sweets, depending on the culinary preference of the deceased) which is afterwards consumed during the family meal. By doing so, they are permeated by the power of the spirits (Rupp, 2003: 127). Since ancestral offerings and the dinner celebrations connected to these often involve ‘unusual’ or luxury foodstuffs, prices are evenly extravagant. People pay easily up to 100 euros for a gift melon. Incense and flowers are sold as expensive obon sets, yet there is always a choice between a wide range of prices.

‘Modern’ Forms of Gift-Giving

* Christmas Presents

Despite the fact that less than 1% of the Japanese population considers itself a Christian, Christmas is a well-celebrated occasion, albeit a non-religious version adapted to Japanese culture and society and especially among younger couples. Contrary to Belgian habits, Christmas Eve in Japan is reserved for lovers, while New Year’s Eve is spent in company of family members. In families with young children, toys are sometimes given, but never to adults (Rupp, 2003: 144). Christmas decoration, on the other hand, is widespread.

‘Imported’ celebrations such as Christmas and Valentine’s Day (cf. infra), revolve around excessive advertisements, high consumption and a (rather Western) portrayal of romanticism. It is common for a couple to go on a date to a high-end restaurant, exchange luxury goods such as jewelry, scarves and handbags for women, and watches, wallets and pens for men, and spend the night at an expensive hotel. The standard Christmas meal at home is fried chicken and a strawberry cream cake, which has to be pre-ordered months in advance due to its popularity. Note that, in contrast to traditional celebrations, food consumed on Christmas is almost never homemade and thus store-bought.


You would think this is an ad for Valentine’s presents but it’s not: these are gifts deemed appropriate for Christmas – Rakuten

The popularization of Christmas from the 1930s on, was a commercial opportunity for stores to extend sales after the oseibo boom. Papp (2016: 67-68), referencing a report by Ishii, mentions that in post-war Japan, Christmas was seen as a symbol of modernity, and hence as a shortcut to ‘happiness’, generated by industrialism and consumerism. Another point worth mentioning is that, in most cases, men pay for the whole evening and always give a present to their wives or girlfriends, while women are not ‘obligated’ to give something in return (cf. infra). This indicates a break with more traditional gift-giving customs.

* Valentine’s Day and White Day Gifts

Also introduced in post-war Japan, February 14th is a celebration that mirrors the Western tradition, but has its own Japanese interpretation. Different is that Valentine gifts are exclusively chocolate, are presented only by women, and are not solely given in a romantic way. On the contrary, only a small part of the chocolates is given to loved ones. Valentine’s Day was launched by a chocolate manufacturer and became a nationwide celebrated holiday by the 1970s (Rupp, 2003: 146). It was promoted as the only day women could express their love, and the fact that in other Valentine-celebrating countries men also gave presents, somehow got lost in translation. As a result, Valentine’s Day today is more about boosting men’s confidence than about romance. Minowa e.a. (2011: 52) speak of the “gender asymmetric nature” of the Valentine Day’s gift-giving ritual.


Although a recent and foreign gift-giving tradition, Valentine’s chocolate quickly incorporated ‘traditional’ elements such as a connection with giri, or social obligation (Davis & Ikeno, 2011): women in the workplace and at school felt obliged to give their co-workers and superiors Valentine’s chocolate in order to avoid accusations of favoritism (Buckley, 2009) and to preserve harmonious relationships. This type of chocolate, often store-bought and less expensive, is giri choko. When the gift is meant to convey a feeling of affection, it is called honmei choko (本命チョコ ‘favorite chocolate’). These chocolates are far more expensive than giri choko and in some cases homemade (DIY-kits are also sold at stores). Recently, women have started to hand out tomo choko (友チョコ‘friend chocolate’) to their female friends. This year’s Valentine’s Day generated 1.1 billion euros of revenue (3% more than last year), with most chocolate companies earning half of their annual sales in February (Japan Times, 2017). A Japanese woman spends around 80 euros on Valentine chocolate every year.

white day2

Ad for White Day candy gifts – Amazon

White Day on March 14th is the male response to Valentine’s Day and originated in the 70s as a commercial stunt by the National Confectionery Industry Association to boost sales in the month following February. Originally it was launched as Marshmallow Day, but marshmallows turned out to be an unsuccessful product and the name was changed. On this day, Valentine gifts are reciprocated in the form of white presents: white chocolate, candy, handkerchiefs, flower, cookies, jewelry and underwear (acceptable even for work relations). Rupp (2003: 149) points out that many men do not make a return gift, and in the case of giri choko, it is the wife of the Valentine’s recipient that concerns herself with providing the office women with White Day presents. These gifts are usually at least twice as high in value than the original gift, yet sales are not as high as for Valentine’s Day. As will be explained later, not returning a gift or returning twice the amount would be inappropriate in other gift-giving settings, but ‘hybridized’ holidays allow for divergence of standard norms.

* Mother’s Day and Father’s Day Presents

From the 1970s on, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day as ‘imported’ holidays have been celebrated in a similar fashion as in the West. Department stores anticipate this gift-giving by putting specific items on display. In 1966, Respect for the Aged Day was introduced on 15 September, today celebrated in the third week of September. The elderly receive gifts from their relatives such as flowers, clothing and food. It has been a custom for the government to present centenarians with silver sake cups on this day, although last year it was decided to send out cheaper cups, since silver ones for the more than 65,000 centenarians proved to be too costly to manage (Japan Times, 2016).

mothers day

Results of a survey on Mother’s Day gifts in Japan, asking what they received and what presents made them most happy. Flowers are number one in both cases. – Ringbell

It is indicative that for ‘imported’ gift-giving traditions, the word purezento (プレゼント, the Japanese pronunciation of the English word ‘present’) is used rather than Japanese words for ‘gifts’ such as okurimono (贈り物). Purezento bears a more individual and western connotation and is less formal. Today in Japanese society, many people prefer to give more personalized items to close friends (the so-called ‘casualization’ of gift-giving) instead of gifts that are rooted in social obligation. For example, only sending Christmas gifts and not oseibo (Rupp, 2003: 145).

Cash Gift-Giving

* Wedding Gifts

wedding envelope

Decorated envelope for a cash wedding gift – Rakuten

As was touched upon in the introduction of this blog post, wedding gifts mainly consist out of money. The decorated envelopes (shūgi-bukuro 祝儀袋) with cash – new bills – are handed over at the reception desk, specifying whether it is for the groom or for the bride, or are delivered at home in case the giving party is not invited to the wedding or cannot attend. The amount of money should mirror the relationship with the recipients, as well as the wealth status of the donor. College friends and neighbors, for example, give around 160 euros, family members usually give more. Special envelopes with tied cords in auspicious colors are purchased for the occasion. Since a considerable amount of gift money as compensation for costs can be expected, “this custom (…) has led to more and more extravagant receptions, all to the delight of the companies that sell wedding packages and the luxury hotels where such receptions are often held” (Mak, 1998: 30). Indeed, the Japanese wedding industry, including the many return gifts that are sent to all guests (cf. infra) is worth 20.1 billion euros today (Yano Research Institute, 2017).

* Funeral Gifts


envelope for ‘incense money’ – Amazon

‘Incense money’ (香典kōden), ranging between 24 euros and 800 euros per person,  is given at funerals or wakes in special envelopes (Suzuki, 2000: 84). In contrast to the crisp new bills presented at a wedding, incense money should be old. Again, the amount of money is dictated by relationship and status. For more traditional wedding gifts as well as funeral gifts, the gender of the recipient or deceased plays a role: less money is given in the case of a woman. Mourners additionally send white flowers with their name attached. The incense money covers only around half of the funeral costs, since return gifts are made to every donor. Annually, roughly 2.7 billion Euro is spent on ceremonial gifts at funeral services (Karan & Gilbreath, 2005: 176).

Symbolic gifts

Small traditional gifts often have a symbolic meaning. It is customary, for instance, to present new neighbors with long, thin noodles since these symbolize longevity. Boxes with noodles especially for such occasions are sold at department stores and are differently wrapped and priced than noodles purchased for own consumption. Noodles in their plastic supermarket wrapping would also be inappropriate for ochūgen, for example. As a betrothal gift, a set of store-bought items that symbolize good luck, longevity and good health, often accompany an envelope with around 8000 euros from the groom’s family – or around three times his monthly salary (Rupp, 2003: 86-88).


Lucky kid just received her New Year’s money – K-pedia

New Year cards (年賀状nengajō) in auspicious colors depicting the Zodiac sign of the new year are sent out to relatives, friends and teachers but also to co-workers and business connections. New Year’s presents from parents to children (otoshidama お年玉), on the other hand, is a sum of money and must be given in a special envelope. It may appear that gift-giving in Japan always calls for an occasion, but susowake (すそ分け‘dividing the edge’) is one type of gift purchased simply because the other might like or need it, and has no symbolic meaning attached. Hence, there is no social obligation to return (Rupp, 2003: 29).

Return gifts

The returning of gifts is an essential but fairly more complex part of the Japanese gift-giving tradition. Since gift-giving is an act of giri, and since giri requires reciprocation, a gift naturally calls for a return gift. The moral obligation to give, to receive, and to return gifts is as much a part of traditional Japan as it is of the archaic societies with which Marcel Mauss (1954) concerned himself in his famous essay on the gift. (Lebra & Lebra, 1986: 162)

return gifts

Some popular return gifts – Kinogift

Technically, every gift should be returned with a counter-gift of half its value. Returns in cash are inappropriate, even if the original gift was money (Rupp, 2003: 192). How much a gift costs, can be estimated from the wrapping that has the name of the shop on it where it was purchased. Some high-end department stores are famous for carrying expensive gift items, and often where a gift comes from tells more about its value than the actual contents. Traditionally, gift-giving is the task of the wife and she, herself purchasing gifts frequently, has gained the knowledge to estimate its value and reciprocate in a fitting manner. To make things easier, department stores stick code tags on gifts that tell you its worth. It might be surprising that today as well, Japanese women are the ones responsible for the year-around exchange of gifts,  but seeing as how Japanese gender norms are still solidly entrenched in contemporary society – distinctly more so than in the West – gift-giving continue to be a woman’s job. Rupp, too, describes some situations in which wives, never husbands, were blamed for an ill-chosen gift.


Cute “car money” envelopes – Creema

At weddings and funerals, attendees and those who sent money in advance receive a bag full of return gifts. For weddings these include auspicious food, long-lasting objects, souvenirs of the happy event and sometimes an envelope with money that covers the transportation cost for people who come from far away. Additionally, newly weds spent a lot of time and money during their honeymoon gathering more return gifts. For funerals, traditionally salt, sake, sugar, objects made of thread and other items for purification are bagged. Although estimated to be half of the value of the cash gift, some people end up receiving more than they have given. In some regions, return gifts for incense money are only reciprocated after a certain period of time, and are calculated to match half of the value of the presented cash.

Nevertheless, there are exceptions: return gifts for birth presents are only half to one-third the value of the initial gift. Matchmakers (the couple through which the wedding was arranged) are lavished with more return gifts and money than any other person. White Day, serving as a reciprocity opportunity, prescribes that men, if they do give something, return gifts of at least twofold the Valentine gift’s cost. Rupp (2003: 150) points out that this reaffirms men as the superior party in their relationship with women. In fact, all ‘imported’ holidays have to be seen outside the framework of traditional gift-giving and return gifts. Christmas gifts, for example, are not reciprocated.

This was a short overview of the most common types of gift-giving in Japan. I think we can conclude that the Japanese give a lot of presents on many occasions and that a lot of money is spent in the process. Yet, it strengthens relationships and is a crucial part of Japan’s social landscape.

References here

Introducing the Japanese Imperial System – Part II

banner imperial system part 2Welcome to part two of my imperial blog post! Last time, we covered some of Japan’s oldest and newest emperors, today we will have a look at who’s in between. There truly is a lot to say about Japanese emperors (they are, one might argue, the backbone of the Japanese state), so I would like to give you a little bit more contextual information (the history of Japan in a nutshell) while simultaneously highlighting the accomplishments (and failures) of some of these rulers. Like I told you before, there have been 125 emperors thus far, allegedly all part of the same family since 600 BC. The first emperors and empresses are of rather legendary status and not much historical evidence can be found to verify their actions or even their existence.

At the end of the 7th century, a more reliable system of imperial era names (gengō 元号) was introduced, indicating a new era period in which a new emperor ascended the throne, or another historic event of great importance. Since the Meiji period, new era names could only change with every new emperor. Today, this system of periodization is still in use: the current year (2017 AD), for example, is Heisei 29 平成二十九年. Heisei indicates the period of emperor Akihito’s reign, and 29 is the 29th year of his ascension in 1989 (Heisei  1 = 1989). The name of the period refers to the posthumous name of the emperor. As such, the previous era, the Shōwa period (1926-1989), is named after Akihito’s father Hirohito, whose posthumous name is Emperor Shōwa. The names of emperors I mention in my blog posts, are always their posthumous names, with the exception of recent emperors. You might think this practice is outdated but nothing is less true. All official documents, newspapers, and other texts you will come across as a student of Japanese studies, use this era-naming system. Be prepared.


The Meiji emperor, aka Mutsuhito

Another link between emperor and era system is the place where the imperial family lived: the home city of the emperor was de facto the capital of Japan. Before the 7th century, assumed capitals are as legendary as their inhabiting emperors. It was customary to move the capital with every new emperor, since the demise of the previous one had “tainted” the palace. However, when Empress Genmei settled in Nara, then called “Heijo capital” (Heijō-kyō 平城京), it remained the capital for around 70 years (with one interruption of five years). Today, Nara is certainly worth visiting, with its historical palace Heijō-kyū 平城宮, many temples and shrines. The city itself was built in the middle of nowhere and was a smaller version of the Chinese capital Chang’an, structured in a grid pattern. Based on geomantic Feng Shui principles, the city is surrounded by mountains on three sides, a river that flows from North to South, and a palace facing South. It quickly urbanized and the population grew exponentially – yet it must be said that the inhabitants were mainly aristocrats (including the imperial family), civil servants and the clergy, the soldiers that protected them and the people who provided for their needs.

The Japanese Emperor had never been this powerful: he or she represented the central state (the old Japanese word for emperor, mikado, was even written in Chinese with the characters for state 国家), owned all of the land and the people on it and was above the law. The emperor ruled Japan by means of a centralized bureaucratic system. Under Empress Genmei’s reign, the discovery of Japanese copper was made and the Kojiki (“Records of Ancient matters” 古事記) was compiled. Succeeding her was Empress Genshō, the only female ruler that inherited her title from another empress regnant.


Emperor Shomu

The next Emperor, Shōmu, was the first to marry a “commoner”, someone outside the imperial family: a Fujiwara consort. If you know a little bit about Japanese history, you’ll probably recognize the name Fujiwara. The Fujiwaras were an aristocratic clan that basically monopolized all political power throughout the Heian period (794 – 1185). They maintained this power by marrying off their female family members to the emperor, hence securing a position as regent (sesshō 摂政or kanpaku 関白). As was often the case in history and still is in many countries today, the one with the highest position in theory does not hold as much power in practice as the one situated just one rank lower in hierarchy. You can compare it to a monarchy in which the prime minister is in charge and not the king. Emperor Shōmu also set the trend of retiring as a Buddhist priest.

Speaking of Buddhism, when the imperial family in Nara started to feel threatened by the power of the Buddhist clergy, Emperor Kanmu moved the capital to Kyoto (heian-kyō 平安京) in 794, where it would remain until mid-nineteenth century with the exception of a “pop-up” shogunate capital in Kamakura in the twelfth century.  Again, the city was modelled after Chang’an (and Nara). The palace, Daidairi 大内裏 or Heian-kyū 平安宮, lasted for five centuries until it burnt down to the ground – it doesn’t help that it was (re)constructed mainly out of wood. Besides arson, a lot of things happened during the Heian period. As I mentioned before, the court was practically kept under the Fujiwara’s thumb. The imperial family lost much of their “public” authority (my professor called this development a “privatization of the imperial power”) and had to compete with rivaling families by accumulating private properties and ruling the country through other, not so direct means.

The emperor was soon nothing more than a state symbol, tasked with the performance of religious ceremonies. Life at the Heian court was ridiculously luxurious and the gap between the aristocracy and the common people could not have been greater. As we know from writings dating back to the 10th century, court nobles cared a lot about their appearances, each others’ manners and spending their days in leisure (examples here). Peace at the Heian court was disrupted when the Genpei 源平 war (described in the Heike Monogatari) broke out. The war was fought between the samurai of the Fujiwara’s (Minamoto 源 clan) and the warrior of the Emperor (Taira 平 clan). Yoritomo Minamoto seized power and established the first shogunate government (bakufu 幕府) in Kamakura. This move created a diarchic situation in which the emperor had even less power than before.


Emperor Go-Toba

Here, the story becomes a little bit inception-like: the family that was really in charge of the shogunate was not the Minamoto’s, but the Hōjō 北条 clan. This family was related to the Taira, but betrayed them to the Minamoto clan, before betraying the latter as well. After Yoritomo’s death, they occupied the position of regent through intermarriage not only to the bakufu, but even to the emperor, hence reducing both players to puppets. Fujiwara 2.0, let’s say. Some emperors tried to reverse the situation, like the retired emperor Go-Toba, who sent an army to Kamakura. This attempt failed and the imperial family was severely punished. Emperor Go-Daigo was more succesful. Although his conspiracy against the Hōjō failed and he was sent into exile, other “underdogs” revolted and destroyed the Hōjō clan, including its Kamakura shogunate, in 1333.


shogun Yoshimitsu, sad because he couldn’t become emperor

Emperor Go-Daigo returned and established his own government, but managed to make himself so unpopular that he failed to consolidate imperial power, and soon a second shogunate was founded in Kyoto by Ashikaga Takauji. As the new shogun, Takauji put an emperor of his choice on the throne over which he ruled de facto. But ex-emperor Go-Daigo was not yet defeated and moved his own court to Nagano, close to Nara. As a result, there were two courts: one in the South, and one in the North, dominated by the bakufu. In 1392, the Southern court surrendered. Again, the Emperor was just a puppet with pretty clothes on, now closely watched by the bakufu residing in the same capital. And yet, someone was jelly. For shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, ruling over Japan was not enough – he aspired to become emperor. His master plan was to have an imperial prince adopt his own son, make his son emperor and promote himself to “retired emperor”. He died too early to succeed. He did receive the title of “King of Japan” from China, though. And he lived in a fancy golden temple (kinkakuji 金閣寺).


The flower palace (Hana no gosho 花の御所), political and cultural center of the Muromachi shogunate

There was another big war, and things went from bad to worse. The emperor was now completely obsolete and had barely enough money to pay for his own coronation ceremony. Emperor Ōgimachi had to borrow money from powerful feudal lords (daimyō 大名) to be able to buy some sake. One ambitious daimyō in particular, Oda Nobunaga, conquered all other daimyō (I’m jumping to conclusions here) but remained emperor-friendly: he protected Ōgimachi, restored the palace and guaranteed his daily bread (or rather, rice). After he was murdered, Toyotomi Hideyoshi finished the job of unifying Japan. Hideyoshi was also keen to befriend the emperor. He had himself adopted into the Fujiwara family and eventually became regent to the emperor. Power relations were clear, though, as Hideyoshi built a palace exceeding the imperial palace by far in size and splendor and invited the Emperor to visit him there (it should be the other way around).

The seventeenth century and Hideyoshi’s death called for a new leader. Tokugawa Ieyasu became shogun in 1603 and moved the political center to Edo, nowadays Tokyo. The imperial family as well as aristocratic clans in Kyoto were granted some means, but their freedom was restricted to minimize the least chance of a rebellion. They had to act in accordance with a code (Kinchū narabi ni kuge shohatto 禁中並公家諸法度) that forbade them to be politically engaged or appoint members for the administration, and forced some princes to become monks, among other rules. When Emperor Go-Mizuno’o was so sneaky to appoint religious leaders behind the bakufu‘s back, the imperial family was completely stripped of their power. They even had to start teaching to earn a living (imagine!). Basically, the emperor was tolerated yet ignored throughout the Edo period.

edo castle attendance

The Edo castle


Emperor Kōmei

Two centuries later the situation turned around. The sonnō-jōi 尊王攘夷 (“revere the emperor, expel the barbarians”) movement wanted to kick the foreigners out of Japan who had been demanding trade relations from 1853 on, as well as teach the shogunate a lesson. Despite initially testing the water with some tentative proposals that were pro-bakufu, they couldn’t get over the fact that the bakufu signed treaties with the foreigners without consulting the emperor. They received support from Emperor Kōmei and in 1867, the bakufu was abolished and the shōgun surrendered his power to the emperor.

The Meiji restoration (meiji ishin 明治維新) was meant to restore imperial rule. As we have seen throughout this post, the emperor was in fact most of the time powerless, so they had to look back as far as the Nara period to imagine what prerogatives a ruling emperor should be given. The structure of Jinmu’s administration was also a source of inspiration. The imperial court was moved to Tokyo and replaced the shogunate there as the political center. Fans of the bakufu resisted but were defeated in the Boshin 戊辰 war. The Emperor became so important that the Meiji Constitution was practically written to solidify his divine sovereignty. He was also appointed supreme commander of the Japanese military force.

meiji moving to tokyo

Western drawing of the Meiji emperor moving from Kyoto to Tokyo.

During the Shōwa period (1926-1989), the extreme veneration of the Emperor was exploited as a war strategy: kamikaze pilots sacrified their life in name of the emperor. Today, the role of Hirohito in World War II is still a controversial topic: some see him as a war criminal who actively took part in plotting atrocities and expansionist policies, according to others he is a tragic hero who opposed the military’s decisions but was unable to keep the situation under control. Hirohito was never convicted.

The rest of the story you already know. After Hirohito’s death, Akihito ascended the throne, not as a divine sovereign, but as a human being and purely a symbol of the state. There occurred a couple of anti-emperor incidents, like the Toranomon incident (a communist attempted to assassinate prince Hirohito) in 1923 and an incident in 1959 in which a boy threw a stone at the wedding carriage of Akihito and his wife (he did not agree with the fact that they had spent tons of tax money on the ceremony). I described these incidents in my Japanese thesis about mental health stigma, since the perpetrators were often (falsely) declared “mad” and institutionalised because of the “Chrysanthemum taboo” 菊タブー Kiku tabū: a taboo on criticizing or even discussing the emperor and the imperial system. The underlying idea was that someone who was against the emperor could only be out of his mind.

wedding akihito 1

marriage parade of Emperor Akihito and “commoner” Michiko

And yet, I suspect there will remain a Japanese emperor on the throne for quite some time from now. A survey by NHK in 2009 revealed that only 8% wanted to have the imperial system abolished, while 82% stated that they were just fine with an emperor as symbol. Only 6% believed he should be given political power. I think the Japanese simply cannot do away with the imperial system because it is intrinsically linked to their country’s past and present – and you have to admit, it’s quite the family history.

Fun Facts

  • Somewhere from the Heian period on, the Emperor’s names appear to be dictated by a rule that they should be composed of two Chinese characters, the first one of choice and the second one hito 仁, meaning “perfect virtue”. The names of female members of the imperial family end in ko 子, meaning “noblewoman” traditionally. While hito 仁 is highly unlikely for “commoners”, ko 子 is a popular suffix for female names.
  • The Tokyo Imperial Palace was built on the ruins of the bakufu‘s Edo Castle.
  • Watch this cook prepare a fish for the emperor (be patient). You should keep in mind that this food was actually offered to the gods, after which the emperor could eat from it, hence the elaborate ceremony.


  • Vande Walle, Willy. Een geschiedenis van Japan van samurai tot soft power. Leuven: Acco, 2011.
  • Encyclopedia Britannica
  • Wikipedia
  • All pictures are from Wikimedia Commons
  • 井上章一『狂気と王権』東京: 講談社, 2008

Introducing the Japanese Imperial System

japanese imperial system banner NippakuOn (long overdue) request of my good friend Seppe, I wanted to talk to you about the imperial system in Japan this time. And by “the imperial system”, I do not mean the confusing and ridiculous measurement units that some countries are still using today (metric system fan over here); no, in this post I attempt to make you aware of the amazing fact that almost the entire Japanese history is marked by the presence of an emperor (tennō 天皇, “heavenly sovereign”, introduced as a Japanese counterpart for the Chinese term). The Japanese emperor, occupying the Chrysanthemum Throne, fulfills a symbolic role as ceremonial head of the state and is “boss” of the Shintō religion (神道).

Today, Japan is the only country with an emperor in the world – and even more impressive, it has always been the same imperial family! The first Japanese emperor, Jinmu 神武, allegedly came to power in the 7th century BC, and although it is difficult to prove that the current emperor is related to this mythical figure, we know almost for sure that since 500 AD the same family has reigned. I keep finding it very difficult to wrap my head around this unbroken chain of hereditary monarchy, that unlike European royalty, did not lead to extreme cases of family illness, deformities and other royal genetic disorders due to intermarriage. Of course, the Japanese imperial family has its fair share of inherited diseases (e.g. “mad” emperors), but none are as far-going as the hemophilia in queen Victoria’s bloodline or the Habsburg jaw as exemplified by Charles II, among others. A possible explanation is that the Japanese imperial family is not an unbroken chain of blood relatives: indeed, the emperor’s wife was often supplied by a powerful family such as the Fujiwara’s in the Heian period, and was not necessarily related to the imperial family (not to mention the many concubines, with the system of concubinage only abolished in 1924).


The Meiji emperor and his family (not really looking all that human but let’s blame the painter and not genetics for that)


Emperor Akihito

Recently, the 125th Japanese emperor, Akihito明仁, has been receiving a lot of media attention because of his request to abdicate and to install his eldest son Naruhito徳仁 on the throne. Emperor Akihito, who is 83, fears that his advanced age and health problems will prevent him from performing his imperial duties in the future. This is quite a unique situation since the last time this happened was two centuries ago. It is also slightly problematic because in 1889 a law was passed that demands emperors to reign until their death. Hence, a legal change was made by the parliament last June: the new legislation, however, is only applicable to emperor Akihito and in case of more abdication plans from future emperors, the parliament will have to pass a new law.

But let’s start from the beginning. As I said before, Jinmu 神武 (real name: Kan’yamato Iwarebiko, born 711) is mentioned as Japan’s first emperor in the country’s oldest, 8th-century historical records “Records of Ancient Matters” (kojiki 古事記) and “the Chronicles of Japan” (nihonshoki 日本書紀). Jinmu came to power around 660 BC. According to legend, Jinmu is related to Amaterasu 天照, the sun goddess, born to the deities Izanagi 伊邪那岐 and Izanami 伊邪那美who created Japan. In short, Amaterasu’s grandson, Ninigi no mikoto, fathered Jinmu’s grandfather. Jinmu and his brother battled their way from Southern Kyūshū up to other domains, eventually reaching Yamato (an area located in nowadays Nara prefecture). There, Jinmu ascended the throne and became the ruler of the first united Japan – which he named the Dragonfly Islands (akitsushima 秋津島). The legend also claims that Jinmu died at the advanced age of 126. Other parts of the story that are difficult to believe are the date of Jinmu’s ascension, assumed by historians to have happened at least a couple of centuries later.

Emperor_Jimmu by Yoshitoshi

Emperor Jinmu

Jinmu is remarkably unremarkable when it comes to his veneration, save for the period in Japanese history between the Meiji period and the end of World War II. During its transformation into a modern nation-state, Japan restored imperial rule in order to maintain control over the country. The role of the emperor, for example, was central to the Meiji Constitution promulgated in 1889 (translation here).


Emperor Hirohito – A controversial figure: was he a war criminal?

In the year 1940, the 2600th anniversary of Jinmu’s ascension, and thus the founding of Japan, was celebrated all over the country. The Japanese often claimed during wartime that their superiority was due to this long-standing (yet probably fictitious) tradition. The renewed attention for emperor Jinmu and the extravagant festivities can be interpreted as a sign of “reactionary modernism”, similar to what had inspired the Meiji revolution. But after Hiroshima and Nagasaki were bombed, the imperial fun was over: emperor Hirohito 裕仁 declared on 1 January 1946 that he was not a “deity in human form” (akitsumikami 現つ御神) but a human being like everyone else. His son, Akihito, the current emperor, is the first to have fulfilled his imperial duty as a human being, not as a descendent of the Sun Goddess, Amaterasu.


Amaterasu, the Sun Goddess

Despite securing their divine status through a female ancestor, the list of female emperors in Japanese history is woefully short. The list of excuses for this fact, on the other hand, is unsurprisingly long. Apart from the good old patriarchical explanations, another reason is that becoming an emperor is actually a sexual thing, symbolizing the – heterosexual – intercourse between the emperor-to-be and Amaterasu in his ascension ritual (nothing beats a little incest).

The Imperial Household Law from 1947, drawing inspiration from the 1889 Meiji Constitution, clearly stipulates that only men can become emperor. When Prime Minister Koizumi proposed a change pro female succession a decade ago, more than 170 lawmakers opposed. When princess Nagako, Hirohito’s wife, gave birth to 4 girls in a row before delivering Akihito, there was a serious debate going on about whether or not to bring back the concubinage system instead of opting for a female heir to the throne (we’re talking about the 1920s). Moreover, when female members marry someone outside the family, they lose their status until this day. There are, however, rumors that the new legislation that will cover Akihito’s abdication, could also include a resolution to allow female members of the imperial family to retain their status after marrying a commoner. In short, even today, the Japanese still believe that the idea of a woman on the imperial throne is ludicrous.


Empress Jingu in Korea

This was, however, not always the case. Throughout history, there were 9 reigning empresses, two of them ruling twice. The first one, Empress Jingū 神功 (3rd century AD), is a legendary figure of whom not much is known, not even if she really was a reigning empress. In the picture above, she is depicted invading Korea, the invasion is itself being a controversial topic as well, although there is some historical proof of Japanese influence in Korea around the 4th century. It is also believed by some researchers that Western Japan during that time was characterized by a matriarchical society, as Korean and Chinese sources referred to the area as “Queen Country”. Others identify Jingū as Himiko 卑弥呼, the legendary shaman queen of Yamatai.


Empress Suiko

But let’s move on to one of the female rulers of whom we know for sure that they existed and fulfilled the role of Empress during their lifetime: Empress Suiko 推古, for example. At the end of the Kofun period (3rd to 6th century) and start of the Asuka period (538 – 710), Yamato was ruled by a handful of powerful clans like the Mononobe, Nakatomi and Soga. The Soga clan wanted to gain more power, started a feud over the imperial succession, destroyed the other two clans and installed their own man on the throne. The latter was, however, not as obedient as expected and they got him assassinated. He was replaced by Suiko, a remarkable choice in that time (Japan was no longer a “Queen Country”). The Soga were huge fans of Buddhism and everything else Chinese, and Suiko was the first to adopt Buddhism as the state religion instead of Shintō. Together with her nephew, (semi-legendary) regent Prince Shōtoku 聖徳太子, she also imported many cultural elements from oversees, for example the Chinese calender, the bureaucratic system and Chinese artistry. She reigned for 35 years.

I sense that the length of this post – like many of my previous posts – could already be testing the attention span of my dear readers, so I will leave it there for now. But since there is  so much more to say about Japan’s emperors in my opinion, please look out for a sequel to this post on Nippaku!

Fun Facts 

  • The emperor’s birthday is a national holiday. Yay!
  • Akihito is the first Emperor to have married a commoner. He met Empress Michiko on a tennis court, which lead to a boom in the popularity of tennis in Japan. Unfortunately, Michiko was bullied by the media and allegedly by her stepmother for lacking imperial ancestry. The stress that caused her resulted in health problems.
  • As a splendid example of a sunekajiri すねかじり (“sponger”), Naruhito lived with his parents until he was 30 years old.
  • The Japanese imperial family members do not have a surname. I once heard that someone related to the emperor (Prince Mikasa, I believe) got a job as a university professor, which posed a lot of difficulties regarding how students should address him (teachers are always addressed by their last name) and some administrative troubles as well, I guess.
  • There is a specific vocabulary to talk about the Emperor. There is a word for the Emperor’s face (ryūgan 龍顔) and voice (gyokuon玉音), his feelings (shinkin 宸襟), the trips he makes (= junkō 巡幸), and his death (= hōgyo 崩御) [Read more here]. Moreover, the Emperor is never called by his name like I do in this blog post (I’m so rude). While foreign newspaper report about “Emperor Akihito”, the Japanese call him very politely “His Imperial Majesty the Emperor” (tennō heika 天皇陛下) or, more objectively “The current emperor” (kinjō tennō 今上天皇).


  • New York Times 
  • Ruoff, Kenneth J. Imperial Japan at Its Zenith: The Wartime Celebration of the Empire’s 2,600th Anniversary. Studies of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute, Columbia University. Ithaca ; London: Cornell University Press, 2010.
  • Facts and Details 
  • Encyclopedia Britannica
  • Wikipedia
  • All pictures are from Wikimedia Commons

A History of Hansen’s Disease in Japan: the Isolation Policy as a Violation of Human Rights

leprosybannerSome months ago, I wrote a paper for Culture and Disability, an elective course in my Anthropology program. I took this course because, as you all know, I am very interested in the history of medicine (and in medical anthropology as a whole), in particular in the Japanese history of psychiatry and its relation to culture. One series that I publish here regularly is the history of mental health stigma in Japan (see part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5). While researching this topic, I noticed that it bears many similarities with how Hansen’s Disease (leprosy) patients were treated throughout Japanese history: some sources on mental health I read perceived both types of patients as similar victims of medical injustice. In this post, I will focus on the Isolation Policy, a law that prescribed the forced segregation of Hansen’s Disease patients in Japan and was only recently abolished. I selected the parts from my paper that I believe could be of interest to you and skipped my theoretical analysis, so this post is only a very general introduction to the topic of leprosy in Japan.

In May 2016, an extraordinary thing happened: the Japanese Supreme Court Chief Justice apologized for the discriminatory practices towards leprosy patients the court had engaged in (Japan Times, 2016). The apology was a reaction to the findings of an investigation, requested by former leprosy patients in 2014. Between 1948 and 1972, special courts were established at facilities for leprosy patients, based on the wrong assumption that Hansen’s disease is highly contagious. In trying leprosy patients outside of standard courtrooms, the Constitution’s principle of equality was violated and discrimination was fostered. The fact that news on leprosy in Japan is still featured on a regular basis, points toward the significant role played by policy stipulating the treatment of Hansen’s disease patients. But what exactly is Hansen’s disease or leprosy?


Leprosy is a chronic, infectious disease caused by the bacilli Mycobacterium leprae. Also named ‘Hansen’s disease’ after the Norwegian doctor Gerhard Armauer Hansen who discovered and identified this specific bacterium as the cause of leprosy in 1873, both the terms ‘leprosy’ (raibyō 癩病[1] ) and ‘Hansen’s disease’ (hansenbyō ハンセン病) have been used in Japan, although the latter is strongly preferred in today’s discourse because of its neutrality[2]. In the long term, Hansen’s disease results in the formation of granulomas, or collections of immune cells, called macrophages. This is manifested in the growth and expansion of nodules, or lumps, and patches, or macules, on the skin and eyes, and eventually weakness, deformities and paralysis. The bacterium further affects internal functions such as the respiratory tracts and peripheral nerves. Patients experience a loss of sensation due to the weakening of the nervous system, and may damage their limbs.

leprosy who

From World Health Organisation, Global Leprosy Strategy
2016–2020 (p. 3)

One of the misconceptions concerning leprosy is that the disease itself causes the loss of body parts, while it is actually the result of lacking the necessary motor functions and the sensation of pain, due to which the patient fails to notice injuries or infections (, 2014). Another, more serious common misunderstanding of the disease concerns the need for the isolation of the patient once he or she is diagnosed. Contrary to popular belief, a historical remain that was disproved by scientific discoveries in the twentieth century but is still prevalent today, leprosy is not highly contagious and relatively easy to cure with free multidrug therapy. Hence, isolation is in fact not necessary. Since the year 2000 globally, and in most countries from 2005, Hansen’s disease is no longer considered a public health problem. Yearly, thousands of patients have been treated back to health and over the past twenty years, this number has exceeded sixteen million around the world (WHO, 2016). Japan counts around 1,500 institutionalized patients and this figure continues to decrease (Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, 2016).


A wife and her leprose husband

Not much is known about how leprosy first came to Japan, but the disease appears to have been around since the eighth century. Already then, leprosy was regarded as “transmittable to those nearby (Kikuchi, 1997:629)” [3]. During the middle ages, ‘lepers’ were forced to live outside the community, sometimes creating their own leprosy colonies (Sato & Narita, 2003), and to beg for food at places of worship. This was morally justified by a common perception of hereditary ‘impurity (kegare穢れ)’ (Encyclopedia Nipponica, 2001). Leprosy was also regarded as a punishment in the next life for those who did not respect Buddhist sutras. Christian missionaries from Europe took an interest in leprosy patients, pitying their neglected and discriminated position as ‘discarded people’ in society, but were soon suppressed by the Edo government after it had banned Christianity in 1620. Hansen’s disease patients were even sentenced to death because of their religious affiliation with their benefactors (Yamamoto, 1993).

At the beginning of the Meiji period (1868-1912) there were more than 30,000 leprosy patients in Japan. Statistical surveys published numbers going between 23,660 leprosy patients in 1897 to 30,359 patients in 1900 (Goto, 2011: 99), although these numbers are probably underestimated since statistical methodology was still in its infancy at that time (Kikuchi, 1997). A 1898 report on the situation in Japan, written by the United States Consulate, further specifies: “We learn that it is almost universally recognized by the medical authorities that leprosy is a contagious disease, and that the terrible disease is most prevalent where fish is most freely used as an article of food (Gowey, 1898:211)”. Ascribing the overconsumption of fish as a cause, on the one hand, is related to the belief that eating too much would result in leprosy. According to Burns (2012), “[a]lmost every text on leprosy included a lengthy list of foods to be avoided (p. 302)”. The presumed contagiousness of leprosy, on the other hand, corresponded with the ‘resolutions’ of the First International Conference about Leprosy, held in Berlin in 1897 (Pandya, 2003). This encouraged the Japanese attendees to pursue a segregation policy.

First Steps towards an Institutionalization of Leprosy Patients

leprosy hannah riddell

Patients at the hospital established by Hannah Riddell. Picture from Anglican History

Around the end of the nineteenth century, European missionaries, motivated by the same Christian values as their predecessors, began to establish facilities for leprosy patients in Japan. Father Testevuide from France was the first to open a relief center for Hansen’s disease patients in 1889, which he transformed three years later into Japan’s first leprosarium. Significant for Japan’s leprosy history is Hannah Riddell, an English missionary who established a hospital for Hansen’s disease patients in 1895. Yet, the movement towards institutionalized treatment was not limited to the endeavors of foreign missionaries. Leprosy had become a topic of medical discussions in eighteenth and nineteenth-century Japan, informed by western medicine. Already in 1874, esteemed doctor Gotō Masafumi had petitioned for the public funding of future leprosaria (Burns, 2012). Gotō claimed that the water therapy he had discovered was the best cure for leprosy. He founded a private hospital in 1872 to perform his leprosy treatment, but inspired by European examples (he suggested that European states had eradicated leprosy by establishing public leprosaria), he aimed for a similar system on a national scale. Eventually, Gotō received funding and his hospital in Tokyo officially became a ‘leprosy ward’.

This is surprising, since the doctor could not show much evidence of the effectiveness of his treatment. It is, however, explicable with the Japanese political situation in mind: after more than two centuries of isolation from mainstream society, the Meiji revolution marked the beginning of a new era. Being forced to open up its borders by the western powerful states and to sign unequal treaties, Japan was desperate to present itself as a modern, strong and civilized nation and prove to the world that it had left its ‘barbarian’ past behind. To succeed in this, it promoted western knowledge, including medicine[4], and European policies, such as the establishment of leprosy hospitals[5]. Additionally, the Japanese press responded to the desire for progress and compassion by painting Gotō as a heroic Samaritan. Hence, to solve the problem of Hansen’s disease, ‘a national shame’ in comparison to an almost leprosy-free West, the government only became actively involved in the treatment, or rather containment, of the disease when it believed its future prospects were being threatened by leprosy patients and other ‘dangers’: “Public health and medical policy, it was argued, by linking individual health to the economic well-being and political security of the nation valorized the vitality and productivity of the citizenry and rendered the poor, the weak, and the sick as dangerous “others” who threatened the Japanese nation and empire (Burns, 2012: 298)”.

The Leprosy Prevention Law

In other words, the Japanese government at first did not show much interest in tackling leprosy between 1868, when Japan opened up its borders and underwent a process of modernization, and 1902. Due to a convergence of interests of both the Japanese government and certain physicians, the 1907 law concerning the prevention of leprosy (rai yobō ni kansuru ken癩予防ニ関スル件) was passed that ordered the creation of five publicly funded leprosaria to confine the ‘lepers’ starting from 1909. It must be noted, however, that it targeted especially leprosy patients roaming the streets and the poor, thus not those who were cared for at home, and whose supervision was the task of the police (Hirokawa in Wittner & Brown, 2015). Public safety was still prioritized over welfare: around the leprosaria were walls and gates, and two of the leprosaria were built on small islands. Pictures below show the leprosaria Tamazenshoen in Tokyo and Aiseien in Nagasaki (many more interesting pictures of Hansen’s disease hospitals today on

From the 1930s on, scientists started to doubt the necessity of compulsory segregation, since the mortality rate, infectiousness and chance of a sudden outbreak turned out to be lower than estimated. Nevertheless, the Japanese government strengthened its approach of isolation in legal terms: the Leprosy Prevention Law (rai yobō hō 癩予防法) of 1931 stipulated the forced segregation of leprosy patients. Between 1929 and 1934, a movement called ‘No Leprosy in our Prefecture’ (muraiken undō無癩県運動) and funded by the government, aimed to collect money for the establishment of leprosaria in each prefecture. This movement had laid the foundations for the 1931 law. The Hygienic Bureau of the Ministry of Home Affairs wrote in 1930 in a pamphlet titled Measure for the Eradication of Leprosy that “Japanese citizens are exposed to the extreme danger of leprosy infection” to justify their policy of absolute segregation. This time, the law was applicable to all patients, regardless of their financial status (Goto, 2011). Consequently, people who had previously been nursed at home, were now forced to move into a designated leprosarium.

While abroad isolation policies quickly came to be questioned due to scientific developments such as chemotherapy in the 1940s and epidemiological studies, Japan maintained its policy of strict segregation for decades (Sato, 2002). During the occupation of the Korean peninsula (1910-1945), the Japanese also enforced this policy among the occupied population (Sase e.a., 2004). The Leprosy Prevention Law was revised in 1953, but maintained its policy on leprosy: mandatory segregation, prohibition to leave the institution and punishment – often imprisonment – for those who disturbed the peace (Yamamoto, 1997).

Maintaining Forced Segregation

Why did Japan persist in its policy of segregation, even when it became openly criticized during international conventions from the 1950s on? It has been suggested that since the number of leprosy patients in Japan and its colonies was relatively small (compared to the one million tuberculosis patients at that time), obligatory confinement was introduced simply because it was possible (Goto, 2011). It was maintained, then, to avoid policy changes. Since more than 90 percent of leprosy patients was hospitalized without the possibility for rehabilitation by the 1960s, the switch towards outpatient services was deemed too difficult and had low priority (Sato & Narita, 2003). The revision of the Leprosy Prevention Law in 1953 was based on the expert advice of three leprosarium directors, who – unsurprisingly, and despite patients’ protest – attested in favor of compulsory isolation (Sato, 2002).

leprosy promin

Promin medicine – Picture from Ehime Prefecture site

Moreover, segregation from healthy Japanese people was still prioritized over the well-being of the patients in question: mainly poor people such as farmers on the countryside suffered from Hansen’s disease, and they could not afford treatment at the few university hospitals located in the big cities (Goto, 2011). The spread of leprosy medicine, especially Promin at that time, was also lagging behind in Japan. Furthermore, patients who had been hospitalized for most of their lives ended up as depending on their institutionalization, since they had nowhere to go outside of the leprosarium: outpatient treatment or other services were very scarce to informal – not to mention the stigmatization patients would experience from the Japanese people they had been hidden from. In short, because Hansen’s disease patients had been rendered invisible for many years, there was no need and much reluctance to change or undo the established isolation policies.

The Abolition of the Isolation Policy

In the years after the revision of the Leprosy Prevention Law, the strict rules of the isolation policy were slightly loosened[6], but the law remained in force until its abolition in 1996. In the process towards an abolition of the law that had forcibly separated them for decades, leprosy patients, united in the Federation of National Leprosarium Patients (zenkoku kokuritsu rairyōyōjo kanja kyōgikai 全国国立ライ療養所患者協議会), played an important role. The federation requested a revision of the law, based on the scientific knowledge that Hansen’s disease did not require compulsory segregation, which was a violation of their human rights and fostered stigmatization in Japanese society.


A Hansen’s Disease patient reads braille with his tongue due to a lost sense of touch in the fingertips – Book with Pictures called “90 Years of Segregation” by Tada Junichi

Nevertheless, Sato (2002) points out that the patients’ voices were divided over the existence of the Leprosy Prevention Law: on the one hand they perceived themselves as victims of the law, on the other hand they did not want to lose the care and housing the government was legally bound to provide them with due to that same law. Hence, the federation decided to lobby in favor of an improvement, not an abolition. The leprosarium directors as well as the Ministry of Health and Welfare were reluctant to put an abrupt end to the law because of the reasons mentioned above: the directors feared for their hospitals, and the ministry saw the transformation of leprosaria into rehabilitation centers as financially unfeasible.

One central figure in the abolition of the Leprosy Prevention law was Fujio Ōtani, chairman of the Tofu Society (Tōfū  Kyōkai藤楓協会[7]). In 1990, he started the establishment of a National Hansen’s Disease Museum, which was completed by 1993  and organized public symposia that attracted media attention. With the abolition of the law in mind, Ōtani also created a study committee and started to meet patients. He took their wish to continue living at the leprosaria into consideration. Based on the committee’s report, it was publicly acknowledged in 1995 by the Japanese Leprosy Association, the Federation of National Leprosarium Patients and the Federation of Leprosarium Directors that leprosy did not request compulsory segregation and that the law fostered stigma. One year later, the law was terminated, without endangering the existing services leprosaria offered. Patients could stay as long as they wished[8]. The minister of Health, Labor and Welfare officially apologized for the delayed abolishment. The same year, the Federation of National Leprosarium Patients changed its name to the Federation of National Hansen Disease Sanatorium Patients, since it was argued that the term for leprosy (rai) triggered social stigma.

leprosy 5

“We won the lawsuit” – the isolation policy was abolished in 1996

After thirteen patients had sued the government for its unconstitutional policy in 1998, a law was introduced in 2001 that made it possible for Hansen’s disease patients to receive compensation for their suffering. In that same year, the prime minister apologized for the continued violation of leprosy patients’ human rights. The most recent legislation on Hansen’s disease dates back from 2008:  the Law for the Acceleration of a Solution of the Hansen’s Disease Problem (Hansenbyō mondai no kaiketsu no sokushin ni kansuru hōritsu ハンセン病問題の解決の促進に関する法律) stipulated that national leprosaria a) could not discharge patients against their will b) should provide the necessary treatment and facilities and c) should share the use of their land, buildings and services with the local community. Moreover, the state should take measures to restore the honor of leprosy patients, establish and maintain the national Hansen’s Disease Museum and historical buildings, and promote the spread of correct knowledge on Hansen’s disease and Japan’s policy history in order to honor deceased patients.


In 1952, Hansen’s disease patient Matsuo Fujimoto was charged with murder and sentenced to death in a ‘special court’, since it was believed to be too dangerous to bring leprosy patients into a non-isolated court. Fujimoto’s arrest and trial was by many perceived as unfair and unconstitutional: it was one of the many forms of discrimination that patients experienced due to the long-standing isolation policy and social stigma. During the same period, leprosy patients held demonstrations against the revision of the Leprosy Prevention Law that still prescribed forced segregation. In July and August 1953, Hansen’s disease patients protested in every national leprosarium, in front of the Senate and in the corridors of the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare. Led by the Federation of National Leprosarium Patients, voices protested against compulsory isolation, the prohibition to leave the leprosarium, disciplinary restraint, eugenic surgery, the lack of privacy, the impossibility to start or maintain a family, and the continued use of the discriminatory term ‘leprosy’ (Inaba, 2011).

leprosy special court

A special court for Leprosy patients – picture from Mainichi Shimbun

Discrimination inside the leprosaria

During the 1940s, patients were forced to work due to a shortage of staff, food and other resources (Aoyama, 2010). Residents engaged in farming, agriculture and other forms of production to supply all leprosarium patients and were also actively involved in administrative matters[9]. Before the end of the war, male and female patients had to live apart, regardless of their marital status. Later, sexual intercourse was allowed, but couples experienced a complete lack of privacy on that account. The first houses for couples were built from the 1950s on (Kikuchi, 1997). Since children from leprosy patients were perceived as a ‘burden’ to the hospital[10], birth control was implemented. Male patients often underwent a vasectomy, and abortion was exceptionally allowed by the state in case of leprosy. No permission from the patient was needed.

leprosy nurse

staff treating a patients

Human right infringements also included a lack of medical treatment: not the employees of the leprosaria but the patients themselves had to take care of each other, despite the fact that the many blind and physically impaired residents were in high need of professional assistance. It was only in 1963 that leprosaria started to employ nurses. In 1954, the Federation of National Leprosarium Patients protested heavily against this problem, abandoning their tasks at the leprosarium, demonstrating on the streets and occupying the ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare for five days. This nationwide movement eventually led to the slow transition of replacing patients’ nursing tasks by duties for personnel. Taking the aspects of life at the leprosarium mentioned here into account, it is clear that Japan’s Leprosy Prevention Law resulted in a serious infringement of the patient’s human rights.


One of the discriminatory practices Hansen’s disease patients had to endure for decades, was the application of eugenic measure, most prominent in its form as institutionalized sterilization and abortions: not only in Japan, but worldwide, “[p]erceived and ascribed disabilities of body and mind were one of the core sets of eugenics traits that provided the basis for institutionalized sterilization on eugenic grounds for the first 75 years of the twentieth-century (Wilson & St. Pierre in Devlieger e.a., 2016: 93)”. As mentioned before, forced vasectomy for male patients and abortion for female patients was the standard procedure at leprosaria. In Japan, eugenic policies became popular in the twentieth century, especially from the 1930s on, an era characterized by imperialism and national pride (Otsubo & Bartholomew, 1998).

leprosy eugenics

Japan followed the example of Germany in pursuing a eugenic policy during WWII

At first, eugenic activity targeted the racially ‘impure’, but was soon redirected towards people with mental illness, hereditary and infectious diseases. In March 1940, the National Eugenics Law (kokumin yūsei hō 国民優生法) was passed. The law encompassed both positive eugenics (encouraging healthy citizens to procreate) and negative eugenics (preventing ‘unhealthy’ people to procreate). In 1948, the National Eugenics Law was replaced by the Eugenic Protection Law (yūsei hogo hō優生保護法), which allowed abortion in certain cases, such as leprosy. This law was eventually discontinued in 1996.

Right-based activism

leprosy protest

Protest march against the discriminatory medical treatment of Hansen’s Disease patients

These forms of institutionalized discrimination sparked right-based activism in 1970s Japan (Hayashi & Okuhiro in Addlakha, 2009). The lawsuits against the government filed as a direct result of the movement in the 1990s, was clearly inspired by the early campaigns in the 1950s. Arrington (2014) indicates that this activism for the rights of (ex-)leprosy patients in Japan inspired similar right-based movements in South-Korea and Taiwan. By 2001, the number of plaintiffs in Japan had risen to almost thousand, and a network of hundred lawyers represented them. Reminiscent of the patients’ stance in the process towards an abolishment of the Leprosy Prevention Law, some patients opposed the lawsuits since they were afraid to lose the care and housing benefits provided by the state. Nevertheless, until this day, (ex-)patients and their families, with the support of thousands of Japanese people, are fighting against the human rights infringement they suffered.

Today, most patients with Hansen Disease are over eighty years old and the number of newly diagnosed patients is negligible. It is most likely that leprosy will cease to occur in Japan in the near future. Yet, attempts in the past to eradicate the existence of leprosy patients has now been reversed: the law of 2008 clearly states that the history of leprosy patients and the discriminatory policies they were subjected to, should be remembered and passed onto future generations. The establishment of the National Hansen’s Disease Museum, for example, is an indication of this objective. Another way to honor the memory of mistreated Hansen’s Disease patients is through a revaluation of leprosy literature in Japan: many patients produced literature (mostly poetry) inside the leprosarium and, doing so, created a whole new genre. But that’s something I will write about another time!


[1] Already described in Japan’s oldest history books, rai refers to a collection of skin diseases. (Weiner, 2009: 10) [2] Both terms will be used interchangeably here with no distinction between nuances. [3] Apparently, this was the first document worldwide to claim so. [4] It should be noted that western medicine was not simply copied but rather integrated into traditional Sino-Japanese medicine. Gotō, for example, subscribed to the ‘traditional’ school but his work and writings were informed by western discourse while he maintained a Sino-Japanese approach in therapy and etiology. [5] A similar case is the promulgation of institutionalization laws for mental health patients, which was based on the same impetus to show legal maturity towards the West (Suzuki, 2003: 199). [6] For example, patients were now more free to leave the institution. [7] Established in 1952, the Tofu Society was a reformation of the Leprosy Prevention Association, founded by Empress Teimei. [8] The importance of this decision is illustrated by the fact that only six patients left their leprosaria in the next two years after the abolition (Koh, 1999). [9] Aoyama (2010) argues that because patients were part of the organizational and administrative structure of the facility, they could strengthen their position in negotiations and slightly improve their living circumstances. [10] Children of leprosy patients also experienced stigmatization: In 1954, patient’s children, although not affected by Hansen’s disease, were denied schooling by the parent-teacher association.

Reference list here

Hundred Posts on Nippaku: Time for Celebration!

nippaku100While uploading my previous blog post, I noticed that it was the 99th one I posted on Nippaku. When I started this blog almost 5 years ago, just for fun, I would never have believed I would reach 100 – or even continue writing, since this is just one of the many side projects I’m keeping myself busy with! I certainly have to thank you for that, my dear followers who thought my writings were interesting enough to stick around, and the many friendly strangers who check out old and new articles everyday. If someone comments on one of my posts, it really makes my day – I received so many lovely comments on my about page! I know that I don’t post regularly, but I try to make up for it by putting a lot of effort and time in every article I write. Sometimes I switch it up a notch and go with something personal or practical, but for the most part my blog features my own research, so that’s probably what you can expect in the future as well! A short overview of the highlights thus far:

nippaku 100.1 cut

Old picture of a young me advertising my favorite blog

my first blog post To Start With Me now: *Reading what I wrote as an 18-year old and thinking “how cute”*.

the most fun post to work on For The Land of Chocolate and Beer, I actually ventured out to Bruges and interviewed Japanese tourists on the street!

your favorite blog post  Living in Japan: Pros and Cons I guess this one is a very down-to-earth description of my experiences living in Japan that appeals to those who want to know more about daily life over there.

my favorite blog post Haiku with a Cup of Tea I enjoy translating poetry or literature, showcasing my creativity and doing research, and in this post I could do all of that! I would love to do something similar in the future.

the blog post most commented upon Japanologie aan de KU Leuven: wat houdt dat nu precies in? My only post in Dutch, meant as a practical guide for students with questions about my university’s Japanese Studies program. I still receive questions about this post from time to time and am very pleased to hear that so many people are interested in studying Japanese!

The biggest surprise I had two big surprises, actually. The first time was when I reviewed a documentary on Tokaido and received a “thank you” from the director himself, the second time was when a Japanese professor whose work I had referred to throughout my master’s thesis commented under “about” on my post about Iwakura and Gheel! These comments really boosted my confidence.

insights 99

And now, time to celebrate my hundredth post! This wouldn’t be Nippaku if I didn’t write something informative about Japan, so let’s examine – very shortly, I promise – how celebrations are held over there. There exist many festivals in Japan, often rooted in religious traditions. Apart from these, the Japanese also like a good party, although a very different one from the parties I am used to at home. And then you have the “imported” stuff like Christmas, festive occasions that have been adapted by and hybridized into Japanese culture, hence developing its own unique Japanese traditions.

Traditional Festivals (Matsuri 祭り)

Some festivals have their roots in Chinese customs but were “imported” centuries ago, and underwent a lot of changes since then. Other festivals are local celebrations that developed out of religious observations and are connected to a certain town, district or even ward, always linked to a Shintoist shrine or Buddhist temple. During my time in Japan, I witnessed nationwide celebrations such as Tanabata 七夕, Obon お盆 and New Year’s Day (oshōgatsu お正月), and around three matsuri in Kobe. I took pictures, but the quality is a little crappy, so if you’re looking for some great photos with explanation of the most popular festivals in Japan, I recommend you this site.


A typical local matsuri, annually held and dedicated to the local shrine or temple, is organized by the neighborhood’s community and involves a considerable investment of time and money. Apparently, a matsuri expresses the unity of men and deities and offers a means to purify oneself, but functions at the same time as an opportunity to display power, status, friendship and a sense of community. Above all, festivals are social events: the festivities are always preceded by ritual offerings to the shrine, besides donations,  yet this part of the festival is the least frequented by the party-goers. One religious element, however, featuring as the central piece of the evening is the omikoshi お神輿, a shrine, palanquins or float, which is carried through the streets by locals dressed in a similar uniform, usually a happi coat (法被) of some kind. The shrine bearers chant wasshoi with every step they take: wasshoi actually refers to the expression wa wo shou 和を背負う, “carrying peace/harmony on one’s shoulders”. The chanting is accompanied by upbeat traditional music and synchronized dancing.


Sometimes, festivals feature parades with lots of cute mascots dancing around. For the entertainment part of the matsuri, there are food stalls as well as games for the kids (and adults with a young spirit). During summer, fireworks will – literally and figuratively – be the highlight of the evening. This type of festival actually resembles what we call “kermis” in Dutch. And of course, you cannot leave a festival without having tried lots of different foods: typical for matsuri are stalls (屋台) that sell taiyaki タイ焼き (fish-shaped fried batter stuffed with sweet bean paste, chocolate or custard), yakisoba 焼きそば (fried noodles with toppings), kakikoori かき氷(shaved ice with colorful syrup) and other yummy snacks. Look how happy I am eating a slice of pineapple covered in chocolate.


“Hybridized” festivals

Of course, the Japanese also celebrate Western holidays such as Christmas and Valentine’s Day, albeit in their own way. These celebrations are no public holidays, so people go to work or school as usual that day. But that doesn’t make these holidays less special. I have always found it fascinating how the Christmas tradition has taken shape in Japanese society (of course there is equally much debate on the true meaning of “Christmas” nowadays in the West) and I am ready to baffle you with some amusing facts on this topic. Did you know that the Japanese “traditionally” eat a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken, followed by a strawberry sponge cake with whipped cream? KFC played it really smart when they launched their “Christmas Chicken” campaign back in 1974 (turkey is difficult to come by in Japan), and due to the success of their advertisements, fried chicken became the standard meal that every Japanese wants to eat on Christmas. You have to pre-order your bucket weeks in advance! Moreover, Christmas is a day to be spent with lovers. So, for taking your loved one on a date, Christmas would be the most romantic time – restaurants and hotels are fully booked as well. It is no surprise, then, that stores sell tons of expensive jewelry and clothing as Christmas gifts. This was all new for me, since there is not much romance going on during my Christmas Eve, which I spend at home with my family like many other Belgians.

kfc christmas

KFC “Party Barrels” for Christmas, now open for reservation.

So what about Valentine’s Day, the day people in the West consider to be the most romantic one of all days? The Japanese celebrate it with a lot of chocolate. Not only do they buy or make chocolate for friends and family, they also give giri choko 義理チョコ(“obligatory chocolate”) to co-workers and bosses. But careful! On Valentine’s Day, only women give chocolate to men. Among school girls, there is also a tradition of “confessing one’s love” (告白 kokuhaku) – everyone who has ever read or watched anime/manga will probably be familiar with this phenomenon. Men can reciprocate with a present a month after that, on White Day, but this is not necessarily white chocolate (anything white and girly will do, even lingerie). The introduction of Valentine’s Day and its male counterpart White Day should be understood against the backdrop of succesful commercial attempts to increase sales in post-War Japan: Feb 14th was promoted by a chocolate manufacturer, White Day (originally called “Marshmallow Day”, but this name didn’t catch on) was introduced by the National Confectionery Industry Association. Hence, “extravagant consumption” and gift-giving is a good way to describe Japanese people’s activities during these holidays.

japan valentine day chocolate

the Belgian chocolate brand Godiva is extremely popular in Japan. – picture from The Japan Times


On a more personal level, you have the birthday celebrations, welcome and goodbye parties and so on. I must confess that I was not a huge fan of the big parties I attended, despite all the organization that went into it (sorry, my Japanese friends). In the first place, these parties start really early, around 5pm (I am used to parties that start from 10pm or later), but there is also food (not only snacks!), so it could be something like an early dinner party. You are expected to come at 5pm sharp and not just drop in at whatever time you like, and when the schedule says the party is over (for example around 8pm), then it’s really over and everyone just starts to clean up. The problem was that when I had some alcoholic drinks, I would be pretty worthless and unproductive for the rest of the evening so I would have preferred to go out after I had finished my daily tasks (I usually study until late at night). Playing games was fun, though.


Notice the name tag and the front desk in the left corner?

About this “schedule” I mentioned, I mean that there was some kind of program that was announced beforehand: something like 5pm arrival and speeches / 5.15pm conversation game / 6pm dance choreography / 6.30pm bingo / 7.30pm group picture / 8pm clean up and leave. The problem I had with these kind of Japanese parties is that it did not allow for being spontaneous. You were forced to get to know other people (there was some kind of game) and enjoy yourselves through these organized activities, as if you wouldn’t manage to do so otherwise.


Group picture at a Halloween Party (you can see a poster with the “timetable” of the evening)

But maybe I’m just a little picky when it comes to partying, because not all parties were like that. I remember one “wine party” with the research department, apparently a tradition of the faculty to celebrate the Beaujoulais Nouveau  Day in Japan. We could casually converse, eat and – above all – drink wine, without keeping to a schedule which was really fun! When somebody burst out into a dance, it was a spontaneous move (yes that happened). It was also nice to have some parties in the international dormitory where I lived. We had our Christmas party there, birthday parties and my goodbye party.

goodbye party

Another type of party is nomikai 飲み会 (“drinking party”) or konpa in a university context. Nomikai do not always celebrate something, but are often held at the end of the semester, for example, in an izakaya (Japanese pub) with an “all you can drink and eat” formula, and exist for the sake of deepening friendship bonds or strengthening work relations. I had several nomikai with the Shorinji Martial Arts Club that I joined, with co-workers and with friends. You could say that for me, it was more like a tabekai (“eating party”) since my love for food has no boundaries and I wasn’t a big fan of getting myself so drunk that I couldn’t walk properly anymore (sadly, many Japanese students are in this state after a nomikai). Anyway, I hope that I have proven to you that Japanese people like to party and celebrate! Let’s do this again when I have written my 200th post.

Mad Monks & Medieval Medicine

 20160623_193100This blog post covers another part of my thesis, the fifth post already in this series of “mental health in Japan”. For those who have missed the previous posts, it is not too late to catch up: an introduction to the topic focussing on mental health stigma can be found here, and posts dedicated to ancient records of “madness” in Japan here and here. Today, we go back to medieval times to discover how “madness” was perceived in a Buddhist context, as well as in relation to the newly developing study of medicine.

Buddhist Notions of “Madness”

During the Kamakura and Muromachi period, Buddhism played a prominent role, which is reflected in the literature of that time[1]. One representative example is An Account of My Hut (Hōjōki方丈記, 1212) by Kamo no Chōmei. The essence of this short story, “the world is a hard place to live”, corresponds with the Buddhist concept of impermanence. The following two fragments contain a reference to “madness”.

Yes, take it for all in all, this world is a hard place to live, and both we and our dwellings are fragile and impermanent, as these events reveal. And besides, there are the countless occasions when situation or circumstance cause us anguish. (…) Dependence on others puts you in their power, while care for others will snare you in the worldly attachments of affection. Follow the social rules, and they hem you in; fail to do so, and you are thought as good as crazy.[2]

“Chomei, (…) while trying to become a pure monk, your heart remains tainted by impurity. By living in a ten-foot hut in imitation of the Jomyo Buddhist layman Yuima, even if you are given the benefit of the doubt, you have not realized the practice of Shuri Handoku. When you perhaps do by chance, doesn’t your karma’s punishment worry you? Or again, by reckless judgment, not becoming more intelligent you grow worse by this, grow crazy. What do you think?”[3]


Kamo no Chomei

“To be(come) crazy” is a translation of the verb kyō suru 狂する. It should not surprise that the Chinese reading of 狂 is employed here, as Buddhism was imported from China via Korea. Although this “new” religion differentiated from the traditional folk belief and Shintoism primordially present in Japan, we can discern a pattern of hare and ke here (for a concise explanation of these concepts, see this post).

Living in this world brings many hardships. For example, if you did not follow the conventions, you were believed to be “mad”. In other words, behaving abnormally on days this was not allowed (ke days) was perceived as “madness”. On the other hand, eccentricity was also thought to be a suiting characteristic of a monk in seclusion: Chōmei strives towards reaching a state of nirvana by isolating himself in a tiny hut in the mountains, following in the footsteps of other Buddhist monks. To break all ties with society is an unconventional decision indeed, but this Buddhist practice (the hare element) was regarded as a way to reach spiritual awakening in medieval Japan. The result for Chōmei, however, turns out differently. He fails to attain enlightenment, and the only state achieved is one of mental derangement, or “madness”.

Comparable to talented artists, monks or other religiously engaged people had a special status connected with hare and were, therefore, permitted to express a certain degree of “madness”. This privilege allowed them to manipulate the actions of others. For example, the Buddhist scholar Zōga-hijiri 増賀聖 could not stand the secularism of his sect and escaped the monastery unpunished by pretending he was insane[4]. Another problem that urged for fabricated madness was the immense popularity famous monks enjoyed. It was strictly forbidden in Buddhism to express any form of arrogance or pride based on an elevated status, learning or wealth[5], which forced some distinguished monks to act like madmen in order to keep the many admirers away.



A famous example from the Nara period is Gyōki 行基, who, according to various sources, “appears as a wandering shamanic figure who used his superhuman powers to instruct peasants and unlicensed monks” but displayed “suspicious behavior”[6]. As feigning madness appears to have been an effective means to isolate oneself, a state of mental derangement was perhaps tolerated among monks, but others were certainly not exempt from certain forms of stigmatization.

The impact of Buddhism on the treatment of individuals with a mental disorder was not limited to written suggestions alone. Omata Waichirō points out that during the medieval period, a handful of religious institutions, Buddhist temples as well Shintoist shrines, offered provisions for the mentally disordered, such as Chinese herbal medicines treatment and moxibustion in the former, and incantations and exorcism sessions in the latter[7]. As a result, people with a mental disorder undertook pilgrimages to “places of healing” such as Iwakura (see pictures below) that provided specialized treatment. Nevertheless, Hashimoto argues that such provisions were still exceptional in medieval Japan, and that most temples and shrines started to develop facilities for the mentally ill only late in the Edo period or at the beginning of the Meiji period[8]. Important here is that people with a mental disorder were, just like those afflicted with physical illness, gradually being regarded as subjects of treatment. Moreover, it appears that religion and the first attempts towards psychiatric care are significantly entangled, as will be explained in the part below.

Footnotes and references

[1] Sekiguchi, Tadao 関口忠男. “The Tale of the Heike and Buddhist Thought”平家物語と仏教思想 (Heike Monogatari to bukkyō shisō), Records of Lectures on Buddhist Culture 仏教文化講演会記 (Bukkyō bunka kōenkai ki), Ryūkoku University, Kyoto (2007):287-301, p. 287 [2] McKinney, Meredith, Kenkō Yoshida, and Chōmei Kamo. Essays in Idleness and Hōjōki, 2013.  [3] Washburn University.  [4] Hori, Ichirō, Joseph M. Kitagawa, and Alan L. Miller. Folk Religion in Japan: Continuity and Change. Paperback ed., 4. Haskell Lectures on History of Religions, N.S., 1. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 19, p. 103. [5] Arrogance, or Sanskr.: Māna慢, is mentioned as one of the “ten modes of contemplation” in Mahayana Practice of Cessation and Contemplation (Makashikan摩訶止観), a Buddhist work on meditation compiled in China around 594 that influenced Buddhism in Japan immensely. [6] Augustine, Jonathan Morris. Buddhist Hagiography in Early Japan: Images of Compassion in the Gyoki Tradition. Routledge Studies in Asian Religion. London: Routledge, 2012, p. 3 and 11. [7] In 1278, a corner of the Gokurakuji temple 極楽寺 in Kamakura was reserved for lepers, next to a general sanatorium. In 1394, treatment focusing on those suffering from mental disorders was started at the main temple of the Jōdoshin sect, the Kōmeisanjuninji 光明山順因寺 in Okazaki. The oldest therapy recorded is the waterfall treatment at Daiunji temple 大雲寺 in Iwakura, Kyoto during the Heian period. From the Kamakura period on, treatment as practiced in Iwakura lost its magical and supernatural character and was mainly concerned with natural therapy. Omata, Waichirō 小俣和一郎. The History of Psychiatry 精神医学の歴史 (Seishin igaku no rekishi). Tokyo: Daisan Bunmeisha, 2005, p. 82-83. [8] Hashimoto, Akira橋本明. “The History of Psychiatric Care in Places of Treatment – From ‘Places of Healing’ towards ‘Generalized Places’”治療の場をめぐる精神医療史―「癒しの場」から「普遍化された場」へ」(Chiryō no ba wo meguru seishin iryōshi – ‘iyashi no ba’ kara ‘fuhenka sareta ba’ he) in “Madness” the Time Produces時代がつくる「狂気」(Jidai ga tsukuru “kyōki”), edited by Serizawa, Kazuya芹沢一也. Psychiatric Care and Society series no. 825, 49-84. Tokyo: Asahi Shimbun Publishing Co., 2007,  p. 55.

A Change in “Madness” Perception Due to Secularization

Although a religious interpretation remained the major driving force behind daily life, the secularization of the Japanese medieval society was imminent. This secularization was further enhanced by the appearance of medicine studies[9]. It is too early to speak of a medical science, since medical treatment for mental disorders as was first developed in Japan was either based on Chinese herbal medicine or yin yang theories.


Mono no ke of Lady Aoi in The Tale of Genji

Remarkable is the fact that traditional phenomena such as mono no ke and spirit possessions continued to exist under the form of monotsuki 物憑きand were integrated in practical medicine. Among the various categories of monotsuki, possession by a fox spirit (kitsunetsuki 狐憑き)[10] became by far the prevailing explanation for deviant behavior of commoners from the Edo period on. Hyōdō illustrates the co-existence of medicine and traditional notions of “madness” by giving examples of doctors and yin yang masters who were arrested on grounds of their alleged manipulation of fox spirits to possess others[11]. She argues that all those who studied medicine were believed to hold the power to exorcise evil spirits as well, and were, therefore, also thought capable of having people possessed. Consequently, medical disorders, regarded as “diseases” caused by spiritual forces, were now treated with herbal medicines.



An early work illustrating that “madness” in its new form of fox possession was no longer evidently regarded as a sacred and ritual phenomenon, is Jottings of a Fool (Gukanshō愚管抄, 1220). The writer, Buddhist priest Jien, argues that the wife of servant Nakakuni is not possessed by the spirit of the deceased Go-Shirakawa but by an evil fox[12]:

Certainly there have been many such cases [of shrines being built to pacify a vengeful soul]. But has Go-Shirakawa’s soul become vengeful because of something done by Retired Emperor Go-Toba? And should the deceased Go-Shirakawa’s soul be considered a manifestation of the Great Hachiman Bodhisattva and honored as an ancestral Kami of the Imperial House? Have there been signs of miraculous power? Have not such things occurred because people have believed what persons-possessed only by foxes (yakan) and demons (tengu)-have said? (…) If Nakakuni and his wife have said what was in their own hearts without being at all possessed by foxes and badgers, they should of course be punished, even with exile. But we should not conclude that they have done this simply because they are strange. [13]

Jien further advocates that “the wife of Nakakuni has attuned herself to the words of mad people such as miko, mediums, dancers, sarugaku players, even coppersmiths and the fellow,” and that, since she was simply ill, the couple should “not be listened to and should be put in isolation to drive out the fox spirit”[14]. Jien attributes the wife’s “madness” to fox or badger possession (tanukitsuki 狸憑き) but denies its connection with hare, as opposed to the eccentricity of those called “the mad”, people involved with spirituality and arts[15]. Nakakuni and his wife are not explicitly punished due to the acknowledged mental condition, but a rejection of their “madness” as an expression of hare contributes to a stigmatizing attitude of isolation, as is visible in Jien’s suggestions.

As the field of medicine in Japan was substantially based on an already established tradition of Chinese medicine, new terminology and perceptions of “madness” emerging in Japan were heavily influenced by theoretical literature on medicine imported from the Chinese mainland. The Chinese vision on mental disorders is reflected in Japan’s first medical book, Ishinpō 医心方 (984) by Tamba Yasuyori 丹波康頼. In chapter three, Tamba theorizes about mental disorders, referring to them as chūfūtenbyō 中風癲病. A mental disorder is defined as an illness transmitted by a cold (chūfū 中風) causing a corruption of either yin or yang in the body[16]. The same theory is presented in Dongui Bogam 東医宝鑑 (1613), an influential Korean work[17] by Heo Jun, which proves that chūfūtenbyō remained the dominant theory until well into the 17th century. Significant for research on stigmatization is the fact that the early medical explanation for mental disorders bears striking similarities with the traditional notion of possession, in the sense that both interpretations consider the cause of the disorder to be external.



Chūfū or Fubyō 風病 is somewhere else exemplified by “the Man with a Cold” (Fubyō no otoko 風病の男) on the Scroll of Illnesses (Yamai no Sōshi 病草紙, 12th century). The scroll contains drawings of various diseases and anomalies, accompanied by a description or entertaining anecdote. This particular painting depicts a man who is playing go with two ladies, but suddenly catches a “cold” (fubyō), upon which his eyeballs and limbs start to shake. His face is contorted, he is not able to sit properly and appears not capable to articulate properly, which is an amusing sight for the two ladies[18]. A suggestion is that the man suffers from cerebral apoplexy.

Left: Anonymous, “The Man with a Cold” in The Scroll of Illnesses, 26.0 x 30.9 cm, 12th century, Kyoto National Museum. Right: detail of the same work. – source: “Yamai No Soshi (Diseases and Deformities)” – eKokuhou.

The fact that the two women start to laugh reveals their discriminating attitude, although it must be said that throughout the Scroll of Illnesses more ailments and deformities are depicted  – as ridiculed by other people. Another point worth mentioning is that mental disorders[19] are actually incorporated in this work, which proves that they were also regarded as illnesses, albeit somewhat peculiar. Furthermore, the word fubyō, “cold” is used, referring to the theory explained above. The idea that afflictions of the brain were caused by external forces would last till the Edo period, when mental disorders were contrarily viewed as internal problems[20].

Additionally, throughout the scroll, not one supernatural explanation is given. There is an obvious breach with the traditional linkage of “insanity” to religion or spirituality. Instead, the drawings show scenes of daily life, of common people suffering from diseases and anomalies, and of other people’s reaction on the afflictions depicted. In other words, the absence of a hare connection and the strong presence of ke elements suggest “impurity” or kegare. This enhances stigma, as can be seen in the reaction of the two ladies on the seizure of the go player. That’s it for today! In a next blog post, we will look at how “madness” was portrayed in the performing arts of medieval Japan and how this is again linked to the concepts of hare and ke.

Footnotes and references

[9] Omata, History of Psychiatry, p. 35, 56-57. [10] The first description of kitsunetsuki in Tales of Times Now Past (Konjaku Monogatari今昔物語), dates back to the late Heian period. [11] Hyōdō, Akiko 兵頭晶子. Mental Disease and Japanese Modernity: From the Possessed Mind/Body to the Diseased Mind/Body精神病の日本近代―憑く心身から病む心身へ (Seishinbyō no nihon kindai – tsuku shinshin kara yamu shinshin he), Trans-boundary Modern Times 越境する近代 (Ekkyō suru kindai) nr. 6. Tokyo: Seikyūsha, 2008, p. 71. Hyōdō refers to Nishiyama, Masaru西山克. “The Middle Ages of Mediators – Emperial Authority during the Muromachi Period and Fox Handlers”媒介者たちの中世―室町時代の王権と狐使い (Baikaitachi no chūsei – muromachi jidai no ōken to kitsunedukai) in Cities and Professionals都市と職能民 (Toshi to shokunōmin), edited by the Study Group on Medieval cities中世都市研究会 (Chūsei toshi kenkyūkai), Vol. 8. Tokyo: Shinjinbutsu ōraisha, 2001. [12] Bathgate, Michael. The Fox’s Craft in Japanese Religion and Folklore: Shapeshifters, Transformations, and Duplicities. Religion in History, Society & Culture 7. New York, NY: Routledge, 2004, p. 98. [13] Jien, Delmer Myers Brown, and Ichirō Ishida. The Future and the Past: A Translation and Study of the Gukanshō, an Interpretative History of Japan Written in 1219. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979, p. 169-70. [14] Own translation. [15] Hosokawa, Ryōichi細川涼一. The Japanese Middle Ages of Deviance – Madness, Perversity and the Demon World 逸脱の日本中世―狂気・倒錯・魔の世界 (Itsudatsu no nihon chūsei – kyōki・tōsaku・ma no sekai) Tokyo: JICC Press, 1993, p. 18. [16] Two types of mental disorders are distinguished: a corruption of yin leads to ten illness (tenbyō 癲病), an attack on yang causes kyō illness (狂病). Nishimaru, Shikata 西丸四方. Reading Classics on Psychiatry 精神医学の古典を読む (Seishin igaku no koten wo yomu). Tokyo: Misuzu Shobo Co., 1989, p. 59. [17] This work was written in Chinese characters and thus understandable in China as well in Japan, where it was published and read in its original form. [18] The inserted orginal passage reads: ちかごろ、男ありけり。風病によりて、ひとみつねにゆるぎけり。厳寒にはだかにてゐたる人の、ふるひわななくやうになむありける. [19] Other examples are “The Insomnious Woman” (Fumin no onna 不眠の女) and “The Woman with Eyes for the Birds” (torime no onna鳥眼の女), depicting a schizophrenic or neurotic woman who lets crows peck her eyes. [20] Tatsukawa, Shōji 立川昭二. “Fūbyō, chūbyō and apoplexy – “The Man with a Cold” in Scroll of Ilnesses” 風病・中風・脳卒中―「風病の男」『病草紙』(Fūbyō・chūbyō・nōsotsuchū – “fūbyō no otoko” Yamai no sōshi) Emergency Life-saving救急救命 (kyūkyū kyūmei), Life and Cultural History 18, May 2007, p. 18-19.

Throwback Time

Time flies! It’s already been over a year since I came back from my one-year stay in Japan. I’ve grown pretty nostalgic these days, thinking back to all the good stuff, and maybe forgetting a little bit about the things I liked less. I am planning to go back soon to do fieldwork for my research, but in the meantime I have saved some eye candy for you from my last trip, showing you what exactly I can’t wait to go back to. Now, let’s begin our stroll down memory lane.

The nature

Many people who have travelled to Japan will tell you that excursions outside the vibrant cities are certainly worth the trip. Especially for this journey, my family brought a nice camera – spot my brother in action among the sunflowers. As you can also see from the pictures below, we travelled around Japan during summertime. Being totally surrounded by nature was overwhelming, in particular because we Belgians aren’t really used to that much green (and the weather was also extremely hot for our standards).

The Japanese island is for 70% mountainous and for over 60% covered with forests, which results in sparse low-leveled, but densely populated areas popping up in between vast woods, rivers and mountain ranges. Lots of nature to explore, in other words. Below you see some of the “99 island” (Kujukushima 九十九島), a bamboo forest, a view of Kyushu’s countryside and colorful koi fish.

But even in metropolis centres, you can find quiet, green spots among the many touristic attractions. Below are two pictures from Kobe (the ropeway up to Rokko Mountain and the Nunobiki waterfalls) and two from Kyoto, displaying a magnificent temple garden and a proud heron in the garden of Nijo castle.

The culture

Well, isn’t this my favorite part about Japan! Living in Kobe, I was situated close to the cultural and historical heart of Japan. You probably know that I am more into (let’s call it) the ‘traditional’ stuff. Hence, the tourist in me is more drawn towards castles, temples, medieval art and so on. That doesn’t mean I don’t value modern cultural phenomena – on the contrary, I think they’re fascinating research material! Since this post is trying to be as visual as possible, the pictures below can seem a little cliché in that sense, since they depict mostly ‘the classics’. For the reason that I’m into ‘traditional’ stuff, I actually never visited Tokyo during my round trip (oh, the shame). Of course I would recommend it to everyone, but personally I do not really feel attracted to the hyper-modern, current capital of Japan (the previous ones I love, though – Nara, Kyoto, you name it). But one day, I’ll go to Tokyo, for sure! *pinky swear*

Besides the extraordinary craftsmanship, I love the abundance of colors, yet at the same time serenity of temples and palaces. Kyoto was great (how many temples can you visit in one day?) and as a Buddhist geek, I thoroughly enjoyed all the religious references in Japanese culture such as the many Buddha statues. During our journey, we often stumbled across unplanned festivals and other celebrations, for example the Gozan fire festival. On the other pictures, you can see the beautiful white Himeji castle and the ‘floating’ torii of the Itsukushima shrine on Miyajima island.

Typical for smaller Japanese towns is that they specialize in a certain product which then attracts a lot of shopping tourists. That is the case, for example, in Uji, a town close to Kyoto and  famous for its matcha – but also known for its prominence in The Tale of Genji and its stunning Byodo-in temple. Another example is Arita, famed for its ceramics and pottery. Also, when nature and culture come together, great stuff happens. Like, deer in Nara. Or the Korakuen garden in Okayama.

Japanese architecture, traditional or modern, keeps fascinating people. Take for example the huge main temple in Nara (with my parents posing in front of it), the innovative water architecture of Osaka city station, the golden pavilion in Kyoto or the modern office constructions you see everywhere in big cities.

And last but not least, let’s talk arts. Japan is known worldwide for its origami, ikebana, kimono designs and performing arts such as puppet theater, kabuki and noh. These arts are constantly developing and modernizing, yet maintain their ‘traditional’ character. In Hiroshima, we saw ‘1000 folded cranes’ and a Kagura performance. On Shikoku, I was so lucky to watch puppet theater (they were so kind to pose with us for a picture), and kimonos were a common sight in Kyoto.

The Food

Apart from culture and history, food is also a big interest of mine. The Japanese cuisine is very different from the Belgian one, and this also influenced my taste palette and culinary preferences. I have been a vegetarian for some time now, so there are lots of Japanese dishes out there that I never tried – I had to make an exception for the unavoidable dashi (fish stock), though. Yet, I was often surprised about the availability of vegetarian dishes, and the willingness of the chefs to adapt to the (vegetarian) customer’s needs. Japanese people eat a lot of vegetables, tofu is everywhere and I enjoyed some great vegetarian meals, like the ones below. On one or two occasions, I had a fancy vegetarian set meal, and the Buddhist, vegetarian food on mount Koya was also a pleasant experience.

Okonomiyaki, a savoury pancake with a filling of choice, proved to be the perfect alternative for pizza. Back in Belgium, I also had to get used to the idea that there is no concept such as izakaya here: places where you can drink alcohol and order lots of food at the same time. You could say I mostly went to izakaya together with friends or colleagues to drink, but I always ended up stuffing my face with delicious foods. Not that I didn’t drink at all – sake was love at first sight.

Sushi is, of course, always a good choice. Try kaiten-zushi (conveyer belt sushi) for a lot of fun and a full stomach! If I didn’t have time to prepare a lunch box on a busy school day, I used to buy onigiri (rice triangles) or inarizushi (seasoned rice in a marinated tofu skin) at the supermarket. Other standard meals I often ordered in restaurants include udon noodles with tofu or don (rice) dishes with egg. From time to time, I treated myself to some curry: I like the Japanese ones with vegetables as well as the curry set menus at Indian restaurants.

An example of how my taste buds adapted to Japanese flavors, is the fact that I started prefering Japanese sweets over western, much sweeter and sugary desserts. There have been many days lately that I crave mochi! Also, matcha is a gift from the gods – I love all kinds of desserts stuffed with it (don’t the phoenix matcha pancakes from Uji look amazing?). Another favorite snack of mine is red bean paste, especially in manju, like the ones from Miyajima shaped like leaves on the left. I also cannot express enough how tasty mitarashi dango are (am I the only who feels like this?): Japanese rice dumplings with sweet soy sauce. Yummy!

The people

Japanese people and me went along pretty well! I always felt at ease because they would try to make me feel welcome as much as possible, be considerate and show me the utmost respect. It was a reassurance that the Japanese would never make fun of me or embarrass me – at least not in my face. Most conversations are pretty predictable (no sarcastic remarks or surprises from people you don’t know very well) which also helps you to follow and respond better by anticipating the rest of the conversation. One thing that is not supposed to be annoying but actually is when you live there for a while, is the complimenting: hearing time and time again how good your Japanese is and how baffled they are by your knowledge about Japan (“Even I as a Japanese didn’t know that!” – but then again I am the one majoring in Japanese studies and not you, and I am not an expert in Belgian history either, is what I would have liked to reply), can get a little tiring.

They often say that Japanese people do not have a sense of humor, but I don’t think that’s true. Of course, the slapstick on Japanese television doesn’t crack me up either, but contextual jokes and puns were as funny in Japan as anywhere else. Another pro is that politeness is prioritized over personality – being rude doesn’t make you cool. And with people you want to befriend, you can discover a whole new personality behind this polite “façade” (tatemae). I believe I’m not a very warm person and a little distant myself when I don’t know another person very well, so I could relate.

In general, Japanese people were kind and always willing to help me. I experienced this while studying and researching at uni, as well as in the Shorinji martial arts club I was a member of. From my first day in Japan, I received a lot of help and friendship from the Japanese at my faculty. The professors, unlike in Belgium sometimes, were supportive and respectful towards their students. During shorinji training as well, I  was never left on my own. The more experienced “fighters” taught the newbies, and I learnt a lot from practicing together. Because I was mainly focused on my research, I wasn’t the most social one in the group but I had a lot of fun in my free time.

I could go on and list up many other experiences I had during my stay there, but I think it’s best to go back to Japan and make more memories! In the meantime, I will write a couple of new blog posts with a more academic content. Feel free to share your memories in the comment section below!