wp-image-1575460682jpg.jpgAt this moment, my university (KU Leuven in Belgium) and other institutions are commemorating Thomas More’s Utopia. This work, written in Latin and edited by Erasmus, was published by Dirk Martens in Leuven, the city where I study, exactly 500 years ago. (Okay, I started working on this post in 2016, so it’s 501 years ago now.) Utopia is a frame story about a fictitious island. The title, a neologism invented by More’s good friend Erasmus but derived from the Greek language, means “no place”, not to be confused with eutopia, “good place”. Nevertheless, More gives the impression that Utopia really existed, providing the reader not only with a detailed description of the island, but also inserting several letters to his own friends such as Peter Giles, town clerk of Antwerp, who plays a role in the story too. Additionally, the book was furnished with a map of the island, the Utopian alphabet (designed by Peter Giles) and two poems in the Utopian language with translation.

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The work itself consists out of two books: the first book covers discussions and criticism on the “real” society while the second book goes into details about the unknown island of Utopia. A character called More (a surrogate for the author) is introduced by his friend Peter Giles to Raphael Hythloday, the Portuguese explorer that discovered Utopia. They discuss the current political situation in Europe, ethical issues in serving at court, social abuse that leads to theft and other topics. In the second book, Hythloday recounts his journey to Utopia. During his stay of 5 years, he familiarized himself with the remarkable Utopian customs. A description of these customs would take more than one post, so check out this summary if you are interested.

Utopia paved the way for a whole new genre of literature. The ideas the humanist and statesman More (1478-1535) put forward in his book, are still relevant and inspiring today (for example the 6-hour working day Sweden has been experimenting with), and some ideas have even come true. However, not all of the Utopian customs would be considered OK nowadays. Slavery, for example, was still a thing. Moreover, it is wrong to think that Utopia represents the perfect society because this was not More’s intention at all – the difference between “eutopia” and “utopia” is really important here. On the contrary, the author distances himself from some of the Utopian ideals and principles. Therefore, Utopia should be read as a criticism of the society More lived in. Not an easy task, by the way: the danger of critiquing society directly is illustrated by the fact that More was later beheaded because he did not go along with Henry VIII’s plan for the establishment of a Church of England.

Climbing the Utopia-themed stairs to the Japanese collection at the University Library

You are probably wondering what this has to do with Japan. Well, I was curious whether, traditionally speaking, Japanese literature also covers a genre of utopian writings. This has been a question often addressed by scholars, and the usual answer is: no, not in the Western sense of the word (not so strange because the genre was named after More’s Utopia), but yes, Japanese literature includes utopian-ish texts, especially works written during the Meiji period (1868-1912). Apparently, utopian works in the West are characterized by a constant shift in position between reality and the imaginary world. The difficulties the reader is faced with in trying to distinguish between what is fictional and what is real, is precisely the level of ambiguity utopian literature aims for.

It is argued that in Japanese works, this ambiguity is not very present. However, the differences between Western utopias and Japanese literature on a similar topic do not indicate that Japanese works are ‘underdeveloped’ or lacking what their western counterpart have: this would be measuring with a Western yardstick. Imagine if a pasta dish was critically evaluated based on its similarity to ramen, Japanese noodle soup (both are tasty in their own way, right?). Moreover, in the manga, anime and Japanese drama of today, a utopian setting is often used. This has certainly been influenced by the popularity of western science fiction from the postwar period on, but apparently utopian-ish genres date back to the Edo period or even earlier. The length of this post will convince you that comparing both literary traditions is more complex than is often assumed.


Example of a “kibyoshi” from 1809 – http://www.arc.ritsumei.ac.jp/

Burton (2007) points out that in mid-Edo times, a genre of fantastic travel narratives existed that was also used to critique contemporary society: kibyōshi 黄表紙 “yellow cover books”, the first comic books for adults. Because Japan was isolated from the rest of the world due to a policy of seclusion (sakoku 鎖国) at that time, the Japanese became fascinated by these booklets with their yellow covers that illustrated in words and (lots of) pictures the (imaginative) travels to far, exotic countries and their curious inhabitants. Burton further argues that the Japanese travel narratives were highly influenced by much older Chinese sources, often rooted in Taoist and Buddhist iconography. Such fantastic tales were regularly set in a different time period, to completely mask the fact that they were actually criticism on contemporary society. By doing so, authors could address political or other “forbidden” themes in a satirical way that would be censored otherwise. Although kibyōshi did not stand the test of time and popular authors soon disappeared into oblivion, the idea of a hypothetical world inspired Japanese writers in the centuries afterwards. 


Japanese translation of More’s Utopia

More highbrow alternatives for  kibyōshi  are Ihara Saikaku’s  “Island of Women” (女護島 nyogonoshima) in which the author criticizes gender inequality, and Yoshitsune’s trip to fantastic islands with half-human, half-animals creatures  in the classic  The Tale of the Heike (平家物語 Heike monogatari). Once Japan’s borders opened up for foreign literature in the second half of the 19th century, the Japanese public became fascinated by Western utopias. For example, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels was translated and published in 1880, More’s Utopia the year after that. Moichi (1999) argues that the Japanese imported Western novels as a type of Western technology that had a political purpose. As a result, Japanese utopian-style texts inspired by this Western literature mainly promoted a modern ideology, which they hoped would result in political change in Japan’s near future. Coincidently, the Japanese public gained an enormous interest in writings on the future – eutopian or dystopian (the latter was slightly favored because it could shock the readers more).

I could devote an entire post to the well-established tradition of futurological literature in Japan, but at least an introduction is in order since both genres are often interlinked (stories about other, unfamiliar worlds regularly take place in the future). Drawing on the contents of an interesting class I took last year, I was able to trace the origins of futuristic narratives back to early Japanese history. The genre of miraiki (未来記 “record of the future”) is a literary tradition in Japanese history that has its roots in Chinese dynastic writings. At the start of every new dynasty in China (often established by means of a massacre), the new royal family had to justify why they deserved the “heavenly mandate”  (tenmei 天命) by discrediting the previous dynasty. Hence, they referred to a text that had “predicted” the rightful establishment of a new dynasty (the massacre part of the old dynasty was also slightly downplayed).


“Prince Shotoku’s secret writings “Miraiki” disclosed”

It is not difficult to guess that this text was written by the new dynasty and not by someone in the past. As a result, we can regard traditional “futuristic texts” more as writings about the past than about the future. Since Japan does not have a dynastic system, their take on futuristic texts was different: most miraiki were attributed to Prince Shōtoku (Shōtoku Taishi 聖徳太子, 574-622) who is said to be capable of predicting the future. Those texts emerged throughout the Heian period and the Japanese Middle Ages. Similar to the Chinese original, miraiki were used in political discourse for refiguring the past. So here as well, miraiki are part of a literary tradition that claims to be futurological in spirit but is actually historical. The reliance on Prince Shōtoku’s authority to introduce certain standpoints clearly indicates the political character of miraiki. 

Miraiki underwent a drastic transformation from the Edo period  (1603-1868) on: they were trivialized and appeared in the form of satiric kibyōshi for the general public (this should ring a bell for attentive readers!). In other words, the genre of kibyōshi is believed to emerge from the tradition of miraiki. Yet, these “new” miraiki differed considerably. Kibyōshi stories are not necessarily set in the future, but those that are, are seen as equally impossible as utopian-ish stories, which results in absurd and comical narratives. This changed, again, with the arrival of Western futuristic works at the beginning of the Meiji period (1868-1912). The future became more approachable, and speculation about it less absurd. According to Kurita (2000: 6), “Japanese during the formative years of Meiji, like the founders of the United States (…) had an unusually keen interest in proactively creating their own future.” Reminiscent of miraiki literature, it is remarkable that, once again, Japan wanted nothing more than to glorify and at the same time rewrite its past: the Meiji Restoration is characterized by a desire to go back to imperial rule and make an end to the power of the shogunate that had been overshadowing the emperor’s leadership from 1185 on. Hence, the future of Japan was envisioned with the past in mind.

anno-2065Kurita further argues that the reception of the Dutch novel Anno 2065; Een Blik in de Toekomst (“A Glimpse into the Future”, 1865) by Dr. Dioscorides aka Pieter Harting in Japan acted as the stimulus to another change in literary perception of the future. Anno 2065 appealed to the Japanese because of its “dream device”. The narrator falls asleep and wakes up in the future. According to Kurita, this inspired many Japanese authors to use  the same dream device in their miraiki. However, it should be noted that the “dream”, or rather, “the magical dream pillow” is a traditional element in Chinese, Korean and Japanese storytelling, and we should be careful to interpret the presence of it in Meiji period miraiki as a mere imitation of Western works that use a similar device. From the 1880s on, the refashioned miraiki integrated a Western notion of utopianism and futurology by not only focusing on the past, but also taking present understandings into consideration. Between 1885 and 1890, more than 100 miraiki were published.

One work in particular, Nijūsannen miraiki 二十三年未来記 (The Year 23: A Record of the Future, 1886) by Suehiro Tecchō 末広鉄腸 (writer’s name Suehiro Shigeyasu 末廣重恭), helped the miraiki genre gain a nation-wide but short-lived popularity (previously published texts, sometimes with the same title, were also influential but Suehiro’s novel was the first one able to break through successfully). The year 23 refers to Meiji 23, or 1890. Not really that far away in the future to count as futurological literature, you would think. Nevertheless, life in 1890 was imagined very differently due to a drastic change: the introduction of a Diet system. In 1881, an edict called into existence a constitution and a National Diet. Since the public was not familiar with these concepts, journalists such as Suehiro wanted to educate people about this new political system and promote it through means of the popular genre of miraiki.

The story in The Year 23 depicts a parliamentary debate in 1890. Again, miraiki mainly played a political role. Yet, they were innovative in combining a Japanese traditional genre with a futurological perspective as introduced through Western literature. They are set in the (near) future, but do also reflect contemporary society mixed with expectations and desires about how Japan should look like (hopefully to be fulfilled in the future). In that sense, these kind of miraiki have a flavor of eutopian utopias, albeit a different one than More’s work evoked in the West. After the second World War, Japanese readers became interested in American science fiction (often in a dystopian setting)  which also resulted in SF novels flooding the market. Today, utopianism is a recurring theme in modern Japanese literature. Haruki Murakami’s Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, for example (check one of my first posts on this book here!), or manga such as Akira and  Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. Enough reading material to feel like you are living in a different world…


150 Years of Japan-Belgium Relations

150_fb_sharingAs some of you perhaps already know, this year we celebrate 150 years of friendship between Japan and Belgium (so 150 years Nippaku 日白, actually). In this post, I will give a short overview of the events leading to the signing of the treaty and some (early) history that both countries share.

It all started in 1866 when a Treaty of Amity, Commerce and Navigation was signed. Belgium was the ninth Western state the Japanese shogunate entered such a treaty with. The Japanese were particularly attracted by Belgium’s technology, e.g. the railroad industry and glass techniques, and institutional organisation, such as law and the central bank system (the Bank of Japan was actually founded in 1882 based on the Belgian model). It is also suggested that the Meiji constitution was indirectly influenced by the Belgian one. The visit from the younger brother of the shogun, Tokugawa Akitake (1867), Japanese students (1871) and the Iwakura mission (1873) are proof of that interest. Belgium, on the other hand, believed that Japan was a promising new market.


1866 Treaty –  belgiumjapan150.jp/150-years


Count de Mountblanc with a Japanese retainer.

Ironically, it was a French journalist that suggested in 1847 that Belgium should send a military expedition to Japan in order to pursue foreign trade (“gunboat diplomacy”). Although the project was firmly rejected and the interest in Japan was almost non-existing at that time, the appearance of American Commodore Matthew Perry in 1853 who forced the Japanese to sign a treaty, impressed the Western countries greatly. Thus, Belgium used the opportunity to sign a similar treaty on 1 August 1866. Count Charles Descantons de Mountblanc established the first official contacts and negotiations were undertaken by Auguste t’Kint de Roodenbeke. Despite the title “Treaty of Amity, Commerce and Navigation” 修好通商条約, it was clearly an unequal/semi-colonial one: it included extraterritoriality (foreigners in Japan were exempted from local jurisdiction) and denial of the right for Japan to determine the import tariffs. The foreign ministers in the following years would devote a big deal of their time on revising these unequal treaties.

The amount of export from Belgium to Japan was around ten times the amount of import, but trade between the two countries in general was limited for a long time. The policy Belgium adopted to encourage marine trade brought a change: now the shipping company Nippon Yūsen made a stop at the port of Antwerp on its way to London. The line was inaugurated in 1896.

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Old map of Japan. “Indiae Orientalis Insularumque Adiacientium Typus”. f. 63 of Abraham Ortelius. in Theatrum orbis terrarum […] Antwerp, 1575. Collection KU Leuven.

Informal connections between Belgium and Japan, however, go back much further in time and originally rooted in religion. The first “Belgian” avant la lettre to ever set foot in Japan was Jesuit missionary Theodoor Mantels in 1588. The arrival of the second Belgian, missionary Ludovicus Frarijn, in 1620 was rather short-lived since he was burnt alive two years later. A third unlucky missionary, Lambert Trouvez, befell the same fate. This was due to the ban on Christianity promulgated in 1587.


Float with Belgian tapestry at Gion festival – blog.goo.ne.jp/kenken1948

Flemish art, mainly inspired by religious figures, reached Japan at an early stage. During the sixteenth century, copper engravings and such were sent to Japan and China as a visual means of spreading Christianity. For example, some Brussels tapestries dating from that period are still used today to decorate the floats at the Gion festival in Kyoto.

During the “splendid isolation” (sakoku 鎖国, ca. 1633-1853) period, the Low Countries (including The Netherlands and Belgium of today) was the sole Western country Japan maintained a relationship with. [Check out my post on Jacob de Zoet if you want to know more about this topic!] Via the VOC (East India Company) various books written in Dutch or Latin were imported and exerted considerable influence as new sources of knowledge on technology, medicines etc. In order to understand the members of the VOC residing on the island of Dejima, and read the books they brought along, the Japanese started to learn Dutch (the so-called rangaku 蘭学, “Dutch learning”).

13293122_10208766063484840_1783271670_nOne work that played a crucial role in the development of rangaku is the Cruydt-Boeck (“herbal book”, 1554) by Rembert Dodoens, a botanist and physician from Mechelen. Shogun Tokugawa Yoshimune (r. 1716-1853) was curious about its contents and ordered a translation. Problem: no one could read Dutch well enough. It took ten years to offer the shogun some sort of summary, and the complete translation in Japanese was ready only two hundred years after the original publication date. Nevertheless, its translation laid the groundwork for a flourishing study of Dutch in the first half of the nineteenth century. We know, for example, that Hiraga Gennai was an avid collector of Dutch works such as Dodoens’s.

201933Vice-versa, the enormous influence of Japan on Belgium during the late nineteenth century can not be overlooked. The treaty of 1866 set in motion the cultural exchange we now call “japonisme/Japonism”. The Belgian bourgeoisie and nouveaux riches became obsessed with Japanese fine arts and decorative arts, such as fans, kimono, paintings, woodcut prints, nature motifs, ceramics, textiles etc. The VOC had imported Japanese objects as curiosities before, but these objets d’art really became fashionable around the 1880s. International exhibitions played an important part in the diffusion of Japanese culture, as did  the magazine Le Japon Artistique by art dealer Siegfried Bing.

The impact of Japanese art is visible in neo-impressionism, decorative art, symbolism and Art Nouveau. Examples of Belgian artists influenced by Japonism are Théo Van Rysselberghe, Fernand Khnopff, James Ensor, Alfred Stevens (pictures below), Henri Van de Velde and Victor Horta. [A Dutch example is Vincent Van Gogh, post here.] They were attracted by elements such as simplicity, two-dimensionality and asymmetry. In short, a style completely different from traditional Western painting. Japanese elements are also present in fin de siècle literature for example the work of the Destrée brothers, Max Elskamp or Émile Verhaeren. Nevertheless, there is the critique that artists influenced by Japonism hardly made any distinction with chinoiserie and had a rather superficial idea of Japanese arts.

Inversely, there were also Japanese artists influenced by their visit to Belgium. The poet Kaneko Mitsuharu and European-style painter Kojima Torajirō, for example. The former read work of Flemish authors and interacted with the Belgian artistic society during his stay in Brussels. The latter’s work, as you can see below, is obviously influenced by pointillism or neo-impressionism (luminism in Belgium). Kojima studied in Ghent and was acquainted with Emile Claus. Furthermore, he brought many European works back home. Nowadays, these are displayed at the Ohara museum of art in Kurashiki, the oldest museum featuring Western art in Japan.


Japanese tower in Brussels. – picture by author

Other things that indicate a link between Japan and Belgium are 1) the Japanese tower in Brussels. King Leopold II had the plan to establish a district in North East Brussels full of majestic buildings from different cultures. Besides a Chinese pavilion, he required the building of a Japanese tower. Although the bottom part was a piece from the 1900 world exhibition in Paris, the rest of it was designed by Belgian and French architects. Hence, the tower is far from an accurate representation of a pagoda. The number of roofs, the structure and the interior design are way off the mark. It is more a reflection of how the West saw Japan than a real effort to understand Japanese culture. What is more, King Leopold lost all interest in the tower once it was completed. 2) there is a second Manneken Pis, the iconic statue of a urinating boy, in  Tokushima. The statue was a gift from the Belgian embassy. But that is not the only replica: apparently there is also a Manneken Pis in Itami, Hamamatsu and Tokyo.

Concerning diplomacy, bilateral relations intensified during the 1960s after a difficult start in the postwar period. Japanese companies sought access to the European market for investments. Nowadays, Belgium’s most important export product to Japan is pharmaceuticals, while Japan mainly exports cars to Belgium and Europe in general. It is also known that there are close ties between the imperial Japanese family and the Belgian royal family. Both families frequently make official or private visits, for example in the vintage photograph below.

1992 royal imperial family

1992. © Collection of queen Fabiola – more pictures on royalementblog.blogspot.be/search/label/Japon [in French]

Although I would love to go into more detail about this fascinating topic, I fear this post might become too long. In case you would like to know more, check out the referenced materials!


The Medical Treatment and Supervision Act (2005): Forensic Mental Health in Japan Today – PART 2

In the previous post, I wrote about the historical events that prompted the implementation of the Medical Treatment and Supervision Act of 2005. In this second and last part, we will see what changes the most recent Act on forensic mental health brings about, and what problems it has already met.

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The revised Mental Health and Welfare act of 1999 scheduled a reform in 2004, including a new legislation for mentally ill offenders (Kunihiko, 1999). This reform should address the lack of security in mental hospitals. Indeed, no special provisions existed concerning the hospitalization of mentally diseased offenders. Moreover, the concept of “forensic health” originated in Europe and was never discussed before in Japan (Satsumi & Oda, 1995). This issue received public attention after a janitor, suffering from personality disorders[1], stabbed 8 children to death in the Osaka school massacre in 2001. When it became known that the offender had a criminal record, the public opinion called for a legislation concerning the treatment of the mentally ill and recidivists in particular (Fujii, Fukuda, Ando, Kikuchi, Okada et al., 2014). The Ministry of Justice issued a briefing report, aiming at the integration of forensic inpatient and outpatient services, provided they were strictly controlled. The report also included the necessity of a mentality change towards the mentally ill (Weisstub & Carney, 2005).

Osaka School Massacre - matome.naver.jp

Osaka school massacre: offender convicted to death penalty, deemed  criminal responsible despite mentally ill – matome.naver.jp

In 2002, a new Bill for the Medical Treatment and Supervision Act was introduced to the Diet (Nakayama, 2005). The bill was proposed by the government and supported by the Japanese Association of Psychiatric Hospitals. The emphasis on the prevention of re-offending (再犯の恐れ), however, triggered criticism from the parties involved (Moriya & Ujiie, 2008). The bill stipulated that only those deemed prone to recidivism were suited for hospital treatment. More than 20 organizations[2] objected that future criminal intentions could not be predicted (Nakatani, Kojimoto, Matsubara & Takayanagi, 2010). The Japan Federation of Bar Associations warned that it could “bring about violation of human rights”[3]. The Bill was passed in 2003 and implemented on 15 July 2005 as The Medical Treatment and Supervision Act, short for the Act for the Medical Treatment and Supervision of Persons with Mental Disorders Who Caused Serious Harm[4]. This time, the word for ‘fear for re-offending’, was left out and replaced by euphemisms in the Act, because it echoed the traditional emphasis on maintaining public order (Fujii et al., 2014).

Q&A manual about the MTSA by the Japanese Federation of Bar Associations.

Q&A manual about the MTSA by the Japanese Federation of Bar Associations.

The purpose of the Act is threefold: stimulating rehabilitation, improving accurate treatment and preventing recidivism (Nakatani, 2012). Whether a mentally ill offender will be treated or not, depends on three criteria (Guidelines for Psychiatric Evaluation). Firstly, the nature and severity of the mental disorder and its link with the crime; Secondly, the treatability; thirdly, the existence of factors that could interfere with the rehabilitation. If all three criteria are met, the mentally ill offender is designated a treatment order. The Medical Treatment and Supervision Act, however, only applies to mentally ill offenders who committed a serious crime: homicide, robbery, bodily injury, arson, or a sexual crime (Nakatani & Kuroda, 2013). Other crimes are regulated by the Inmates and Detainees Act or the Mental Health and Welfare Act.

Between 2005 and 2012, there were 2,750  requests for treatment according to the Medical Treatment and Supervision Ac of which 63.1% received an inpatient treatment order (Fujii et al., 2014). Inpatient treatment[5] includes three stages: acute, recovery and rehabilitation (Nakatani et al., 2010). The expected length of stay is 18 months but can be prolonged, which happened in more than 33% of the cases in 2011[6] (Nakatani & Kuroda, 2013). By December 2007, 14 designated[7] inpatient facilities were attached to public psychiatry hospitals in Japan (Matsubara, 2008), by 2013 there were 30 facilities, or 791 beds available in the whole country (Fujii et al., 2014). Two of the four medical prisons in Japan are specialized in psychiatry (Nomura, 2009). The director of the designated facility confirms the continuity of hospitalization every six months (Ministry of Justice, 2012). He or she also asks permission to the District Court in order to discharge the mentally ill offender (Nakatani, 2012). Through a hearing, the Court decides whether a patient can be released or not.



Outpatient treatment[8] requires a collaboration of various institutions such as designated[9] outpatient facilities and local health and welfare agencies (Nakatani et al., 2010). When the Court orders an outpatient order, the patient is placed under the probation office’s mental health supervision. The director of the probation office defines a plan for every mentally ill offender and assigns rehabilitation coordinators. The expected length of the treatment is three years but can be prolonged with an additional two years.  The director of the probation office asks permission to the District Court in order to conclude the outpatient treatment, or to hospitalize the mentally ill offender in case his condition worsens (Nakatani, 2012). The court decides after conducting a hearing (Ministry of Justice, 2012). In March 2008, there were no less than 260 designated outpatient facilities (Matsubara, 2008). By 2014, this number  rose to 452 facilities (Fujii et al., 2014).

Although the Medical Treatment and Supervision Act was successfully enacted, the implementation is still in its infancy. In today’s forensic health literature, scholars recognize serious problems that hinder an adequate treatment of mentally ill offenders.

Firstly, it appears that personality disordered offenders are hardly appointed a treatment order[10]. The same applies to offenders whose treatability is doubtful. As a result, the number of treatment orders for insane offenders in Japan is remarkably low compared to other countries (Nakatani, 2012). This number remains stable, although more inmates have been diagnosed with mental disorders (e.g. schizophrenia) in recent years (Nakatani & Kuroda, 2013; Nomura, 2009).



Secondly, human and financial resources for outpatient treatment prove to be insufficient. Next to that, rehabilitation coordinators are not given enough authority in crisis situations (Nakatani, 2012). Furthermore, a regional gap in inpatient as well outpatient designated facilities can be observed[11] (Fujii et al., 2014). Thirdly, the foreseen length of stay for inpatient treatment is too short in most cases, which leads to overpopulation of mental health facilities (ibid.). Fourth, when an offender – suspected to be ill – stands trial according to a jury system, it could be difficult for lay judges to grasp the psychiatric context of the offense (Moriya & Ujiie, 2008).



Fifth, it is observed that thirty percent of mentally ill offenders are addicted to methamphetamines or to other kind of drugs (Imamura, Matsumoto, Kobayashi, Hirabayashi & Wada, 2010). This extends the length of recovery (Nakatani & Kuroda, 2013). Sixth, psychiatric personnel appear to be understaffed. In April 2007, only 26 full-time psychiatrists were employed in Japanese forensic institutions[12] (Nakane, 2007; Kuroda, 2008). As a result, refractory patients, frequent among mentally disordered, are not treated properly. Psychiatric personnel are also rather unwilling and reluctant to work in forensic hospitals (Nakatani & Kuroda, 2013). Seventh, once incarcerated, it remains very difficult for offenders whose mental condition worsens, to be transferred to a specialist institution. Similarly, mentally ill offenders are rarely released on parole, because they have difficulty expressing the motivation necessary for such release (ibid.).

Eighth, not enough attention is paid to death row inmates, who tend to develop mental disorders (ibid.). Ninth, no significant change in attitude towards forensic mental health is noticed (Shiina, Okita, Fujisaki, Igarashi & Iyo, 2013) after the enactment of the Medical Treatment and Supervision Act. Mentally ill offenders appear to be stigmatized twice in society. Tenth, there exists no formal framework for psychiatric practice. Therefore, psychiatrists develop their own way of dealing with mentally ill offenders (Weisstub & Carney, 2005). Eleventh, the treatment of mentally disordered offenders is often cut off when they are released after having served their sentence (Nomura, 2009). When this implies a risk of recidivism, the director of a designated facility notifies the prefectural governor and asks for an involuntary hospitalization order. Local authorities, however, seldom carry out this order (ibid.). Twelfth, offenders of less serious crimes are not covered by the Medical Treatment and Supervision Act and are often incarcerated with minimal psychiatric assistance (Odagaki & Toyoshima, 2010).

MTSA flow chart

Some scholars believe the advantages of the Medical Treatment and Supervision Act do not equal its advantages and call for an abolishment of the act (Nakajima, 2011). Others are less radical but still emphasize the need for a thorough revision of the Act (Odagaki & Toyoshima, 2010). Although the Act was slightly adapted in 2006, the scheduled revision for 2010 did not take place. The fact that the Act is not yet widely known could also be an explanation for the lack of international criticism (ibid.).

The new system is a unique but limited combination of forensic and general psychiatry. This way of dealing with the mentally ill already faces many challenges, and it will not take long before the Medical Treatment and Supervision Act is revised.




Thanks for reading!

citation of this article: Van Enis, Ann-Sofie. “The Medical Treatment and Supervision Act (2005): Forensic Mental Health in Japan Today.” Nippaku, January 20, 2015. https://nippaku.wordpress.com/.


[1] The offender, however, was attributed full responsibility and was sentenced to death.
[2] Including the Japan Association of Psychiatry and Neurology, the National Federation of Families with Mentally Ill in Japan and the Japan Federation of Bar Associations (Japan Times, 8 June 2002).
[3]「許容しがたい人権侵害をもたらす」said president Kazumasu Kuboi (Asahi Shimbun, 16 March 2002).
[4]心神喪失等の状態で重大な他害行為を行った者の医療及び観察等に関する法律 (略:医療 観察法)in Japanese (Moriya & Ujiie, 2008).
[5]入院処遇 in Japanese (Moriya & Ujiie, 2008).
[6] The stay of 144 (33.2%) mentally ill offenders was prolonged. In general, forensic patients stay longer than non-forensic patients in mental health facilities.
[7] Designated by the Minister of Health, Labour and Welfare.
[8] 通院処遇 in Japanese (Moriya & Ujiie, 2008).
[9] Designated by the Minister of Health, Labour and Welfare.
[10] Only 1,1% of mentally ill offenders treated according to the Medical Health and Supervision Act is diagnosed with a personality disorder. The reason is that most of them are found guilty and fully responsible, eliminating the possibility of being referred to the Act (cf. supra: Osaka school massacre) (Fujii et al., 2014).
[11] At the end of 2013, no designated inpatient facility existed in Hokkaidō and Shikoku (Fujii et al., 2014).
[12] Compare this to Belgium, where 32 full-time psychiatrists and 147 full-time psychologists were employed in June 2006 (Salize, Dreßing & Kief, 2007).


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The Medical Treatment and Supervision Act (2005): Forensic Mental Health in Japan Today – PART 1

For the course “Politics, Law and Society in Japan: A Global Perspective” I wrote a paper about Japanese forensic mental health, focusing on the Medical Treatment and Supervision Act, implemented 10 years ago. I will post this paper in two parts. The first part deals with the historical background and how and why this Act was established. The second part gives a short overview of the functioning of the Act and summarizes the challenges the Act already has been faced with.

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How mentally ill offenders are treated has always been a difficult issue to deal with, for the reason that they are situated in a double paradigm: on the one hand they have committed a crime and are therefore offenders; on the other hand they are deemed to be ill and should receive treatment. According to article 39 of the Japanese Penal Code, enacted in 1907, “an act of insanity is not punishable and an act of diminished capacity shall lead to the punishment being reduced” (心神喪失者の行為は、罰しない。心神耗弱者の行為は、その刑を減軽する). The Penal Code, however, does not provide any measurements to treat mentally ill offenders acquitted due to their disorder. Only until recently, forensic mental health was covered by general health treatment. In fact, no special system existed for such offenders, making Japan unique in that way. As a result, mentally ill offenders were treated either in prison when convicted or in general psychiatric hospitals.

In July 2005, the Act for the Medical Treatment and Supervision of Persons with Mental Disorders Who Caused Serious Harm (shortened to “Medical Treatment and Supervision Act”) (心神喪失等の状態で重大な他害行為を行った者の医療及び観察等に関する法律 (略:医療 観察法)) was enforced and brought about radical changes. For the first time, the act aimed at the rehabilitation and the right medical treatment of mentally ill offenders. The system established two different types of treatment: inpatient and outpatient treatment. Where previous acts were mostly highlighting the fear of recidivism, the act of 2005 specifically encourages reintegration of mentally ill offenders in society. While the enactment and transition went smoothly, Japan is still struggling with optimizing outpatient treatment.


Traditionally in Japan, a mental disease was not regarded as a medical problem but as the possession of an individual by evil spirits, which could therefore only be treated by exorcist rituals like purification, incantation or shamanist treatment[1] (Mandiberg, 1996; Russell, 1988). The construction of a confined room at the family home to lock up lunatics (zashikirō 座敷牢 (Mandiberg, 1996), nyūkan 入監 (Salzberg, 1991)) was a common tradition until the 20th century.

shinto ritual to heal madness: standing under a waterfall for hours - kenkyukaiblog-jugem-jp

shinto ritual to heal madness: standing under a waterfall for hours – kenkyukaiblog.jugem.jp

The mad could also resort to Buddhist or Shintoist temples and shrines, sometimes resulting in rural communities around these places of refuge for the mentally diseased, and stimulating the reintegration in society. The Iwakura village near Kyoto was one of these pilgrimage and refuge places[2]. Later in 1884, it transformed itself from a community of boarding houses where farm families cared for mentally diseased, into a successful private mental hospital until its closure in 1945 (Nakamura, 2006).

Iwakura Hospital

Iwakura Hospital –  kenkyukaiblog.jugem.jp

During the Edo period (1603-1868), the family head became heavily responsible for the conduct of his family members, and could end up being severely punished for the criminal acts of mentally ill diseased[3]. As a result, mad people were ostracized by removing their name from the family register or confined, whether it was at home, at a temple or in a public prison (nyūrō 入牢) (Russell, 1988). When the proper supervision of mentally ill individuals became impossible, they were often confined with medical care under supervision of eta[4] (tameazuke 溜預) (Yamazaki, 1931). Nevertheless, home confinement was still the primary way of dealing with lunatics.

zashikiro - hidekiueno-net.jp

zashikiro – hidekiueno.net.jp

On the one hand, it should be noted that these provisions were not established for the good of the mentally ill, but rather seen as a necessary measure to maintain social order. On the other hand, the traditional perception of mental diseases altered under the influence of Western medicine and philosophy, brought to the isolated isle by Dutch physicians during the 19th century. Compared to the inhumane imprisonment and traumatizing rituals, they introduced new concepts of psychiatric therapy, which were later put into practice by Japanese students of Western medicine.

influence of rangaku, the studie of the Netherlands, on medicine and mental health - mayanagi-hum-ibaraki-ac-jp

Influence of rangaku, the studie of the Netherlands, on medicine – mayanagi.hum.ibaraki.ac.jp

Both perspectives were developed further during the Meiji Period (1868-1912). Rapid social change compelled the Japanese government to issue laws concerning the attitude towards the insane. A circular in 1878 established certain rules for confinement of the mentally ill: imprisonment at home required a report of a physician and an official request of the family. Those disowned by their family were confined to detention centers (Salzberg, 1991). Because mentally ill individuals were considered as possibly dangerous subjects for society, a series of police orders stipulating the control and punishment of the insane followed (Kuwabara & True, 1976). A law in 1884 stated that mentally ill could only receive treatment if a doctor appointed by the police had examined them. When successfully confined, police authorities checked the patients once in a month. At the same time, however, a critical stance towards confinement and incarceration urged the demand for proper treatment centers. The first mental hospital in Kyoto was established in 1875 (Nakamura, 2006).

A "hospital" for the mentally diseased in Tokyo - kenkyu

A “hospital” for the mentally diseased in Tokyo in 1881- kenkyukaiblog.jugem.jp

One specific case drew particular attention to the necessity of a mental health law.  The daimyō of Sōma prefecture, Sōma Tomotane, at the time involved in a family dispute, was declared to be schizophrenic and thus confined to a zashikirō. Loyal retainers believed this was a conspiracy of the other family members against their lord. They kidnapped the daimyō from the psychiatric hospital he had been transferred to and made the details about his confinement public. This was largely covered in the media, including international newspapers. As it became clear that formal mental health regulations were yet to be established, the Meiji government feared the Sōma affair would undermine their long-fought efforts to develop Japan as a modern state (Russell, 1988). As a result, The Law for the Custody and Care of the Mentally Ill[5] was enacted in 1900. With this law, families were officially permitted to build zashikirō and were kept legally and financially responsible for their supervision and the actions of mad family members. The law was presented as a protection against illegal and arbitrary confinement, but in fact encouraged traditional and outdated practice. Again, the government’s main concern was public safety and order (Mandiberg, 1996).

Loyal retainer Nishigori rescues Soma from the asylum - members.jcom.home.ne.jp

Loyal retainer Nishigori rescues Soma from the asylum – members.jcom.home.ne.jp

Up till now, I have only discussed the attitude towards the mentally ill in general. This is simply because there were no special measurements separating mentally ill offenders from normal offenders. Insane individuals were prevented from committing crimes by incarceration or confinement (‘punitive treatment’) and did not receive medical assistance. Moreover, physicians were rarely involved in mental health treatment. The responsible family members were still forced to rely on shaman rituals, combined with familial care. We can see this as a type of community psychiatry, though very primitive and non-therapeutic (Kuwabara & True, 1976).

A survey, conducted by the government in 1915, indicated that 82% of mentally ill individuals were untreated[6]. Hence, the Law for the Custody and Care of the Mentally Ill was supplemented with the Mental Hospital Act[7] of 1919. This act, again for the sake of public safety, regulated compulsory confinement in a psychiatric hospital, under permission of the state or responsible family members. Nevertheless, most mental patients were still confined at home, taken into account that by World War II, only six public insane asylums had been built in Japan. The government had decided to fund mainly private mental hospitals, whose treatment only rich families could afford (ibid.). The limited number of beds dropped during World War II[8], when the mentally ill were neglected and died of starvation due to the National Eugenics Act[9] of 1940.

In 1950, opposition groups expressed concern for the proactive detention mentally ill people were subjected to. The Mental Hygiene Law[10] was enacted, abolishing home confinement and demanding the establishment of prefectural psychiatric hospitals. Mental diseases were acknowledged as medical problems that required appropriate treatment. However, households remained legally and financially responsible for the acts of mentally ill family members. The law defined three types of hospitalization when a certain degree of danger for the insane himself and his environment could be observed: compulsory or provisional compulsory admission ordered by the prefectural governor, and compulsory admission requested by the legal guardian. Still, the fact that no consent from the patient was needed was seen as a contradiction to the Constitution (Kunihiko, 1991). Once admitted to a mental hospital, there were no provisions to review the decision for another type of hospitalization, and few people were ever discharged. At the same time, options for community placement were very scarce (Mandiberg, 1996). During the 1950s and 1960s, the number of psychiatric beds rose significantly.

Ohio Insane Asylum in the 1950s - gettyimages.co.jp

Ohio Insane Asylum in the 1950s – gettyimages.co.jp

Criminal offenders deemed mentally ill were now often hospitalized instead of incarcerated. Consequently, more facilities were needed. This became clear in 1964 when a schizophrenic young man assaulted Edwin Reischauer, the American ambassador to Japan. On that account, the Japanese police authorities requested more powerful action against the mentally ill (Koizumi & Harris, 1992). This request was turned down, and instead more outpatient and community services were stipulated in the Revised Mental Hygiene Law[11] of 1965 (Nakatani, 2012; Kunihiko, 1991).  It has to be noted, however, that forensic health still did not differ from general mental health. Again, the 1965 law was implemented to maintain social order, and not to effectively help the mentally ill.

Reischauer incident

Reischauer incident

In the 1980s, scandals[12] lead to the establishment of the Mental Health Law[13] (1988) that emphasized the importance of human rights and rehabilitation (Nakatani, 2012). For the first time, the legal rights of the mentally ill were acknowledged and a Psychiatric Review Board reviewed their hospitalization (Cohen, 1995). Although this model was implemented, it appeared impossible to be carried out accordingly[14] (Mandiberg, 1996). The Mental Health and Welfare Act replaced the Mental Health Law[15] in 1995. This law mainly stipulated the increase of outpatient facilities, welfare services and participation in community (Kunihiko, 1999). As these amendments were hardly applicable to mentally ill offenders, only few psychiatrists were inclined to work in forensic health treatment (Nakatani, 2012).

In 1999, a White Paper of the Ministry of Justice pointed out these problems. Public prosecutors, who were more likely to file a report to the prefectural governor in case they assumed criminal responsibility, only indicted a small number of mentally ill offenders. A medical examination was subsequently carried out. If the assumption was verified, the prefectural governor commanded an involuntary admission. Although this procedure assured quick treatment for acquitted mentally ill offenders, the chance to stand trial was minimalized. Furthermore, general mental health hospitals often did not have the required security to receive criminals. In addition, psychiatrists carried a heavy responsibility, as they had to decide about the discharge or continued confinement of the patient, considering the possibility of recidivism (Nakatani, 2000).

protest against psychiatric hospital Utsunomiya - kaihou-sekisaisya.jp

protest against psychiatric hospital Utsunomiya – kaihou-sekisaisya.jp


The second part will give a short overview of the functioning of the Act and will summarize the challenges the Act already has been faced with.

citation of this article: Van Enis, Ann-Sofie. “The Medical Treatment and Supervision Act (2005): Forensic Mental Health in Japan Today.” Nippaku, January 20, 2015. https://nippaku.wordpress.com/.


[1] The treatment by shamans or monks was often very expensive. Hence, rejection of the mad family member became a common practice (Official Order of the Kyoto local government, No. 325, July 25, p. 187, cited in Kuwabara & True, 1976).
[2] Mandiberg (1996) compares this to the city of Gheel in Belgium, whose concept of ‘family care’ inspired the Iwakura hospital, an ambition that never came true (Hashimoto, 2014).
[3] Because of the institutional gonin-gumi system (五人組), a group of five households shared collective responsibility.
[4] The eta穢多, burakumin部落民 or hinin非人 was an outcast group because of their impure or death-associated occupation. Together with the mad, underage and extremely ill offenders were supervised as well in these special detention centers (Salzberg, 1991).
[5] 精神病者監護法 in Japanese (Moriya & Ujiie, 2008).
[6] Department of Welfare, Bureau of Medical Administration (1955), cited in Kuwabara & True, 1976.
[7] 及び精神病院法 in Japanese (Moriya & Ujiie, 2008).
[8] In 1941 there was place for 24,000 mental patients all over Japan. By 1945, only 4,000 beds were left (Russell, 1988). The Iwakura Mental Hospital was forced by the Japanese army to close his doors (Nakamura, 2006).
[9]国民優生法In Japanese. Available at http://www.res.otemon.ac.jp/~yamamoto/be/BE_law_04.htm, accessed on 29 November 2014.
[10] 精神衛生法 in Japanese (Encyclopedia Nipponica online, accessed on 29 November 2014).
[11] 精神衛生法改正 in Japanese (Moriya & Ujiie, 2008).
[12] In 1984, two patients died by abuse in The Mental Hospital of Utsunomiya. Further research disclosed that over three years, 222 of the 1,000 patients hospitalized there had died in suspicious conditions (Jakopac & Patel, 2009). The United Nations Commission on Human Rights criticized Japan’s mental health system (Gostin & Gable, 2004).
[13] 精神保健法 in Japanese (Moriya & Ujiie, 2008).
[14] “Few patient-initiated PRB review applications are filed, and the few of those that are filed result in recommendations for discharge or change in treatment” (Mandiberg, 1996).
[15] 精神保健福祉法精神保健および精神障害者福祉に関する法 in Japanese (Moriya & Ujiie, 2008).


bibliography MTSA

Human Rights and The Media: Two Cases

Last Monday during newspaper class (yes, there is such a course), we learned about the clash between human rights of victim and assailant, and freedom of speech for journalists. I thought the cases that illustrated the protection of human rights quite interesting.

1. The Kobe Child Murders (神戸連続児童殺傷事件)

On 16 March 1997, a girl was murdered with a hammer, and three other girls attacked and wounded by a knife. On 27 May, a 11-year old boy was strangled, beheaded with a handsaw and further mutilated in the face with a knife. The head was left in front of a junior high school gate. A confession note written by “Sakakibara Seito” was stuffed in the victim’s mouth. In June, the Kobe newspaper company received a confession letter signed with the same pseudonym, and containing threatenings of more killings. On the 28th of June, a 14-year old boy was arrested.



These murders were beyond atrocity and evoked strong reactions among vengeful inhabitants all over Japan. According to the Japanese law, minor assailants are protected from having their personal information like name, address and description of looks, published. However, in this case, a photograph of the young criminal was released in the magazine Focus. The Ministry of Justice protested against this due to “violation of human rights” and requested the magazine to withdraw their article. As a result, journalists accused the government of having violated “freedom of speech”.

When the culprit was released from the health institution on a provisional basis 6 years later, the media had lined up in front of the hospital en masse. On the Internet thousand of threads discussed his future address, shared photos, and gave away his real name. Again, the Ministry of Justice took action for the sake of a peaceful rehabilitation of the culprit in society, and requested the threads to be removed.

Because of the Kobe child murders, the age of criminal responsibility was lowered from 16 to 14 years. The discussion revived after the Sasebo slashing (also called Nevada Tan Case). In this case, a 11-year old girl slit the throat and arms of her classmate with a utility knife. Here as well, photos, information and real name circulated on bulletin boards on the Internet.

2. Murder of Yasuko Watanabe (東電OL殺人事件)

On 8 March 1997, Yasuko Watanabe, an elite economic researcher at TEPCO, was strangled to death in Shibuya. As soon as the media found out she was working as a prostitute after work, journalists eagerly started to collect information about the nightly activities of the victim. More than the murder case itself, the victim’s personal life was sensationalized and reported to great lengths. After all, people believed the victim was a “bad woman”, so violating her rights of privacy would no problem. At the trial, the victim’s mother said: “犯人ではなく、マスコミを死刑にしてほしい”. (Not the culprit, but the mass media I would like to see executed.)

Books about the victim's life

Books about the victim’s life – blog.livedoor.jp

Facts For Fun

– According to the Press Freedom Index 2013 of Reporters Without Borders:

In Asia, Japan (53rd, -31) has been affected by a lack of transparency and almost zero respect for access to information on subjects directly or indirectly related to Fukushima. This sharp fall should sound an alarm.

Belgium is on the 21st place.


Online text-book of Japanese Studies, KU Leuven

– Wikipedia

Five Facts about Japanese Politics and Economics to Fill Awkward Silent Moments Spent in Company of Japan-Ignorant People

Today’s topic is, well, like the title tells you. Just five facts I think worth mentioning. I often start monologues on random Japanese topics, or add the suitable amount of information about Japan during small talk conversations with my friends. They are used to it. And most people even ask about it when they find out what kind of special/weird/extraordinary thing I’m studying. If you sympathize with my quirky behaviour, or you took the trouble to read this far and don’t want to give up now, here we go:

Fact number 1

The Emperor of Japan is the only monarch left in the world who is still called Emperor. Moreover, current Emperor Akihito is a descendent of Japan’s first Emperor Jinmu (660 BC). Akihito is the 125th Emperor. I mean, it all stayed in the same family! China for example, had several dynasties, which means that there were different ruling families. It is amazing the Japanese succeeded in maintaining the position of the Emperor for around 25 centuries (although that was no plain sailing). Controversy about the function of the Emperor reached a peak at the end of World War II, when Hirohito declared himself to be a human being and not an incarnate God. In the Kojiki 古事記 and Nihonshoki 日本書紀, Japan’s two oldest writings, is described how the Imperial family descended from Amaterasu, the Sun Goddess.

First Emperor Jinmu and current Emperor Akihito

First Emperor Jinmu and current Emperor Akihito

Fact number 2

The Constitution of Japan (1947) was originally written in English, and afterwards translated into Japanese. That’s because it was written by American people during the occupation. MacArthur’s SCAP team managed to fabricate the most fundamental law in less than a week. Special thanks go to Beate Sirota Gordon, who made gender equality legal. Today, it’s still the same Constitution. Especially article 9 is a “popular” topic for discussion. Additional fact: Japan has no army, but “Self-Defense Forces”.

Constitution_of_Japan_original_copyFact number 3

Japanese prime ministers are not boring. We think immediately of “Lion Heart” Koizumi Junichirō (aka the Japanese Richard Gere). But who I want to introduce is Asō Tarō, prime minister from 2008 to 2009. He profiled himself as a passionate manga fan (which gave him the nickname Rozen Asō, from the manga Rozen Maiden)  and wanted to use Japanese pop culture to improve international relationships. He received a lot of criticism because he mispronounced or read kanji incorrectly during his speeches. As result, he gained another nickname (how studying Japanese politics can be a lot of fun!): KY Asō. Here is some explanation needed. KY is the abbreviation of Kūki Yomenai 空気読めない or “someone who can’t read te air”, meaning someone who cannot understand the situation. In Asō’s case, KY stands for Kanji Yomenai 漢字読めない, or someone who can’t read kanji (Chinese characters). So dearest reader, if you do have some issues studying kanji, don’t worry, at least you can make it as a prime minister. Extra fact: Aso has made a comeback this year as Minister of Finance in Abe’s cabinet. As no reading mistakes are reported this far, I assume furigana (the pronunciation in phonetic writing system next to the kanji) was successfully added.

Barack_Obama_&_Taro_Aso_in_the_Oval_Office_2-24-09Fact number 4

– And I tell you this because of the huge difference with Belgium, it’s more like taking some extra day off here – to go on strike in Japan is not really to go on strike. May following quote makes it all clear to you.

”In Japan,” he said, ”we have what I suppose you Americans would call ‘job inactions.’ When we strike, we put on armbands to show we are unhappy and we go into the plant and work twice as hard as usual to prove to the bosses how valuable we are.” – New York Times 

Why? Because labor unions are integrated in the company. Apart from the wages, they do not have many things to protect, because the Japanese company structure is famous for its “lifetime employment”. Nevertheless, every spring there’s a kind of traditional labor union festival held, oh wait no, it’s a strike! Shuntō 春闘, the Spring Offensive for a higher wage originated in the 1940 and  concerned negotiations  between the enterprise unions and employers. However, it lost most of its initial meaning and has become more or less a tradition.

Fact number 5

In 1980, the land price of Japan used to be around 1600 trillion yen or 4 times that of the USA  (and Japan fit 25 times in the USA). Especially Tokyo was a little bit expensive. In the late ’80, only the inside area of the Japan Railway Yamanote Line in Tokyo was worth 400 trillion, what made up for… the whole area of USA. Sony bought Columbia Pictures of Hollywood, Mitsubishi owned the Rockefeller Center for 80 percent and the Japanese Royal Palace was as much worth as California. Needless to say the American felt slightly intimidated. Why the high prices? Until 1990, Japan had created a bubble economy. That means that real estate stock prices skyrocketed due to speculation.

Aum Shinrikyō’s Legacy and Japanese Pop Culture

On 20 March 1995, The Aum cult released self-made Sarin gas in the metro of Tokyo. 13 people died, and more than 5000 people got injured. Till then, those “new religions” (shinshūkyō 新宗教) had not been causing such serious accidents, and were left undisturbed in their activities. The reason for that, is that the Japanese were afraid to break the law of “freedom of religion” and to create a precedent that would be similar to the institution of shintō as a state-religion in WWII. Therefor, new religions were tolerated and could spread their popularity across all layers of the Japanese – and sometimes foreign – population. These newly formed religious movements gathered a considerable number of followers, what made scientists think of this after-war period as “the rush hour of the gods”. Aum was supported by ten thousand members in Japan. Most striking is the fact that many highly qualified, young graduates from top universities joined Aum, what gave them the label of “The Elite Sect”.

In the aftermath of the 1995 terrorist action, or so-called “post-aum period”, the New Religious Movements faced strong opposition by the public opinion. The government did well in solely focussing on the severe punishment of Aum members. If they had been carried along with the public rage, there would have been the risk of endangering article 20 of Japan’s Constitution.

Anti-Aum protest

Anti-Aum protest

Some New Religious Movements share following two characteristics (only what’s in bold letters), which I adopt to Aum Shinrikyō (given explanation). I have no knowledge of all New Religous Movements, so I do not at all claim that each of them engages in terrorist actions, nor do I believe their members to be treated in the way as Aum members were. On the contrary, except for a few ones like Aum, New Religious Movements are peacefully pursuing and developing their spiritual life.

  • A central, spiritual leader: The almost blind Shōkō Asahara formed Aum Shinrikyō in 1984 and was granted legal recognition 5 years later. The doctrine he promoted, contains several elements of Buddhism and Shintoism, as well as Christianity and Hinduism. He proved his born leadership i.a. by performances of self-levitation. He also declared himself “Christ”. Asahara was condemned to capital punishment, but is still in death row.
  • The Apocalypse Scenario: Aum-followers strongly believed Nostradamus’ prediction of a millennium-ending apocalypse. This subscribed to a utopian view on a perfect world (“shambhala”, paradise) they could help to establish. By ending the sinful world a bit earlier, for example. Many members in search of a spiritual way had joined because they felt a decline of society due to too much focus on materialism. There was a possibility of salvation for human beings, be it evidently limited to members of Aum. These people underwent ‘survival training’. Methods like brain washing and feeding chemicals and drugs were used to remove anxiety. Some died because of too much intensive training (i.e. lack of sleep and food) and were secretly cremated and buried with the remains of murdered opponents.

Nowadays, Aum’s legacy still wanders around in Japanese people’s mind, as is visible in following products of pop culture.

Bloody Monday

(ブラッディ・モンデイ) drama, 11 episodes, 2008, adaptation of the same-titled manga

A terrorist group threatens to murder Tokyo’s population by spreading a deadly virus, called Bloody X. The story revolves around a school boy who succeeds to stop the organisation’s evil moves by hacking into their computers and system. If you are fond of thrilling, sensational drama, then I can recommend you this one. Maybe the story turns highly unlikely after nine episodes and the hacking skills of our young hero are far from belief as well, but that doesn’t make it not worth watching.

Now, back to reality. While watching, I immediately felt the resemblance with the gas attack of 1995. Leader of the terrorist cult group is “High Priest” Kamishima Shimon, who possesses the unearthly powers to kill people while being imprisoned (the magic is later on revealed; compare with photos of Asahara’s levitation, as they turned out to be taken while he ‘hopped’ in Lotus position). What’s so attractive about the massacre, is that the terrorists can become God, being in possession of both the virus and anti-virus. So, as the end of the world is absolutely necessary, fortunately they can choose who stays free of bloody noses. Their justification for murdering Tokyo’s population goes as follows:

This country is rotten. In order to regenerate the world, everything needs to be reset.

Sounds a lot like Asahara and his followers, isn’t it? Another resemblance has to do with Aum’s foreign business. In 1992, Asahara traveled to Moscow on a “Russian Salvation Tour”. A central office in the capital and three branch offices were opened, and 30,000 Russian joined the cult organization (at least that is the number Aum claims). The reason for many young Russian to devote themselves to Asahara and his theories, was the same as the Japanese youth: they were looking for spiritual nourishment. After the Cold War, they had lost the relationship with traditional christianity and turned towards more mystical beliefs. In Bloody Monday, Russia plays an important role as the location for the first experiments with the virus.

20th Century Boys

(二十世紀少年) manga by Naoki Urusawa, 1999, 22 volumes

20thCentury Boys- UrusawaLeader and Savior of the World “Friend” takes care of the end of the world, according to a plan he made with his school comrades a long time ago. Again, a virus with bloody results is featured, as well as the divine talent of “Friend” himself to fly and raise from the dead. He gains enormous popularity among the Japanese youth, and even starts his own political party (which is not without any foundation in real life: see the Facts for more on Sōka gakkai and Kōmeito).

Urusawa always does a great job, and this SF-manga contains again a thrilling story. That such things could happen in real life seems absurd, but you never know… One psycho and his ideology can cause a lot of harm. If people are discontent with their present society, who stops them from believing in a better world? In their conviction of helping mankind for their own good by slightly accelerating world’s end, they would go smiling around to spread gas and viruses. And there lies the hidden fear of all: no exposed violence and display of power, but how the fragility of people like you and me, can be used so easily.

Facts for Fun

– The internationally known cult movement Sōka gakkai formed in 1964 its own political party, Kōmeito. Scarcely 5 years later, it was Japan’s third largest political party. Nowadays, they represent 10% of national voters. Although the band with Sōka Gakkai has been officially broken, meetings behind the scenes still happen.

– Aum Shinrikyō still exists: it changed its name to Aleph. The members abandoned terroristic plans, but are not yet quite accepted by Japanese society.


– The inspiration and some info I gathered during the lessons of Japanese religions.

– Metraux, Daniel Alfred. Aum Shinrikyo’s Impact on Japanese Society. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 2000.

– First picture is from Wiki Commons. On the site where I found the photo of Asahara on the cover, a lot of information about Aum can be found.

– watch Bloody Monday and Bloody Monday 2 online

The Chat of the Ambassador: Japan today

Mr. Mitsuo Sakaba, Japanese ambassador to Belgium, gave a speech at the library of our university this Thursday. The subject, chosen by the director board of KU Leuven, “challenges for Japan in the 21st century”, proved to be quite a challenge itself. Mr. Sakaba had to deal with a lot of topics. He shortly speeched about the three main issues of today: nuclear energy, foreign policy and the aging society of Japan.

The disaster of exactly two years ago in Fukushima instigated the controversy over nuclear energy. The budget framework for recovery is set on 310 billion Euro. But, the real difficulty is not rebuilding the devastated area, but rebuilding the community itself. Even if people would want to come back to their home towns, there is nothing provided for living decently. For example, no shopping malls, no schools, no hospital. Next to that, relocation is needed. Before the earthquake, people lived on the coast line while agriculture was situated on the higher inland. For safety reasons, plans are now being made to reverse this infrastructure. That means that the transport network, should be constructed in the inland now, and coastal areas should be developed as agricultural zones. To protect the coast for future tsunami, some raised the idea of building embankments. This could give problems for fishermen, though.


Japan is highly dependent on oil, gas and carbon, resources that are scarcely to be found and has to be imported. Nowadays, 2 of Japan’s 49 nuclear reactors are working. Due to the high safety standards government applied, many had to close down. These standards include as well the safety of the plant, like requiring protection walls, as the ground. The previous government of Noda promised to close down all reactors by 2030, and a change in energy structure. He stated the goal of 30% bio-nuclear energy (up till then 10% by the use of water and wind as energy), but didn’t provide a method or any know how. Today’s Prime Minister Abe, reviewed these vague plans and opted for a more realistic vision. The close down of nuclear reactors by 2030 has therefore not been accepted.
A question was raised by one of the attendants whether the government should nationalize nuclear firms if they prove to have a lack of budget for meeting up to the safety standards. To my disappointment, the ambassador couldn’t give a fitting answer.

Next topic was about foreign policy. Abe already made some name with his drastic macro-economic changes (“Abenomics”). Noda had proved to be unable to deal with the government debt of 230% and deficit balance, though he had succeeded in raising consumer taxes by 3 percent. Abe’s goal is clear: strengthen the Japanese economy in order to create an environment where reducing government debt would be possible. His methods are monetary easing, financial expenditures and a strategic economic growth. The expectations from the Japanese people are incredibly high: Abe can count on 70% support, what is really exceptional.

The relationship with the US has cooled down, due to disputes about the air force bases in Okinawa. Especially the one situated in the residential area of Futenma, has been scene to daily protest. The Democratic Party (DPJ) promised to relocate the base outside Okinawa. Unfortunately, no potential site was found, and politicians had to slacken their promise. Now, the option of relocation in a less populated area of Okinawa, has become the only possible solution.

On bigger scale, Japan has joined the negotiations for the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership). The Noda-government’s reluctance whether to join or not, was made short work of at once by Abe’s firm positive answer. The TPP negotiations could help to restore confidence. What the ambassador didn’t mention was that this week Obama was shocked by Abe’s boldness to simply refuse free trade on agricultural products. In Japan, agriculture, forestry and fishery are being highly protected by the so-called NTB (Non-Trade Barriers). Free trade would help to open up Japan’s closed market and reduce or eliminate price taxes. If these NTB’s would disappear, Japanese agriculture, who now provides for 40% of Japan’s consumption, would shrink to even less than 20%.

Leaders of TPP member states. Picture by Gobierno de Chile

Leaders of TPP member states. Picture by Gobierno de Chile

A Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with Europe is next on the list. In a previous post I already mentioned the merits for both parties. Mr. Sakaba told us that one of these days a decision will be taken, and negotiations started. Japan also pursues  Free Trade with China and South Korea.

What most people underestimate, is the incredibly high mutual dependence with China. Japanese investments are strongly entangled with the Chinese market. Unfortunately, issues like Senkaku do have some negative effect on this relationship (and I experience, give the impression that China and Japan has stopped economic exchange, which proves to be far from true). “But”, remarks the ambassador, “we should overcome this kind of disputes for the benefits of both sides”.

And last but not least, the aging society. Nowadays 27% of the Japanese population is older than 60 years, a percentage that is predicted to raise to 35% in the future. On the contrary, birth rate is 1.4, while in Belgium 1.78 for example. Which means that by 2050 the population would be decreased by half.  Imagine, from 128 million to 64 million people. That also raise an economical problem, for economic growth is normally supported by population growth. The ambassador mentioned 4 solutions. Firstly, more working women (nowadays 70% of the women. Compare with Sweden: 90%). Secondly, expanding the duration of employment of older people. Thirdly, attracting more foreign workers (There are 1.5% foreigners living in Japan. Compare with Belgium: 10%). And fourthly, robots to take over human labour.


Pension funds should be revised too. Japanese are trying to raise the starting point from 60 years to 65 years. Next to that, money should be invested. And then we have the new energy problem to take care of all these people. Fortunately, new resources are found in Japan. With the methane hydrate technology, oil can be extracted out of deep sea. An ecological traffic solution is the hydraulic car, where only city water is needed.

Despite all these challenges, the ambassador finished with, “Our goal after all, is to create a maximum happiness society”.

What To Be When You Grow Up

Pilot. Hair dresser. Football player. Princess. After some time, you start to think about your future for real. What are the dream jobs? It’s funny that these differ from one country to another.

In Belgium people aim for the highest wage. Prestige is not so important as in Asia, but some jobs has a status that is somehow culturally stereotyped. For example, studying medicine guarantees a prosperous future. There’s no way doctors can be poor or unemployed. Especially specialists’ income is high. Of course they have to work hard for that. Studies alone take 6 years, after that you can have 2 years of training for GP or 4 to 7 years for specialisation. The ethical aspect of medicine is of course appealing too. Follow up is lawyer. If you’re blessed with an excellent memory and some eloquence, law studies shouldn’t be too hard on you.

“I heard your son is so smart. Then he’ll become a doctor or a lawyer, isn’t it?” Her son will probably get a job, but it’s a fact that he won’t be paid most anymore. On a ranking of 15 best paid professions, lawyers rank 13th and doctors aren’t even mentioned. Well-off are managers, engineers and scientists.

Not so very attractive is the job of a civil servant. Especially municipal or government officials have the image of boring, slow and lazy men, spending their time staring with glazed eyes at a mountain of documents piled up on their desk. Obviously, the civil servant has been made fun of in numerous jokes (What’s the busiest day for a civil servant? Monday, because he has to tear off three sheets of the almanac).

How big can the difference with Japan be? Only the best students get this prestigious job.

Top officials work every day from early in the morning to late till night, very often under high pressure. When students are asked what job they would like to do most, the answers are 1. civil servant, 2. post office clerk, 3. bank clerk. Although officials are held in the highest regard, their wage (approx. 6,328,000¥/year) doesn’t reach a comparable summit. Software designers for example, earn 23,000,000¥.

Why the high prestige? Probably it has something to do with the examination system. Imported during the Heian period (794-1185) from China, it still exists today. This bureaucracy structure selected the bright minds of the country (although this was only reserved for the elite) and gave them legislative power. Together with politics and business, bureaucrats form the so-called “iron triangle”, who, according to Chalmers Johnson, governs Japan. After retiring around the age of 53, they comfortably settle in a high-ranked business position. This phenomenon is called amakudari (天下り), ‘descending from heaven’.

And what’s about the doctors? A possible explanation could be that healing people required touching dead bodies and blood, what made, and still make to some degree, a strong taboo in Japan. Take the whole issue about the stigmatized burakumin for example. Although, it has to be said that traditional Japanese medicine was not about surgery or dissection like in the West. Japanese doctors treated patients external by prescribing herbs. This originally Chinese medical system is called kanpō igaku (漢方医学). By the time Western medicine arrived, doctors could resort on a respectable reputation. Therefore, they were never really expelled from society because of their “impurity”.

The same respect for civil servants counts in South Korea. Here’s not government official, but teacher a dream job. After high school, central examinations are taken, and the 0.8% best scoring pupils aim for becoming a primary school teacher. There’s an Confucian explanation for that: out of the 44 professions Confucius distinguished, teaching is on first place. In 2005, South Korean teachers earned 234% of the BBP, the highest salary in their profession worldwide. Barack Obama tried to raise respect for teachers by telling that “In South Korea, teachers are known as nation builders.”

South Korea is famous for its obsession with education. After school hours, kids stay till 10 o’clock to study or go to cram school (hakwon 학원). At least 80% of the graduated high schoolers goes to university. On the day of the university entrance exam, traffic is diverted around exam halls, and Seoul has a flight restriction to not disturb students in their concentration. Police cars even give those who are running late a ride.

We can trace this obsession back to the Koryŏ period (918–1392) when the examination system (kwagŏ 과거) was established in order to select the officialdom. There were three kind of exams: one for Chinese literature and poetry (chesul-ŏp), one for Chinese classics like Confucius (myŏnggyŏng-ŏp) and one for technical knowledge, like science (chap-ŏp). The last examination was traditionally regarded as for the lower standing. Therefore doctors were not be found among the aristocrats but among commoners. The prestige of literary ability exceeded by far those of the practical professions.

Doctors and lawyers in Belgium, public servants in Japan, teachers in Korea. Useless to say that Japanese Studies aren’t mentioned  anywhere. Although it’s doubtlessly the most interesting thing to do…

Facts for Fun

– in Belgium, doctors work at their own office (GP’s) or at the hospital. In Japan, all doctors work at the hospital. If Japanese people say: “I’m not feeling well, I think I’m going to the hospital,” it may sound ridiculously dramatic for Westerners: we only get hospitalized in case of emergency. On the other hand, straightly translating “Let’s go to the doctor” into Japanese is quite absurd too.


– Belgian wages, Japanese wages : research by university of Kyushu, Korean wages

– Johnson, Chalmers A. Japan: Who Governs?: The Rise of the Developmental State. New York: Norton, 1995.

Belgian minister of Education visits South Korea 

Korean obsession with education 

Voting for Dummies

771px-Vote-BoxOn December 16, the Japanese will cast their vote in favour of a new Prime Minister. Expected is that Abe Shinzō, party leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, will overthrow the ruling of the Democratic Party of Japan since 2009. Next to the LDP and the DPJ, the third likely favourite is Ishihara’s brand-new Sunrise Party. Two critical items on the political agenda voters are concerned about, are the raise of the consumer tax and the future energy policy. The first one already proved to be hazardous. Noda paid for it dearly with his resignation. He dissolved the Diet on 16 November 2012.

So how does the national voting system (tōhyō seido 投票制度) in Japan works? The Diet consists of two chambers: The House of Representatives/Lower House (shugiin 衆議院) and The House of Councillors/House of Lords (sangiin 参議院). I’ll make the differences clear by the following table:

Lower House House of Lords
term 4 years 6 years
member’s age 25+ 30+
can be dissolved? yes no
elections normal staggered (but half of the members is replaced at the time)
voting system parallel :- first-past-the-post (300 seats)- party list proportional representation (180 seats in 11 block districts) parallel:- single non-transferable vote (146 seats in prefectural districts)- party list proportional representation (96 seats, nationwide)
powerful? yes, can block legislation not very, can only delay

So what the Japanese are going to vote for Sunday, is the composition of the Lower House. The party who has the most seats, will automatically deliver the Prime Minister.

On the voting lists for proportional representation (hireidaihyō 比例代表) you write down the name of the political party. That means, voters have little influence on the ranking of party members within their party. First-past-the-post-voting (shōsenkyohyō 小選挙区) includes ‘the winner takes it all’-principle, assigning a seat to the lucky ones with the most votes, regardless of the party they belong to. On this voting paper you write the name of the candidate.

Voting is not compulsory in Japan. In 2009, 69.27% of the eligible voters went voting in a polling station. To be eligible means to be citizen and older than 20 years. Foreigners are excluded in voting. Since 1990 permanent residents, especially Koreans, have been requesting the right of voting. Since the elections of 2009, political parties are considering a draft law. Next to that, lowering the voting age too has become a topic of discussion since 2007. In most countries it has been reduced to 18.

Let’s compare with the voting system in Belgium. In Belgium the legislative session of the Federal Parliament is 4 years (ends earlier in case of dissolution, like last time in 2010). The Parliament consists of the Chamber of Representatives and the Senate. Again a hopefully clarifying table:

Chamber of Representatives Senate
term 4 years 4 years
member’s age 21+ 21+, royal family 18+
can be dissolved? yes when Chamber is dissolved, Senate follows automatically
elections 150 members elected directly by the people of 71 members, 40 elected directly by the people
voting system proportional representation in 11 electorial districts and 5% election threshold proportional representation in 11 electorial districts and 5% election threshold
powerful? yes, can block legislation narrow qualification

In the Senate there are 31 members not elected directly by the voters. 21 of them are community senators, appointed by the Parliament of the Community (Flanders, Walloon or Brussels). Next to that there are 10 so-called co-opted senators, appointed by the language groups of the Senate. And last but not least, 3 senators by right: the children of the ruling monarch, if older than 18 years. The election threshold means that a political party has to gain at least 5% of all votes to obtain a seat in the Parliament.

Belgians are obliged to vote. However, the 2009 voter turnout happens to be only 89.22%, for the first time under 90%. Not casting your vote is considered a crime, but in fact you won’t be prisoned. You could be given a fine, although. Next federal elections will be held in 2014. I’m already looking forward to it…?

Facts for Fun

– Belgium tried last time in local elections to use in certain districts a computer instead of aJapan_Women_Vote pencil to fill in the voting paper. Digitally voting didn’t seem so satisfactory, as pushing too hard on the touch screen produced an extra preference vote for someone on that list.

– Japanese women received voting right in 1947, Belgian women in 1948.


– I got the greatest part of information from my courses ‘policy in Japan’ and ‘Belgian law’.

– voting results: IDEA

– photos from Wikipedia Commons