First Impressions of Japan

Wfm_kansai_overviewI have arrived in Japan to study for one year at Kobe University. I cannot express how much of an adventure this is to me, for it is also my first time in Japan and my first time living in a foreign country. Of course I was a little sad to leave my family and friends behind, but now I am here, I am incredibly excited about “my new life” and grateful for being given this chance. The fact is, I have been studying everything about Japan for 4 years now. By reading books and watching drama I have learned how the island looks like, how the people on it behave, but experiencing Japan proves to be a totally different thing. It’s the first time I cannot step outside “the Japaneseness” anymore, like was possible when spending an evening with Japanese friends in Belgium or going to a sushi restaurant. From now on, I will emerge myself in this Japanese world where everything seems so familiar but still new. Time by time, I will post something about my life here in Japan. The approach will be much more subjective and less academic than my usual writings. I will do my best, however, to research a bit about the things here that make me wonder.


I had my fingerprints taken.

I boarded in Amsterdam and arrived in Osaka around 10 o’clock. The landscape seen from outside the airplane window was spectacular: the snow-covered mountain ranges surrounded by forests and the deep blue sea, interrupted by long brown strokes in the plain areas – cities. Once safe and sound with both feet on the ground, all passengers headed towards the Immigration Section. There, I encountered the first big difference between Japan and Europe. An airport official was waving his arms, yelling loudly and running around to lead us in the right queue, “JAPANESE” or “FOREIGNERS”, what also was written on huge boards. The funny thing was that he kept yelling everything in Japanese to a big group of European passengers, while obviously most of them could not understand it. Still, he went on very energetically for his age. This is what they call isshōkenmei 一生懸命, “with utmost effort”. Europeans, on the contrary, are not isshōkenmei ; trying too hard is showing off or simply not done.

Wireless_toilet_control_panel_w._open_lidThen I paid a visit to the toilet. Halleluyah, everything I heard about it is true. Toilets in Japan look like they come from the future and are typical examples of the Japanese comfort. Firstly, the seat is warm. Secondly, there is a control panel with many buttons, so you can choose features such like automatic flushing, a bidet that sprays water (you can choose spot and strength), otohime 音姫, a flush sound that covers up your own sounds, massage options,… I haven’t had time to test them all, but probably I will write a blog post about this peculiar phenomenon later on.

To continue my journey, I took the 12 o’clock airport limousine (sounds fancier than it is, it is just a bus) to the center of Kobe, Sannomiya. With delight I observed Japanese punctuality, as the motor of our limousine started at 11:59 and we drove away exactly 1 minute later (on the left side of the road). This was something I – living in Belgium where complaining about public transport is a national sport – was really looking forward to. Also notable is the fact that passengers are reminded to be silent. On the expressway, I saw the Pacific Ocean through the left window  and Osaka, an endless chain of buildings, through the46067632 right window. Japan has an overall high population density, due to their 70% of mountainous area and only few plains on which living is possible. I was surprised to read that Belgium’s population density is  still a little bit higher, because we live in a very small country – no mountains – with a lot of people. The population density in Japanese big cities like Osaka and Kobe, however, skyrockets. The many tall buildings were proof of that. I am not yet sure if I like the style and color of the unique apartment buildings (mansion マンション) I have seen on my route. Also remarkable is that the staircase is always outside the building.

Apart from the cities and buildings, everything is small here. Cars are really cute. To make up for limited space, the Japanese are incredibly functional-minded. Take my hotel room for example (I have to stay here for two days before I can move into my dorm). Again, everything is provided for. There is a mini fridge, electric kettle with free tea, hair dryer, safe, toothbrush with toothpaste, pyjamas and slippers in my room, and free water, vending machines, microwave and washing machines in the 5340338_wlounge. The bathroom is small but contains everything one needs. It is like a plastic container in which everything is one piece. The tap of the wash basin can be moved to fill the bath or provide water for the shower head, located in the bath. There is a comfy toilet. You can also dry your clothes or towels in the bath: there is a string you can pull out of the wall and fasten to the other side.


Sometimes, the English translations are hilarious.

Something else that drew my attention are the many warning signs, even things I have never thought about. In the bathroom it is written that you should close the door, to not accidentally set off the fire alarm. It is also forbidden to color your hair in the bathtub. There is a sign on a metal plate next to the elevator buttons stating “put your finger here first to avoid electrocution”. In the bus, the seatbelts were labeled to not confuse those of the left and right seat. There is a sound that indicates when it’s safe to cross the street. On every machine there is written what to do with it and where to watch out for. When you step into the elevator, a voice welcomes you and announces when the doors close and open and on what floor you are. There is also a television inside…

What about my interactions with Japanese people? I have not had many encounters yet, only with hotel staff, shop keepers and people I had to ask road directions to (I am really bad with maps). That will change of course once I start university. Nevertheless, I am really glad I can speak Japanese. There are only few things written bilingual and most of the Japanese people cannot speak English very well. I have to admit though, that the Kobe dialect is really puzzling me. And they talk fast. I also felt half-dead because I barely could have some sleep during these 2 days of travelling, so the Japanese I uttered must have been a bit incomprehensible as well. On the one hand, I can imagine how hard it is for tourists to make themselves clear in Japan – even in big cities like Kobe. On the other hand, Japanese people are so polite and patient, they will try their best to understand you.

105_udonfrontWhen I went out for my first Japanese dinner, I stepped inside an udon restaurant and just stood there, uncertain what to do next. The waiter mumbled something I couldn’t understand at all, until he pointed at a vending machine in the corner. Apparently, I had to choose what to eat by pressing some buttons. Then I had to sit, received cold green tea for free, and gave my coupons to the waiter, who immediately brought my food. He literally returned to the kitchen and came back in 3 seconds, which means all food was already prepared and kept warm until someone ordered it. A Japanese “fast” food restaurant, so to call it. Some customers even managed to have dinner in less than 2 minutes, like the business man (sarari man サラリーマン – always wearing a suit and white shirt) who sat next to me. The problem with food and me is that I have been a vegetarian since last year because of environmental reasons. Only the name and a picture of the type of food appeared on the order screen, so I had to guess what it contained (I should have done some homework). Eventually I choose tanuki udon 狸うどんtanuki-udon and a sesame salad. It was really good and also very cheap, but the soup tasted a little bit like fish. When I searched for the recipe, I discovered udon soup contains dashi 出汁, Japanese soup stock made from fish and kelp. I am not sure what to do now, because it appears to be very difficult to be a vegetarian in Japan – a piece of cake in Belgium.

It is funny that Kobe is called a cosmopolitan city, for I have only seen one foreigner outside the airport and station. I am not sure if it is my imagination or not, but it feels like sometimes I am being stared at. It is also weird to only see Japanese people if you are a Belgian, used to ethnic diversity. Another thing I have to learn is waking up early. In the hotel, breakfast is only served from 7am till 9:30am. I wanted to sleep a little longer this morning to catch up some lost sleep, but received an unexpected wake up call at 10. They wanted to clean my room, and – luckily – I had locked it. From tomorrow on, I will have to wake up at 7 o’clock every morning, something I haven’t done for a long time.

I plan to buy a smart phone one of these days (Western mobile phones don’t work here) so I can take many pictures (the pictures in this post are not mine) and won’t get lost anymore. I hope to write again soonly, so please look forward to my next post!

Jacob de Zoet: A Dutchman in 19th-century Japan

jacob de zoet bookSome days ago, I finished reading David Mitchell’s novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. The story is set in Japan at the turn of the 18th century and tells the story of Dutchman Jacob de Zoet, who starts working for the East India Company in order to prove to the father of his beloved Anna that he is a man worthy of her. The intended stay of a few years turns out to be a long and unexpected adventure. Mitchell is beyond doubt a brilliant narrator. His work does not only cover an exciting narrative, it is also built upon profound research. The bestseller was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2010 and received many enthusiast reviews. The story is told from various – Dutch and Japanese – perspectives:

‘David Mitchell told a Japanese newspaper, “My intention is to write a bicultural novel, where Japanese perspectives are given an equal weight to Dutch/European perspectives”.’ (Man Booker Prize)

Mitchell’s background also explains his interest and knowledge of Japan:

‘It is interesting but unnecessary to know that the author has lived in Japan, is the father of half-Japanese children, and has set an earlier novel –number9dream (2001) – in the country. Equally, the fact that this new novel centres on a love story between a European man and a Japanese woman represents no more than the most elementary draw from autobiography. (The Guardian, 9 May 2010)

Underneath the story , ‘dealing with questions of alienation and strangerhood’ (Ching-Chih Wang, 2013), lies Mitchell’s own alienation, experienced as a foreigner in Japan.

The novel creates a setting of Japan during the  Edo period (1603-1868), when it was an isolated country (sakoku 鎖国). No Japanese could leave the country alive, and all contact with foreigners was forbidden. As a result, a united Japan, established by Tokugawa Ieyasu, maintained peace for over 200 years and domestic trade flourished. In 1799, only the Dutch were allowed on Dejima, an artificial island in the bay of Nagasaki.

Nagasaki itself, wood-grey and mud-brown, looks oozed from between the verdant mountains’ splayed toes. The smells of seaweed, effluence and smoke from countless flues are carried over the water. The mountains are terraced by rice paddies nearly up to their serrated summits. (…) Dominating the shorefront is his home for the next year: Dejima, a high-walled, fan-shaped artificial island, some two hundred paces along its outer curve, Jacob estimates, by eighty paces deep, and erected, like much of Amsterdam, on sunken piles. (TAJZ, p.15-16)



The Dutch were not the first to set foot in Nagasaki. In the 16th century, the Spanish and the Portuguese imported iron weapons, Western cuisine, foreign languages and Christianity (called Nanban “barbarians from the south” trade period). About 130,000 Japanese were converted to this new, humane religion, including many daimyō. With their support, the Portuguese obtained jurisdiction over trade in Nagasaki. The Japanese shogunate felt threatened and Toyotomi Hideyoshi promulgated the first ban on Christianity in 1587. Priests were no longer welcome.

Portuguese ships

Portuguese ships

chrHasekuraPrayerWith the unification of Japan, Tokugawa Ieyasu at first turned a blind eye towards the foreigners and their Christian mission in favor of trade. Later he realized trade was possible without accepting Christianity and forbade missionaries in 1614. All converts had to be executed, and the Catholics were driven underground (kakure kirishitan 隠れ キリシタン ). The Japanese also disliked that the Pope had divided Oceania among Spain and Portugal, of which the latter would receive Japan. A critical turning point was the battle of Shimabara in 1637, a rebellion of Christian peasants, supported by the Portuguese, against the Tokugawa regime.



From that moment, every person related to Christianity was severely punished. In order to unmask practitioners of the Western religion, the shogunate introduced fumie (踏み絵, “stepping on the picture”). Everybody had to trample on an image of Christ or Mary. Those reluctant or refusing to do this, were suspected of Christianity and sent to Nagasaki for torture. When they refused to change their religion, they were executed. The same applied to Dutchmen. Books they brought with the slightest hint to this Western religion were banned – and its owner killed.

I am told,’ says the interpreter, ‘Mr de Zoet brings many books… and here they are…’ he points to the chest ‘… many many books. A “plethora” of books, you say?’ ‘A few books,’ says Jacob, nervous enough to vomit. ‘Or quite a few: yes.’ ‘May I remove books to see?’ Ogawa does so, eagerly, without waiting for an answer. For Jacob, the world is narrowed to a thin tunnel between him and his Psalter, visible between his two-volume copy of Sara Burgerhart. (TAJZ, p. 21)

Only high officials of the Japanese government were allowed access to the Dutchmen on Dejima. The Dutch Chief had the duty to write a yearly report for the East India Company (Oranda fūsetsugaki, オランダ風説書), of which the oldest report archived now dates back to 1675. The Dutch were not allowed to study Japanese, and so they had to communicate via Japanese translators. Every year the Dutch chief of Dejima was summoned to Edo in order to report to the Shogun about the European situation.

Oranda fūsetsugaki –

The Hall of Sixty Mats is airy and shaded. Fifty or sixty sweating, fanning officials – all important-looking samurai – enclose a precise rectangle. Magistrate Shiroyama is identified by his central position and raised dais. His fifty-year-old face looks weathered by high office. Light enters the hall from a sunlit courtyard of white pebbles, contorted pine trees and moss-coated rocks to the south. Hangings sway over openings to the west and east. A meaty-necked guard announces, ‘Oranda Kapitan!’ and ushers the Dutchmen into the rectangle of courtiers to three crimson cushions. Chamberlain Tomine speaks and Kobayashi translates: ‘Let the Dutchmen now pay respect.’  (TAJZ, p. 40)

The Japanese imported Dutch wool, textile, cotton, medicine, clock works and sugar. They were also interested in western knowledge, mainly in the positive sciences. Rangaku (蘭学, “the study of the Netherlands”) as a term for the study of western sciences, medicine and technology in particular, and the translation of these books in Japanese, led to the beginning of a modern Japan. In return, the Dutch were mostly interested in copper. They shipped it to Batavia, the capital of Dutch India.

description of a microscope

description of a microscope

Interpreter Iwase translates for Chamberlain Tomine, who arrived with the hollyhock-crested scroll-tube delivered this morning from Edo. Kobayashi’s Dutch translation of Edo’s message is half unrolled. ‘Number?’ ‘What,’ Vorstenbosch’s patience is exaggerated, ‘is the Shogun’s offer?’ ‘Nine thousand six hundred piculs,’ announces Kobayashi. ‘Best copper.’ 9,600, scratches the nib of Jacob’s quill, piculs copper. ‘This offer is,’ affirms Iwase Banri, ‘a good and big increase.’ A ewe bleats. Jacob fails to guess what his patron is thinking. ‘We request twenty thousand piculs,’ assesses Vorstenbosch, ‘and we are offered less than ten? Does the Shogun mean to insult Governor van Overstraeten?’ (TAJZ, p.144)

When confronted with Western weapons, technology and ships, many Japanese realized – but only a few dare to utter – that sakoku, Japan’s voluntarily isolation, is an illusion which will soon come to an end. The supremacy of European colonial power is visible in all of Asia, and unconquered Japan is too tempting to leave alone. In order to survive, Japan should start developing a similar military force to handle foreign attacks. In the story of Jacob de Zoet, The English also attempt to extort a trade agreement – and fail, thanks to the resistance of the Dutch.

‘The recent incursions by Captain Benyowsky and Captain Laxman warn us of a near future when straying Europeans no longer request provisions, but demand trade, quays and warehouses, fortified ports, unequal treaties. Colonies shall take root like thistles and weeds. Then we shall understand that our “impregnable fortress” was a placebo and nothing more (…) Dr Maeno clears his well-respected throat and raises his fan. ‘First, I wish to thank Yoshida-san for his stimulating thoughts. Second, I wish to ask how best the threats he enumerates can be countered?’ (…) ‘By the creation of a Japanese Navy, by the foundation of two large shipyards, and by the establishment of an academy where foreign instructors would train Japanese shipwrights, armourers, gunsmiths, officers and sailors.’ The audience as unprepared for the audacity of Yoshida’s vision. (TAJZ, p. 198)

When the Union Jack appears on the frigate’s jack-staff, Jacob de Zoet knows, The war is here. The transactions between the longboat and the greeting party puzzled him, but now the strange behaviour is explained. Chief van Cleef and Peter Fischer have been kidnapped. (TAJZ, p. 365)

Philipp Franz von Siebold watching an incoming Dutch ship at Dejima

Philipp Franz von Siebold watching an incoming Dutch ship at Dejima – painting by Kawahara Keiga

On the last day of 1799, the East India Company is declared bankrupt. Jacob de Zoet, however, stays in Japan and returns years later home as a rich man.

Fischer smiles for a long second. ‘Captain Penhaligon’s orders are to negotiate a trade treaty with the Japanese.’ ‘Jan Compagnie trades in Japan,’ says Ouwehand. ‘Not John Company.’ Fischer picks his teeth. ‘Ah, yes, some more news. Jan Compagnie is dead as a doornail. Yes. At midnight on the last day of the eighteenth century whilst some of you – ‘ he happens to glance at Gerritszoon and Baert – ‘were singing rude songs about your Germanic ancestors on Long Street, the Ancient Honourable Company ceased to exist. Our employer and paymaster is bankrupt.’ (TAJZ, p.390)

It is in 1854 that American Commodore Perry forced the opening of Japan. As predicted, unequal treaties follow, but thanks to the import of Western knowledge, the transition to a modern nation ran smoothly.

Kurofune, the “black ships” of the Americans, depicted by the Japanese. –

Facts for Fun

– Want to read more about this? Goodman, Grant Kohn. Japan and the Dutch, 1600-1853. Richmond, Surrey: Curzon, 2000.


– Vande Walle, Willy. Een geschiedenis van Japan van samurai tot soft power. Leuven: Acco, 2011.
– Fragments (TAJZ) from Mitchell, David. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. London: Sceptre, 2010.
– Wikipedia
– Pictures from Wikimedia Commons
– Thanks to Sam for lending me the book!

I’m Sorry For Apologizing

The word apology is derived from the Greek word ἀπολογία (apologia), which is aApologyplato rhetorical (written) device to express self-defense. Famous are the apologias from Plato, Aristotle and Isocrates. The purpose is forgiveness and re-acceptation. Admitting one’s guilt and showing remorse is not necessarily part of an apologia; in Plato’s famous apologia, for example, Socrates denies accusations made against him. The English word “apology” is a semantic specialization of the Greek word. It inherently indicates remorse and acknowledgment of guilt. 

The Japanese word 謝罪(shazai) is composed of 謝 sha, to apologize/thank/refuse and 罪 zai, guilt/crime/fault. Because it has no connotation with apologia, it lacks the defending aspect. In this respect, the apology itself is emphasized, while the explanation or excuse is of minor importance or is even omitted.  Japanese also give a more extended and elaborate apology (Sugimoto, 1998).

Japanese people tend to apologize a lot compared to Western countries. For example, when Japanese people enter a room, they will say 失礼しますshitsureishimasu (“I’m being rude”, meaning “I’m sorry for disturbing you”) to the people present there. When they receive a cup of tea during a home visit, they will say どうもすみません dōmo sumimasen to apologize and express gratitude at the same time. And when they want to request something from someone higher in status, they will start with お忙しいところ申しわけありませんが…oisogashii tokoro mōshiwake arimasenga,…  (I’m very sorry (to bother you) when you are busy, but …). As you can see, there are many expressions to apologize, depending upon the context, the situation and the person you’re talking with.

Sony apologizes

Sony apologizes

Sometimes, Japanese people apologize a bit too much to our liking. You will probably remember the filmed apology of Minami Minegishi, member of the idol group AKB48. Minegishi shaved her head to show remorse – and, sobbing, apologizes for her thoughtless behavior and begs for forgiveness. What did she do wrong? She had a boyfriend. And the agency’s rules are clear: no dating.

In cross-cultural research, several scholars compared the American (and Western in general) way of apologizing with the Japanese zaisha. Observed differences are:

1. Apologizing for whose mistakes?

Overall, Japanese conduct manuals give far more attention to apology than do their U.S. American counterparts. (…) In U.S. American conduct manuals, people apologize only for their own mistakes, with the exception of women’s apologizing for the mishaps of their spouses, young children or pets. By contrast, in Japanese conduct manuals, the readers are told to apologize for offenses committed by a greater range of people beyond themselves. – Sugimoto, 1998

2. Excuses

[I]n Japanese, shazai ‘apology’ is divided broadly into two types, which are ii wake ‘excuse’ and shazai suru ‘apologize’– a classification that does not exist in English. – Kashima (translator), 2009
This is something that I regularly notice as a Belgian: an apology of my fellow Belgians is almost always followed by a reason why one should apologize. “I’m sorry, but …”. The apology is a justification for their behavior or mistake.
The Attribution Theory (Ross,1993; etc.) says that people misattribute the cause of outcomes to the person rather than the environment. An apology shifts the attribution back to the environment. – Benjamin Ho (2005)

3. Non-verbal behavior

The Japanese apology is accompanied by a bow (お辞儀 ojigi). Similar to the bow when greeting, asking for a favor or thanking,  the length and depth of the bow depends on – in the case of apologizing – the degree of caused damage and the formality of the situation. The most extreme one is dogeza 土下座, kneeling on the ground and touching the floor with your head. Don’t take following video too serious.

4. Sincerity

Americans see apologizing as a recognition of personal blame. When they do apologise, it is with truthfulness and sincerity. If not, the apology is not a “real” apology. The Japanese, however, perceive sincerity (素直 sunao) differently. An apology belongs to the domain of tatemae 建前, the public attitude, and is not necessarily compatible with the inner feelings or personal opinion (本音 honne, private thought).
Sincerity of apology has different connotations in the two cultures with the Americans preoccupied with the problematics of wholeheartedness and the Japanese focused on the more attainable externality of submission to order and return to harmonious relationship -Wagatsuma & Rosett (1986)

5. Legal function

Wagatsuma and Rosett (1986) also pointed out that apologizing is indispensable in court. In traditional Japan, disputes were mediated outside court, and damaged relationships were restored by non-legal means like apologies. The emphasis on apologising continues in the modern Japanese law system. Unlike in western countries, where an apology is admission of guilt, the Japanese

seem to think it is better to apologize even when the other party is at fault (…). Japanese criminal offenders are said to be more ready than Americans to admit their guilt and throw themselves on the mercy of an offended authority.

In conclusion, what to do when you commit a mistake in Japan?

Measure the degree of injury inflicted by yourself or someone belonging to your “group”, choose the right expression and bow, avoid excuses, if not guilty apologize anyway, and don’t forget to apologize in front of the judge when accused of a crime.


– Maddux, William W., Peter H. Kim, Tetsushi Okumura, and Jeanne M. Brett. “Cultural Differences in the Function and Meaning of Apologies.” International Negotiation 16, no. 3 (January 1, 2011): 405–25.
– Apology Translation in Diplomacy: Case Study of Prime Minister Abe’s Apology Regarding “Comfort Women” PDF 
– Sugimoto, Naomi. “Norms of Apology Depicted in U.S. American and Japanese Literature on Manners and Etiquette.” International Journal of Intercultural Relations 22, no. 3 (August 1998): 251–76.
– Sugimoto, N. “A Japan-U.S. Comparison of Apology Styles.” Communication Research 24, no. 4 (August 1, 1997): 349–69.
– A Rational Theory of Apologies Benjamin Ho Poster PDF
-Wagatsuma, H., and Rosett, A.R.”The implications of apology: law and culture in Japan and the United States”, Law and Society Review 20 (1986): 461-498.

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.

banner MTSA 2


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 -

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

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.


[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).


bibliography MTSA

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.

banner MTSA 1


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 –

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 –

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 -

zashikiro –

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 –

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-

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 -

Loyal retainer Nishigori rescues Soma from the asylum –

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 -

Ohio Insane Asylum in the 1950s –

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 -

protest against psychiatric hospital Utsunomiya –


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.


[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, 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


Japanoise, or Japanese noise refers to the noise scene in Japan. As the name suggests, noise is a music genre that explores the boundaries between “music” and “non-music”. Noise originated in Europa around 1910, influenced by futurism, surrealism and Fluxus. The instruments used vary widely. Noise features a fusion of traditional instruments and electronic sounds, recordings and machines. It sometimes is described as sound scape, for rhythm and structure are of minor importance.

Noise music is not easy to understand and it usually takes a long time before one starts to appreciate it. This is certainly the case in Japan, where harsh noise has still maintained its form of “pure noise”. Western noise music is often a fusion of noise and a different music style, like rock, pop or electronic music.

japanoise lou reed

In the 1980s, noise rock (“commercial studio noise music”) used the unconventional noise heritage and mixed it with rock. The usual instrumentarium of guitars, drums, vocals and bass is in charge, but “noisy” elements like atonality and dissonance are incorporated as well. A famous noise rock album is Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music.

But then there is the question: is noise still music? The border between noise and music, especially in avant-gardist music styles, can be very vague.

there is no noise without the thought of noise – (…) noises come from specific places and specific conceptualisations. – Paul Hegarty: Full With Noise: Theory and Japanese Noise Music (2001)


In aesthetic terms, the category of ‘sound’ is often split in two: ‘noise’, which is chaotic, unfamiliar, and offensive; and ‘music’, which is harmonious, resonant, and divine. These opposing concepts are brought together in the phenomenon of Noise Music (…) – Joseph Klett and Alison Gerber: The Meaning of Indeterminacy: Noise Music as Performance (2014)


Like all modern arts, noise music serves another purpose: not (only) aesthetically appealing, but also conveying a certain meaning. With noise, fixed ideas about how music ought to sound like are questioned. The concepts of “music” and “noise” are highly subjective, if not closely linked with cultural and social expectations. As Attali points out: music is intimately tied up in the mode of production of a certain society. After all, noise music is not “likeable” or “fun” like commercial music is, and should therefore be approached in  a different way.

Noise can be seen as structural: in the realm of law, of good citizenship, it is “undesired”, or “excessive” sound. In the realm of Law as that which operates rationality, noise is that which has always to be excluded – the exclusion having always already been and (not) gone, in order that the Law exists. This seems to indicate noise as a category, like the sublime, of domesticated exclusion. – id.

The noise scene in Japan is surprisingly strongly represented. It was introduced in the late 1970s, peaked in the 1980s and 1990s and is still alive and kicking today. Many major noise artists are Japanese, and musicians all over the world claim to be inspired by Japanoise and its subgenres and fusion genres. Notable Japanoise musicians or bands are Akita Masami (a.k.a. Merzbow), Hanatarash, Boredoms, Hijōkaidan, Incapacitants and Melt-Banana.

An important part of noise music is the performance. An artistic performance bears a decoded cultural meaning which provokes interaction with the audience. Klett and Gerber, however, state that performance in noise music is characterized by “indeterminacy”, and requires “an interactive listener”.

Notorious for its dangerous performances was the band Hanatarash. After cutting a dead cat in half with a knife, destroying a venue with a backhoe bulldozer, playing with circular saws and attempting to throw a molotov cocktail, they were eventually banned at most venues. Hanatarash brought the destructivism from their music on stage.

Noise is not a sweet music style (it is for example very difficult to make soft noise) and stands for chaos and dissonance. It is directly translated into musical violence, or even maybe physical pain, for it hurts the ears. Noise music does not fit in the usual concept of music, it can hardly be called music, because we culturally interpret the concept of “music” differently. In semiotics, noise conveys a meaning. It is often seen in a negative view, as a way of default communication. Since the 1970s, musicians brought noise into the paradigm of music, stimulating creativity and providing new insights on the topic of music and cultural sociology.

Facts for Fun

Beautiful noise informs about the history of noise and its role in contemporary music.
– Looking for some unconventional music? Watch Sound of Noise, a Swedish movie about “musical terrorism”.
-Documentary People Who Do Noise
– Own paper about Semiotics in Noise Music


– Hegarty, P. Full With Noise: Theory and Japanese Noise Music2001.
– Klett, J., and A. Gerber. “The Meaning of Indeterminacy: Noise Music as Performance.” Cultural Sociology 8, no. 3 (September 1, 2014): 275–90.
– Cassidy, Aaron, and Aaron Einbond, eds. Noise in and out as Music. Huddersfield: University of Huddersfield Press, 2013.
– Attali, Jacques. Noise: The Political Economy of Music. Theory and History of Literature, v. 16. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985.
– Simpkins, Scott. Literary Semiotics: A Critical Approach. Lanham, Md: Lexington Books, 2001.
– Kahn, Douglas. Noise, Water, Meat a History of Sound in the Arts. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1999.
– Tofogu. Is This Noise Or Music? (It’s Noise), 2012.

International Symposium: The First World War and Japan

Last Saturday I attended the international symposium at KU Leuven, spread over three days. The symposium welcomed speakers to give a presentation about Japan’s new role in a changing world, during and after the First World War, and its relationship with Belgium and Europe. In this post I will discuss three highly interesting presentations.

1. Impact of ‘Food War’: Agricultural Policy in imperial Japan and after the First World War by Prof. Dr. Fujihara Tatsuhi

symposium - turnip winterDuring the First World War, Germany suffered from a severe food shortage, causing the starvation of 600.000 Germans in the so-called “Turnip Winter” of 1916-1917. This food shortage directly influenced the world market. In Japan we see a rise of the rice price and less production of the japonica rice (or sushi rice). Therefore, rice was imported mainly from Buruma, Indochina and Thailand to feed the lower class. The high rice prices however provoked rice riots (米騒動) in Kobe, Okayama and Nagoya. The government became aware of the farmers’ value, not only as soldiers, but as providers for food. They started to control the price of food.

symposium - german hunger

Stimulating the planned food economy in Germany.

The Japanese newspapers reported about the German Hunger and as a result, the government changed their own imperial food policy. They recommended not to peel potatoes anymore for instance, to eat ducks and not to feed meat to their pets. Japan imported more food from the neutral countries. The Allied took their chance to spread false propaganda about the Germans: they would produce oil from dead bodies and eat dogs. This was not the case, how extreme the circumstances may have been. In Germany a wartime food policy by Herbert Backe came into existence, featuring imperial self-sufficiency. Japan analysed this food policy and books were written on the topic. Inspired by Germany, Japan sought to improve their production (“involution”, typical to Japan according to Tessa Morris Suzuki). Where there was no japonica rice before in Taiwan and other areas, Japan now brought seeds to these colonies and grew “imperial varieties” (蓬莱米).

2. A “remote” World War as Secondary Experience? Japanese Mass Media and the First World War by Dr. Jan Schmidt

In the period 1905-1914 the number of recipients of mass media rose, due to an increased education level. Various media were used to write about and depict the First World War. Not only papers and magazines discussed the War, photography exhibitions and many lectures were also held to inform people about this topic. According to Dr. Schmidt, approximately 10 percent of the daily newspaper was dedicated to war news. Commercials reacted to the state of war as well and eye-witness statements were often published in magazines. Even paper lanterns had prints with references to the war, and new kabuki shows on the war topic were performed.

source: asahi shimbun

source: asahi shimbun

How was Belgium depicted in the Japanese media? The Japanese people admired the brave Belgian king, who refused passage to the Germans and was present at the front line together with his soldiers. They also pitied these “poor Belgians” on learning of the destruction of many cities like Leuven. There was certainly an emotional connection between Japan and the victimized European countries. It was not rare, for example, to find the cinema filled with crying Japanese people. They took the war very serious: especially Japanese women criticised in pamphlets their own sex for being inactive in the war, unlike the English women. As a result Japanese women were sent to take care of injured soldiers. Australian citizens of Japanese origin who participated in the war were applauded in newspapers. The media proudly presented these actions as to show that Japan played a role as well and profiled itself as a rising world power. We can conclude that, however often forgotten, Japan was not really detached from the First World War, and influenced the aftermath.

3. The Japanese endowment to the Leuven University Library, with special emphasis on the role played by Adachi Mineichiro by Prof. Dr. Willy Vande Walle

After evading Belgium, the Germans were particularly suspicious of sniper actions. When they noticed shooting (which was probably done by another troop of Germans) they planned a retaliation action. On the night of 25 August 1914 the Leuven University Library was completely burnt down and 250.000 books were destroyed. Not one book was left intact. Throughout the world this was seen as an act of barbarism and a blow to civilisation. Many countries offered help. The United States rebuilt the library for free, and in the stones you can see the names of American Universities which donated money.

symposium - bibJapan responded as well and joined the international committee. Especially the Japanese Minister to Belgium, Adachi Mineichiro, played an important role in the mediation. The Belgians preferred money over material donations for the restoration, but Japan feared its donation would be considerably smaller in comparison with the US and felt the urge to spread information about their own country and culture in Europe. Here the motive to enhance national prestige plays an important role again. They requested one room exclusively reserved for books concerning Japan and the Far East. The books would be organised according to 26 categories. Around 3200 titles in 14.000 volumes were sent in 6 shipments to Belgium. Even though the committee faced many problems collecting books, especially after the loss of books during the Japanese earthquake in 1923, they persevered and stored the books in the newly rebuilt library. Rich families and the imperial family as well donated books. In 1936 an orientalist institution was established in Leuven.


During the Second World War, the library was burnt down again. The Japanese collection, however, survived miraculously. Except for 26 items, which disappeared in a strange way. Up till now, it is not clear how they disappeared and where they are now. It is striking that these objects are precious books, and it requires expert knowledge of Japanese to recognise their worth. Were they taken by the Germans? Were they brought to Louvain-la-Neuve and never retraced? Were they accidentally transferred by experts on Indian and Chinese Buddhism to a different library? A mystery is going on here…

History Repeats Itself: The Deflation Story

banner-deflationEurope has an economic problem. Today on the news I heard that prices in Belgium are not likely to raise. A good thing, you might think, but a little bit of inflation (sustained increase of the general price level) is actually a feature of a healthy economy. In Germany and Spain as well consumer prices fell and provoked a fear of deflation (decrease in the general price level). At first lower prices may seem great for the consumer, but eventually people will delay their purchases because things keep getting cheaper. In the end, deflation causes poor economic growth. And worse, deflation may result in a deflationary spiral (decreases in prices -> lower production -> lower wages and demand -> further decreases in price)…

…which is actually the case in Japan since the latter half of the 1990s. This chronic deflation is presumably caused by a collapse in the stock and real estate market (“burst of the bubble economy”), unfavorable demographics, the inclination of Japanese people to save their money, import of cheap Chinese materials and a tight monetary policy. The Japanese economy stagnated and real GDP growth average only reached 0.8% between 1993 and 2012.

deflation-japan-USSince 2012, prime minister Abe Shinzō has been trying to put an end to this longstanding issue. The so-called “Abenomics” focuses on three arrows: fiscal stimulus, monetary easing and structural reforms. The Bank of Japan set a target of 2 percent inflation. By the end of 2013, the long period of deflation was declared over. The first two arrows have been put successfully in action, although many economists question the efforts in structural reforms, essential to turn the entire economic policy of Abenomics into a long-term solution.

The European Central Bank is now working on a quantitative easing program, more specifically buying bonds from the banks to increase flows of credit. This story is to be continued, for sure…

References and Further Reading

“Chronic Deflation in Japan”

“Japan Deflation to End” – Forbes

Abenomics: Preliminary Analysis and Outlook

Abenomics Structural Reform Problem – The Diplomat

– The eurozone needs an alternative solution to its economic woes – The Guardian

The Inspiration for Lolita Fashion

the inspiration for lolita fashion - nippakuA one piece dress with a bell-shaped skirt or a jumper skirt with a neatly buttoned-up frilly blouse over a petticoat or bloomers. Knee-length socks in polished Mary Jane shoes. On top of naturally colored luxuriant curls an Alice bow. Light make-up in pastel tints. That is what it takes to dress like a lolita girl.

lolita-pink nippaku

)wo “sweet lolita’s”.  –

The word “lolita”, as you can remark, has connotations with a novel of the same name, written by Vladimir Nabokov (a wonderfully well-written work, in my opinion). “Lolita” was introduced in Japan to describe the child-like, innocent image of this fashion style. Funny is that the girl Dolores, for who Lolita is a nickname, is not an innocent creature at all. Could it be that the person who introduced “lolita” to describe a fashion style didn’t read the book? You have to admit, it sounds cute. But maybe there is another reason. Although lolita girls look fragile and cute, they are down to earth. What is hidden behind their sugar-coated image can look as little Victorian as Kim Kardashian at the beach. Or in the words of Tiffany Godoy and Ivan Vartanian:

 For some reason, it resists classification. Certainly, there are some very general commonalities with the look of Rococo royalty, such as expansive skirts or the abundant use of frill. But Gothic Lolita has many other defining qualities beyond these. Furthermore, the individuals that practice Gothic Lolita have lost their bearings with the music, paintings, and literature they love. While they may like cute kids’ things and old-style classical music, they love grotesque, misshapen monsters, are devoted to Georges Bataille’s academicism, and are mad about violent rock. So, along with our bizarre sense of style and an apparent conflict in taste, we are always thought of as freaks by society.

Mana is

Mana is a famous musician, mostly dressed up in lolita fashion. He has his own brand Moi-même-Moitié. He designs two styles of lolita fashion: Elegant Gothic Lolita and Elegant Gothic Aristocrat.

Lolita girls do not blindly mimicry the fashion of the 19th Century, nor do they have an old-fashioned lifestyle. Some of them are tired of contemporary fashion, exposing too much skin. Others feel elegant and pretty in a lolita outfit. The short documentary the secret life of the lolita tells us that “though they may appear cute, they are not to be underestimated”.

Lolita fashion was born in Japan. Why? Despite the fact that these clothes are largely inspired by Victorian and Rococo fashion, there are certain similarities with Japanese fashion culture and social thinking.

In the first place, the concept of being wrapped up in many layers. (Later more about that in the second part of my posts about Japan’s wrapping culture.) From head to toe, Japanese Harajuku youngsters tend to dress up in a certain way, they present ‘the whole package’. Lolita fashion is a mix of Western Goth subculture and 19th century European dress style. So it appears to be non-Japanese. This style however, differs greatly from how Victorian women dressed in reality. Lolita fashion looks old-fashioned, but would have been unthinkable at that time. Lolita fashion is an example of cultural hybridisation (a concept I have discussed many times before on this blog). While forms of culture (e.g. fashion) spread around the globe, not necessarily the process of globalisation with homogenisation as a result is working, local cultural interaction plays the most important role. Antropologist Robertson introduced the term “glocalisation” for this process.

from Gothic & Lolita Bible, thé fashion magazine for lolita fans.

One of the more gothic inspired pages in Gothic & Lolita Bible, thé fashion magazine for lolita fans.

In the second place, and related to glocalisation, the image of cuteness. Whereas Western women and men believe being sexy is attractive, Japanese people prefer cute girls.

One of the most prominent aspects of GothLoli as a culturally hybridised form is the interaction between Western gothic/classic fashion and the Japanese aesthetical concept of kawaii (cute). (….) In general, kawaii refers to something childish/ girlish and sweet. According to sociologist Merry White, the concept of cuteness is not ‘restricted to children in Japan, though it means childlike and sweet, happy and upbeat—and vulnerable’ and Japanese cute style is defined as ‘bright for boys, lacy for girls’. – Masafumi Monden

Lolita girls often adopt a cute manner of speech and behavior. They prefer their presentation as much sugar-coated as the many cookies and cupcakes they order for their weekly tea parties.

Sweet girls in Gothic & Lolita Bible.

Sweet girls in Gothic & Lolita Bible.

Let’s have a look at the inspiration for Lolita fashion: rococo and victorian age fashion. Rococo, also called late baroque, is an 19th century artistic movement and style which developed a new dress silhouette for women. The contrast of a tight corseted bodice and a wide skirt was born. This silhouette continued to be in vogue during the victorian age and revived in lolita fashion. Panniers and petticoats often extended sideways with the help of an enormous hoop construction underneath. This extreme width, however, is not very fancied today. Neither are the tight corsets and over-the-top wigs.

Kirsten Dunst demonstrates the wide pannier under a evening gown worn by Marie Antoinette.

Kirsten Dunst demonstrates the wide pannier under a evening gown worn by Marie Antoinette.

As Rococo fashion flourished in France, Great Britain experimented with fashion during the Victorian Age (1830-900). I received a box full of precious magazines (La mode illustrée/”Illustrated Fashion”) from my grandmother some time ago. It was possession of her grandmother. The magazines date back to 1873 and were printed in Paris. My great-great-grandmother had them sent to her Belgian home every month. They illustrate the fashion worn at home and during soirées by ladies of the higher social class. Another source I keep at home are the porcelain dolls I collect.

20140803_16460620140803_163426Similarities with contemporary lolita fashion are the many frills, detailed adornments like bow ties, curly hair, a tight fit top and bell-shaped skirt. There is, however, an important difference: these victorian ladies do not look cute or innocent, they look gracious and refined. They have kids, a household to manage and guests to entertain with eloquent talk. Next to that, typical elements of victorian fashion are absent in lolita’s dress rooms. For example, the enormous hats with feathers, wide puffed sleeves, sexy low necklines or hair pieces to wear as elaborate curls.


It is likely that (cute) victorian children and adolescent’s fashion was more inspiring. The girls wear shorter skirts so that their (often) white-colored socks are visible. They have cute boots with low heels and their dresses are kept simple and Alice in Wonderland-like.

lolita kids Victorian girls wore jumper skirts over frilly chemises or one piece dresses. Their hair was not completely put up in loose curls. How lolita girls dress nowadays, is very similar to victorian children’s fashion. A difference is the length of the skirt:

Drawing out of Harper's Bazar (1868) about the appropriate length of skirts.

Drawing out of Harper’s Bazar (1868) about the appropriate length of skirts.

lolita - innocent world

A jumper skirt over a white blouse, Innocent World collection.












Sweet/Gothic/Classic lolita prefer their skirts to be knee-length. Of course there are many substyles in lolita, Elegant Gothic lolita for example. EGA’s tend to dress more mature. Men as well can enjoy this style without having to wear petticoats, and women in pants do not break the dress code.


Elegant Gothic Lolita.


– Godoy, Tiffany, and Ivan Vartanian, eds. Japanese Goth. New York, NY : [Enfield: Universe ; Publishers Group UK, distributor], 2009.

– Masafumi Monden. Transcultural Flow of Demure Aesthetics: Examining Cultural
Globalisation through Gothic & Lolita Fashion. University of Technology, Sydney.

– blog History of European Fashion

Wrapping Culture (1): Presenting the Present

banner wrappingculture1presenting the presentSome time ago, I announced the topic of my bachelor paper and gave a short introduction about it. You thought I had forgotten all about it? Hah! In fact, I have written several (Dutch) texts about it this far and finished my paper. So, now the deadlines are gone it’s time for an update. First: wrapping in its literal meaning.

Japanese history is filled with various types of wrapping. Archeologists dug up remainders of early wrapping methods, other types of packing are described in ancient books. Ever since the Jōmon Period (10.000 B.C. – 300 B.C.) people used the peel of melons and gourds and the skin of animals to transport water and food. They wove bamboo leafs, rice plants and wooden splints to cover things. And of course Jōmon pottery was used for storing food. The Jōmon people formed a nomadic hunter-gatherer society and because of their constant moving, wrapping materials were necessary for bringing their belongings with them.

Reconstruction of Jomon people preparing and storing fresh fish at the sea coast.

Reconstruction of Jomon people preparing and storing fresh fish at the sea-coast.

During the Yayoi Period (300 B.C. – 250 A.D.) not only various material wrappings were invented, spatial wrapping was put into practice as well. Yayoi people lived in specific houses, called tateana 竪穴 or “pit houses”. Another example of spatial wrapping is the way the dead were buried. Two big jars enclosed the body. These jars were put horizontally under the ground.

tateana and kamekan- source: wikimedia commons and

tateana and kamekan– source: Wikimedia Commons and

During the Kofun Period (3th Century – 7th Century) textile was preferred because of its light and flexible quality. Weaving techniques were imported from China, together with sericulture. The Nara Period (710-794) was short but covered a whole range of new wrapping materials, due to a strong development of culture and economics. Wrappers for silk clothes, tableware, ritual wrappings, lunch-boxes… Many objects were brought back from Tang China and definitely introduced in Japan.

One of the most well-known wrappings, furoshiki 風呂敷, can be traced back to the Heian Period (794-1185). Furoshiki is a creatively died, eco-friendly, multifunctional wrapping cloth. Originally, it was used to put away clothes and personal stuff before the owner entered a public bath (the characters means “bath spread”). Nowadays, furoshiki are a popular wrapping for lunch-boxes and presents. Depending on the object you want to wrap, there are many ways of folding furoshiki.

A folded wrapping cloth next to its own wrappings.

A folded wrapping cloth (furoshiki) next to its own wrappings.

The Heian Period, noted as the cultural and artistic peak of the Imperial Court, is known for its writing upper class. Not only for men, but for many courteous ladies as well it was only appropriate to write a fairly large amount of letters, diaries and poetry on a daily base. Most of these dealt with love affairs. In particular, letters had to be decorated with a piece of nature or a sign of consideration. Prince Genji, no stranger to amorous letters, knows exactly how to adorn his letters with a fitting symbolic decoration:

The gods will not wish me to speak of them, perhaps,

But I think of sacred cords of another autumn.

‘Is there no way to make the past the present?’

He wrote as if their relations might permit of a certain intimacy. His note was on azure Chinese paper attached most solemnly to a sacred branch from which streamed ritual cords. (Genji Monogatari online)

 Here Genji suggests a religious retreat because he has been rejected by Princess Asagao “Morning Glory”, a high priestess who  is the receiver of this letter. The sacred branch with ritual cords matches the contents of the letter, and is at the same time an homage to the high priestess.


Decorated letters survived the ages. Some letters from my collection I received from Japanese pen friends.

During the Japanese Middle Ages (1185-1603), again, many new wrappings came into vogue. Among other things the tradition of noshi 熨斗 as a ritual wrapping for gifts was initiated. Noshi is a small piece of abalone, covered in white and red paper. Abalone itself was originally a gift, but was later used as a symbol of a gift. It symbolizes the purity of the giver. Dirtiness in shintoism is associated with death and illness. Nowadays, noshi is printed or reproduced on an envelope, the ensemble called noshigami 熨斗紙. Often money is presented this way.

Noshigami with a nosh in the right corner.

Noshigami with a noshi in the right corner.

The gold and silver knot strings (sometimes red and white), mizuhiki 水引, dates back from the Edo Period (1603-1868). The knot symbolizes the unity between giver and receiver. Another item that became used as a wrapping for gifts is fukusa 袱紗, or tea cloth. Its original function was purifying equipment used during the tea ceremony. In an isolated Japan, native traditions were strongly kept alive. Every wealthy family possessed some fukusa, richly embroidered with gold thread and depicting abundant scenes, along with the family crest. It was representative for the owner’s taste and wealth. Just like furoshiki, the wrapping was usually returned after presenting the gift, unless the receiver was much higher in ranking. Nowadays, fukusa are rarely used as a gift wrapping, except for weddings maybe.

Fukusa depicting agricultural scenes of the four seasons.

Fukusa depicting agricultural scenes of the four seasons. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Nowadays, furoshiki and noshi are two traditional wrappings that are still used daily. But above all, the most popular wrapping today is without doubt the plastic bag. And Japan knows how to use it very well. You can’t leave the super market without your purchases being wrapped separately and again in a bigger bag. Good news is that Japan is a front-runner in the recycling of plastics (77% in 2011). Fruit is wrapped in plastic and again in a silicon cover.

wrapped applesAll the presents I have received up till now were covered in at least two layers of wrappings. Sweets for example. These sweets are mostly distributed as small presents (omiyage お土産) to friends. The sweets I received were wrapped in paper, in a plastic box with a cellophane cover, and provided with a wrapped fork and a little “oxy-eater” bag. A good thing is that recently the eco-friendly furoshiki is totally in again.

A type of mochi, rice cake.


– Wikipedia
– Hendry, Joy. Wrapping Culture: Politeness, Presentation, and Power in Japan and Other Societies. Oxford University Press, 1995.
-Fukuzawa, Kotoe, Akira Ueda, Chan-­‐il Park, Kiyoshi Miyazaki, en Takayuki Higuchi. 『飛鳥から平安時代におけ る「包み」の文化 ー「風呂敷」の語源とその前史.』 (asuka kara heianjidai ni okeru “tsutsumi” no bunka -­‐“furoshiki” no gogen to sono zenshi, Eng: Origin and Transition of “Furoshiki” Investigated from Materials in Asuka, Heian and Nara periods – Prehistory and Etymology of “Furoshiki”) Bulletin of JSSD 54, no. 4 (mei 2007).
-“Japan Streets Ahead in Global Plastic Recycling Race.” The Guardian, 29 december 2011.­‐leads-­‐field-­‐plastic-­‐recycling.
-Nukada, Iwao. 包み (Tsutsumi, Eng: Wrapping). Tokio: Hōsei Daigaku Shuppansha, 1977.
-『年表でみるモノの歴史事典』. (nenpyō de miru mono no rekishijiten, Eng: historical encyclopedia of things, seen in chronological tables) Tokio: Yumani Shobō, 1995.
-Vande Walle, Willy. Een Geschiedenis Van Japan: Van Samurai Tot Soft Power. Leuven; Den Haag: Acco, 2009.
-Rupp, Katherine. Gift-­‐giving in Japan : Cash, Connections, Cosmologies. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2003.
-Joya, Moku. Japan and Things Japanese. Londen: Kegan Paul, 2006.
-Murasaki Shikibu. Genji Monogatari. Rutland, Vt.: C.E. Tuttle, 1974.