Jimotogaku (“local learning”) as a strategy for sustainable development in Japan’s rural areas – part 2

This is the second post featuring my master’s dissertation for the Graduate School of Advanced Studies in Cultural Anthropology and Development Studies. You can read the first part here.

In these posts, I take a closer look at jimotogaku or “local learning” as a strategy for sustainable development in Japan’s rural areas. I became interested in the topic after having graduated in Japanese studies and developing a professional interest in sustainability (a field I currently work in). I had discussed the issue of depopulation from an academic perspective during my one year of study in Kobe, one of Japan’s biggest cities, but missed the actual, rural experience. For this research, I completed a two-month fieldwork period in rural Japan, while simultaneously interning at the Minamata-based Jimotogaku Network. Because of my ability to speak the language and understand the socio-cultural context, I was in a position to study the jimotogaku movement from the inside out, as well as examine it from a more objective standpoint.

Sustainable development strategies

Rural development, or ‘region-making’ (chiiki dzukuri) of less urbanized areas has been on the governmental agenda since the 1990s. During a period of high economic growth up until 1992, the countryside was “decorated” with attractions and leisure opportunities for domestic tourism (Love, 2013). Yet, the consequences of relentless industrialization on the one hand and the trend of depopulation on the other hand soon posed a threat for these areas. Due to four serious pollution scandals including the Minamata disease, environmental awareness spread among the population. Movements emerging in the 1970s voiced the Japanese experience of environmental injustice on the international scene (Avenell, 2017). Simultaneously, domestic conservation movements advocated sustainable landscape management such as satoyama. As will become clear later, jimotogaku strongly reflects the values and practices of these pioneering movements.

“The nature conservation movement of the 1960s in Japan was focused on conserving natural areas near human settlement while simultaneously opposing development on important remote natural areas. An effective method of preserving local nature was through local residents learning to recognize the beauty and wonder of nature through various events and activities. The conservation of satoyama landscapes required both the cessation of destructive development and adequate management. In the late 1980s, local movements began to appear that focused on satoyama landscape management.” (Kuramoto in Takeuchi e.a., 2003:23)

The concept of Satoyama remains actual to this day. The most recent and prominent, government-led action is the Satoyama initiative, launched in 2009 by the Ministry of the Environment and the United Nations University. Its mission is to promote satoyama and its seascape counterpart satoumi as sustainable models of “socio-ecological production landscapes and seascapes”. The initiative has gained international recognition and has been adopted by over hundred organizations worldwide, many highlighting a similar model of landscape management in their own cultural context.

When concern for a shrinking society arose from the seventies on, countermeasures for depopulation and regional vitalization were promulgated every decade and implemented on national and local level (Hagihara & Hagihara in Asahi & Hagihara, 2016). Remarkable is that in 2000 and 2010, self-support promotion became the focal point of the agenda. Small, depopulated, economically uninteresting areas do not fit current politics, leading to an increasing disenfranchisement of the rural population. The beginning of the twenty-first century witnessed a proliferation of grassroots projects that taught locals how to become sustainable in an independent way, driven by a minimizing of subsidies and other financial support from the government for rural areas (Love in Münster e.a., 2014).

Responsibility for rebuilding affected regions was shifted towards NGOs, civil society groups, environmental movements and the locals – in the Minamata case, or the more recent Fukushima case, to the victims themselves – instead of being shouldered by authorities. Nomura and Abe (2009) noticed a similar approach in the education of sustainable development, of which the movement “was engineered largely by the Japanese state and was not in fact a ‘bottom-up’ collective action (as widely assumed, particularly at the onset)” (p. 484). Here we will take a closer look at Jimotogaku, a sustainable development strategy that emerged in the context of Minamata’s pollution scandal and tackles depopulation and financial struggles as well as environmental issues in the region and abroad.


An overview of Minamata’s natural and human resources. This map was only one of the thousands of resources in Mr. Yoshimoto’s private library.

The Jimotogaku Movement

The recent preoccupation of the Japanese government with densely populated urban areas and the draining of resources for less populated, rural areas sparked dissatisfaction among the inhabitants of the latter. A tea farmer in Minamata complained that more money was poured into enhancing Tokyo’s image for the Olympic Games of 2020 than into Kyushu’s development. Because the Games will not be profitable for rural areas, he felt ‘robbed’ of his subsidies. Moreover, current economic politics were not favorable to the region’s uniqueness of small-scale, traditional family businesses.

Despite a strong feeling of pride as a Kyushu resident, increasingly more rural inhabitants struggle with a disjointed Japanese identity. Kyushu plays an important role in Japanese mythology and history, often confirmed to me in claims such as “this is the oldest village mentioned in Japanese scriptures”, “here lived the most powerful clan of the Edo period” and “Kyushu is where legends started and the first emperor was born” et cetera.


This traditional fireplace was impressive, to say the least.

A traditional fireplace builder in Mizukami village twisted his ankle and could not work for a couple of weeks. He told me that he was forced to spend his days watching television, and to his amazement – and boredom – it was always about Tokyo, a city that was Japanese yet felt foreign to him. More rural people I spoke with shared this sentiment: their country had lost interest in rural areas but continued to portray Japanese ‘traditional’ culture in an idealized rural setting. Many traveling agencies illustrate this by choosing words such as ‘the real Japan’, ‘authentic’ or ‘unspoilt’ to promote tourism on the countryside, often playing with the construction of furusato, ‘home town’.

“Turning complaint into self-governance” by taking pride in one’s home town and putting the unique features of its surrounding to use is a key message in the jimotogaku movement. Its origin lies in the aftermath of the Minamata disease, with close ties to the moyai naoshi movement. (One sidenote here: there are several jimotogaku movements in Japan that originated in other areas. In this post, we focus on Yoshimoto Jimotogaku.) Yoshimoto Tetsurō, civil servant at the time, organized empowering yorokai or ‘gatherings’ from July 1991 on to address the growing sense of crisis: not only were the consequences of the Minamata disease far from processed, the imminent depopulation threatened the city’s survival. Inhabitants felt that authorities had failed to improve the situation; it was time to take action on their own. Throughout several district and general gatherings, 210 people were brought together to share experiences and insights (Yoshimoto, 2008).

yoshimoto jimotogaku yorokai

Photograph of a yorokai – personal collection of mr. Yoshimoto

 The emphasis was on how the area could be revived using resources that were already at hand. The result was the publication of hand-drawn local resource maps, displaying the valued natural assets of every district, and the tracing of water bodies. To facilitate the restoration of relationships between Minamata disease patients and other residents of the city, lectures, dialogue meetings and storytelling events on the topic were organized. In 1994, the movement was officially named Jimotogaku. Its practice spread throughout Japan and even abroad, with projects in Brazil and Vietnam through the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA).

natural resource map

Natural resource map of the hamlets Shii, Tabu, Kusu and Tsubaki – photograph of a published copy

The Jimotogaku Philosophy and Method

The first maps and the many others that followed, aim at refuting the complaint of “there is nothing where I live”. Considering the gap between disillusioned rural and envied urban areas, jimotogaku turns the tables in favor of the countryside’s indispensable uniqueness. The city, for example, lacks the primary means of production such as agriculture, hunting and collecting edible plants (Yoshimoto, 2000). Jimotogaku literally translates as ‘home area study’ but is not an academic discipline. Its practitioners strongly emphasize the ‘lay’ and practical nature of jimotogaku. For that reason, I put forward the translation of ‘local learning’. At its core, jimotogaku encourages to “think global, act local” to revive rural areas that struggle with problems such as depopulation. In order to tackle such a crisis, “one should first look at what is at one’s feet”. It aims at creating a healthy environment in which people and the local economy can flourish. The symbiotic relationship with nature is of fundamental importance, hence the stress on pristine natural resources in which the concept of ‘environment’ is made concrete.

The movement is driven by the local community itself, “the people from the land”, and supported by outsiders, “people of the wind”. This approach is designed to “draw out” the participants’ potential. The practice stimulates local development through self-government and empowerment processes, first under mentorship of Yoshimoto, later coordinated by local key persons. Minamata city, the test ground for the jimotogaku movement, has booked some successes in that regard. “Creating a healthy village or city means that the government or the authorities do not proceed with reconstruction works in a top down way, but that local residents autonomously manifest their power (…) Minamata is in this case of village building very unique (Yanagita, 2007: 254)”.

aru mono sagashi

aru mono sagashi in nishihara village

Concretely, jimotogaku involves a meticulous step-by-step plan detailed in Yoshimoto (2008). There are roughly three stages: research, thinking and creation.

In the first stage, locals and outsiders research together the natural, cultural and historical assets of the area on a voluntary basis. An ideal time frame is three days for the start-up workshop, depending on availability. The most common way of doing this is by a general tour of the area, followed by aru mono sagashi, or ‘a search for the things that are here’: walking around in group and taking note of everything that is perceived as surprising or interesting – going from plants to garden equipment. In a childlike manner, participants ask questions such as “what is this?” and “what can it be used for?”. Doing so, they become aware of the valuable resources that they might see on a daily basis but never pay attention to. More than receiving a correct answer to all of their questions, aru mono sagashi is essential to the process of revalidating resources that are available in abundance everywhere.

Another research practice is mizu no yukue, the tracing of water bodies. This usually happens by marking rivers, wells and streams on a detailed map. One can also check in the field where water accumulates or flows to agricultural areas. The key question here is: “where does the water I consume come from?”. Other research methods include interviews with locals (a short 5-question survey or a more elaborate lifestyle interview), the mapping of edible plants in one’s garden, themed research (mapping local restaurants, creating a list of cultural events etc.), and recording the life history of locals, especially elderly people (kikigaki). Everything that is being researched needs to be photographed accordingly. When a certain area has been sufficiently covered, impressions are collected and put together by the team as a colorful poster with visual material. Participants pitch their poster and general conclusion to the group.


Poster making session with Tanzanian visitors in Ōkawa hamlet, minamata city. Yoshimoto on the left.

Although results are important, the process should be an enjoyable experience for the participants. A veteran member remembers when that was not the case: “in the beginning, jimotogaku practice was hell. The group leaders kept asking us for results even if we had not slept for two days. In the end, we went home quiet and exhausted. It is better when it is more fun.”

The research as detailed above is a time-consuming and painstaking work, but indispensable in designing a strategy for the area’s survival. Moreover, it becomes a personal investment (“once you research it, you start to like it”).

“Jimotogaku is not simply researching local history. In jimotogaku, local people become the actors and get to know the area from an objective perspective while receiving insights and advice from other people. It is a cognitive, creative act in which they become aware of the qualities of the area, learn to accept change from outside, check spontaneously on the region’s characteristics, think critically and continue to create a lifestyle and culture featuring this regional uniqueness on a daily basis”. (Yoshimoto, 1995:118)

The second stage involves reflecting on the accumulated data and ideas. Participants think about the area’s most valuable assets and how these could be used in a profitable way without harming the environment or human beings. Starting from a current issue, attention is paid to how similar problems were dealt with in the past. The issues are then translated in a feasible solution for the future, perhaps the most difficult step in the process.

Closely connected to ‘thinking’ is the third stage of ‘creating’, or concrete action. Being able to withstand or adapt to change from outside as well as within, requires an innovative solution that incorporates the region’s unique resources in a creative way. In this sense, not only material things are generated, but also shared values and relationships. In the end, the goal of jimotogaku is to create a healthy environment, a vibrant community, and satisfying livelihood opportunities.


“Asking Bamboo Craftsmen” – publication as a result of jimotogaku

In the next post, we will see how Jimotogaku is practiced, and what its benefits and limitations are.

References can be downloaded below. All pictures are mine unless stated otherwise.

Jimotogaku (“local learning”) as a strategy for sustainable development in Japan’s rural areas – part 1

This and the following posts contain excerpts of my master’s dissertation for the Graduate School of Advanced Studies in Cultural Anthropology and Development Studies. Four years after writing the thing, I finally decided it was time to publish it here. Most parts are almost as new to me as they will be to you! The personal experiences that are interwoven throughout the text have been partly featured on this blog before, for example here, here, here and here.

In these posts, I take a closer look at jimotogaku or “local learning” as a strategy for sustainable development in Japan’s rural areas. I became interested in the topic after having graduated in Japanese studies and developing a professional interest in sustainability (a field I currently work in). I had discussed the issue of depopulation from an academic perspective during my one year of study in Kobe, one of Japan’s biggest cities, but missed the actual, rural experience. For this research, I completed a two-month fieldwork period in rural Japan, while simultaneously interning at the Minamata-based Jimotogaku Network. Because of my ability to speak the language and understand the socio-cultural context, I was in a position to study the jimotogaku movement from the inside out, as well as examine it from a more objective standpoint.

It is a sunny Saturday afternoon in Minamata, a small coastal city on Japan’s Southern island of Kyushu. Despite the heat, the school children of Kuzuwatari primary school have had no rest: today is the annual sports festival, with games, contests and dance. Because the number of enrolled students is at its lowest point this year, parents and grandparents are asked to join in the activities – only a handful of grandparents have to forfeit participation in the golf game because rice harvest duty calls. While at most schools contests are held between pupils of the same age, it is rather difficult here to provide enough competition for the forty students in grade classes that make up the total population of the school. The sports festival is organized by the Parent Teacher Association, which, as I later learn, practically consists out of all the parents. Perhaps calling it a close-knit community is far-reaching, but it is no surprise that everybody knowns each other. Three-generation families, seated under canopy tents, take up the space around the court. They cheer on the kids, snack on some home-grown fruit and chat with the neighbors. Although not all villagers are present, the elderly easily outnumber the kids; some hamlets in Minamata city have a population of which more than half surpasses the age of 65. I end up in conversation with an older resident from Susubaru. Susubaru is the hamlet located most closely to the school, and the place of residence of Yoshimoto Tetsurō, the man behind the local jimotogaku concept and president of its network organization. The man is eager to share a local’s insight into the future of jimotogaku with me.

Annual sports event at the Kuzuwatari primary school in Minamata.

Jimotogaku, or “local learning”, is a strategy to rebuild communities that are facing problems such as depopulation or failing economies. It emerged out of an eco-revival movement during the 1990s and against the background of the Minamata disease, the result of an industrial pollution scandal that spanned more than three decades and still affects Minamata’s image today. Yoshimoto Tetsurō, then city official in the planning department, realized how the several communities in Minamata continued to struggle from the aftermath of the pollution scandal – environmentally, economically as well as socially – and called for the revitalization of rural areas through a new approach. Concretely, jimotogaku practice comprises of three levels: research, thinking and creation. The first step involves a participatory and empowering process of ‘looking for things that are there’ (aru mono sagashi). Locals are encouraged to view and appreciate their surroundings with new eyes instead of fussing over what they lack on the countryside. Natural, cultural and human resources are recorded, water bodies are traced and locals are interviewed about daily life. The gathered information is then dispersed by means of self-made maps and posters. Once a deep understanding of the rich environment is gained, locals are ready to accept positive change for the future: by using the resources that are available, they improve living circumstances in the depopulated area through innovative solutions. The eventual goal of jimotogaku is to create an environment in which nature, the economy and people are thriving.

Despite the promising prospects for jimotogaku and a series of innovative ideas that were implemented, the local resident I talk to remains skeptical: “there is no development here whatsoever. People still suffer from stigmatization, and the region is obviously not attractive to the younger generation. I mean, the rice in Akita prefecture is so delicious, why not move there? Just realizing that we also have good things here, doesn’t make it better. On the contrary, life on the countryside is hard, and young people have no experience in agriculture. Subsidizing villages is already a step in the right direction, but it doesn’t guarantee anything. So will jimotogaku really rebuild our village? It won’t matter, this region is doomed to disappear”. Let’s find out.

Rural shrinkage

While we were driving past the village of Kobayashi in Miyazaki prefecture, I was confronted with the sight of tens or even a hundred huge, cartoonish frogs, placed on a hill at one side of the driveway (see picture). As grotesque as the view was, these frogs conveyed a clear message: the villagers wished for their young generation to come back home (the word for ‘frog’, kaeru, is a homonym for ‘going home’ in Japanese). The person who told me this, added: “we have this problem everywhere, but the people here have a weird way of expressing it”. On the picture below, a family of 4 kids, an equally rare sight in Japan.

Depopulation is a problem that cannot be overlooked in the rural areas of Japan. It is a product of modern times, and produces in its turn a social dislocation of and threat to less urbanized areas. Japan is often referred to as a ‘super-aging’ society with an aging population rate that heavily outweighs the rate of children. The country’s population peaked in 2008 and has been decreasing since 2010, putting the number at around 126,930,000 people as of October 2016 (Cabinet Office a, 2017). Out of this number, 27.3% percent, or 34,590,000 people are senior citizens of 65 years and older. With a life expectancy of 80 years for men and 86 years for women, the highest in the world, it is no surprise that almost half of the senior population is older than 75 years. It is estimated that by 2060, senior citizens will make up for 38.1% of the population. This raises the additional issue of an increasing care cost. The number of children between 0 and 14 years old, on the other hand, has dropped to 12.4% at a current fertility rate of 1.45 (Cabinet Office b, 2017). In comparison, in 1950 the aging rate was under 5% and the rate of children 35.4%. Due to a below replacement fertility, Japan’s total population is estimated to drop to 88 million by 2065.

Moreover, depopulation is geographically bound. While the highest birthrate of 2015 was measured in Okinawa (1.96), and the lowest birthrate in Tokyo (1.24), outmigration from smaller municipalities to metropolitan areas among younger generations further destabilize the local demographic situation. Between 2010 and 2015, only 8 out of the 47 prefectures – of which 4 span the Tokyo metropolitan area – experienced a growth in population, and 39 recorded a decline (Okada, 2016). Data from the NIPSSR (2013) points out the correlation between scale and depopulation at sub-national level:  the smaller the community, the more population it stands to lose in the future. In that sense, rural areas with an already decreasing population and high aging rate are the first to face the consequences of a shrinking society. As of 2013, over 74% of municipalities are less populated than in the years before, and this number is estimated to increase to 95.2% by 2040 (Hara, 2015). Destructive events like the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster in Tōhoku area also accelerate the depopulation process, and pose difficulties for rebuilding shattered communities, especially in the areas that already struggle with a rapidly shrinking population (Matanle, 2013).

Damage done by a landslide.

Terminology for shrinking communities in Japan was first coined by Akira Ōno (1958): marginal villages (genkai shūraku) with an aging population of over 50% are at the risk of simply vanishing into ‘ghost villages’ (shōmetsu shūraku). Since employment, education and social opportunities are limited on the countryside, local children exchange their hometown for urban centers. As of 2017, only 5.68% or 7 million people of Japan’s total population live in rural areas, compared to over 36% in 1960 (The World Bank, 2018). This high level of outmigration to bigger cities lays bare the differences in lifestyle between the two environments. For example, small-scale family businesses that dominated the rural scene are now in decline (Matanle in Chiavacci & Hommerich, 2017). While nuclear families have become common in urban areas, the family-based ie system is still in place on the countryside (Kataoka in Merviö, 2014). Ie, meaning ‘house’ or ‘family’, indicates a patriarchal lineal family system in which the male head represents the family in community matters, is the sole owner of the family house and farmland, and is succeeded by the son first in line. Besides, agriculture remains central to rural life, and is increasingly more often pursued in combination with other non-agricultural activities such as a job in the city (Francks, 2006).

Minamata Reborn?

One city that has trouble keeping its residents is Minamata, a coastal city on the West side of Kyushu, Japan’s Southern island. By 1950, Minamata’s population peeked at 50,000 people, which coincided with its designation as ‘city’. Nowadays, this number has dropped to 24,600 people spread over 162 km². Fishing and farming communities struggle to come by and attract newcomers. Moreover, Minamata carries with it an ugly past that has continued to restrict its future perspectives and became a symbol for the harmful side-effects of 20th-century industrialization.

Between 1932 and 1968 the chemical company Chisso Co. knowingly released industrial wastewater containing mercury in the Minamata bay and Shiranui Sea. The mercury accumulated in sea life, which was consumed as a staple food by the local population in the fishing hamlets. Once ingested in large quantities, methylmercury can generate severe neurological damage, result in paralysis and death and affect unborn children in the womb. A first victim of the later coined ‘Minamata disease’ was hospitalized in 1956. Chisso and the local and prefectural government did little to stop the pollution out of fear for economic ruin, despite having identified the cause of the disease early on. Illustrative of Chisso’s economic importance to the region is the fact that the taxes the company paid approached 50% of the city’s total tax revenue (Minamata city, 1993). Due to lack of data and a high degree of stigmatization, the number of people afflicted lies somewhere between 2,265 (who received compensation) and 13,805 people as estimated by the Minamata Disease Museum. Following the first lawsuits against Chisso in 1969, compensation has been paid out according to the Polluter Pays Principle (Ministry of the Environment, 2011).

Minamata disease museum

Although the result of the pollution scandal has been portrayed as mainly a health issue, the Minamata disease was particularly harmful for the city’s social fabric. In the first place, its population had doubled in size thanks to Chisso’s arrival. Approximately one quarter of the inhabitants relied for their livelihood on the company, with 5000 employees in 1950. Hence, an ambiguous situation arose in which victims and their families had to choose sides: ensure an income or protest against the injustice. In the second place, stigmatization threatened social ties, even within the same families (Kusago in Sirgy e.a., 2011). Since the disease was prominent among fishing communities, people in the city center, mountain and farming communities blamed victims for giving the city a bad reputation. It was believed that the disease was contagious, that victims had brought it on themselves, or that they pretended in order to get a monetary compensation. Minamata’s population remained socially divided for decades. Discrimination did not stop at the border: social stigma pervaded the whole country as inhabitants of Minamata struggled to marry, work, sell products or take pride in their birth place beyond Minamata borders.

First attempts to restore Minamata’s image were made in the 1980s. The city started to profile itself as environmental-friendly by adopting the ISO 14001 environmental management standard and the Meister Program for artisanal craftsman and organic farmers. Local initiatives resulted in a strict recycle system and eco-shop certification. In 1994, the moyai naoshi (“restoring bonds”) movement was established under leadership of mayor Yoshii Masafumi. A dialogue between city officials and victim groups had been impossible. With the dialect word of moyai referring to the act of linking two fishing boats together, as well as social ties in a figurative sense, Yoshii borrowed the words from a fisherman during the first apology ceremony for Minamata disease victims. Asking Yoshii about it (interview on 2 October 2018), he explained that “Minamata people did not understand the difficult vocabulary authorities were using at that time. I chose a local word to connect all parties and rebuild society together from inside out”. Moyai naoshi resonated among the inhabitants and paved the way for better relations. Yoshimoto, who worked as a city official under Yoshii, compared Minamata’s struggle to a childbirth: “it is equally painful, but you have something beautiful in the end.”

Minamata bay – once heavily polluted with mercury

Depopulation in Minamata  

Nevertheless, Minamata’s population rapidly decreased along the national trend of urban migration due to worsened employment situations. The consequences of the Minamata disease accelerated the depopulation process. The city estimates that by 2060 only 10,000 residents will remain (Minamata city, 2015). In 2014, 35.67% or 9,170 residents was 65 years or older, almost threefold the rate of children (11.90%) against an increased aging rate of 6.85% compared to ten years before. It is likely that the ratio of aged population will equal the ratio of working population by 2040, minimizing the ratio for children to 10% or less. Out-migration overtakes in-migration by around 200 people. An overwhelming part of young adults leave Minamata in pursuit for a job or further education after high school graduation; at the same time, the local agriculture and forestry sector is dominated by men and women of 60 years and older.

Depopulation in Minamata is particularly significant in the inland hamlets located most remotely from the city center. Several of the 23 districts deal with an aging rate of 50% out of a couple of hundred residents. Besides the low presence of children and a high visibility of elderly people of whom the children have moved away, it is striking how surroundings attest to the problem of rural shrinkage. Ecological changes interact with rural society: depopulation prevents the necessary maintenance of the environment and by extensions endangers livelihoods.

View over Minamata

An example is the countless overgrown paddies – totaling 1 million ha in 40 years (Saito & Ichikawa in Usio & Miyashita, 2014). For centuries, taxes were paid in rice in premodern Japan. Rural families were typically self-sufficient farmers. So traditionally an asset of every respectable household on the countryside, the number of abandoned fields is on the rise where family lines discontinue and labor force is curtailed. Households also lose rice paddies due to draught of the irrigation system and are not able to restore it. Farmland in general is abandoned (10.6% of agricultural land in 2010) leading to a loss of biodiversity and ecosystems (Hashiguchi in Usio & Miyashita, 2014). Wild boar and deer encroach on human settlements and destroy crops or entire harvests because natural boundaries are not kept in check (Knight, 2010). They eat the persimmons, chestnuts and wild pears that are no longer picked from fruit trees by children, and dig out bamboo shoots on mountain property. Among the Minamata locals, countermeasures such as building electric fences and burning grass against wild animals was a topic brought up in almost every conversation. A visitors from the Akita prefecture relayed similar stories about recent bear attacks. It begs the question of who is encroaching on whose terrain: prolific deforestation forces wild animals to look for food elsewhere.

The lack of people to maintain the land is closely linked to the collapse of so-called satoyama, a word coined by ecologist Shidei Tsunahide in the seventies and referring to “former firewood and charcoal forests in the vicinity of rural or suburb flatland communities, where until the 1960s essential livelihood resources such as energy for household use, leaves as green manure for agriculture, grass for roofing and thatching etc. were available on common woodlands or individual forests” (Nipponica, 2001). Today, satoyama as a social-ecological production landscape is said to “represent harmony between people and nature” (Brown & Phillips for UNESCO, 2010:1) and offer “a model of sustainable resource management” (Knight, 2010:421). According to Knight, however, the discourse on satoyama demonstrates above all how the Japanese attach cultural value to it as it embodies the traditional and ideal relationship between humans and nature. As such, satoyama is rather a cultural construction than a historically valid phenomenon. This also ties into the concept of nostalgia, which will be addressed later.

In the next post, we will discuss how the Satoyama Initiative and other revival movements including jimotogaku, put similar idealized values at the center of their preservation efforts.

References can be downloaded below. All pictures are mine.

How were people with a mental disorder perceived and stigmatized in Premodern Japan? A conclusion

This is the final part and conclusion of the series “Mental Health in Japan” here on Nippaku. The 10 posts in this series were introductions to the topic combined with excerpts from my Master’s dissertation and now, 5 years later, it feels good to find some closure. I’m happy I could share my findings with all of you, and revisit what I spent two years of my life intensily researching and writing about. This post gives an overall view of the different stages of mental health perception throughout Japanese (pre-modern) history, while paying special attention to the terminology that was then in use to describe a person with a mental disorder. Feel free to check out post 12345, 6, 7, 8 and 9 to learn more.

In the 1960s, specialist on Far East medicine history Ilza Veith wrote the following.

The most important conclusion to be drawn from the study of Oriental folklore is that inherent in the belief of the spectral origin of mental disease there is a definite assumption of its reversible nature and curability. Each aberration had its specific cause, and a curative magic was directed towards the expulsion of the offending agent. (…) Above all, the belief in demonic powers made the patient an innocent victim and placed the correction of his derangement beyond the influence of rational treatment and into the hands of priests. As a result, no stigma was attached to mental disease, and society was ready to receive the patient on pre-illness terms as soon as his behavior became normal.[1]

Veith’s theory certainly contains a kernel of truth: we have seen throughout this series that the transience, curability and reversibility of spirit possession blocks out criticism or discrimination against the possessed individual to a certain degree. Yet it is too simplistic to believe that no stigma at all was attached to mental disorders in premodern Japan. “Madness” is a concept that does not easily lend itself to objective observations. Hence, from ancient times on, a certain nuance has been attached to expressions of “madness”. A positive interpretation leads to the appreciation of the “mad” person, a negative interpretation to his or her depreciation. I have interpreted the former as non-stigmatization in a hare (supernatural, religious, artistic) context, while the latter equals stigmatization and corresponds with ke (the secular, mundane). The balance between hare and ke is of crucial importance in determining the degree of stigma towards people with a mental disorder at a certain point in history, since the various examples introduced here indicate a linear growth of stigma due to secularization, or the increase in ke elements in combination with a decrease of hare elements.


Water therapy for the mentally ill at Fujinuta Falls (date unknown) – Kitsuta Masateru, http://kenkyukaiblog.jugem.jp

Based on the earliest Japanese accounts of “madness”, I have shown that the recognition of mental disorders was first heavily influenced by a spiritual and religious awareness. Starting with “madness” as a privilege for the shaman in ancient times, hare elements played an important role in the Nara and Heian period. For example, mentally disordered people were regarded as “close to the gods” (taburebito), and later on as possessed by vengeful spirits (mono no ke). An analysis of the already varied terminology used then points out that terms could bear positive and neutral as well as negative nuances, and provoke in the latter case stigmatization. Nevertheless, “madness” was chiefly interpreted in a hare context, i.e. as a spiritual manifestation or as a spontaneous outburst of creativity. Thus, it can be concluded that in ancient Japan a neutral or even positive evaluation (non-stigmatization) of mental disorders was the prevalent attitude. Read more on this topic here.


Mono no ke of Lady Aoi in the Tale of Genji

However, from the Middle Ages on, the Japanese society became secularized, and a ke-based vision on “madness” was developed, which in turn stimulated stigmatization. The connection with hare became weaker, but both contexts were still influential and more or less in balance. One of the indicators for secularization is the progress in medicine. Nonetheless, in medieval Japan, traditional ideas of “madness” such as monotsuki or mono no ke, or spirit possession, were often incorporated in medical treatment. Thus, mental illness was still believed to have an external cause. In addition, there was a certain degree of tolerance for those behaving in an eccentric way due to a religious connection, Buddhist monks, for example. Read more on this topic here and here.

Further, I demonstrated the two-sidedness of the perception of “madness” through examples from Nōgaku theater. Monogurui, on the one hand, was represented by Nō theatre. It bears a strong connection with hare as an artistic, dramatic expression, in line with the idea behind mono no ke. Bukkyō, on the other hand, I traced back to Kyōgen, in which it was employed to criticize the aberrant behavior of others. These contradicting perceptions and their terminology can be recovered in medieval literature as well, indicating the presence of both a ke and a hare context during the Middle Ages. Read more on this topic here.


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

This balance was lost during the Edo period. The advancing secularization brought along stronger stigma, reflected by terminology such as kichigai. Moreover, the traditional idea that “madness” was caused externally was challenged by the advent of modern western psychiatry, which renamed it as “illness”. Nevertheless, traditional views on “madness” were not completely dismissed until the beginning of modern times; until then, fox possession and other phenomena were very much alive in Japanese society, albeit in a secularized form. The “discovery” of interior pathogenesis shifted the emphasis towards the affected individual himself. Together with a complication of treatment, this sparked the belief that mentally disordered individuals have a weak character, or that their disorder is untreatable, a prejudice we still hear today in Japan. It must be noted, however, that “mad” people in the traditional interpretation were not free from abuse, neglect or discrimination, although no personal approach was applied. On the other hand, the tolerance towards the eccentricity of religious and artistic individuals, those who identified with hare, continued under the term kijin. Religious institutions also offered services, or rather set up businesses, to heal the mentally disordered. Read more on this topic here and here.


Fox possession drawn by Okada Gyokusan. The image dates back to the Edo period – source: Wikimedia Commons

“Madness” became strongly associated with violence, asocial behavior and crime. Another new term, ranshin, indicates the strong emphasis on maintenance of the public order. In combination with the heavy responsibility placed on family and neighborhood, this policy took shape in a large-scale movement of confining the “mad” at prisons, specialized institutions and at home. Especially the latter, only implemented for privileged family members during the Edo period, was to become a salient feature of how the mentally disordered were treated through the law stipulating such systematic confinement in 1900. A notable exception might have been the village Iwakura, a popular destination for pilgrims with a mental disorder. Read more on this topic here.

“Caging” at home often translated into physical restrain and violation of human rights, but it was only fifty years later that state-regulated home confinement was abolished. The long hospitalization period for mental health patients and the difficulties they encounter in rehabilitation into society nowadays, is often linked to strong stigma, of which the origin can be traced back to this practice. Another explanation is that since “madness” had been a domestic matter for so long, there still is a taboo on discussing it with someone unrelated to the family, such as a psychiatrist, because it is a private matter and too “shameful” to share. Read more on this topic here.

And that’s it for the “Mental Health in Japan” series! Feel free to share your thoughts in the comment section. And oh yes:  curious to find out how mental health patients are perceived in Japan nowadays? Read more on this topic here.


[1] Veith, Ilza. “The Supernatural In Far Eastern Concepts of Mental Disease.” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 37 (March-April 1963): 139-158, p. 154.

Mental Health and the Transition to a Modern Japan

mental health 9 bannerThis part is the ninth part of my master’s thesis about mental health stigma in premodern Japan. If you are new to this topic, you can check out part 12345, 6, 7 and 8 first. Since modern Japan was outside the scope of my thesis topic, I will only provide a short overview to bridge the Edo period (1603-1868) and the Meiji period (1868-1912). I hope you are enjoying the Mental Health series! Let me know your thoughts in the comment section.

The Meiji Restoration in 1868 marked the beginning of a new, modern era. Although the restoration brought about radical changes on many levels in society, the way of treating people with a mental disorder as was common during the late Edo period continued. It must be noted, on the other hand, that confinement for the sake of public peace and order became the dominant treatment and was implemented in political and legal structures. Suzuki points out that

[t]he restoration did not immediately change policies towards the insane. The emphasis on the necessity of controlling the violence of lunatics persisted, with strong associations of insanity with ferocity of animals on the loose. Early police rules of the city of Tokyo soon after the Meiji Restoration put the rules for the regulation of lunatics next to those about restrained and dangerous animals on the street, such as oxen, horses and mad dogs. Through successive legislation between 1878 and 1884, the basic pattern for administrative control over dangerous lunatics was completed in Tokyo [1].

Confinement was deemed necessary to protect society, since “lunatics” were regarded rather as (potential) criminals than as patients, an idea rooted in bias and prejudice. By analyzing the laws and regulation promulgated during the latter half of the 19th century, one can easily spot the entanglement with the police force who was in charge of maintaining public order. Below an overview of all the laws regarding the mentally ill between 1870-1885 [2]:

Year Name of article Contents
1870 Outline of the New Criminal Code In case a person with a mental disorder commits murder, he should be locked up for life (shūshin sako 終身鎖錮) and pay the family of the victim 25 ryō for the funeral. When [having killed] two person or more, he will be hanged. Those who feign mental illness in committing a murder, will receive the same punishment as for premeditated murder.
1873 Tokyo Guard Regulations Madmen wandering on the streets will be caught and put under supervision of a police inspector. (The previous and following articles deal in a similar way with cows, horses and mad dogs on the loose.)
Ibid., revision Lunatics (fūtenjin 瘋癲人) charged with murder will spend the rest of their lives in confinement (shūshin sako 終身鎖錮) and will pay the family of the victim 40 yen for funeral costs.
1874 Medical System Regulation Provisions for mental asylums (tenkyōin 癲狂院).
Metropolitan Police Regulation no. 172 Strict custody and care is ordered.
1875 Administrative Police Regulation Madmen on the loose will be isolated and nursed. Violent individuals will be arrested and delivered to the headman [of the village].
1877 Metropolitan Police Regulation no. 201 The police should take responsibility for wandering madmen for the time being.
1878 Metropolitan Police Department Order no. 38 (Institutionalization of Home Confinement) Those who want to confine (sako 鎖錮) lunatics (fūtenjin 瘋癲人) and delinquent children etc. at home in order to care for them, should seek permission by writing down the reason and submitting this under joint signature of the relatives with an attached medical certificate of a doctor to the jurisdictional police.
1880 Instruction of Punishment for Minor Offenses against Police Regulations in Criminal Code (enforced in 1882) Minor offenders will be detained for 2 to 5 days or fined between 50 sen and 1 yen 50 sen. People [= family members] who neglect their duty as guard of the insane (hakkyōjin 発狂人) will be punished as minor offenders.
1882 Tokyo Police Regulation no. 41 A madman (fūtenjin 瘋癲人) on the loose will be immediately escorted to a mental asylum of this prefecture under police control.
1884 Revision of the Metropolitan Police Department Order no. 38 Reinforcement of wrongful confinement prevention. In order to put a madman (fūtenjin 瘋癲人) in confinement (sako 鎖錮) or send him/her for treatment to a private mental asylum (fūten’in 瘋癲院), one should seek permission by submitting the joint signature of at least 2 relatives with an attached medical certificate of a doctor, and should notify when [the mentally disordered] is released from home confinement or hospital. Those who violate these rules, will be punished as minor offenders.

It is also striking that these regulations disregard any concrete protection of the patient in question: the stress on public welfare (kōeki 公益) outbalanced personal interest (shieki 私益) by large. For example, there were no regulations concerning the physical protection of individuals with a mental disorder, this in contrast with the immediate drafting of a law on the protection of their property [3]. It should come as no surprise that rigorous isolation at home did only worsen the mental condition of the confined [4]. One researcher calculated in a case study that the average life span of the confined patients was noticeably shorter than those admitted to a mental asylum [5]. The restriction of freedom, lack of appropriate treatment and in some cases abuse or neglect can be regarded as a violation of human rights avant la lettre.


Tokyo prefectural Matzuzawa Hospital 東京都立松沢病院, previously known as Tokyo prefectural asylum 東京府癲狂院, est. 1872. Picture taken in 1919 – Wikimedia Commons

As can also be noticed from the legislation, terminology changed again during the Meiji period. Instead of ranshinsha or kyōjin, the new term fūtenjin 瘋癲人, bearing almost the same meaning, came into use. Kannyū, home confinement, changed into sako鎖錮and indicated the general way of treating people with a mental disorder. In other words, where home confinement had been reserved for respected and thus privileged family members in the Edo period, it became the standard procedure in modernized Japan. Those who had no one to take them in were sent to prison as before (nyūrō). Consequently, the family shouldered more responsibility than ever to supervise their mentally disordered relatives. This happened under strict police control.


Photograph of Soma Tomotane – wikimedia commons

There was, however, the serious problem of wrongful or illegal confinement plotted by family members, as pointed out in the 1884 revision of the regulation institutionalizing home confinement (Metropolitan Police Department Order no. 38). An infamous example of wrongful confinement is the Sōma case 相馬事件  (1883-1895). Sōma Tomotane 相馬誠胤, daimyō of the domain of Nakamura, was diagnosed as mentally ill, and confined first at home and then at a hospital without legal procedure. One of his retainers sued the responsible family members, accusing them of unlawful confinement. The retainers helped Sōma escape from the hospital, and made the glaring conditions in the mental hospitals public via the press.

The incident was not only largely covered nationwide, international newspapers as well covered the “barbarian” situation in Japan [6]. The Japanese government feared that this incident would undermine their efforts in showing legal maturity to revise the unequal treaties, and hastily decided to introduce a formal mental health law justifying the treatment of mentally disordered citizens [7].

soma jiken

ukiyoe displaying the retainers helping Soma Tomotane escape – http://www.jspn.or.jp

This resulted in the establishment of the Mental Patients’ Custody Act (Seishin byōsha kango hō 精神病者監護法) in 1900. This law strictly regulated home confinement and included penal provisions for wrongful or illegal confinement. Hence, the tradition that originated centuries before of locking up individuals with a mental disorder at home was now clearly stipulated and legalized nationwide. The place of confinement was renamed zashikirō 座敷牢, and the act of confinement kango 監護 or kanchi 監置.


Zashikiro in the 1950s(!) –  http://akihitosuzuki.hatenadiary.jp

The new law did not include any articles on the humane treatment of the confined [8]. Public safety was still prioritized over the patient’s treatment and wellbeing. Moreover, it is argued that the habitat of a zashikiro, of which the dimensions and structure were strictly stipulated in the 1900 law, was in most cases worse than the sako from before [9]. The zashikiro, a cage constructed from latticework, was also highly visible to outsiders. This explains the image imprinted in the memory of elder Japanese nowadays: an image of “chilling horror and dark fascination [10]” evoked by the sight of a person with a mental disorder during the first half of the 20th century. Indeed, this law, prescribing home confinement, was only abolished as late as 1950. It is largely due to this turn of events in Japanese history that the bias towards mental health patients as dangerous and subjects of rigorous isolation and confinement is still engraved in Japan’s collective memory.

Earlier this year, a documentary was released, called “Before Sunrise” 夜明け前 dedicated to the the life and research into home confinement conditions by dr. Kure Shuzo 呉 秀三. You can watch the trailer here.

Footnotes & References here

The next and final post in this  series will provide a summary of my dissertation and these 9 blog posts, and seeks to formulate a response on the question of how people with a mental disorder were perceived and stigmatized in pre-modern Japan. Stay tuned!

How Japanese Avant-garde Designers changed Fashion: Issey Miyake


Comme des Garçons, photographed by Steven Klein for V Magazine, 2015 – https://theredlist.com

The twenty-first century fashion scene is unimaginable without the influence of Japanese avant-garde designers. Three names that come immediately to my mind are Issey Miyake, Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto. Their aesthetic resonates with minimalism, simplicity, non-conventionalism and deconstructivism, and each designer will be introduced below. The reason why this is truly a Nippaku article, is because Belgian designers such as Martin Margiela, Ann Demeulemeester and Dries van Noten were highly influenced by these Japanese avant-gardists. But first, let’s have a look at what avant-garde fashion means.

Avant-garde Fashion

The term avant-garde is most often used to describe the artistic genres of music, literature, film and dance, and can easily be extended to fashion as well. Avant-garde challenges established notions of art and society as a whole. In fashion, avant-garde translates to a rejection of mainstream beauty conventions such as displayed in haute couture while taking an innovative approach in design and material use. Hence, the avant-garde approach is often seen as “anti-fashion”, an artistic movement or a philosophy (or all of these). Recurring but not exclusive themes are clean and simple (to the eye) designs, sober colors such as black, white or earthy tones, biomimicry, minimalism, deconstructivism, challenging beauty standards, technology-driven… It resonates a shift in modernity when art was no longer required to be “beautiful” but rather interesting  and thought-provoking. Below are two designs of contemporary avant-garde designers to give you an idea.

Why Japan became a frontrunner in avant-gardist fashion is unknown, but here are some explanations I could think of:

  • rei kawakubo 1982 sweaterFrom the 15th century on, sober and sophisticated, even impoverished aesthetics characterized the cultural life of the nobility as well as the samurai class. Compared to Europe, Japan adopted a “less is more” attitude early on, except that their “less” was still extremely sophisticated in itself (perhaps comparable to Marie Antoinette’s Chemise à la Reine). Fast-forward to Comme des Garçons’ deconstructed sweaters which only the rich can afford: I think you get the picture.

The aesthetics of wabi similarly presupposes a ready access to beautiful and expensive objects; it is an aesthetics born out of wealth and privilege. Powerful and wealthy, the advocates of wabi aesthetics, ranging from shoguns to tea masters, could afford to emulate the impoverished appearance of peasant life by creating rustic tea huts with stark interiors and ordinary, sometimes defective, tea bowls. (…) The japanese penchant for simplicity and insufficiency was thus cultivated as part of an elite aesthetics, first by the aristocracy, then by the warrior class. (Saito in Nguyen, 2017: xxxviii)

  •  In times of economic growth, luxury is expressed in a contradictory way (in times of scarcity, more fabric and accessories are preferred, for example). From post-oil shock 1973 until the beginning of the 1990s, the Japanese economy boomed. This resulted in an increase in personal consumption, making designer clothing available to all. To differentiate from all of the “mainstream” and frivolous luxury, designers felt the urge to innovate in the opposite direction.
  • At the same time, the designers here discussed were born in the 30s and 40s, and had grown up in a destroyed post-war Japan. Deconstructivism is a recurring theme in avant-garde fashion.
  • From the moment Japan was forced to open up its borders (mid-19th century), two fashion scenes existed: the Japanese style (和服 wafuku) and the Western style (洋服 yōfuku). The woodblock prints below portray Japanese women wearing Western fashion. If you think the styling is a little off, you’re correct: Western clothes were interpreted in a Japanese way, with flower patterns (similar to mon, Japanese emblems), colorful layering (purple and green for example, was a classic combination for formal kimono attire), bustles that resemble an obi 帯, a kimono sash… Avant-garde was a more succesful attempt to marry western techniques with Japanese elements and philosophy.

The Japanese avant-garde fashion movement was initiated by Kenzo Takada and Issey Miyake in the seventies and picked up a few years later by Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo. Special mention goes to Hanae Mori, who was the first Japanese designer to be acknowledged worldwide in the 1960s. Although her conservative ready-to-wear collections did not really scream avant-garde, she paved the way for other Japanese designers to gain fame on the international fashion scene, previously dominated by Western designers. The work of Kansai Yamamoto, whose extravagant creations David Bowie loved to wear, also led to a growing interest in the Far East. The fashion world was ready for something new, and Japanese designers could live up to the expectations.

Issey Miyake

issey miyake portraitMiyake Issey [Issei] 三宅 一生 was born in 1938 in Hiroshima. His interest in fashion was triggered when he visited the World Design conference in Tokyo, and noticed that clothing design was not part of it. After graduation, he went to Paris to work for luxury brand Givenchy, among others. But after witnessing the students march in the May revolution of 1968, he realised that they were the kind of people he wanted to make clothes for. After working for Geoffrey Beene in Manhattan, he returned to his home country.

In 1970, Miyake opened his own design studio, already selling pieces in New York’s Bloomingdale the year after that. He entered the Parisian couture world in 1973. Initially, he worked with raw materials such as cotton and wool, and constructed oversized pieces. From the start of his career, he incorporated Japanese elements such as draping and layering into his designs. He drew inspiration from traditional clothing by creating silhouettes and shapes that adapted to the wearer and allowed for movement, in contrast to the form-fitting pieces which required a certain body type and were (and still are) a common sight on the runway.

pleats please

Pleats Please Fall/Winter 2013 – photo: Julia Noni

As he gained interest in innovative techniques, he started using technologies – new and old – to create clothing no one had ever seen before. Miyake has always had an eye for Japanese craftsmanship, in particular weaving and dyeing. Miyake is credited with revolutionizing the permanent pleating of synthetic fabrics through heat treatment. He developed a line PLEATS PLEASE ISSEY MIYAKE that has been running since 1993.

Another Miyake innovation is A-POC (abbreviation for A Piece Of Cloth) in collaboration with Dai Fujiwara in 1999. The idea behind A-POC is that a monochromatic ensemble is made from a single thread. By means of computer technology, an industrial weaving machine produces a tube of fabric, as seen below. The wearer can cut up the tube’s fabric along the seams woven into it, and in true DIY-style, create their own designer pieces. This allowed for adaptability to the body, creativity and individuality of the consumer, despite it being a product for mass consumption. Moreover, since the tube of textile is an ingenious puzzle of separate garments, there is no fabric wasted in the process.

Miyake retired in 1999, leaving the brand in the hands of young, promising designers. Recent designs that are quite ingenious combine origami techniques with 2D vs 3D garments. For example, check out the models wearing the pleated pieces they pull from their flat handbags. Or the origami jackets that are created on the runway (okay, I forgive them for the stapler). And isn’t this just mesmerizing?

issey miyake bao bao bag

Bao Bao Bag – isseymiyake.com

Lately, the Miyake brand has gained popularity through the perfumes, Pleats Please collection and Bao bao Bag; the latter you have probably already seen around, but did not know until now that it was designed and launched by Issey Miyake in 2000. The Bao Bao bag is another expression of Miyake’s philosophy: innovative fabric and design given life by technology, with the purpose of creating unique shapes and movements. The latest innovation was introduced in this year’s spring summer collection. “Dough dough” is a sturdy yet malleable fabric you can shape to your own preference. How very Miyake!

Fun Fact: Steve Jobs’ black turtlenecks were designed by Miyake. The two were friends.


Early Modern Mental Health Facilities in Japan

mental health 8 bannerThis post covers another part of my master’s thesis on mental health stigma in premodern Japan. If you are new to this series of blog posts, feel free to check out part 12345, 6, 7 first before getting into this one. Part 8 will discuss how the mentally ill were treated in early modern Japan. A couple of facilities originated as centers of religious charity and pilgrimage, of which some transformed into specialized institutions. Also introduced in this post, is private confinement at home – here I attempt to contextualize this phenomenon in its historical, social and cultural setting. Unsurprisingly, the circumstances for patients were not always ideal and often reflected mental health stigma.

Religious Facilities

Similar to Western countries (see for example, my post on Gheel/Iwakura), many religious institutions in Japan offered services to the mentally disordered. Folk therapy, strongly entangled with Shintoism or Buddhism, remained the general approach among customers to cure diseases of the mind[1]. One could visit a shrine or temple in the vicinity and receive care and treatment. From Records of the One Hundred Articles (Hyakkajō Chōsho,百箇條調書), Supreme Court records kept by the Tokugawa shogunate, we know that mental health patients were taken in as temple disciples[2].

As mentioned before, a handful of religious institutions provided special treatment as early as the medieval times, but this number rose significantly during the late Edo period. Services such as the reading of sutra’s or incantations, several types of water treatment[3], moxibustion (burning dried mu and Chinese-style herbal medication were available in 28 shrines and temples nationwide shortly before the Meiji revolution[4]. For example, in Buddhist temples it was common to burn cedar sticks during “incantation and prayer” (kaji kitō 加持祈禱) and let the patient bathe several times a day under a waterfall. The Shintoist ritual, “hot water and prayer” (yugitō 湯祈禱) prescribed prayer at morning and evening, followed by boiling water in a pot of approximately 14,4 liters (8 shō) in front of the temple and pouring the hot water over the head of the patient. The first mental hospital with a medical approach, Ishimaru Lunatic Asylum (Ishimaru tenkyōin石丸癲狂院), was established in 1818, followed by Komatsugawa Asylum (Komatsugawa kyōbyō chiryōsho 小松川狂病治療所) in 1846[5].

familienpflege iwakura

Translation German: “family care in Iwakura” – http://www.lit.aichi-pu.ac.jp/~aha/doc/Southampton%20congress.pdf

In particular the Daiunji-temple in Iwakura, north of Kyoto, rose to prominence as a popular destination for mentally ill pilgrims. Its reputation as a place of mental healing was established based on a legend from 1072, when the daughter of emperor Go-Sanjō who suffered from a mental disorder, recovered by drinking from the well and bathing under the waterfall. However, it was only centuries later, from 1765 on, that people started to flock to Iwakura. This urged the provision of housing inside the temple domain and with the neighboring villagers[6]. Consequently, Iwakura gained fame as “the Japanese Gheel[7]”, referring to the Belgian city of Gheel where mentally disordered pilgrims were systematically placed under family care since early times. Hashimoto refutes the comparison between the two places of pilgrimage and views it as a historical construction created in the early 20th century by “Japanese Orientalists”[8].

In line with this argument, I also doubt that a model of family care similar to Gheel’s is applicable to the Iwakura situation, let alone to Japan nation-wide. The gap between alleged outpatient rehabilitation and the actual situation in Iwakura is illustrated in Seiseido’s Commentary on Medicine (Seiseidō itan生々堂醫譚, 1796), authored by the physician Nakagami Kinkei.

In these times, commoners in Kyoto usually accompany those who have become mad to places such as Iwakura, and have them stand under the waterfall. Many families, however, cannot endure the sight, and leave the patient in the care of others. These people are anxious that the patients will escape in the middle of the night and for their own peace of mind, they tie them down, day and night. Consequently the endurance of the patients is put to the test, and they contrarily grow only crazier.[9]

Although religious institutions fulfilled a charitable purpose, Nakagami criticizes the state of illegal detention in which mental patients received their treatment at the so-called places of healing. Later on, scholars of western medicine will look back on folk practice as “inhumane treatment” and “a sanitation hazard” for the mentally disordered[10]. However, as Hashimoto points out, temples and shrines were more than just places for treatment[11]. They attached a religious meaning to the process of recovery and lead the patients on their way to spiritual healing.


Fujinuta Falls (date unknown) – Kitsuta Masateru, http://kenkyukaiblog.jugem.jp

A retreat usually took three weeks, although six months or one year were not exceptional[12]. Patients were usually accompanied by a family member, for whom lodging was additionally provided inside the shrine or temple. Not only did the retreat serve as a change in environment and deepen the familial bonds, the patient and companions could also freely choose on time and type of treatment[13]. In this sense, a mental disorder was still linked with religion and spirituality, despite the strong secularization of the Japanese society and the phenomenon of “madness” in conjunction with the understanding of his condition as “illness”.

Confinement at home (私宅監置 shitaku kanchi)

The explanation above could give the impression that the mentally disordered were en masse received and treated in religious institutions. It should, however, be noted that retreats at temples and shrines were very expensive[1]. The two existing premodern mental asylums were also private institutions and likewise limited to families with sufficient financial means[2]. For most patients, the only way to cope with their “madness” was confinement. Accounts of Official Business gives an example from 1745 of “confinement in a cage” (sashiko-ire 指籠入[3]). Sashiko was a wooden construction designed to lock up “mad” people who were difficult to handle. The oldest record of a sashiko dates back to 1710. The confined in question is described as “deranged” (ranki乱気), “mad” (kyōki 狂気) and “insane” (ranshin 乱心) and is said to disturb public order in such an extent that it has become socially unacceptable[4].


Sashiko – From “introduction to psychiatry”, Nanzando http://hidekiueno.net/

Confinement in a sashiko was arranged on both the public and the private level, but contrary to what is generally believed, “putting a lunatic in a sashiko was by no means a purely private business[5]”. Those who wanted to incarcerate a “mad” person had to petition to the village authority, who then asked for approval from the han (feudal domain) court. The management and supervision of the confined was left to the family members, the gonin-gumi 五人組 (five-household neighborhood unit system) or the village head. Kawamura further adds that, because of the strong belief in the possibility of recovery from insane to sane, no additional punishment was given as long as the mentally disordered person did not cause any damage[6].

The purpose of confinement of the “mad” in a sashiko was twofold: their speedy recovery and preventing them from escaping and harming others. It was by far the most applied method of dealing with the mentally disordered[7] from 1750 on. In this context, terminology such as ranshin came into use to emphasize the necessity of confinement, since this word indicates subversive and violent behavior and is frequently mentioned in legal documents such as Hyakkajō Chōsho and Criminal Cases during the Tokugawa Period (Oshioki Ruireishū 御仕置例類集)[8]. Ranshin was “a label that showed the gap between those whose conduct was deviant, and the desired “social normality”, a concept otherwise impossible to define[9]“.

The emergence of a perception of “madness” as antisocial behavior is not surprising: it corresponds with the political approach focusing on public peace and order at that time. The confinement of mentally disordered individuals was deemed necessary to maintain a social equilibrium. A similar movement in Europe of “locking up the mad” has been widely discussed by scholars such as Michel Foucault, who calls it “the Great Confinement” (a theory which has also been widely contested recently). Confinement in Japan, however, is characterized by many elements different from the European situation. It is, therefore, not a question whether “a Great Confinement” in the Foucauldian sense was achieved, but to what extent and how Japanese mental patients were confined, and how this form of constraint reflected stigmatization.

great confinement

work by William Hogarth, often used to illustrate Foucault’s “Great Confinement”

Two elements should be taken into account when constructing the framework in which confinement of the mentally disordered during this period took place. Firstly, the major forms of punishment were death penalty and deportation. Accordingly, there were no provisions for the life imprisonment or long penal servitude of criminals, and institutions that serve this purpose nowadays did not exist at that time. Prisons in the forensic sense were places of temporary confinement for not yet convicted and sentenced criminals[10]. In other words, the concept of “imprisonment” was not regarded as a punishment in se[11].

Secondly, the family or gonin-gumi was responsible for the crimes committed by other family members or members of the same group. Porter states that “insanity was basically, in those days and for long after, a domestic responsibility[12]“. According to Hiruta, the system of collective responsibility even applied to cases of suicide, but ranshin was an exception.

[W]here in general the clear involvement of relatives was claimed, [in this case] the familial responsibility was overlooked. However, even in the case of ranshin, if it was concluded that the criminal actions of the defendant could have been predicted, (…) than the supervision of the relatives was questioned nevertheless[13].

Since the mentally disordered were left in full charge of their family, their treatment and care depended highly on what risks they brought along for their relatives or gonin-gumi. As a result, those regarded as ranshin were often locked up at home. Other (folk) methods involved neglect, “wearing the tub” as social shaming (okebuse 桶伏せ)[14], tying up limbs, disinheritance (kyūri 久離)[15] et cetera[16]. These choices of treatment did not contribute to the healing of the patient, on the contrary, they were employed to escape responsibility or publicly shame the patient. Adding to the list incarceration and the painful ritual of smoking or beating out fox spirits, we can assume that many people with a mental disorder experienced abuse or neglect, and thus (sometimes literally) stigmatization, due to a combination of communal responsibility and the preeminence to folk methods. These elements form the background in which home confinement was practiced. Indeed, locking up the “mad” at home was legalized and enacted during the 19th century, and the law abolishing home confinement was only promulgated in 1950.

There are few examples of Japanese detention facilities that were afterwards converted into mental hospitals, in contrast with the European situation[17]. This indicates the absence of a link between “places of confinement” and “places of treatment” and explains the delay of the latter. Concerning the former, it must be emphasized that “without good reason, it was not possible to lock up ranshin individuals, and the procedure for sashiko-ire was already stipulated at that time[18]” and that “the general idea that mentally disordered people were tied down and put in something like a cage without permission is completely false [19]”. In other words, confinement of the “mad” was already thoroughly regulated by the Edo government, and provided the groundwork for the first law of 1900, in which a resembling procedure was then institutionalized.

According to Yamasaki Tasuku, there were three official ways to confine the mentally disordered in the Edo period: imprisonment (nyūrō入牢), “caging” at home (kannyū 檻入 or nyūkan入檻) and the placement in an institution managed by  hinin非人or eta [20], the outcasts of Japanese society (tameazuke 溜預)[21]. Imprisonment was possible on request of the family or gonin-gumi. Besides the “mad”, prisons at that time also contained the poor and homeless (abandoned by their family), minor offenders and convicts who had stolen food or lit fires to stay warm in winter. One example is Ishikawa Island Labor Camp in Edo, today’s Tokyo (Ishikawa Ninsoku Yoseba 石川人足寄場, est. 1790)[22]. In the facility, they were put to work in the prospect of rehabilitation.

Ishikawa Ninsoku Yoseba

Ishikawa Ninsoku Yoseba – National Diet Library https://www.kokugakuin.ac.jp/article/65993

For confinement at home, a special cage was constructed once the family had obtained permission from the authorities. Hashimoto argues that the decision for imprisonment or home confinement was based on the status of the mentally disordered individual[23]. In case it concerned a family heir or a person that had to be respected and was, therefore, not subjected to disciplinary actions, “caging” at home was the appropriate choice[24]. Nevertheless, home confinement was still more of a privileged exception, whereas imprisonment was the standard procedure[25].

In the Meiji period, the distinction between these two modes of confinement disappeared and home confinement became the standard way of dealing with mentally disordered individuals. The third option, tameazuke [26], indicates an institution under control of the heads of the hinin (hinin-gashira 非人頭). Hinin, or eta, are taking in the ”failures” who flowed into Edo, i.e. homeless people roaming the streets, ill offenders of minor crimes, juvenile offenders and the mentally diseased or ranshin people, the so-called “poor mad”[27]. In these designated settlements, managed by as well as housing “undesirable people”, rudimentary medical care was provided. As far as we know, there were only two places for tameazuke, both located in Edo: in Asakusa under control of hiningashira Zenshichi (est. 1789) and in Shinagawa, where head Matsuemon was in charge (est. 1700). Omata points out that in the prison in Kodenma-cho 小伝馬町 the attached sanatorium was also managed by hinin[28].

hinin azuke

Map of tokyo in 1721. Encircled in red is a “hinin shed” for tameazuke. – from Takanagi Kaneyoshi (1978) – https://同和地区.com/wiki

Imprisonment and tameazuke appears to have been the logical choice in the capital Edo, whereas on the countryside the system of sashiko-ire still dominated. Itahara and Kuwabara compare tameazuke and the European “Great Confinement”, as addressed by Foucault.

Compared to England, where the “poor lunatics” were dealt with in asylums and workhouses, and France where enormous asylums were constructed to isolate and confine them, Japan did not resort to isolation or incarceration, but responded with a distinctive hinin system. From the Meiji period on, this was made the responsibility of the family, which incurred home confinement as a result (…). [29]

Suzuki, too, argues that due to the restricted growth of asylums in the post-Edo period, “pre-war Japan thus did not witness the full-bloom ‘great confinement’, which was a common feature in many western countries (…)”[30]. Nevertheless, it is clear that imprisonment, hinin hospices or confinement at home served mainly the purpose of keeping the mentally disordered “out of sight” and off the streets for the sake of public peace and order. This indicates a reinforced social stigma, rooted in the prejudice characterizing people with a mental disorder as violent, lacking and troublesome.

Footnotes and references

Download the list here.

Continue reading in the next post “Mental Health and the Transition to a Modern Japan”.

Leprosy Literature

leprosy9One year ago, I wrote a paper for Culture and Disability, an elective course in my Anthropology program. I took this course because, as you probably noticed by now, 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. For this course, I chose to write about Hansen’s Disease, which had (and has, to some degree) been a controversial topic in Japan. You can read about the history of leprosy in Japan in this post. While researching Japanese policies on Hansen’s disease I stumbled across the genre of leprosy literature. I felt that this topic deserved more attention, so here is a short introduction to the genre.

 From 1909 until this day, Hansen’s disease patients residing at leprosaria have produced a considerably large amount of literary works. The Collected Works of Hansen’s Disease Literature that is being published from the year 2002 on, covers thus far leprosy literature up to 1965 but counts already 10 volumes of each around 550 pages. Leprosy literature (rai bungaku 癩文学or hansenbyō bungaku ハンセン病文学) can be described as prose, essays and poetry on the topic of leprosy by leprosy sufferers, a unique phenomenon in its kind, since no other literary genre exists in Japan named after a disease. It is important to note that this excludes stories in which leprosy plays a role, but is not written by patients themselves.

leprosy3During the 1930s for example, Japanese people were fascinated by this phenomenon of leprosy, illustrated by the many whodunits in which not the murderer but the ‘leper’ who had infected the protagonist, had to be unmasked (Burns, 2004). More highbrow literature used leprosy as a metaphor for an inevitable fate. Neither of these genres centered around the experiences of the Hansen’s disease patient him/herself. On the contrary, such stories often encouraged the stigmatizing ideas about leprosy patients at that time. Literature written by patients, on the other hand, focused strongly on the psychological impact of being diagnosed with leprosy and the pursuit of happiness once inside the leprosarium.

hansenbyo bungakuFurthermore, leprosy literature is characterized by a particular style of writing. Traditional Japanese poetry such as haiku and tanka was often preferred over other literary genres since it was accessible in structure, allowed to convey personal feelings anonymously, and was usually composed in a collective setting (Tanaka, 2013). The establishment of poetry circles inside the leprosaria generated a feeling of belonging and community. Hence, literature produced by isolated leprosy patients can be regarded as an expression of a disability culture.

However, leprosy literature should not be considered as the literary materialization of right-based movement ideology or outside of the context of the isolation policy. “For some patients, an escape from social stigma and the sense of duty to the nation was a source of happiness. For others, they chafed at the forcible quarantine and life in the hospital. In their poems, the process of translation is a more complex process (Tanaka, 2013: 114)”. Burns (2004) points out that leprosy literature was not exclusively directed against the system of institutionalization; on the contrary, the institution itself was actively involved in the production of residents’ literature. Already in the 1930s, every leprosarium had its own journal which contained, besides reports and announcements, prose and poetry written by patients. Hence, the journal circulated mainly inside the leprosarium and was seldom read by ‘healthy’ people. This changed when leprosy patient Hōjō Tamio published a series of short stories with the recommendation of famous writer Kawabata Yasunari in a well-known literary journal. Intra-leprosarium competitions were also held, and these attracted exceptionally the attention of ‘outside’ readers.

The production of “leprosy literature” was thus mediated—indeed encouraged—by the leprosarium system, which provided an incentive to write by authorizing the annual competitions, created a medium for publication in the form of the house journals, and gave financial rewards and status to patients who became authors and editors. It is important to note, however, that censorship was involved as well. (Burns, 2004: 201)

Burns further argues that the encouragement of literary output by the Japanese authorities was a political strategy to promote the system of institutionalization. This places leprosy literature in a context of propaganda and self-censorship; through his or her own literature, the system created “a citizen who was willing to be hospitalized for the good of the nation, with every effort aiming for the eradication of the illness from the Japanese social landscape (Tanaka, 2013: 102)”. In other words, a cultural identity did not only emerge from among the patients themselves, it was also mediated,  reshaped and encouraged by the authorities in favor of an isolation policy. Especially the portrayal of the leprosarium as a place in which patients could rediscover the meaningfulness of life, served to assure both leprosy patients and ‘healthy’ people of the leprosarium’s usefulness.

Leprosy literature is indeed a unique genre that emerged from personal experiences intersecting with the social and political climate in Japan at a given point in history. All elements in the story of Japanese Hansen’s disease patients have contributed to the formation of this specific genre, which can thus be identified as an expression of disability culture. To finish, I introduce you to an example: this short poem (tanka 短歌) below was printed in a 1927 pamphlet and written by patient Kanemaru Yūichi. It appeared in translation in Tanaka (2013), but here I provide my own translation. For more poems, click on the link to read Tanaka’s article and translations.

ようやくに                  yōyaku ni                     Even if at last
病む心地さえ              yamu kokochi sae       I had forgotten the pain
忘れて得し                  wasurete eshi              in my heart, how lonely
吾に淋しき                  ware ni sabishiki        I felt when my dear father
慈父の門出よ              jifu no monde yo         departed through the gate

– Kyushu Leper Asylum Guide Book, 1927, p. 419


  • Burns, Susan L. “Making Illness into Identity: Writing ‘Leprosy Literature’ in Modern Japan.” Japan Review 16 (2004): 191–211.
  • Tanaka, K. M. “Contested Histories and Happiness: Leprosy Literature in Japan.” Health, Culture and Society 5, no. 1 (November 15, 2013). 
  • http://leprosy.jp/

Fox Possession & Modern Medicine

mental health 7 bannerIt has been a while, but in this post I would like to share another part of my (previous) 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 12345, 6 first before getting into this one. Part 7 will discuss interpretations of madness through fox possession and other cultural constructions, while paying attention to the introduction of modern medicine and the social changes in the perception of mental health this brought along.

Fox possession (kitsunetsuki 狐憑き) became the most valid and prevalent explanation for mental disorders in the Edo period, supplemented by badger (tanuki 狸) and goblin (tengu 天狗) possession. In contrast to possession by demons (mono no ke) and deities (kami), as had been common during the Nara and Heian period[1], foxes underwent a cultural emancipation and started to play a major role in a “world where fox possession was a matter of course[2]” from the early 17th century on. Lafcadio Hearn recorded this phenomenon in detail in his work Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan.


Hearn and wife

Goblin foxes are peculiarly dreaded in Izumo for three evil habits attributed to them. (…) The third and worst is that of entering into people and taking diabolical possession of them and tormenting them into madness. This affliction is called “kitsune-tsuki.” Strange is the madness of those into whom demon foxes enter. Sometimes they run naked shouting through the streets. Sometimes they lie down and froth at the mouth, and yelp as a fox yelps. (…) It not infrequently happens that the victims of fox-possession are cruelly treated by their relatives—being severely burned and beaten in the hope that the fox may be thus driven away. Then the Hoin or Yamabushi is sent for—the exorciser. The exorciser argues with the fox, who speaks through the mouth of the possessed. When the fox is reduced to silence by religious argument upon the wickedness of possessing people, he usually agrees to go away on condition of being supplied with plenty of tofu or other food[.] (…) For all these reasons, and doubtless many more, people believed to have foxes are shunned. Inter-marriage with a fox-possessing family is out of the question; and many a beautiful and accomplished girl in Izumo cannot secure a husband because of the popular belief that her family harbours foxes. (…) Very strong men are believed to be proof against all such goblinry.[3]

From this account, we learn that the possessed, although not personally blamed for their condition, were sometimes treated cruelly and faced discrimination even after recovery. Similar to mono no ke and monogurui, fox possession involves an external, evil source invading the body and dominating it from the inside, thus driving it mad. Moreover, it was believed that a lack of physical strength facilitates such afflictions. Fox possession was viewed as the cause of eccentric behavior, unnatural death, disappearances, fleeing the village, transformations and other actions regarded as “madness”. Other, often bizarre stories of fox possession are mentioned in countless Japanese works from the late Edo period, such as in Ear Bag (Mimibukuro 耳嚢), Anecdotes from the North Window (Hokusōsadan 北窓瑣談) and Kokutensago (黒甜瑣語)[4].


Fox possession drawn by Okada Gyokusan. The image dates back to the Edo period

Moreover, the kitsunetsuki theory was still supported by physicians: in Evening Talks of the Kasshi-cycle Year (Kasshiyawa 甲子夜話), a doctor witnesses a fox haunting a woman and threatening to kill her, while in Shunparōhikki (春波楼筆記), the medical treatment of a possessed patient is described[5]. Nevertheless, some physicians were skeptical about the assumed spiritual origin of “madness” and suggested that perhaps it could be regarded as some kind of illness. The author of Ear Bag lists several anecdotes involving fox and badger possession but did not leave the impression of believing the stories himself[6]. Kagawa Shūtoku香川修徳 wrote in Ippondō Gyōyoigen (一本堂行余医言, op. posth. 1807): “That which is commonly called fox possession is always the symptom of a mania (kyōshō 狂症); it is not the curse of a fox or badger. Only once or twice in hundred, thousand cases they are really possessed by a fox[7]”. The Accounts of Official Business 御用留帳 (Goyōdomechō, 1703-1867) in Moriyama, Michinoku, give various descriptions of incidents involving “mad” people, but recognizes in most cases their “madness” as an illness or as a result of intoxication (shukyō 酒狂).

There are, however limited, still examples of “madness” interpreted as fox or spirit possession[8]. In short, the new interpretation of “madness”, instigated by the venue of medical science, did not yet fully exclude the traditional perception of fox possession. On the contrary, both concepts were complementary because they were regarded as the cause for completely different symptoms – a comprehensive idea in the modern sense like “mental disorders” was not yet developed. In the medical books of the Edo period, we find descriptions of spirit possessions interpreted as jasui 邪祟 (“evil curse”)[9]. Hence, fox possession was only rejected as a wrong and superstitious interpretation of “madness” from modern times on[10].


Jozef Guislain from Ghent specialized in the humane treatment of the mentally ill.

The introduction of western medicine by the Dutch (ranpō igaku 蘭方医学) brought along the notion of an interior pathogenesis[11], in contrast with the traditional belief that “madness or other illnesses were caused by the addition of something exterior, similar to injuries or intoxication[12]”. The idea that consciousness, and therefore the cause of “madness” is situated in the brain, as suggested by the Dutch, was revolutionary[13]. It also complicated treatment, since the usual exorcism was deemed not appropriate anymore to cure mental afflictions. In a medical context, jasui was no longer “the subject of shamanistic treatment but took meaning as an action approached from a doctor’s standpoint[14]”.

However, treatment rooted in tradition was still prescribed[15]. For example, Kagawa Shūtoku recommended in his practical work Ippondō Yakusen (一本堂薬撰, 1738) “sprinkling of water as effective against demonstrated madness[16]”. In other words, in the Edo period, some mental disorders were still perceived as spirit possessions and necessitated traditional methods, but in combination with newly introduced medical treatment. In premodern Japan,

[Madness] sometimes invaded the body from the outside and could then be expelled. It was regarded as something supernatural and exterior. Hence, it was possible for the person who was possessed by a fox to return to his normal condition by removing the evil spirit from his body and mind. Fox possession was certainly not viewed as irreversible or incurable, and the possessed was therefore not criticized according to secular morals. [17]

Once the evil was removed, the patient could return to his state as before the possession. “Madness” was something superfluous that did not originate from the afflicted person himself and could easily be removed. As a result, those who were or had been possessed by evil spirits were not regularly the subject of social stigma, although it must be said that some faced cruel treatment that was directed toward the fox “inside” them. This is in contrast with “madness” later defined as a “mental illness”, whereby “the existence of the patient himself was the foundation on which the mental originated; not only did this relate to the moment when the illness manifested itself, its time-axis was to be traced back to the patient’s past[18]”. Even with a gradual development of psychiatry, doctors kept struggling to give a clear explanation for mental diseases, whereas a curse or possession had provided cause and meaning for “madness” in se[19]. “Madness” grew highly personal, and provoked stigmatizing attitudes claiming that the patient himself was at fault or that mental disorders were untreatable.


download the list here.

All pictures are from Wikimedia Commons

Continue reading in the next post “Early Modern Mental Health Facilities in Japan”.

My Internship in Japan: Kyushu Travels III

kyushu travels banner

In a 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 III of the Kyushu travels posts (click for Part I and Part II). It is also the last part, and coincides neatly with the submission of my final thesis which was based on my internship and fieldwork in Kyushu. 

The first place I want to introduce you to is Hitoyoshi city 人吉市, although we basically just drove through it. Positioned on the border of Kumamoto prefecture, Miyazaki prefecture and Kagoshima prefecture in the South, Hitoyoshi is surrounded by mountains and forests, the natural borders. It houses a national treasure, the Aoi Aso shrine青井阿蘇神社. According to legend, the shrine was founded in 806. It is thanks to the powerful Sagara clan 相良氏, who ruled for 700 years, that the temple still stands: it was more or less common for daimyō 大名(feudal lords) to destroy everything that preceded their reign, and the culture-loving Sagara clan did not. We visited a Buddhist temple, the Shōrenji Amidado青蓮寺阿弥陀堂, built in 1295. This is all I know about Hitoyoshi, so let’s move on to the next location!

A 40-minute drive away lies Mizukami village 水上村. Only a little over 2,000 people live in Mizukami, and yet I was so lucky to meet two elderly residents and have a conversation over lunch at their place. To prepare for winter times, they had been pickling all sorts of vegetables and fruits in big plastic jars. Their house was impressive: it was traditionally built, with an enormous fireplace in the living room and some smaller ones in he kitchen – no need for air conditioning or central heating. Not surprisingly, the profession of the house master was fireplace builder, quite a unique specialization in these modern times. As a young boy, he excelled in baseball but gave up his dream to help out his family. We had a conversation about the rural lifestyle: he remembered that every family kept goats and chickens to eat away grass and leftovers. People ate wild boar’s meat with herbs to strengthen the body. In times of poverty, around 50 years ago, all types of animals were consumed: birds, deer, raccoon dogs, goats, dogs… On another note, I was told that the men in Mizukami are strong and can drink a lot of alcohol. Yet, in reality, they die on a younger age because of these expectations.


Traditional fireplace in Mizukami

Mizukami is blessed with a sacred forest around mount Ichifusa, marked by a torii, a shinto gate. The trees, almost all cedars are enormous, very old and spectacular. Can you spot the twin tree? Some trees are over 1000 years old. They mark the path that people walk to visit the shrine.

I visited Itsuki village 五木村 on a rainy but beautiful fall day. With its mixed forest of colorful maples and evergreen trees, Itsuki is located high in the mountains, and is particularly famous for its lullaby, itsuki komoriuta 五木子守歌. In the past, many poor people lived here. Their children travelled through the mountains looking for a job to do, while singing sad songs. One of these songs, a lullaby sung by a babysitter, has been rediscovered in the 1930s and is a classic nowadays. When you pull up into the parking lot of the local specialities shop, you are welcomed by the sad sound of lullabies. Itsuki is also known for its tofu specialities such as inaka tōfu, tofu that tastes like cream cheese, and yamauni tōfu, tofu fermented with miso.

On the other side of the prefectural border lies Morotsuka village 諸塚村. The forests, covering 95% of Morotsuka, form a unique patchwork of broad-leaf trees, cedars, bamboo, tea plants… In 2015, the forest was acknowledged as World Agricultural Heritage. Most of these forests are private property and are sustainably managed by families. Locals cultivate shiitake シイタケ, a type of mushroom, on oaks and beeches, and the exquisite wood itself is logged and sold with an FSC label. Of the 1,700 inhabitants, only a couple of residences can occupy the higher grounds because the danger exists that they go down the slope like dominoes when too many houses are built there: the strong winds can create an unstable situation. I was in the passenger’s seat when we drove through the hills and I can tell you – it’s not the most relaxing drive, although the view is phenomenal.

Mushrooms are sold in the shopping street in all forms and shapes: fresh, dried, in powder form, still on a tree stump… Besides the mushrooms, different types of potatoes (such as the bright purple one in the picture above) are local specialities. Because of the many quality trees, bees also feel at home in Morotsuka. Locals eat honey including the comb as a snack. I had a little piece the next day, it really is sickening sweet! I don’t know if you would like to try it out, but another delicacy of Morotsuka is bee larvae. Apparently, these are yummy when fried on the stove.

Speaking about bees, did you know that one of my greatest fears during my internship were these striped creatures? Before you start laughing, I need to tell you that the Japanese countryside is home to the venomous Asian giant hornet. When you get stung, there is a high chance you get into anaphylactic shock, or suffer a cardiac arrest or multiple organ failure. Taking into consideration that the nearest hospital is 20 minutes away by car and that every year 30 people die from it, it was only normal that I  got terrified when I saw or heard one buzzing around. At one point, we were logging bamboo wood in the forest and saw a giant beehive between the trees. We returned home pretty quickly. Pro tip: you should stand very still until the monster moves on…

kobayashi frogs nojirikopia


To assist at two lectures in Miyazaki prefecture, I visited the towns of Tōgo 東郷町 and Kobayashi 小林市 briefly. In Tōgo, I noticed some interesting specialities at the local shop. For example, you could buy rice bran in large quantities (used for cooking and cleaning purposes). They also had the biggest yuzu (citrus fruit) I have ever seen and corn rice and black rice. Kobayashi, on the other hand, is known for its fruits: melon, pear and grapes. The streetlights were shaped like melons, how cute is that? Kobayashi is also home to an amusement park called Nojirikopia 野尻湖ピア where you can find an enormous amount of – creepy – frog statues. A lady told me that this is an expression of the local’s quirky sense of humor: in Japanese, the word for ‘frog’ is pronounced the same as the verb ‘return home’ (kaeru). Kobayashi town struggles with depopulation, since many young people move to big cities (e.g. to Miyazaki for university studies) and never come back. With the frogs, they want to persuade the younger generation to stay in their home town.

Yatsushiro 八代市 is one of the largest cities in Kumamoto prefecture. When driving from Minamata to Yatsushiro, you might notice something very un-Japanese: the land close to the water, the Yatsushiro Sea, is completely flat, while mountains rise up on your right side. In the past, the sea level reached to those mountains. At some point in history, the area became wetland, and nowadays the sea level has lowered so much that the flat land can be used to live and work on. For centuries, Yatsushiro thrived as a port town, shipping to Nagasaki and beyond. The history center of Yatsushiro is located next to a small river. In the past there was a big castle, but now only a shinto shrine ( Yatsushiro-gū 八代宮 or myōken-gu 妙見宮) remains.

According to legend, the deity Myōken, god of the North Star, came to Yatsushiro on the back of a mythical sea creature called Kida. Kida, on the picture right above, is part turtle and part snake. During the shrine’s festival, a representation of Kida, weighing 200 kilo, is carried through the streets. The whole town dresses up in historical clothes and holds a procession, which also involves the controversial practice of getting horses drunk on sake and forcing them to run through the noisy crowd.  Besides sliced horse meat (馬刺し basashi), other specialities of the region are karashi renkon 辛しレンコン (lotus roots stuffed with spicy mustard) and pottery (Yatsushiro-yaki 八代焼).


Ukiha city

Last but not least, we arrived in Ukiha city うきは市 on the day of my departure back to Belgium. This city in Fukuoka prefecture is particularly attractive because of its well-preserved white-washed walls, paper lanterns and traditional houses. These look even more lovely when decorated with dolls for the Hina doll festival. The place is also known as “Kingdom of Fruits”, giving locals and visitors the opportunity to pick fruits in the many orchards. We visited a traditional crafts store in Ukiha, where I bought some souvenirs (very timely, I know) and a present for myself – a glass necklace (picture below on the right). We looked around the shop and had a chat with the artisan himself. He had travelled to Spain to study the stained glass technique, and was now probably the only one in Japan who applied Japanese motives and themes to glass art objects. The necklace I got is a perfect combination of my love for stained glass (the prettiest part of European churches, in my opinion), my love for Japanese arts and crafts and my love for nature. The purple flower is a bell or balloon flower (桔梗 kikyō), native to East Asia. In ‘flower language’ (花言葉 hanakotoba), the bell-flower represents eternal love and faithfulness.

Now that I have guided you around Kyushu, I  will finish this series with sharing some fun and surprising things I experienced. For example:

  • That time when I was invited to the wedding of people I didn’t know. I was even ‘forced’ to be in the official wedding picture despite my objection – not in the back but in full sight on the second row, behind the parents of the bride. I imagine the happy couple going through their wedding pictures ten years from now and wondering what that foreigner with casual clothes was doing there… At least they were happy with my wedding gift: a box of Belgian chocolates!

  • That time when I had tea in a tea field, located 700m above sea level. Even better: the tea in my cup is the same tea as produced on that particular field. Also, I was gifted so much tea that a quarter of my luggage was filled with packs of tea. As you might remember from a previous post, I worked for 4 days on a tea farm and the farmer gifted me a bag of the tea leaves I had selected and labelled it “Ann’s 3 year Bancha tea”. Nothing is more satisfactory than enjoying something you made yourself.

  • Those times I looked my finest in Japanese granny clothes. I can’t stop giggling when I look at these pictures, can you? On the countryside, you need to be covered fully when going out to work in the field, because insects can do nasty things to you. In the picture left, I had already gotten rid of my gloves, sunglasses, fishing jacket, rubber boots and dirty socks. My red face is proof that it’s no fun working in this outfit, logging and burning bamboo wood in the forest, while it is 25 degrees Celsius outside. In the right picture, I am ready to make some traditional Japanese sweets. Most of the clothes I could borrow from the lady of the house, since I did not bring the appropriate work outfit.

  • That time I attended not one, but two sports festivals at local elementary schools on two consecutive days. I sat with the families, watched the games and even participated twice, once in hoop rolling and once in throwing balls. I had a great time! Of course, the bentos were spectacular. And the kids were cute (even though they surrounded me and yelled “American” and “foreigner” (gaijin – derogatory). When I talked back and they got quiet because they did not expect me to speak Japanese, I took the opportunity to lecture them not to say something like that again).

  • That time I saw Manneken Pis in Minamata, and that time Kumamon visited the Minamata public library, casually scanning books the children wanted to borrow. You can say what you want, I get why the Japanese are so found of Kumamon, he’s a charming fellow. Why Manneken Pis is somewhere on a street corner in Minamata, on the other hand, I do not get.

  • That time Japan was surprisingly vegan: my favorites were the colorful vegetable sushi I enjoyed in Hita and the plant-based curry dish I helped making in the community kitchen of Minamata (still not advising you to go unprepared to Japan as a vegan, though).

  • That time I screen printed a t-shirt and that time I was taught how to play the koto, both for the first time. My dad is wearing the deer t-shirt now and I can’t wait for another opportunity to play the koto. The score is totally different from what I read in orchestra, a real challenge.

As you can read, I learned a lot during these nine weeks of internship. On my own, I would have never been able to travel to so many places and to meet that many interesting people. I received the opportunity to participate in daily life on the Japanese countryside, and wish to extend my gratitude to everyone who made this possible! ありがとうございました。

All pictures are mine, unless stated otherwise.

My Internship in Japan: Kyushu Travels II

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In a 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 II of the Kyushu travels posts. You can find part one here.

Let’s get this second part starting with a visit to Oita prefecture. I went to Hita city twice with side trips to Yufuin town and Ōyama town, the latter officially part of Hita since 2005. Hita city 日田市 gained importance at the end of the sixteenth century as the headquarters of the Toyotomi clan. Later, is was assigned as tenryō 天領, shogunal demesne for tax collection and other administrative matters, a center of power from where the Tokugawa shoguns ruled over Kyushu. Commerce and culture in Hita thrived, and the city became known as “little Kyoto” 小京都, still visible in the historic shopping street of Mameda nowadays.  Hita is known for its antique hina doll collection, imported by rich families during the Edo period, and geta, Japanese sandals, made from the excellent cedar trees that the surround the area.

A small village in Hita called Onta 小鹿田 houses only ten families who all share the same occupation: making pottery. Around 300 years ago, the three clans Yanase, Kuroki and Sakamoto established themselves there and started the tradition of Onta ware (ontayaki 小鹿田焼). Onta pottery is easily recognized by its simple but tasteful design and the unique comb-like patterns. Once you have set eyes on it, you will be able to recognize it everywhere. The potters retrieve the yellow-colored clay, rich in iron, from the surrounding mountains. Today, Onta pottery has been designated Intangible Cultural Property but until eighty years ago, nobody knew about it. As a result, visiting Onta is like stepping into a world where time stands still. Because my pictures are of mediocre quality, I recommend you to look for better ones on the Internet (Onta has been captured beautifully by Simone Armer, for example).

The first thing you notice, is the pounding sound from the karausu 唐臼, wooden constructions powered by water energy and operated all day long without manpower or electricity. Through a small mill, water is scooped from the river below and poured into the hollow side of the beam. With every “thump”, the water-filled side tilts and the hammer on the other side crushes the clay to powder  – this sound has been selected as one of the 100 soundscapes of Japan. Every family can only have two pottery wheels, and since the profession is passed on in a patrilineal way (yes, it’s very traditions), the grandfather will stop working once the oldest grandson is ready to take over. The labor-intensive task of preparing the clay is done by the female family members. They transfer the crushed clay from the karausu pits to a trough with water, and then put it on top of a kiln to harden. When the clay is moulded and decorated in the desired shape, the onta ware is placed outside to dry in the sun. In the last phase, the pottery is burned for 60 hours and glazed. The “climbing kilns” in which this happens is only lit five times a year. During that time, the potter is barely allowed to sleep, because he has to watch over his pottery.

I had expected a lot of tourists in Onta, but we were the only people walking around, chatting with the potters and buying plates and cups in the shops. If you are in the vicinity, please go take a look! Every time I write about it, I am amazed by the fact that a place like Onta exists: its uniqueness is almost indescribable. As an afternoon snack that day, we had handmade soba in the only restaurant in the village – the plain noodles mirror the simplicity and quality of Onta ware perfectly. Yet, the area is not spared from natural disaster. Some time before my visit, the neighboring village Ono had been hit by a landslide caused by torrential rains in July 2017. As you can see from the picture below, the houses alongside the river were completely wept away, giving rise to three casualties…

Once an independent town, Ōyama 大山 is now part of the expanding city of Hita. Oyama has an interesting history: until 1961, the local agriculture focused, with governmental support, on the cultivation of rice. But unlike other areas, Ōyama’s fields are too small for this type of cultivation and the population remained in poverty. As a result, the New Plum and Chestnut Movement was established, which provided farmer residents with subsidized seedlings and training session to facilitate the transition. Plum and chestnut crops proved to be succesful. Ōyama is now famous for these products: they organize annual umeboshi (dried plum) contests and festivals, and I can personally testify to the umeboshi’s deliciousness.

Moreover, agricultural successes led to wealth. An illustration of this is the slogan “Let’s plant plum and chestnut trees and go to Hawaii” (For decades, Hawaii has been the holiday destination by excellence for well-off Japanese). Apparently, at the end of the sixties, Ōyama residents had the highest rate of passport ownership in Japan with 70%! I visited the direct-sales stores Konohana Garten that features almost thousand locally produced items, and stuffed my belly at the popular buffet-style restaurant next-door.

Fifty kilometers east of Hita city lies Yufuin town 湯布院町. What I heard from the locals, goes as following: in the beginning, Yufuin was very rural with slim future perspectives. It had, however, amazing views on the surrounding lakes, rivers and mountains, and a several onsen, natural hot springs. Three young people took matters into their own hands, travelled to Baden-Baden in Germany, the mecca for natural springs in Europe, and learned how to make Yufuin more attractive to outsiders. Nowadays, the town is a popular destination for domestic as well as international tourism. One lady told me that where she used to make crayon drawings on rocks in wasteland, is now the main shopping street. Although most onsen are still resident-only, a couple of spas have been opened for tourists. I visited a high-end ryokan, one of the three traditional hotels in Yufuin that have contributed to the town’s attractiveness.

Yufuin is also home to a remarkable tradition: the screaming contest. First, everyone gathers on a large meadow for a local beef barbecue. Then, participants can shout whatever they feel like, going from personal worries to political statements. The screamer with the loudest voice – measured in decibel – wins (movie from 2015 here). Although I could not witness this bizarre contest, I had the opportunity to visit some talented craftsmen around town. First, I made my way to the atelier of designer Tokimatsu Tatsuo. He creates tableware and utensils by hand from a variety of wood types. One of his former apprentices started his own shop specializing in chopsticks nine years ago – a rarity. When I asked him about this choice, he explained that with chopsticks, not much of the wood is wasted. Here as well, you can choose between a whole array of wood types, lengths and styles. As a customer, it’s like choosing a wand in Diagon Alley. I was presented one of 25 centimeters in cherry tree wood. Did you know that it takes 4 years to make a qualitative pair of chopsticks? That is how long the cut wood needs to dry.

I spent most of my internship time on Kyūshū, but one day we crossed the border and entered Honshū, Japan’s main island. On the most Southern tip lies the city of Shimonoseki 下関. I was particularly excited about the visit because of Shimonoseki’s historical value. in the twelfth century, the decisive sea battle between the Minamoto and the Taira was fought in the bay of Dan-no-ura. Before there was a bridge, one could not easily cross the strait by boat between Honshū and Kyūshū because of the strong current. As a result, Shimonoseki lodged many travelers. During the Edo period, the Chōshū domain (the current Yamaguchi prefecture) ruled by the Mōri clan played an important role, and Shimonoseki attracted many influential politicians. In 1863, the battle of Shimonoseki Straits took place, followed by an almost year-long bombardment of the city by the foreign forces of US, The Netherlands, UK and France. The Japanese were forced to surrender. As a result, you can still visit foreign buildings around the city, such as the Former British Consulate (there was a Beatrix Potter exhibit going on). On the picture right, you can spot a garden on the roof of the building in eclectic Japanese-European style from the Former Akita Company: this was the first rooftop garden in Japan, and probably one of the first ones worldwide.

For the foodies among us, besides fugu fish and squid, Shimonoseki is known for its kawara soba, green tea buckwheat noodles, pork or beef, egg, seaweed, green onion, grated radish, lemon and chili flakes baked on a hot roof tile. To eat, you dip it in a tuna-based soup. According to legend, soldiers in the 19th century civil war heated their food on similar roof tiles due to lack of cooking materials. A clever soba maker reinvented this original way of serving soba in the 1960s, and it has only become more popular since then. Because of my dietary choices I cannot tell you how it tasted, but it sure looked delicious!

The kawara soba dish can only be enjoyed in Kawatana Onsen, a rural district at the outskirts of Shimonoseki. Perhaps it was just because of the stunning weather, but I thought Kawatana was like paradise. Not only are there tons of hot springs, nature has outdone itself by giving the residents a view to die for: primeval forests, beaches, mountains with hiking trails, near-by desert islands to camp on, historic pilgrimage routes, an excellent jogging path around the dam (see below) … In terms of culture, things can not get more exciting than this legend about a blue dragon. Once upon a time, when Kawatana was still swampland, an enormous blue dragon lived in the water. In the 6th century, an earthquake struck the area and killed the dragon. But the villagers kept praying for the magnificent creature, and they were rewarded with onsen, hot water that welled up from the earth.

But do not only take my word about Kawatana’s attractiveness: many poets and authors have come here to end their life in beauty. Not a few haikus have been written on this view. I wish to highlight one of them, written by Taneda Santōka 種田 山頭火:

「こころつかれて| 山が海が|うつくしすぎる」

kokoro tsukarete | yama ga umi ga | utsukushisugiru .

My heart is tired | the mountains, the sea | They are too beautiful (own translation)

A couple of his poems are engraved in rocks surrounding a thousand-year old camphor tree, which I could not fit in one picture (left). Kawatana has also been pimped to appeal more young artists, for example with the construction of an ultra-modern concert/cultural center, the Cortot Hall in 2010. The Hall was named after the Swiss musician  and founder of the Ecole Normale de musique de Paris Alfred Cortot, who had toured around Japan in the 1950s. At one point, he gazed out of his window at the Grand hotel in Kawatana and spotted the most beautiful island he had ever seen, Atsushima. It was his dream to live alone on that island. He started negotiations to buy it, but the village chief simply said: “if you come live here, I will give it to you for free”. From that time on, the island was known as 孤留島 Korutō, the same pronunciation as his name, with the kanji meaning ‘stay alone island’. Unfortunately, Cortot was unable return to Kawatana and he died of kidney failure ten years later. To celebrate 150 years of friendship between France and Japan, many musical events have been organised in partnership here since 2008.

Some more fun facts about Kawatana: 1) the vanguards are yellow instead of white. 2) Elderly ladies are called “sister” (neechan, neesan, oneesama) instead of “granny” (baachan, obaasan, obaasama), how cute is that? 3) The onsen contain radium (in a small-not-so-radioactive degree), which makes them more rare.

The next day, we drove further East to Tokiwa Park in Ube city 宇部市. Ube has a questionable reputation as an industrial coal city. In the past, this created so much air pollution that white laundry drying outside turned black instantly – and I can only imagine how badly the smog affected the residents’ health. Because of the passive attitude of the authorities in the 90s, a bottom-up movement took matters into their own hands: they wanted to transform Ube into a city of flowers, greenery and sculptures. Its showpiece is Tokiwa park ときわ公園 where all three elements are represented. I attended a meeting with a group of volunteers, who maintain the flower beds every Sunday. You can also enjoy interactive modern art sculptures in the park.

Further on the road, we made a brief stop in Yamaguchi to check out the vertical garden at the Shinyamaguchi shinkansen station. this vertical garden was designed by the French botanist Patrick Blanc. He researched over 100 local plants in the surrounding mountains. The plants were put into pockets of felt and attached to the wall. You can watch this making-of video [in Japanese], because my picture has particularly bad lighting.

Our last stop before heading back to Minamata was Hisayama 久山町, a town nearby Fukuoka. In Hisayama, koi fish swim in the ditches. In a popular local store, they sell ice cream with soy sauce flavor. You can imagine I was impressed. Food-wise, the area is also known for its dashi, or soup stock. Normally dashi is made from fish and kelp, but here you could choose from a variety of vegetable, mushroom, meat and fish stocks. Another fun feature of Hisayama is its scarecrows. Instead of boring straw puppets, the Hisayama residents bring it to a whole new level. They dress up their scarecrows and create a story around them. As is to be expected in a country with thousands of festivals, there is an annual scarecrow matsuri in Northern Hisayama during Fall. I have no pictures, but I googled it here for you. Go check it out, it’s highly amusing (and slightly creepy).

That’s it for this time! In the next post, we will continue our journey to other rural destinations across Kyushu. See you then!