Ozu Yasujirō in CineConcert

Three years ago, I undertook to convince you to watch Ozu Yasujirō’s movies because of five solid reasons: realism on the screen, the opportunity to hear/read spoken Japanese (dialects), excellent actors, the Japaneseness and the stylised, interactive way of filming. I was again impressed by all of these things characterizing director Ozu’s style after watching the silent movie “Gosses de Tokyo” (original title: 大人の見る絵本 生れてはみたけれど otona no miru ehon – umarete ha mita keredo “A picture book seen by adults – I was born, but …” 1932) at Film Fest Gent last week. This film festival showed a selection of Japanese movies as a tribute to the 150 years of friendship between Japan and Belgium (I wrote something about this here!). The screening was accompanied by beautiful live music, a new score written by Gwenaël Grisi and brought by a quintet.


I had watched a bunch of Ozu’s movies in the past, but “Gosses de Tokyo” was my first silent Ozu movie. The story revolves around two young brothers in a middle-class family who have to deal with bullies at school and the harsh reality that their father is not “the best”. On the contrary, he works for the father of one of their own schoolmates, over whom they gain “power” once they teach their bullies a lesson. The boys rebel by skipping school, quarreling with their parents and going on a (failed) hunger strike. The coming-of-age perspective was also riddled with humor. This line had the audience bursting into laughter:

  • Dad: Did you enjoy going to school today?
  • Son: Yeah, going was fun and coming back was fun too, it  was only the part in between that was really boring.

Other comical elements were the boys’ behavior, in which we all resemble ourselves as a child, and the younger brother constantly mimicking the older one.


Title screen of the movie (Sorry for the bad quality)

Because it was a silent movie, language use was limited and depended for a great deal on correctly interpreting the context. In some cases, it really helped having some insight in Japanese culture. For instance, there was a scene in which the boys, who had skipped school, asked the sake delivery boy to write the grade “A” (甲 kō) on a fabricated calligraphy homework. Unfortunately, the delivery boy drew the middle line so that it emerged on top, producing thus an entirely different character, 申 (saru, meaning among many other things, “monkey”). When one of the boys proudly presented this homework to his father, he wisely covered the upper part of his ‘grade’. Apart from such rare occasions, the visual story line spoke for itself and was nicely complemented by the music.

Fun Fact: I later discovered that Ozu reworked “I was born, but…” for his color and sound movie “Good Morning” (お早よう Ohayō), which I believe I have watched many years ago. I guess I should watch it again to be sure…

Thanks to Jana for the invitation!

Iwakura: the Japanese Gheel?

13553337_10209027881150118_1336223955_nFor two years now, I have been doing research on the history of mental health stigma in Japan. Consequently, I have also written some reports and papers about this topic and the history of psychiatry in general. During my year at Kobe University, I wrote a paper in Japanese about the link between the hamlet Iwakura in Kyoto and the Belgian city of Gheel. Since this is perfectly acceptable Nippaku material, I thought it could be interesting to post a translated version on this blog!


In Flemish, we have a proverb “going to/coming from Gheel” which means being crazy. In Japan there is a similar expression about Iwakura, a hamlet North of Kyoto. Both places appear to be related to mental health patients: Gheel as well as Iwakura have gained fame as “colonies of the mad”. At the end of the 19th century, Gheel attracted worldwide attention because of its unique family care system. Since it was believed that traditionally a similar system existed in Iwakura, it was called “the Japanese Gheel”. We cannot deny that there are many similarities between these two places, but is it really true that family care which emerged from a very specific (religious and economical) context in Gheel is also ingrained in the history of Iwakura? In this post, we will compare the relevant history of both places in chronological order and take on the question whether or not Iwakura can truly be called “the Japanese Gheel”.

gheel iwakura.png

Mental hospital of Gheel (left) and Iwakura (right) – Sources: cultuurgeschiedenis.be/paradijs-der-krankzinnigen/ and kenkyukaiblog.jugem.jp/

1. The history of Gheel

st dymphna

Picture of St. Dymphna in Gheel – Photo taken at the Museum Dr. Guislain, Ghent.

Gheel (Geel in Dutch) has been an important pilgrimage destination since early times. From the 12th century on, ill people from all corners of Europe came to Gheel because they had heard about the legend of Sint Dymphna (Dimpna in Dutch), the city’s patron saint. It was believed that seeing and touching her relics had curative powers. According to the legend, Dymphna was the daughter of an Irish king ruling in the seventh century. When the queen died, the king started looking desperately for a woman to remarry who looked exactly like his deceased spouse, but could find no one who resembled her more than his own daughter. The king, by then insane from grief, proposed to Dymphna. She refused him and fled together with father confessor Gerebernus and some trusted others to Gheel. They were eventually tracked down and the king beheaded his daughter himself and had Gerebernus killed as well. Both were declared martyrs. The people in Gheel buried their bodies, but later exhumed the bones to function as relics in the Dymphna Church they established in the vicinity of their grave.


Jan Carel Vierpeyl, “Exhumation of the bones of St Dimpna and St Gerebernus”, beginning 18th century, St. Dymphna church in Gheel – wikimedia commons

In the beginning, Gheel attracted all kinds of diseased people as a place of pilgrimage, but from the 15th century on St. Dymphna became known as the patron saint for the mentally disordered, and the number of visiting “mad people” increased rapidly. The standard procedure was a “novena”, a nine-day ritual that required the diseased to stay during that period in Gheel. For that purpose, sick rooms were set up inside the church. However, space was limited and in high season (i.e. around May, since May 15 was St. Dymphna’s feast day) the number of pilgrims largely surpassed the number of novena participants the church could deal with, and those who arrived sometimes had to wait for weeks before they could receive spiritual healing.

V0048050 Pilgrims receiving the Eucharist in the chapel of St. Dymphn

Pilgrims receiving the Eucharist in the chapel of St. Dymphna – wellcomeimages.org

The inhabitants of Gheel provided a solution in the form of lodging at their own homes. Moreover, not few pilgrims wished to stay for an extended period longer than the nine days in church to maximize the healing effects of St. Dymphna’s relics. From this custom the family care system was born: for an unlimited period, the people of Gheel “adopted” one or two mental patients and in return received a compensation. The patients who could also helped with farming work. In other words, families without any medical knowledge lived together with mental health patients under the same roof, unlike the situation in hospitals or specialized boarding houses.

From 1532 on, the Communal Council of Gheel took care of the accommodation, supervision and novena for mentally ill pilgrims. In the 17th century, however, the patients were placed directly in the host families via a sponsored organization called the “table of the poor” (“De Armentafel” in Dutch). As a result, several pilgrims with a mental disorder stayed in Gheel and lived together with their foster family for the rest of their live. Although Gheel become known as “the merciful city”, the explanation behind this charity was mainly an economic one: for the authorities, family care was simply a cheaper solution to keep “mad” people off the streets than having them treated at mental asylums in surrounding cities.

Geel - De kolonie rond 1900

The mental hospital of Gheel around 1900 – Gemeentearchief Geel

gheel dr guislain museum

Literature on Gheel – photo taken at Museum Dr. Guislain.

In 1850, Belgium’s National Mental Illness Law legally recognized family care as equal to other forms of psychiatric care. The village was renamed “the Colony of Gheel”. A mental hospital was established in 1862, but the family care system remained, even today. In 1893, there were 1,156 foster families and in 1938, there were 3,736 mental health patients staying at the colony. Nowadays, many families still host one or more patients in exchange for a compensation [interesting video here]. The sight of mentally ill patients on the streets of Gheel is far from unusual. Today, as well as during previous centuries, the “pilgrims” enjoyed a relatively free life style, and there were remarkably few incidents or crimes involving the “mad”, a fact often used as an argument against the assumed strong connection between mental health patients and violence or crime. From the 1860s on, the colony gained fame as the model by excellence for family care and renowned psychiatrists and scientists from all over the world gathered in Gheel. Among them, there were also Japanese visitors. This is the point in history when the comparison with Iwakura began.


2. The history of Iwakura

During the Middle Ages (1185-1603) in Japan, a handful of religious institutions offered services for mental health patients, such as Chinese herbal medicine treatment and moxibustion (burning plant material close to or on the skin) in Buddhist temples, and incantations and exorcism sessions in Shintoist shrines. Because psychiatric treatment avant la lettre was often associated with spiritual healing, those in need undertook pilgrimages to “places of healing” that provided special treatment. Nevertheless, this was still exceptional, and most temples and shrines started to develop facilities for the mentally ill only late in the Edo period or at the beginning of the Meiji period. Hence, from the 17th century on, the number of religious institutions specializing in mental health treatment rose significantly. Shortly before the Meiji revolution, the reading of sutra, incantations, water treatment, moxibustion and Chinese-style herbal medication were available in 28 shrines and temples nationwide. Additionally, 2 mental asylums were established in the first half of the 19th century.


Water therapy at Fujinuta Falls (date unknown) – Kitsuta Masateru, http://kenkyukaiblog.jugem.jp/?cid=10


Waterfalls at Daiunji-temple in Iwakura – Kobayashi (1972) http://kenkyukaiblog.jugem.jp/?cid=10

Among these institutions, the Daiunji-temple in Iwakura, north of Kyoto, is a well-known example of a popular destination for mentally disordered pilgrims. Its reputation as a place of healing was based on a legend from 1072. The third daughter of emperor Go-Sanjō who suffered from a mental disorder, recovered by drinking from a well and bathing under a waterfall at the place that was later called Iwakura. From around the year 1765, people started to flock there, which urged the provision of housing, first inside the temple domain and then at inns and local farmers’ houses. The expansion in population called Iwakura as a hamlet into existence. In 1875, a private mental hospital was established, and the people in Iwakura were forbidden to accommodate mental patients any longer because they could not provide adequate treatment. The hospital, however, was closed in 1882 due to financial difficulties. Consequently, many patients returned to the inns and local families’ houses. A second hospital was established in 1884.

During and after the Taishō period (1912-1926) Iwakura experienced a facilities construction boom and at the beginning of the Shōwa period (1926-1989), 10 sanatoria were established there to take care of the mentally ill. Many of the patients stayed for a longer period, some of them for the rest of their life. Those who could, helped with household chores, worked on the land or in the mountains. At the same time in Japan, the custom, and later on legislation of confining “insane” family members at home in zashikirō 座敷牢, cage-like wooden constructions, was widespread.

hidekiueno.net zashikiro

zashikiro – hidekiueno-net.jp

Compared to this way of dealing with mentally disordered people, it is assumed that those staying at Iwakura could enjoy a relatively free lifestyle. Nevertheless, previous research has pointed out that patients who were difficult to handle, were often locked up and physically restrained. In the past as well, the inhabitants of Iwakura who were entrusted the care of these patients and therefore responsible for them, did not want to take any risks. As a result, the “mad” were tied down to prevent them from escaping or causing any harm.


Patients exercising at Iwakura Mental Hospital –  http://shuchiinfukushi.blog46.fc2.com/blog-entry-524.html

At the end of the year 1935, more than 500 mental health patients were admitted to the Iwakura hospital, and 300 more stayed at the surrounding sanatoria. The Second World War caused severe food shortage, and the mortality rate at mental hospitals nationwide rose sharply. The mental hospital and many of the sanatoria in Iwakura were forced to close their doors. Two new hospitals were established after the war, but the inns and sanatoria played no longer an important role. In the Iwakura of today, mental patients are mainly cared for at the hospital, and inhabitants taking on the task of housing them are hardly seen anymore.

It is believed that the famous Japanese physician Kure Shūzō 呉秀三 (often called the founder of psychiatry in Japan) was the first to draw the attention of specialists on the particular situation in Iwakura. Consequently, the “mad” of Iwakura and its psychiatric history attracted worldwide attention at the beginning of the 20th century. Many western psychiatrists visited Japan and pointed out the resemblance between the existence of sanatoria in Iwakura and the family care system in Gheel. Moreover, the interest in Iwakura was rooted mainly in the comparison with Gheel. We can assume that without the perception of Iwakura as “the Japanese Gheel”, the traditional practice of caring for patients at inns and farmers’ houses would have disappeared much sooner. The attention Iwakura gained during the early years of the 20th century “prolonged”, in a sense, the duration of this tradition. But on what exactly was the comparison with Gheel based?

3. Comparing Gheel and Iwakura


Kure Shūzō – Wikimedia Commons

In 1906, The Latvian physician Wilhelm Stieda visited Iwakura, and wrote the words “In this village – a Japanese Gheel” (original in German: “In diesem Dorfe – einem japanischen Gheel -” in a specialized journal article. The notion of a resemblance between these two places was widely publicized, and Iwakura gained worldwide recognition. However, if we carefully examine the background against which this comparison was drawn, we learn that Kure Shūzō was the one who pointed out the similarities with Gheel to Stieda. Kure mentioned in his “Essentials of Psychiatry part II” (1895) that in Gheel as well as in Iwakura, there existed a similar system of family care. Before that, no other Japanese physician had mentioned such a thing during study trips to Germany, the place-to-be for psychiatrists at that time and also the country where efforts were made to introduce a family care system based on Gheel’s example.


Map of the Daiunji temple domain with names of inns and shrines around 1779 – in “Encyclopedia of Famous Places” volume 6, 1968. http://www.kagemarukun.fromc.jp/page003j.html

In contemporary Japan, the traditional treatment in Iwakura was being perceived as “outdated”. After he visited Gheel in 1901, Kure compared the city once again with Iwakura, and this time, he expressed his disapproval of the Japanese situation. This was because Kure actually desired the development of a family care system exactly like in Gheel (which was not the case in Iwakura), but the accommodation of mental health patients at inns and tea houses became prohibited by the Mental Patients’ Custody Act promulgated in 1900. Furthermore, the care for mental patients at the sanatoria that resembled hotels rather than family homes, differed greatly from Gheel’s family care system. In other words, based on the strong desire that “Iwakura should be the Japanese Gheel”, Kure and other Japanese psychiatrists strived towards an introduction of the Gheel system. This failed.


Wilhelm Stieda – Wikimedia Commons

So we can assume that when Stieda met Kure in 1906, he was not really under the impression that Iwakura had a similar family care system like in Gheel. Probably, he referred to the religious background, high population rate of mental health patients and history of lay treatment that both places shared. Nevertheless, Iwakura became mainly known to western psychiatrists for its alleged family care system. As I explained before, this was not the case then, since mental patients stayed at the hospital or sanatoria, and were no longer “adopted” into the farmer’s families. There are examples of family care in Iwakura before 1900, but calling it a “system” would be incorrect. However, the Japanese side did not deny and even supported this erroneous understanding. Hence, Iwakura’s history was recreated as “the Japanese Gheel”. Because Iwakura was already being compared to Gheel, the (re)introduction of a family care system should be possible, Japanese psychiatrists such as Kure thought.

familienpflege iwakura

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

According to specialist Akira Hashimoto, the words “Iwakura is the Japanese Gheel”, written in a time the world of psychiatry was fascinated by the family care system in Gheel, should be understood as an idea created on Japanese soil. I agree that the model of “family care” did not really apply to 20th-century Iwakura, but besides that, there are many resemblances here that should not be overlooked. Moreover, it is clear that in both places, people earned their living by caring for mental health patients. The influx of mentally ill pilgrims resulted in economic profits. The culture of lay psychiatric treatment is also remarkable. By nursing people with a mental disorder on a daily basis, the villagers developed a particular set of skills and became fully experienced, despite their lack of medical knowledge. Furthermore, mental patients enjoyed a relatively free lifestyle and the boundaries between “patient” and “villager” were rather blurry in both places.

I hope this post was able to convince you that Gheel and Iwakura deserve special attention because of their exceptional history of mental health care. More posts on this topic will follow (soon)! In the meantime, those who are interested in psychiatry can read a previous blog post on forensic mental health in Japan here: part 1, part 2.


  • 小俣和一郎『精神病院の起源』東京: 太田出版, 1998.
  • 小俣和一郎『精神医学の歴史』東京: 第三文明社, 2005.
  • Official site city of Gheel
  • Nakamura, Osamu. “Family Care of Mentally Ill Patients in Iwakura, Kyoto, Japan.” presented at the International Research Symposium: Therapy and Empowerment – Coercion and Punishment: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives on Labour and Occupational Therapy, lecture at St Anne’s College, Oxford, June 27th, 2013.
  • 中村治「精神医療の流れと洛北岩倉: 第二次世界大戦後」人間科学:『大阪府立大学紀要』 1 (2005): 111–30.
  • 中村治「洛北岩倉における精神病者の処遇」人間科学『大阪府立大学紀要』 2 (2006): 97–114.
  • Hashimoto, Akira. “The Invention of a ‘Japanese Gheel’: Psychiatric Family Care from a Historical and Transnational Perspective.” In Transnational Psychiatries Social and Cultural Histories of Psychiatry in Comparative Perspective, C. 1800-2000, edited by Ernst Waltraud and Thomas Mueller, 142–71. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars, 2010.
  • 橋本明『京都・岩倉の国際関係論「岩倉は日本のゲールである」という虚構をめぐって』第83回精神科医療史研究会
  • 橋本明「二十世紀前半における京都・岩倉の“国際化”について(その二)」『日本医史学雑誌』48, 3 (2002): 374–75.
  • 橋本明『日本の精神医療史. “精神病者”の権利はなかったのか?―ヨーロッパ精神医療史の落穂拾い―』講演, 2002.
  • 兵頭晶子『精神病の日本近代―憑く心身から病む心身へ』越境する近代 東京: 青弓社, 2008.
  • Mueller, Thomas. “Re-Opening a Closed File of the History of Psychiatry: Open Care and Its Historiography in Belgium, France and Germany, c. 1880-1980.” In Transnational Psychiatries Social and Cultural Histories of Psychiatry in Comparative Perspective, C. 1800-2000, edited by Ernst Waltraud and Thomas Mueller, 172–99. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars, 2010.
  • 八木剛平, 田辺英『日本精神病治療史』東京: 金原出版, 2002.
  • Wilhelm Stieda. “Über die Psychiatrie in Japan.” Centralblatt für Nervenheilkunde und Psychiatrie 29 (1906): 514-522.
  • full text of “Gheel: the city of the simple” (1869)
  • time line history of Gheel

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.

map iapan nippaku

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!


Some observations

It is in the small things we see it, they say. During my stay in Japan (unfortunately, I already returned to Belgium), I noticed some things that you would never spot somewhere else, things that are so typically Japanese, but so unremarkable that they are barely mentioned. Probably, these observations are closely linked to me being a Belgian, so it is possible that I am only observing from a European/Western perspective (and probably with a focus on the city of Kobe, the place where I lived). Nevertheless, I thought that these kind of small things are worth mentioning nevertheless, and maybe I am able to add some couleur locale to your image of Japan.

Obaachan (grannies) with colored hair 



When you imagine Japan, you think perhaps of the crazy hairstyles and fashion that can be seen around Harajuku in Tokyo. In Kobe, however, the ones with the most funky hair colors are almost always elderly women, doing their shopping at the local grocery stores or chatting with their neighbors at street corners. These women have short, permed hair, as most grannies around the world, I suppose, but dyed in unusual colors like purple, blue, green or pink. At first, I thought it was a hair dyeing gone wrong, but I encountered far too many grannies with a flashy hairdo to rule it out as an exception.  When I searched on the Internet, I found some possible explanations:


  • When Japanese people get gray hair (actually called “white hair” 白髪 in Japanese), it has a slightly yellow shade which makes the face looks older. So, they apply some colored rinse such as in the opposite color purple, to cover up the yellow shade and make their hair look white. In most cases, however, the hair still has a purple shade, certainly when it is dyed regularly. (Hitomebo)
  • On the other hand, there are some obaachan who fancy a very strong shade of purple, blue or green. Just because it is trendy to do so. (also, purple is traditionally a “noble” color) Apparently, bold hair colors for elderly women became a big hit during the ’80s and has never been out of fashion since. (Quora)
  • People believe that a bright color reflects a bright personality. (Oshiete)
  • Simply because they can. They are no longer expected to play the role of the Japanese working woman or housewife with a traditional appearance, they are retired, the kids are all grown up, in short, they have the freedom to do as they like. A bold hair color symbolizes their social status as an elderly free woman. (Quora)


On the streets in Kobe, I often heard people singing to themselves while walking or riding a bike. Not just humming, as many of us probably do, but really singing aloud, not afraid that anyone else could hear them. In a country where karaoke is almost a national sport, it should not be surprising that the Japanese, young and old, participate in many singing events. At school, I heard a-capella clubs practice daily on campus, whenever they were free. It struck me that being asked to sing, regardless of your skills, does not cause any shame in Japan. Maybe they humbly state that they are very bad at it but at least the Japanese are always willing to sing. I don’t think many people in Belgium would be very enthusiastic to perform a song in front of their co-workers, the whole family or their neighbors. I like singing a lot, but was still embarrassed and nervous every time it was my turn, certainly in front of people I didn’t know that well.


In Japan, singing is a form of bonding: everyone cheers you on, sings along and claps when you finishes. Next to that, it is a way to relieve stress. Of course, karaoke is often combined with drinking alcohol, which really livens up the party. I also read in some articles that the “singing culture” of Japan is often contrasted to the “dancing culture” in America. It is said that in the west, people prefer going to clubs and bars where they can dance. (Hapa Eikaiwa)

“Centiliter” vs. “milliliter”

812401At one point, I realized that on cans and bottles the contents are not written in centiliter (cL) as is usual in Europe, but only in milliliter (mL). Also, a pack of milk for example, contains “1000mL” rather than “1 L”. When I asked whether “cL” was used in Japan, they told me that it is usually not the case, as they shorten the word for cm to senchi センチ, which only refers to centiMETER. Deciliter and decimeter are barely used as well. I am not sure why, but it appears to be a choice they made when the metric system was adopted. Before that, Japan had been using the traditional shaku-kan system.

Fun fact: There are even characters for measurements in the metric system! 竕 – deciliter; 竰 – centiliter; 竓 – milliliter (Wikipedia)

Japanese fashion and colors

Not only do Japanese people have a different fashion sense, the color palette of their clothes is also different. During my stay, I made the following observations:

  • Japanese people like pale or more toned-down colors, like white, light yellow, pink and blue, black, grey and brown. Too eccentric or too bright colors are avoided. This is a big contrast with the traditional Japanese dress (着物kimono), which often comes in bold color and patterns, especially for young women.
  • Stripes and checked patterns are always in fashion. They are everywhere.


  • Japanese boys and men often wear light pink shirts in summer. I was surprised, because you do not see that usually in Belgium (it is either a very fashionable and bold statement, or associated with homosexuality here). But in Japan, pink is just another color that has no particular gender connection (bright pink, on the other hand, is seen as a very girly color and is not worn very often by men). The choice for light pink shirts in summer can perhaps be compared with white clothing worn in Europe during the summer, as the color white evokes a feeling of lightness and freshness. In Japan, however, white shirts are the standard uniform for business men, and are therefore associated with formality and work. To create the same lightness as white but keep their dress informal, Japanese men opt for light pink. Or at least, that is my theory.
  • Pastel colors are a big hit among women, especially for pyjama’s and clothes worn at home (very soft, by the way, but a tad too Helly Kitty-ish for me).



Once during a grammar class in Belgium when we were translating sentences from English to Japanese, I came accross the sentence “The mathematician who was wearing rainboots was staring at the stars above and fell into a ditch” or something like that. At that time, it seemed highly unlikely to me that you could fall into a ditch just like that, because the Belgian gutters and ditches I knew were very shallow, and the sewage pits were always covered with a lid. Once arrived in Japan, I realized how easy that actually is. In Japan, ditches are deep holes (around half a meter or more) at one or both sides of the road. I believe that most of the time these ditches are covered with a grid or a stone, as is indeed always the case in front of houses, but where I lived in Kobe, the danger of falling into one at dark was very real. Frightening as well was when cats suddenly jumped out of a ditch in front of your feet. In short, the mathematician has my sympathies. I took extra care and managed not to suffer the same fate, but at times when I was reading while walking or looking at my phone, I came very close to the danger of stepping into nothing, falling into rain water, or crushing a hiding cat. I did not take any ditch picture, but maybe this photo can give you an idea.



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…

Writing Process Blog Tour

Haruko of The Japans was so kind to feature my blog in the “Writing Process Blog Tour”!

Haruko is a fellow Belgian blogger writing about Japan. She spent a year living in Toyota city and came back loaded with so many stories, photos and memories that she could fill a blog with them. Her eye for detail, reflections on cultural differences as well as her practical information result in a highly interesting blog.

I was asked to answer the following questions:

1) What am I working on?

I work on a blog that publishes posts about every possible aspect of Japan. I try to approach a subject in an academic way. Because I’m Belgian, I sometimes link both cultures.

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?

I try to provide reliable information by researching scientific and academic sources. I think my blog also differs from other Japanese themed blogs because I touch upon varying aspect of Japan: culture, language, music, art, literature, politics, economics, science, religion, fashion etc. I have broad interests and combine them with my passion for Japan.

3) Why do I write what I do?

I love to know more about the country of my interest. I think it’s useful as well to keep writing and researching on a regular base. While working on my bachelor paper this year, I didn’t experience it as very difficult because I already have some writing experience.

4) How does your writing process work?

First, I come up with an idea. For example, I read something interesting or I ask myself “why would that be?”. Then I start looking for an “answer” by searching the World Wide Web and the university library. Or, it could work the other way as well. With certain information I draw my own conclusion and write a post about that.

To conclude, I invite K-law Guru to join the Writing Process Blog Tour! His original posts surprise me every time and the law cases are very interesting. This is a short bio and explanation of his blog:

K-law Guru (Blog name): An Essential Reference for Your Everyday Legal Questions in Korea!
1) Kang Ju-won (co-author): I’m a Korean attorney based in South Korea. I was admitted to the Korean Bar Association in 2012. I spent most of my childhood in Chile, the Philippines, and China. From 2005 to 2008, I served as an interpretation officer in the Republic of Korea Air Force. I like to write about law.
2) Popcorn Law (co-author): A Korean law school student in Seoul, South Korea.

I look forward to his answers!

Japanologie aan de KU Leuven: wat houdt dat nu precies in?

1_12Je bent gefascineerd door Japan, je wilt dolgraag de taal onder de knie krijgen en je denkt er over om een opleiding Japanologie aan de KU Leuven te beginnen? Dan ben je hier aan het juiste adres: als een derdejaars Japanologie kan ik je heel wat praktische info meegeven over wat deze “exotische” studie nu eigenlijk inhoudt.

Wat wordt er van je verwacht?

– In de eerste plaats heb je een brede interesse in allerhande thema’s nodig. Alle facetten van Japan komen namelijk aan bod: de taal, cultuur, geschiedenis en economie, maar ook de politiek, geografie, kunst, religie, literatuur en noem maar op. Daarnaast neem je ook vakken op over China en Korea. Bovendien volg je ook algemene vakken die helemaal niets met Japan te maken hebben. Deze vakken zijn er om je algemene kennis te verbreden. Taal- en regiostudies zijn enorm verrijkend: om dat effect te bekomen moet je ook vooral inzicht in je eigen cultuur hebben.

Taalgevoel is altijd welkom. Je hoeft daarom niet uit te blinken in Frans of Duits, maar besef wel dat je dagelijkse studie voor een deel uit het instuderen van woordenlijsten zal bestaan. Logisch, want het Japans is een taal die helemaal niet verwant is met de onze. De betekenis van woorden afleiden zit er dan ook niet in. Puur blokwerk met andere woorden. Ook een visueel geheugen kan helpen om karakters in te studeren, maar dat wordt voldoende gekweekt gedurende de jaren moest het je eraan ontbreken… Je krijgt in het eerste jaar zo’n 13 uur Japans. Dit mindert wel wat de jaren daarop, maar de studie van de Japanse taal vormt een belangrijk deel van de opleiding.

What are the hardest languages to learn? - Dailygraphic.com

What are the hardest languages to learn? – Dailygraphic.com

– Hieruit blijkt dat een goede studiehouding essentieel is. Je hoeft niet alle feestjes links te laten liggen, maar regelmatige studie zal je slaagkansen in ieder geval verhogen. Het studeren van een taal is een proces dat dagelijks groeit, en in tegenstelling tot sommige andere studies, blijkt telkens weer dat je het met enkel studeren tijdens de blok niet ver schopt. Opm: de examens van de taalvakken vallen trouwens een week vroeger, in de blok zelf. Een reden te meer om op voorhand al wat te doen.

– Maar bovenal is motivatie het belangrijkste. Japan boeit me nog steeds heel erg, hoewel ik er al drie jaren lang dagelijks mee om de oren geslagen word. Dingen die je interesseren, zijn ook veel leuker om in te studeren.

ab_Sinologie 1 (c) Rob Stevens - KU Leuven-k

Professor Wang en een studente tijdens een kalligrafieles.

Opm: Je kiest in het begin ofwel voor de cultuur-historische minor ofwel voor de economische minor. Wie economie wil studeren, wordt verwacht minstens 4 uur wiskunde gevolgd te hebben in het middelbaar onderwijs.

Het lessenrooster

Ik begin met de eerste lesdag, hoewel die er wat anders uitziet dan de andere dagen. Op die dag vallen je Japanse lessen weg en worden ze vervangen door een hiragana-les. Hiragana is een van de drie Japanse geschriften, en dus essentieel om te kunnen lezen en schrijven. Je kan met hiragana alle Japanse woorden fonetisch weergeven. De KU Leuven heeft (terecht) de beslissing gemaakt om Japans meteen met Japanse schrifttekens aan te leren, in plaats van geromaniseerd Japans (romaji) te gebruiken. TIP! Je kan hiragana en eventueel katakana al in de vakantie instuderen, dat bespaart je wat werk op je eerste dag. Je wordt namelijk verondersteld de volgende dag het hiragana onder de knie te hebben…

Want dan starten de lessen écht! Hier zie je hoe het lessenrooster er voor de eerstejaars in het eerste semester uitziet:

japa1sem(klik erop voor een duidelijke afbeelding) Opm: het lessenrooster verandert elk jaar. Soms verdwijnen of komen er nieuwe vakken.

Dat ziet er een hele boterham uit, maar je moet ermee rekening houden dat voor de taallessen de leerlingen in vier groepen (A, B, C en D) onderverdeeld worden. Je hoeft dus maar één keer die les te volgen. De vakken in het lichtgrijs zijn keuzevakken. Wat heb je dus zoal van lessen?


Taalkunde theorie en oefeningen In het eerste jaar leer je de basis van het Japans. Die theorie wordt omgezet in oefeningen die je thuis maakt en in de les verbeterd worden.

– Lezen/Kanji Je leert iedere week 15 karakters schrijven en lezen. Daarnaast maak je ook een eenvoudige leesoefening. Op het einde van het eerste jaar beheers je 300 karakters actief en heel wat meer passief. TIP! Maak kanjikaartjes met het karakter op de voorkant, de leeswijze op de achterkant en onderaan de vertaling. Zo kan je alles behalve de vertaling afdekken en jezelf testen.


Mijn kanjikaartjes van het eerste en deels tweede jaar.

Luisteren Een uurtje lang komen luisteroefeningen aan bod. TIP! Probeer niet enkel de oefeningen van de les te opnieuw te maken, maar zoveel mogelijk Japans te luisteren: het nieuws, anime, films, reclamespotjes, televisieprogramma’s, alles is goed. Ikzelf heb het bijvoorbeeld wat moeilijk met luisteren omdat je in het Japans erg toegewezen bent op een context, aangezien er zeer veel homoniemen zijn. Je moet dus heel snel een bepaalde klank aan een karakter of betekenis weten te koppelen om mee te zijn in het gesprek. Veel oefenen is dus de boodschap.


Een leesoefening uit mijn onder het stof gehaalde cursus.

Conversatie Hier studeer je dialoogjes in om je de geijkte uitdrukkingen eigen te maken. Dit kan wel wat overbodig lijken in het begin, maar je doet er in ieder geval geen kwaad mee. Ook leer je hoe je eenvoudige gesprekken in verschillende situaties voert. In het eerste jaar is vooral “zelfredzaamheid” belangrijk. Met de beperkte kennis die je hebt, moet je jezelf uit de slag weten te trekken. TIP! Zoek eens een Japanse conversatiepartner. Ikzelf heb meerdere mensen leren kennen via het “language partner”-bord in het internationale studentenhuis Pangaea, andere hebben bijvoorbeeld een Japanse buddy via het buddyproject van de KU Leuven. Omdat Japanners in Leuven helaas wat dun gezaaid zijn, kan je ook met je klasgenoten afspreken om wekelijks wat spreekoefeningen te doen. Ook hoor ik soms mijn kouhai (jongerejaars) onderling Japans spreken.

Opstel Spreken en schrijven is in geen enkele taal identiek. In deze les leer je brieven, postkaarten, dagboeken, kattebelletjes etc. schrijven. Later in de opleiding komen dan ook academische teksten aan bod.


Een opsteloefening. En er staan fouten in…

Video Deze les is echt leuk. Ik weet niet of het nog steeds zo is, maar wij bekeken afleveringen van “Yan and the Japanese People” (ヤンさんと日本の人々) en “Erin’s Challenge!” (エリンが挑戦). Aan de hand van deze (in het begin nogal onbegrijpelijke) fragmenten, leer je conversaties begrijpen en studeer je nieuwe woordenschat in. Ons hartje smelt nog steeds bij het horen van die goeie ouwe Yan-san-melodie.

Spreken/Drills Hier leer je de ingestudeerde grammatica rechtstreeks toepassen.

Deze vakken krijg je het hele jaar door. Woordenschat oefen je zelf thuis in. Je krijgt ook meestal na elke les huiswerk mee. TIP! Veel Japanologen in opleiding gebruiken Anki flash cards om hun woordjes te laten opvragen. Er wordt vooral met het volgende handboek gewerkt:


Voor de andere vakken, neem ik er ook even het lessenrooster van het tweede semester bij:


Japanse vakken

Geschiedenis van het moderne Japan Dit vak sluit aan bij geschiedenis van Japan voor 1868. Dit betekent dat je het ene vak in het eerste en het andere vak in het tweede jaar voorgeschoteld krijgt. Ze wisselen elkaar elk jaar af. Naast de lessen maak je nog een individuele opdracht: je schrijft een wikipedia-pagina over een Japans figuur, term of gebeurtenis die in de cursus voorkomt.


Een al wat gehavend exemplaar van de geschiedenisbijbel voor Japanologen.

Inleiding tot de Japanse cultuur en maatschappij Een eerste kennismaking met de Japanse cultuur en haar sociale ontwikkelingen. Je leert ook zelfstandig gegevens op het web verzamelen en dat in een informatief blogje gieten. Japanologie aan de KU Leuven is erg vooruitstrevend op digitaal vlak.

Ruimtelijke organisatie en maatschappij in Japan Dit vak bespreekt het verband tussen de geografie van Japan en zijn economie en maatschappij. Opm: ook dit vak wordt om de twee jaar gedoceerd. Het wordt afgewisseld met Japanse godsdiensten.

Algemene vakken

Inleiding tot de wijsbegeerte

Inleiding tot de Studie van de Europese literatuur en cultuur: na 1800 (voor degenen met een cultuur-historische minor)


Economie (voor degenen met een economische minor)

Ook dit is Japanologenvoer.

Ook dit is Japanologenvoer.


Je kiest een vak uit de opleiding Sinologie. De keuzes zijn:

Inleiding tot de Chinese cultuur

Geschiedenis van China tot 1600


Geschiedenis van het moderne China

Ruimtelijke organisatie en maatschappij in Japan

Chinese religie

Zoals je ziet, zijn de meeste vakken een Chinese tegenhanger van de Japanse.

TIP! Studeer voldoende voor de geschiedenisvakken. Je kan nu eenmaal geen Japanoloog worden zonder bepaalde namen en jaartallen in je hoofd te hebben gepropt.

Opm: Deze blog is beperkt tot info over het eerste jaar. In het tweede en derde jaar krijg je nog een heleboel andere vakken. Ook de taalvakken veranderen ieder jaar. Zo wordt in het tweede jaar uitgebreide woordenschat en een verdieping van de grammatica sterk benadrukt, en zal het derde jaar vooral met een academische aanpak te maken krijgen. Ook leer je nieuwe talen: in het tweede jaar klassiek Chinees (al is dit ondertussen een keuzevak geworden) en Koreaans in het derde jaar.

Even niet studeren nu

Ook buiten de lessen en huiswerksessies kan je je met Japanse zaken bezighouden. Zo worden er op de officiële japanologiesite geregeld melding gemaakt van verscheidene evenementen zoals expo’s, concerten, tentoonstellingen enzovoort. Je kan deelnemen aan een voordrachtswedstrijd, je als vrijwilliger aanmelden voor een goede doel-project, lid worden van een Japanse pen friend club, of – ik zeg maar wat – een blog beginnen. Ook organiseert de KU Leuven verschillende projecten waaraan de studenten al dan niet vrijblijvend kunnen deelnemen. Al deze extra-curriculaire projecten vergen misschien wat moeite en tijd, maar ze zijn het dubbel en dik waard. Je leert nieuwe mensen kennen, knoopt relaties aan met Japanners en je leert op een leuke manier bij over het land van je interesse!

De vrijwilligers voor het evenement Japan Actually vorig jaar

De vrijwilligers voor het evenement Japan Actually vorig jaar

20140115_093029Daarnaast kan het heel inspirerend werken om eens een middagje in onze Oost-Aziatische bib door te brengen. Die is gesitueerd in de Centrale Bibliotheek van Leuven, een prachtig gebouw waar ik niet weinig trots op ben. De collectie die zich in de bovenste zalen bevindt, is volledig aan China, Japan en Korea gewijd. Niet alleen boeken, maar ook kranten, dvd’s en tijdschriften vind je er in overvloed. TIP! Tijdens de blokperiode zitten de studenten op elkaar gepakt in de centrale bib, behalve dan zij die de weg naar boven hebben gevonden. De Oost-Aziatische bib is helaas wat minder vaak open.

The stairway to heaven.

The stairway to heaven.


Van het studentenleven wordt gezegd dat het de leukste tijd van je leven is. Dat kan ik alleen maar beamen: je hebt een grotere vrijheid door minder uren les, (als je op kot zit) leer je zelfstandig leven, en er worden een heleboel activiteiten aangeboden door de studentenkring! Kring Eoos vertegenwoordigt Taal- en Regiostudies aan de KU Leuven (Japanologie, Sinologie, Slavistiek, Arabistiek en Oude Nabije Oosten). Het presidium bestaat uit studenten van deze richtingen, en weet dus heel goed wat jullie willen. Ikzelf ben EOOS Schildcultuurverantwoordelijke en organiseer samen met mijn collega iedere veertien dagen een gratis filmavond. Het thema of de taal van die films sluit altijd aan bij de regio’s die we vertegenwoordigen. Daarnaast staan er nog cultuuruitstapjes, een heuse reis (dit jaar was het Istanbul) en een quiz op het programma. Ook verkopen we vaak oosterse hapjes onder de naam “zijderoute” aan een studentenprijs, waarvan onze sushi een van de populairste gerechten blijkt. Ook voor de iets minder culturele activiteiten zoals themafeestjes, cantussen en weekends ben je van harte welkom. Daarnaast staan er wekelijks sportavonden gepland. Kom dus zeker in de toekomst een activiteit van onze kring meepikken! TIP! Maak “Work hard, play hard” je levensmotto. Wees in het eerste jaar wat voorzichtig en wacht je examenresultaten af. Een gezond evenwicht tussen studie en vrije tijd is het beste recept voor een leuk en succesvol studentenleven.

Japanologen hebben in elkaar een bondgenoot gevonden. Ze organiseren  karaoke-avonden, gaan lekker uit eten in een Japans restaurant of maken de expo FACTS onveilig in cosplay-outfits. Vroeger werden we misschien als buitenbeentjes beschouwd vanwege onze “vreemde” passie voor Japan, maar in Leuven kan het allemaal: daar kijkt niemand vreemd op wanneer je een boekje achterstevoren leest, je liever rijst met stokjes eet, Jpop deuntjes neuriet of even een serieus gesprek over Pokémon voert.

Dit is zo ongeveer het eerste jaar in een notendop. Heb je nog vragen of wil je wat meer uitleg, aarzel dan niet om mij te contacteren! Hopelijk zie ik je volgend jaar op onze campus 🙂

23rd Japanese Speech Contest in Belgium

speechcontest20131031_161739Yesterday, I participated for the second time in the Japanese speech contest in Brussels. I didn’t finish in one of the first five places, but enjoyed an afternoon listening to everyone’s speeches and chatting with other participants and Japanese spectators. I will publish my speech here. I chose the topic of ‘wrapping culture’, something I have written about before on this blog.

こんにちは。ルーヴァン大学の三年生のアンソフィーと申します。今日は日本の物を包む文化についてお話したいと思います。どうぞ宜しくお願いします。私は今年、卒業論文を書くことになっていますが、 論文のテーマもこの「包む文化」について書くことに決めました。

日本の包む文化というのはどんな文化かをご存知ですか。今から、私の体験を二つお話し したいと思います。




二つ目の体験は去年の夏に日本のペンフレンド・クラブに応募した時のことです。 日本人のペンフレンドが四人も出来て、すごく喜びました。みんな女性です。男性は手紙を書くのがあまり好きではないようですね。応募用紙を送った2週間あとで、初めての手紙が着きました。またハッとしました。封筒だけでもアートワークだったんです。封筒も手紙もキラキラな色で、ステッカーも貼ってあります。(手紙を見せながら)信じられないほど可愛いです。






Japan Week at KU Leuven

Japan WeekIt is Japan Week at KU Leuven, my university, for the fourth time! A symposium with lectures is held, as well as workshops, documentaries and presentations of Japanese (from Kansai University) and Belgian students. I attended the first day of lectures that dealt with the theme: “Japanese Media Culture: between Globalization and the Galapagos Syndrome”. Very diversified topics were introduced by speakers from different specializations. Especially (digitalized) Japanese pop culture and its appeal throughout the world was discussed. I will briefly review three of these lectures.




First of all, KU Leuven professor Dimitri Vanoverbeke, who teaches us Politics and Economics of Japan, talked about “Japanese Studies in Belgium in the 21st Century: Framing the Impact of Popular Culture”. It is hardly known, but Japanese Studies at KU Leuven are currently more popular than other Language and Area studies, like Chinese Studies or Slavic Studies. When I was in first year, 120 other people started Japanese Studies as well (in third year now, there are roughly 40 students left, though…). Altogether, the number of students in Japanese Studies increased from 78 (2005) to 211 (2011), recorded as the peak year. By 2010, Japanese Studies even became the third largest undergraduate section at the Faculty of Arts.

Japanese Studies has to deal with three paradigms: 1) the language and area 2) economics and politics 3) pop culture. These paradigms were not regarded as equal in the past. Since the 1980s, parallel with Japan’s “bashing” economic period, student’s interest was especially incited by Japan’s miraculous economics. Language and culture were of subordinate importance. It was of course no surprise that the number of students decreased in the 1990s, as Japan’s “passing” period announced the end of “Japan as number one”. So why still study Japanese if the Chinese economy has become more important nowadays?



Yearly enquiries point out that students’ main motivation to enroll in Japanese Studies is in many cases the Japanese pop culture. Especially in 2009, when about 75% of the students’ choice was influenced by manga, anime and Jpop (music). Nevertheless, Japanese pop culture is not the only reason, as the students expressed to have interest in history and economics as well. It is more like a combination of different aspects wherein Japanese pop culture forms the bridge between our daily life and the Japanese world. This tendency can also be observed in other European countries.

An example of the globalization of Japanese pop culture is the success of Japan Expo, a 3-day festival hold in Brussels. This year, around 232.000 people attended the festival, and enjoyed 125.000 m2 of stands and stages. This indicates that Japanese pop culture is in fact doing very well. It is a general phenomenon in Europe, instigated by globalization.


To improve this spread of Japanese culture, professor Vanoverbeke draws attention to the importance of social sciences. KU Leuven offers services like sites, a Japanese-Dutch dictionary and projects (e.g. Let’s Manga). All of these digital devices do not only provide passive knowledge, but expect students to participate in the learning process, and stimulates an active knowledge exchange.

japanweekSchermafbeelding 2013-11-07 om 00.00.28

The next speaker was professor Naoko Mori from Kansai University with “International Circulation of Japanese Comics (Manga)”. She talked about the change in distribution routes of Japanese manga in China. In the 1990s, Japanese manga and anime grew more popular there. Its distribution was controlled mainly in big cities, what resulted in the distribution of pirated editions in the rural areas. In recent years, we see a decrease in Japanese anime broadcast, as the Chinese government wants to protect domestic animation products. There are also regulations on pirated editions, but these cannot stop the increase in illegal scanlations. As soon as one day after the Japanese release, Chinese translation can be found on the Internet.

Fan culture is booming as well in China. In the 1990s, the first Dōjinshi 同人誌 (self-published manga works) emerged. In the 2000s, comic cons were held and manga clubs were established at schools. At Beijing University in 2011, no less than 800 students were members of the manga club! In recent years, Dōjinshi has evolved into real, popular Chinese comics.

Studio Ghibli dojinshi - apaneseliterature.wordpress.com

Studio Ghibli dojinshi – japaneseliterature.wordpress.com

Professor Mori then shifted to another topic, that is the gender difference of expressions. In comics for girls (shōjo 少女), there is a complex frame. Thought bubbles are used more often, and characters look like fashion models. These features express rather feelings and topics like love, human relationships etc. Comics for boys (shōnen 少年) make more use of a flat frame and action sounds. Characters look like action stars, and therefore express motion. These manga contain themes like battle, sports etc.

Yaoi (love between men) dōjinshi mixes these things. They are written by and for girls, but are original inspired by comics for boys. According to professor Mori, yaoi indicates the spread of manga culture.


yaoi doujinshi of one piece – arigatomina.com

I conclude this post with reviewing the lecture “Business and Government Engagement with the Anime Boom in the United-States and its Decline” of professor Michal Daliot-Bul of the university of Haifa (Israel). Since the 1960, Japanese anime shows have become very successful around the world. However, it was only since the late 1990s, these shows were also labeled as “made-in Japan”. In 2000, we observed a peak in the anime bubble, but the boom is now over. It was clear that no recuperation of investments could be gained.

The globalization of anime did not work out so well because of structural obstacles. If we compare the Japanese and the American situation (Disney, Nickelodeon), we can see that in Japan there are no conglomerates who control the whole production and distribution process. The Japanese anime industry is decentralized, most companies are independent and small-scale, and the production process is fragmented.

The importance of merchandising - flowtv.org

The importance of merchandising – flowtv.org

The Japanese tend to orient their production domestically, and shun negotiations because of their fear to encounter language and culture barriers. In the beginning (and still), Japan sold their copyrights to the USA, making use of a minimum guarantee system. Once launched abroad, the Japanese had nothing to say about it anymore. Strategies for globalization are insufficiently developed: less than 10% of all revenues of anime are collected oversees. Take Pokémon for example. It became a world-wide success, but almost nothing of the revenues went back to Japan.

There are global distribution channels (e.g. Animax), but these are all launched in the USA. Online streaming is popular, but 1) hardcore fans prefer to pay a fair amount for their anime, 2) downloading is way easier. Television has obviously been replaced by the internet.



Could the Japanese government provide better support to the globalization of Japanese anime? Strategic plans for digitization have been made, but execution of them is not really visible. In 2013, the market has changed drastically compared to 10 years ago. The government hasn’t taken this chance into account, and has overlooked a big opportunity to control media-distribution. What is missing, is a flexible, agile and proactive approach to globalization.

Three Times Japan in Belgium


1. The Japanese Garden in Ostend “Shin Kai Tei” (深海庭) or Deep Sea Garden

20130810_13001320130810_131100These calligraphy characters look like the name of the garden, but they are in reversed order! 庭 海 深 Does somebody know why? Or could it be a mistake?

The pond is shaped like a turtle.


2. Museum of the Far East in Brussels


The red Japanese tower (pagoda) and the Chinese entrance gate. The architecture of the different buildings were more in Chinese style, like this one, the museum for Chinese porcelain:


In the museum of Japanese art there were many nice objects, but it was a bit dark, so I couldn’t take pictures of that wonderful, pink, crane-patterned kimono. I managed to photograph some kabuki ukiyo-e with my shadow on it though:




3. The Stone Garden in the Abbey of Orval

To my surprise, I found a Zen garden in a Cistercian abbey. One of the monks rakes the gravel as a form of meditation.