Nippon Series 20: Escaping to Japan

Takuan Amaru

Many people imagine that moving to Japan represents escaping reality. For members of the disenfranchised class, this makes sense considering the low rate of homicide and other forms of violence. For black people, seeing police officers as public servants rather than ‘race-soldiers,’ or just being able to flag-down a taxi cab—like everyone else—is enough reason to believe they have discovered ‘heaven-on-earth.’

Being of Japanese descent, some my motives for migrating to this island-nation are somewhat different from most foreign-nationals, but considering the main reason I even considered it in the first place was the hope of distancing myself from the systemic racism in the United States, at the end of the day, my situation is not so unique. Like most, I was trying to escape what I considered to be a toxic environment.

Youtuber, Jerry Chen, posted a video entitled, Escape to Japan, where he provides vivid footage of his trips to tourist areas in Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, Nara, and Hakone. It is a very poignant and nostalgic presentation of culture, events, and people from, shall we say, the ‘Japanophile’ perspective. After Japanese anime or video game aficionados watch this video, I can imagine them immediately dropping whatever they are doing and packing their suitcases…Lol!

But is this the whole story?

Filmmakers Keith Bedford and Shiho Fukada, in their NPR broadcast, Living While Black in Japan; All Things Considered, interview Blacks from America about their decision to leave their home-country behind. Most of the panelists cite racism (in the U.S.) or “feeling free” in Japan as their main incentive. But are people in Japan free? I doubt most Japanese would agree. In fact, a Japanese lady in her 40s once asked me why I wanted to live in Japan? After I ran down the same list of reasons such as wanting to connect with my Japanese roots, visit the graves of my ancestors, etc., she cut me off with: “But, in America, you used to be free, right?”

The Japanese work environment is infamous for incredible amounts of overtime and having a very rigid hierarchy. There is usually a trending story in the news regarding suicide (jisatsu), bullying (ijime) or some other societal malady. But these incidents normally only involve Japanese. So, is it feasible to believe the foreign population can be free in a society where the dominant population is not? This line of thinking seems out of line with logic, not to mention common-sense.

The two most commonly accepted definitions of Freedom are: (1) the condition of being free; the power to act or speak or think without externally imposed restraints. (2) immunity from an obligation or duty. According to these explanations, it is obvious why many feel freer in Japan than in their home country because there are few legal parameters in place to stop an individual from employment, going to a certain restaurant, or being falsely arrested or forced to do something against their will. But, again, is this only part of the discussion?

Another Youtuber, known as “Mrs. Eats,” is a Japanese woman who is married to an Asian man. He may be Filipino-American, I am not sure. In part 1 of their video series, Why you will Hate Living in Japan, they introduce the concept of a “Cultural Iceberg” in which the visible part of the iceberg that everyone can see represents material aspects of the culture such as anime, video games, or the food, while the majority of the iceberg that is not visible to the naked eye contains the non-material aspects like work ethic and views on discrimination. According to the couple, there are four phases that people immigrating to Japan experience: the Honeymoon, Frustration, Adjustment, and Acceptance.

The Honeymoon is the initial fascination with living in a new country. It includes anything that lured a person to Japan. Most of this is well represented in tourist ads, videos, movies, and other mainstream broadcasts. The duration of this period varies from person to person but, inevitably, the novelty wears off. Once this occurs some of the icons which used to float your boat such as manga, Lolita fashion, Cosplay, or the etiquette have become normalized and may even seem silly or even foolish. This is the seldom mentioned phase of frustration. People are now able to see beyond the shallow, material level and, as a result, are noticing other attributes that were not so apparent before such as a ‘glass ceiling’ being placed on them. Other targets of frustration may be feelings of loneliness, their daily commute, or overall job satisfaction. However, it is the two final phases, the Adjustment and Acceptance stages which really got my attention because they discuss how a foreign-national must learn to adjust themselves to Japanese norms and accept things for how they are. Although this is true, in my opinion, their analysis leaves out the specifics of exactly what a foreign-national must adjust to and how if a person does this correctly, it can result in Japanese ‘accepting you for who you are,’ as opposed to someone just accepting being slotted into the common designation of an outsider—a gaijin—that Japanese learn to tolerate.

If a person strictly adjusts to someone else’s expectations in order to be accepted, this could result in even more frustration and unhappiness. There are few things in life worse than to be surrounded by people and simultaneously feel lonely. How does a person in a strict society like Japan, where the citizens are expected to remain reserved and not rock the boat, command enough respect to have the populace adjust to them?

This complex topic is covered in the only book on Mental Health for Blacks in Japan: 21st Century Japan Decoded.

Nippon Series 19: Does Japan Accept Transgenders?

by Takuan Amaru

In March 2020, a 35-year-old, Japanese resident filed a lawsuit against the Shinjuku Ward Office to the Tokyo District Court for 1.5 million yen (approx. $13,000 USD) in damages for the unlawful disposal of his hormonal agents by a staff member of a Shinjuku Ward Welfare Office. The seizure of the hormones occurred in response to a complaint by the plaintiff’s mother. The reason cited was “They haven’t been prescribed by a doctor.” In October 2021, the two parties reached a settlement in what was termed “a violation of property rights” and the ward office expressed regret over not sufficiently confirming the man’s wishes. However there was no judgment made on whether the ward’s actions were illegal. So, I’m a bit confused. Did he win the case or not?

Furthermore, what is the legal precedent being set concerning the rights of transgenders?

In a strict society like Japan, where the slightest deviancy from what is accepted as “normal” can result in an individual being castigated into a state of societal-purgatory, can transgenders truly ever be accepted? The plaintiff in this case, whose name was withheld in the article by Mainichi Shimbun, expressed feelings of “loneliness” throughout his childhood as well as suffering from symptoms of depression. Since he was 3-years-old, he felt awkward about being treated as a girl. When he told his mother that he wanted to become a driver of a Shinkansen (Bullet Train), or that he wanted to wear pants instead of skirts, she scolded him by saying: “Act more like a girl!”

Ijime (Bullying)

Yamato-Damashii (大和魂) is a term coined during the Heian Period to juxtapose Japanese cultural values against those of the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907 A.D.) in China. The kanji characters literally mean, “Spirit of Great Harmony.” Anyone who dares to disturb the harmony is swiftly dealt with by oftentimes indirect means that may seem insignificant or light in the short-run but, if the person committing the transgression does not yield to the demands of the masses by doing what is expected, the pressure will continue to mount until one side eventually surrenders. In too many cases, the will of the individual is shattered with the unfortunate result being suicide (jisatsu), hermitage at a parent’s home (hikikomori), or living in alienation and dying all alone (kodokushi).

Although transgender lifestyles are nothing new in Japan, rarely have they been thrust into the spotlight as they are now with the advent of the LGBTQ+. All of the Japanese people (adults & teens) that I have discussed this issue with admitted they believe most parents would have a difficult time accepting their children as transgenders. For this reason, I was surprised by the results of an online survey carried out in 2020 by the PR giant, Dentsu Inc., which targeted sexual minorities. It stated that 10.9% of transgenders claimed their sexuality was not accepted by their fathers, while 12.4% said their sexuality was not accepted by their mothers. There were 7.8% who said that their fathers absolutely rejected their sexuality, while 6.8% said their mothers did the same. Honestly, I thought the numbers would be much higher.

Are these figures a good representation of what most Japanese are really feeling (honne)? Or, is this merely social window-dressing, a public façade the society wishes others to believe (tatemae)?

Tomoya Asanuma, the head of Trans Voice in Japan, a Tokyo-based organization that conducts awareness-raising activities, expressed his thoughts. “There are still a lot of parents who clash with their children over hormone treatments. Especially when the transgender person is a minor, the parents’ views tend to override that of the child. It is necessary to understand what kind of views the person holds, and respond with their best interests in mind.”

Once the rights of a child are entered into the equation, the issue is clouded even further. Perhaps this is a topic to address in the future. For now, however, the questions are: (1) Can traditional Japanese values, Yamato-Damashii, stand up to the test of time? (2) Will transgenders ever be officially accepted into the Japanese family-unit / society? This question links to what is probably the most important one of all. (3) Will Japanese continue with the mindset that I have commonly run across, which is they support transgenders living alternative lifestyles so long as these individuals are not in their own families? In other words, it’s okay as long as it is occurring somewhere “over there.” But when it comes to their own son, daughter, brother, or sister, well, this is altogether a whole different situation.

Takuan Amaru is the author of 21st Century Japan Decoded: the only Manual on Mental Health for Blacks in Japan.

Nippon Series 18: Mental Health and Controlling the Narrative

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by Takuan Amaru

The overwhelming pressure felt by superstar athlete, Naomi Osaka, which led to her controversial withdrawals of grand slam, tennis tournaments over “mental depression” and “suffering long bouts of depression” is symbolic of the plight of Black people worldwide. By reading some of the responses to Osaka’s tweet by members of the dominant society, it is evident that many feel that she has no choice other than to endure whatever the mainstream dishes out, regardless of its negative effects on her psyche. In other words, a large part of her being accepted by them is to feebly surrender to their whims. This has absolutely nothing to do with the sport of tennis but, rather, maintaining the status-quo.

Well, in Japan, the dominant society is Japanese people. And they, too, have a set of expectations which are not necessarily in-line with supporting the mental health of its subordinate caste of characters.

Unlike in the West, where the pressure is mostly direct and in-your-face, in Japan, it oftentimes is so indirect the victims are wholly unaware they are under attack until it’s too late. This is analogous to the premise of the frog in a pot of water which is gradually heated. The heat is turned up so slowly the frog is oblivious of any danger and, therefore, fails to save itself by simply jumping out. Over the years, I have met several foreign nationals on this island-nation who fall into this category. Some of them, over time, have become so far removed from reality they can no longer relate to the people from their home countries. Having been fully indoctrinated into their role as a non-threatening gaijin, instead of maturing into shining examples of the greatness of their people, they have been reduced to becoming feeble, non-threatening minorities who are either overly withdrawn and bitter, or they descend to the other extreme and now resemble one of the cute, kawaii mascots like Kumamon.

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The Internet, as well as social-media, has changed the landscape for the dissemination of news and information. Unlike in the past, individuals on the ground now have access to greater society to get their message across. Movements such as Black Lives Matter, Me Too, and the LGBTQ+ were launched and supported largely outside of mainstream media outlets. In some cases, the big-wig stations such as BCC, CNN, and MSNBC were forced to provide coverage of grass-roots demonstrations or risk being viewed as outdated sources of news. This is good. For sports fans old enough to remember the courageous stances made by NBA stars Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf or Craig Hodges, we can clearly see the difference between the coverage given to athletic heroes of today and the 1990s. Back in the day, viewers had to rely exclusively on whatever the (uninformed and compromised) commentators on ESPN decided to report about Abdul-Rauf and Hodges. This is a far-cry from the coverage provided for Colin Kapernick’s kneel downs during the national anthem to protest police brutality; or last year’s U.S. Open when Naomi Osaka wore seven different face masks, one for each round of the tournament. On each mask, she inscribed the names of Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, Ahmaud Arbery, Trayvon Martin, George Floyd, Philando Castle and Tamir Rice.

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In the 21st century We, the People, in order to form a more perfect union, exercise our right to tell our story from our perspective. Thanks to modern technology, we are finally able to step past the ‘gatekeepers and middle-men’ in the dominant culture who keep the masses unaware of what is really taking place. Controlling the narrative when it comes to defining who we are, and being informed about the world and our proper role in society—by us—this is the first step to realizing our melanin-rich greatness.

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Please stay-tuned for the book, 21st Century Japan Decoded. It is the only book written for Black people living in Japan.

Takuan Amaru is the author of the trilogy, Gaikokujin—The Story.

Nippon Series 17: Do Women have Rights?

2018_japan_metooTakuan Amaru

In Japan, with its reputation as one of the world’s safest countries, I have been exposed to sexual harassment since the age of three, forced to get used to it, and to learn to deal with it.

~Ms. Wakana Goto, Speaker at a #Me Too / #We Too rally

In 1989, Mayumi Haruno made headlines for being the first woman to challenge the legality of sexual harassment in a Japanese court. When a senior-employee at the publishing company where she was working insisted on repeatedly calling her a “serious temptress”, “adulterous”, and other inappropriate comments, she reported his misconduct to the proper authorities within the company—and was subsequently ordered to file her resignation. She vividly recalls the way her former bosses heckled her as she departed the office for the last time: “Remember to properly respect the men at your next place of employment.” Although Ms. Haruno took them to court and was eventually awarded 1.65 million yen for “illegal actions that disparaged working women,” according to her: “The situation hasn’t changed since 30 years ago.” 

Japan’s Version of #Me Too

As the world focuses on the rape-trial of Harvey Weinstein in NYC, the #Me Too movement continues to pick up steam around the world. In their zeal to recreate all-things-western, Japan has established at least four similarly-themed, related movements. In addition to #Me Too, there’s also #We Too, the Flower Demo, and the curiously named #Ku Too. kutooThe “Ku” in the #Ku Too refers to the first syllabary for “kutsu” (く), which means “shoe.” More than a few women in Japan feel that company dress-codes which require females to wear high-heels are discriminatory. So many in fact that, actress/free-lance writer, Yumi Ishikawa decided to kick-off the #Ku Too campaign. According to women I’ve spoken to, all of these movements—including #Ku Too—provide necessary platforms for victims of sexual assault / harassment to be recognized. Whether you agree or disagree with one or more of these platforms, what cannot be ignored is the fact that, in Japan, standing up for oneself—even in the name of righteousness—can easily be interpreted as “the nail who is standing out” and, of course, any such protrusion must be hammered down at all costs. That said, it is disturbing to realize this “mum’s the word” pressure even includes aggrieved parties of traumatic crimes like rape. ito, shiori, in your facePerhaps this is why Shiori Ito, following the Tokyo District Court’s verdict which ordered Noriyuki Yamaguchi to pay her 3.3 million yen (US$30,000), felt the need to stand outside the Municipal Court holding a banner which said: “In your face, punk! That’s right, I sued your ass!” I’m joking. In reality it read:「勝訴」 which means “winning a court case.” After filing her indictment, the backlash in Japan was so severe that Ms. Ito was forced to move to London in order to escape the daily barrage of haters, naysayers, and trolls who made it vehemently clear it was not okay, rather it was not on-code, for her to sue the former Washington bureau chief of the Tokyo Broadcasting System and biographer of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe—even if she did get raped! This explains the smug, holier-than-thou expression on Shiori’s face in the photo above. In other words, Ito-san was not missing her opportunity to serve up a little trash-talk of her own—and who could blame her?

Sexism is everywhere you go, just like gravity. It’s part of nature

     ~Chizuko Ueno, professor of Sociology, Tokyo University

Feminism = A Western Construct

“The world now has the impression that Japan is a sexist country lacking awareness about human rights,” said Waseda University professor Mutsuko Asakura. But is Japanese society unduly sexist? Scholars such as Ms. Sharazad Ali have made the claim that feminism, as we know it, is largely “about the white woman’s fight with her man” and, therefore, has little to do with women from more traditional cultures. A cursory look into the origin of Western civilization reveals an unveiled dislike for feminine energy. Men, in early Greece, when considering their ideal lover, were more likely to choose a young boy over a woman. Since the Greeks and Romans co-opted their spiritual pantheons from the ancient Egyptians, who had a high regard for Aset, Maat, Sekmet, and many other goddesses, they too had female deities. A few of them such as Athena, who is a replica of the Egyptian goddess, Neith, commands respect; however many western writers won’t admit she is female since she sprang forth from her father’s (Zeus) skull. Instead they have labeled her as “gender-neutral“. Rare exceptions aside, most females in Greek or Roman myths, whether humans or celestial beings, are either supporting side-kicks of males who are playing starring rolessort of like the relationship between black and white actors in Hollywood films—or, they are the victims of rape, incest, or kidnapping. Even Hera, the “patroness and protectress of married women” is disrespected by her husband, Zeus, to such a degree that based on descriptions of her in various mythos, perhaps the most defining characteristic of the Queen of the Gods is jealousy—along with a vengeful nature against her husband’s numerous lovers and illegitimate offspring. By the 6th century, the influence of the early myths had been replaced by Christianity under the Roman emperor, Justinian. Although he declared that homosexuality was “contrary to nature” and therefore a crime punishable by death, Christianity did nothing to raise women up in society as made very plain in the first letter from St Paul to Timothy in the Bible:

Let the woman learn in silence, with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to use authority over the man: but to be in silence. For Adam was first formed; then Eve.

~1 Timothy 2:11-13

greek freaks2Whether God’s name is Yahweh, Jehovah, Allah, Jesus, Lord, Father, Son, (even the Holy Ghost), please note that all Judeo-Christian divinities are referred to as Him. In spite of being declared illegal, isn’t a society which features an all-male spiritual system—and no hint of female energy—still essentially homosexual in nature? Well, if you examine almost any image from this period, evidence of their peculiar preference for men is not hidden. In fact, it’s an all-male “stag party”. 

In contrast, more traditional spiritual systems in Africa, Asia, and even the Americas, have the divine-feminine both well-represented and well-respected. In Japan, the “national worship” derives from ancestry; and the first from that unbroken line, Amaterasu Omikami, was a woman. According to an authority on Japanese ancestor-worship, Professor Nobushige Hozumi, in spite of the absorption of Buddhism, Confucianism, and Western civilization—what he calls the “three foreign elements”—Japanese people, “whether Shintoists or Buddhists (or Christians) are all ancestor-worshippers.” In his book Great Japan; A Study of EfficiencyAlfred Stead explains prior to the introduction of Buddhism and Confucianism, “Men and women were almost equal in their social position. There was then no shadow of the barbarous idea that men were everything and women were nothing.” Women also had immense political power, with no less than nine women ascending the throne in old times.jingu Noted for their bravery, women were outfitted with weapons just like men and fought side-by-side with their male counterparts. Perhaps the most famous female personality in Japan’s history is Empress Jingu (神功皇后), who conquered the Korean peninsula around 205 A.D. The mere fact a woman was able to lead troops into battle is sufficient proof of the female’s exalted status in society. Another point which is often overlooked (even by Japanese themselves) is women’s contribution in literature. The most famous of these writers being Murasaki Shikibu ( 式部) with her immortal narrative, The Tale of Genji. According to Kencho Suematsu (末松 謙澄), a politician, intellectual and author during the Meiji and Taishō periods, literature depicting romance or life in the Heian period was largely left in the hands of women. This era witnessed the rise of empresses and court ladies as well as the gradual decline of emperors; so therefore, in terms of gender-equality, this would have to be considered Japan’s Golden Age.

Fall of the Feminine

The conquest of Korea opened up the road for the introduction of Confucianism, Mencian doctrines, and Buddhism, all of which were prejudicial to the equality of the sexes

     ~Sidney Lewis Gulick (1860–1945), author and missionary in Japan

Three women, named Jenshinni (善信尼), Jenzoni (禅蔵尼), and Ezenni (恵善尼), were sent to India as ambassadors to investigate the tenets of Buddhism. It is ironic to think that the pioneers of a new religion which discriminates against women were not males but, in fact, were females. Dr. Gulick says: “The notions and ideals presented by Buddhism in regard to women are clear, and clearly degrading…she is essentially inferior to a man in every respect. Before she may hope to enter Nirvana she must be born again as a man.” And Confucianism was no better as indicated by the scholar, Kaibara Ekken ( 益軒): Confucius1“A woman must regard her husband as her lord and serve him with all the reverence and all the adoration of which she is capable…her chief duty throughout life is to obey.” In the 18th century, collections of this type of chauvinism was published in the widely read Onna Daigaku (女大学), which means The Great Learning for Women. In response, Ian Burma, in his book Behind the Mask, writes: “This seems a far cry from the world of the Sun Goddess and Izanami, where shamanesses held sway and even, like (Empress) Himiko in the third century A.D., became queens of the land…the Tokugawa government did everything to stamp out the last vestiges of matriarchy forever.”

Barefoot & Pregnant in the Reiwa Era?

According to a report published by the World Economic Forum, which is an annual meeting of the world’s political and economic leaders, Japan has dropped to 121st place (out of 153) in global rankings for gender-equality; this is its lowest level on record. Publicized incidents such as the recent scandal at Tokyo Medical University, where administrators altered entrance exam scores to limit the number of female candidates, or comments such as there is “no such thing [crime] as a sexual harassment charge,” uttered in 2018 by former prime-minister, Taro Aso, surely have contributed to Japan’s continuous downward spiral in the ranking. While doing research to understand Japan’s level of sexism, I was reminded of the first line in the Dickens classic, A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times….” chikanOn one hand, females—especially little girls—are sexually objectified in anime, manga, and on television. On subways, specially-designated “Women-only” cars have been set aside to rescue female commuters from the all-too-common “chikan” gropings which have become synonymous with Japanese society. Though numerous reforms in education and law have resulted in the ‘New, Legal Woman’ who, just like a man, can divorce an unwanted spouse or be recognized as the ‘Head of the Household’, it can be inferred from the backlash Shiori Ito received—from both men and women—the public at large does not want women to challenge men in court…this is subversive to the Yamato Code.

But on the other hand…

Unlike the targets of most unfair bias Japanese women are not minorities. Actually, they are the majority, constituting over 51% of the population. With this in mind, considering sexism is an issue which is nurtured and groomed by the entire society, is it fair to say that women, themselves, are playing a major role in their own problem? This is not to make light of anyone who is being discriminated against; however, we must consider the average woman’s level of oppression and juxtapose it with the benefits she receives. After all, it could be argued that many, if not most, women are not interested in changing the way things are.

A woman first of all influences her husband. The popular saying, ‘The husband and wife are like each other,’ speaks the same truth. Again, she is the mistress of the family, and as such her power in the family is immense…this power is surprising. What the mother likes, the child likes, and her tastes will become the tastes of the family.

     ~Ōkuma Shigenobu (大隈重信), former Prime Minister / founder of Waseda University

It cannot be overstated that sexual bias goes both-ways in Japan. Everyone is familiar with the hen-pecked “kaka-denka” man who is powerless in his own house because, at home, custom dictates that wives are in-charge of virtually everything, including finances. Put another way, the husband is saddled with the responsibility of bringing home the bacon; but on pay-day he hands over his entire salary to his wife. Now, who do you think came up with this arrangement? Men or women? japan-woman-riseIn his book The Future of Family and Marriage, Ritsumeikan University professor Tsutsui Jun’ya (筒井淳也) writes, “The patriarchal system was arbitrarily contrived so that men who controlled society and male members of families could maintain their privilege, even at the expense of economic productivity and growth.” Another sociologist, Minashita Kiriu, who is a professor at Kokugakuin University, teaches it was during Japan’s period of high economic growth in the Shōwa era (1926-1989) when the Japanese-style employment practices which “present a significant disadvantage to women”, such as seniority-based remuneration and lifetime employment, were created. So which is it? Is the current system the best thing since sliced bread? Or, is it an intolerant, sexist mechanism which needs to be outdated? Chizuko Ueno, who is touted as “Japan’s best known feminist”, in an interview, talked about “powerful Japanese women” who exert tremendous political pressure.

They are powerful even though they are not visible at the national level. Their causes may not be immediately identifiable as women’s issues or equal participation. But, for instance, if you look at anti-nuclear power activism and so forth, they actually have made a shift in local politics. Without having the support of these women, no politician can gain victory in local elections.

     ~Chizuko Ueno

Hmm, let’s consider this for a moment: on one hand, women have enough leverage to cause a shift in government policy on significant issues like U.S. beef and anti-nuclear legislation but, on the other hand, when it comes to having ‘sexist laws’ amended on their own behalf, they cannot seem to muster enough support. Something else worth noting is that any group which can be described as “not visible at the national level” while simultaneously being able to make “a shift” in politics, to me, sounds much more like a “hidden hand” in society than some helpless victim. Perhaps due to inherent complexities, it’s impossible for men and women to fully agree on this issue. Whatever women decide is really none of my business. However, in my humble opinion, if women were to consult with the ancestress-spirit of the past before defining what their proper role should be in 2020, all of humanity would benefit. Moreover, if they do, I feel confident they would have sense enough to aim higher than just wanting to be on-par economically with men. For this reason, perhaps I agree with the Eco-feminist critic, Aoki Yayoi (青木やよひ) when she asserts: “if all (economic independence) achieves is the right of passage of woman into existing male social structures and practices, I don’t know that we have achieved very much.”

I hope you enjoyed this edition of the Nippon Series. japanese-women-with-poise-and-feminine-grace- Takuan Amaru is the author of Gaikokujin – The Story.


Nippon Series 16: Analyzing the Yamato Code

yamato-mapTakuan Amaru

For Japanese, being a member of the group is what gives a person his power. The group-dynamic is an energy field created by the people. This power surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the society together.


Any true Star Wars fan should recognize the above quote as a clever reconstruction of Obi-Wan‘s explanation of “The Force” to a young Luke Skywalker. Star-Wars-Episode-IV-A-New-Hope-Luke-Skywalker-Obi-Wan-KenobiAnd just like that impenetrable energy-field, in Japan, the power of the group is both omnipresent and omnipotent. Japanese society operates very similar to a hive of bees, a colony of ants, or any organism which exhibits extreme social behavior. Perhaps the best example is how Japanese workjapnese meeting in concert to make collective decisions on every short-term or long-term objective. Anyone who has worked in a Japanese company will attest to how much Japanese love to have meetings! In short, making collective decisions, living up to any obligations incurred in those meetings—which relates to staying on code—as well as having children: believe it or not, this is the essence of being Japanese…of Yamato Damashii.

“Japanese Spirit”, “Japanese Soul”, “Yamato Spirit”, or even “The Soul of Old Japan,” these are some of the accepted translations for Yamato-Damashii (大和魂). Coined during the Heian Period to juxtapose Japanese cultural values against those of the Tang Dynasty (618 to 907) as well as the rest of the Asian continent, the Kanji characters literally mean “Spirit of Great Harmony.” In the early 20th century, Japanese nationalists propagandized their own translation: “the brave, daring, and indomitable spirit of Japanese people.” In spite of its bright, rosy appeal, Yamato-Damashii is also mixed with a certain level of pragmatism, which was expressed by Toshio Iritani in his description of life on the streets of Tokyo during the waning days of WWII.

When people gathered together in groups not a single complaint could be heard and they endured hardship in silence for the sake of their pride. Such reticence stems from ‘the Japanese spirit’ (Yamato Damashii) which, in this writer’s opinion, is still alive in the minds of older Japanese who will clench their teeth and bear suffering no matter how gruelling it is.

~Toshio Iritani from the book: “Group Psychology of the Japanese in Wartime”

Group Orientation

Nippon Series 15 discussed how schools in Japan purposely create crowded conditions to teach/force their students to persevere and coexist (Ganbare!). In order to operate as a collective, everyone must discover his/her role and learn to work together in unison. Therefore, from childhood, the need for cooperation is drilled into the subconscious. One way to achieve this, which incidentally goes hand-in-hand with the densely-populated classrooms, is the official decree that is heard numerous times throughout the school-day: “Junban!” (順番) wait in lineThis literally translates to “Order” but, more colloquially means: “Wait your turn.” Writers such as Hunter Nield have expressed awe and fascination with “Japan’s love of line-forming,” which he affirms “begins with the lessons kids learn as early as kindergarten.” Linda Bennett, in her essay entitled Expectations for Japanese Children, points out how Japanese kids learn from all aspects of society: family, school, community, and the even the nation, itself. “In each group (classroom),” she writes, “a child learns the self-discipline and commitment expected to be a supportive and responsible group member…” As I continued to read the Expectations, as laid-out by Ms. Bennett, I felt as though she was hinting at something which I suspected as far back as 2005: the Japanese psyche has been programmed more like that of a soldier than a normal civilian.

Army of the People

It is no secret that Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution (日本国憲法第9条) officially demilitarized the Armed Forces, leaving in its place a de facto peace-keeping squadron referred to as the Japan Self-Defense Forces. However, please never forget that, in Japan, situations  are seldom what they appear to be on the surface. That is Tatemae. On the other hand, if we examine the educational objectives of Japanese schools, and then compare them with the Seven Core Army Values (Loyalty, Duty, Respect, Selfless Service, Honor, Integrity, and Personal Courage)we find out that every Japanese citizen has been indoctrinated with a code of ethics which is startlingly similar to that of an American soldier—this is the deeper picture known as Honne.

  • Loyalty, which means “bearing true faith and allegiance to the Constitution, the Army, your unit, and other soldiers” is equivalent to Shakaisei (社会性), being socially conscious. For Japanese, the group is more important than the individual, and an individual should never stand out. Appropriate behavior includes being reserved, cooperative, and supportive of the group. Other relatable tenets expressed in the Expectations essay are: Kyochosei (協調性), translated as “being cooperative or harmonious” and, Yasashii (優しい), being kindhearted to members of the group.
  • Duty. This one is easy. Fulfilling your obligations corresponds, first, to Loyalty to the society at large and, on a more personal level, “studying hard” which is translated to Susunde benkyo (進んで勉強). Please note that failure to perform one’s duty results in shame—which can lead to a state which has been described as “Communal Purgatory.”
  • Respect along with Loyalty are principles which are constantly being imparted through the Confucian teachings that were adopted into the culture.
  • Selfless Service. Putting the welfare of the nation, the Army, and your fellow soldiers—i.e. the group—before your own is a foundational principle for every Japanese. Omoiyari (思いやり) is the ability to be sympathetic/empathetic to those around you.
  • Honor is Meiyo (名誉) in Japanese. According to the U.S. Army, honor embodies the other six ethics; so it is a matter of carrying out the values of loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, integrity and personal courage in everything you do. However, this is not ‘honorable enough’ for Japanese; therefore, they came up with a more comprehensive code of honor containing eight virtues. You may have heard of it: it’s called Bushido.
  • Integrity is a quality you develop by adhering to the moral principle of doing what’s right for right’s sake. This corresponds to Hansei (反性), which is “self-discipline or self-reflection.”
  • Personal Courage. The ability to live honorably on a consistent basis is the measuring stick; so Jobu na (丈夫な), meaning “being strong and healthy,” and Gambaru (頑張る), “doing one’s best and having persistence toward a goal” fit the bill nicely.

Ms. Bennett goes on to explain that each child is cared for by the whole society, and all Japanese adults are responsible for helping to teach the norms and customs of the society. For this reason, she claims, they are members of a “National Family.” Once again, her description perfectly describes the relationship between commissioned, as well as non-commissioned, officers with the lower-enlisted personnel within the Armed Forces. Oh, and let’s not forget that Japanese children practice “how to march” in school as well. Please think back to your elementary school days: do you recall having lessons on Drill and Ceremony?

Japanese Acceptance

Many foreigners complain how Japanese are inflexible toward them. No matter how long they have lived in Japan, or how fluent they become in the language, or how accustomed they are to the culture, they are always treated as “outsiders.” Let’s take it a step further: over the years, I’ve had dozens of conversations and even received some e-mails from disgruntled exchange students, foreign nationals, as well as teachers, who show little trepidation at using the “R-word,” racism, to define the society’s xenophobic attitude toward anything deemed not Japanese. Hearing first-hand accounts by the victims of biased mistreatment, most notably, Brazilians, Koreans, and Peruvians, not to mention Ryukyuans, Ainu, and Burakumin (部落民), it would be difficult to argue otherwise. Nevertheless, in regards to English-speaking westerners, in my opinion, the situation is different because when most Japanese address the descendants of their conquerors, their Japanese Complex triggers a passive response in their brain.empty seat So unless you are the type who compares inconveniences such as people on the train not wanting to sit next to you with atrocities like Nazi Germany, Apartheid in South Africa, or Jim Crowreal racism—it might be necessary to come up with an alternative to describe the uncomfortable feeling commuters experience on their ride to and from work. Far beyond just being insulted on a personal level, bona-fide victims of “real racism” are attacked on institutional, cultural, structural, as well as interpersonal levels, which has been explained in the article, “The Many Types of Racism: 5 Terms to Know. The truth is, a large percentage of these “Japanese are racist” indictments have been lodged by people who are classified as white, or non-whites who have acclimated themselves to European norms, standards, and values. Let’s face it, many of these folks have been spoiled by “white privilege” and therefore believe it’s “natural” for them to be liked and accepted. And for those who weren’t necessarily born with a silver spoon in their mouth, they probably don’t realize the city or town where they live, or the company (or school) they work for, functions like a military installation. In other words, being a foreigner in Japan has much in common with the status of a civilian who lives or works on an Army post. If you haven’t gone through the requisite training, just buying something at the Post Exchange (PX), or walking around the post doesn’t make you a soldier.

In Nippon Series 13, we discussed how there is only one “correct way” for Japanese to approach every situation. How many of these complaining westerners would be willing to adjust their behaviori.e. the way they walk, when/what they eat, sleeping patterns, etc.—to be in accordance with their neighbors? This is only a very small part of adopting the Yamato Code. An office lady (OL) in her mid-forties, once asked me why I had chosen to live in Japan. Without hesitation, I ran-down the same song-and-dance-reply I always gave of wanting to connect with my Japanese roots and visit my ancestor’s graves, etc. “No,” she cut me off in mid-sentence. “I mean, you used to be free…in America, right?” The urgency in her question threw me for a loop. “So,” I considered my words carefully, “here in Japan you’re not free?” As I attempted to elicit more information, she realized she had went off-code. “Never mind,” she brushed me off. Nonetheless, in that momentary lapse, Suzuki-san had divulged more information than she could have imagined. Reflecting on the deeper meaning embedded in her question allowed me to mature to having a frame-of-mind which could shrug-off extra stares on the train, realizing I was probably unwittingly doing something off-code; and more times than not I found this to be the situation. Usually it was something as innocent as humming, or nodding my head to the music in my headphones—both of which are serious glitches in the matrix! The point is: it seems many of those who file complaints about not being accepted lack a clear understanding of what they’re talking about. 

Wisdom of Understanding

Understanding when to (and when not to) follow the Yamato Code has allowed me to live peacefully in Japan and preserve who I am—no small feat in a society which has a “cookie-cutter approach” for assigning roles to people, whether foreigner or Japanese. This does not mean I am treated like a born-and-bred native; however, whenever challenged in an unappealing way, by tapping into my knowledge of the Code, not only am I able to avoid pitfalls but in most cases—and this is important—I set in place a precedent which discourages this type of situation from occurring in the future. Being able to “stand on your square” while “saving face” is a skill that few Japanese master, let-alone someone who was not born and raised in the land of Yamato. Although it took a decade of observation, surprisingly, my awareness of its existence began when I ceased to take personally any strange or peculiar happenings—especially anything which seemed controversial. Having established my third-person perspective it was easy to see the Code for what it is, their religion…i.e. God. And accordingly, every year, thousands are sacrificed to the spirit of Yamato via suicide or, unable to endure the daily strain of having to conform, they decide to bow-out of society. In a future installment of Nippon Seriesby simply navigating the Code, we will discuss how to side-step some of the stress which is inherent in Japanese society.

Note: The “quote” at the beginning of the article about “The Force” was reconstructed by Takuan Amaru. In Japanese: 天流沢庵

天流沢庵 is the author of Gaikokujin – The Story.





Nippon Series 15: What about Religion?

Takuan Amaru

Of religions there are several kinds – Buddhism, Christianity, and what not. From my standpoint there is no more difference between those than between green tea and black…

~Fukuzawa Yukichi, founder of Keio University ~

Contrary to popular belief Japan has an official religion; but it is neither Shinto nor Buddhism. While both are widespread, according to nationwide surveys, the overwhelming majority of Japanese do not identify exclusively with either spiritual system. In fact, it has become commonplace for an infant, at birth, to be blessed at a Shinto shrine, as an adult, to get married at a church, and at the time of death, be laid to rest at a Buddhist temple. And what about Christianity? religion in japanAlthough it’s not uncommon to see churches nowadays, the “Land of the Rising Sun” is one of the few industrialized nations where the Abrahamic doctrines did not really catch on; so very few people identify as Jewish, Muslim, or Christian. In countries where both exist, Eastern spiritual systems usually get overshadowed by western denominations. But not in Japan. Although Jesuit priests like Francis Xavier started arriving in Kyushu as far back as the mid-1500s, Japan never fully-adopted any of the western religions like other (colonized) countries in Asia and Africa. As a result, Japanese were never indoctrinated with the concept of God/Goddess being a white man. Could this be why Japanese, during the 20th century, were unafraid to wage war against the Western world—not once but twice? jap-rusWhile everyone recalls Japan’s tragic surrender in 1945, following the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, most forget the stinging defeat they handed Russia at the turn of the century. More than a few noted scholars of the time, including W.E.B. Dubois, saw this victory as a legitimate challenge to western supremacy. Even today, when you consider that Japanese are on a short list of ethnic groups who don’t automatically see Europeans as superior, it appears that Dubois’ line of thinking still holds weight. In the final analysis, no matter how much Japanese teens may fetishize blonde hair, blue eyes, or pale skin, there exists just beneath their consciousness—in their collective subconscious—the understanding that white people are gaijin. No, through all the struggles, triumphs and defeats, the Yamato clan has been able to maintain its national identity.

Spirituality vs. Religion

Considering that nowadays every other person you meet claims to be “spiritual but not religious,” this lends itself to the idea that, although the terms share something in common, they are not identical. While the former is an individual endeavor which deals directly with, and calls on, spirits; religion vs spirtualitythe latter is a group-oriented activity which is grounded in a common creed. Scholars such as Jun’ichi Isomae and Jason Ānanda Josephson have argued the concept of “religion” is an invention of the 19th century. This would explain why the Japanese term for it, Shūkyō (宗教), only refers to organized, belief systems. In the West, the etymology of religion is associated with the Latin word religare, which means “to tie,” or, “to bind.” Just as Arabs are connected by Islam, and Jews are bound together by Judaism, Japanese are irrevocably linked by their religion too. As mentioned above, concerning their worship practices, Japanese favor a somewhat syncretic view. Therefore, in spite of the number of shrines and temples dotting the island-nation, which may hint that either Shinto or Buddhism is the main religion, it is difficult to get Japanese to claim either and, of the twenty or so people I asked, none would readily accept being identified as Shintoist or Buddhist. Most people, either directly or indirectly, referenced a concept known as Shinbutsu-Shūgō (神仏習合), which is a syncretism of Kami and Buddhas. monk vs priestThe fusing of Shinto and Buddhism was especially popular during the Heian Era (794-1185), suggesting that this blending of spiritual principles is nothing new. Unlike the Judeo-Christian societies, which have always forced their dogma onto the common people at the edge of a sword, Japanese have never endorsed inflicting physical violence against “nonbelievers who lack faith.” Although there were eras when people were required to register at either a shrine or a temple, these mandates never led to any “inquisitions.” Many prominent scholars, including Rev. William Elliott Griffis and Nobuto Kishimoto, teach that in addition to Shinto and Buddhism there is a third pillar of Japanese religion: Confucianism. According to Kishimoto: “Shintoism furnishes the object, Confucianism offers the rules of life, while Buddhism supplies the way of salvation.”

Administration of Shame

At the beginning of the 17th century, the Tokugawa Shogunate, obsessed with crushing any threat to its authority, encouraged Confucianism due to its focus on morality and ethicsOne of the creeds which served this end well came from a 12th century Confucian scholar, Chu Hsi (朱熹), due to his belief in unwavering loyalty and duty to one’s parents…and rulers. Today, aspects of this teaching are still evident in the steadfast devotion Japanese have for their school, company, or just society in general. Jonathon Rice, author of Behind the Japanese Mask, calls Confucianism “the moral underpinning of the Japanese way of life.” Nevertheless the question one must ask is: How is this unfailing dedication to the values of society so thoroughly programmed into each and every person? According to Master Kǒng himself, otherwise known as “Confucius” (孔夫子), the solution lies in creating an atmosphere where the slightest deviance from normalcy leads to a personal sense of shame:

If you control people by punishment, they will avoid crime, but have no personal sense of shame. If you govern by means of virtue and control them with propriety, they will gain their own sense of shame and thus correct themselves

~The Analects

Wa (), a cultural concept meaning “harmony,” implies peaceful relations among members of a social group but, in reality, it is far from tranquil. Considered integral to Japanese society, individuals who dare to “go against the grain” are reprimanded by a tidal wave of disapproval by superiors, family members, and colleagues via methods which might be hard for westerners to imagine. This is simply because, in many cases, words are never exchanged. nail sticking upThe nail that sticks out gets hammered down” (出る釘は打たれる) is the famous adage which best expresses the immense societal pressure placed on Japanese to conform. In such a homogenous-thinking society, unless you’re a politician or an entertainer, standing out from the crowd is not only frowned upon, it results in being marginalized to a state of communal purgatory. Ian Buruma, who is the author of a number of books on Japan, stated: “Social rules, rather than an abstract system of morals, control Japanese behaviour.” It took several years of working in Japanese schools, both public and private, before I realized the priority of the faculty was not formal education but, rather, to teach the children to “be Japanese,” i.e. show them their place within the societal framework. With an average of 38 students in each homeroom, since students do not change classes for each subject (except Phys Ed and labs), they stay-put in the same, overcrowded classroom—including lunch—for 8 – 10 hours. It is here, through constant trial, trauma, and tribulation, the collective subconscious is programmed with the idea that “we” in this classroom must struggle together (Ganbare!), along with the unspoken truth that accompanies such reasoning: all those outside “our world” are insignificant. Concurrent with the nurturing of this “Us only” mentality is the Confucian teaching to respect authority. For young people, they learn their role, for the time being, is to sit down, be quiet, and follow orders—which brings us back to the edict of teachers “showing them their place.” Put another way, while there are lessons on math, science, and history being taught, the goal of the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (文部科学省), also known as MEXT, is not to raise test scores or elevate student’s intellect so much as it is to put every youth on-code. The Japanese Code. This is the true religion. And just like Marine boot-camp or any training program designed to get people on the “same page,” not only is it necessary to eradicate critical-thinking but, in addition, to cancel any notion of independence or existing apart from the group. With virtually all of the actual teaching and learning of academic subjects occurring in the evening at cram-schools called Juku (塾), this allows schools to operate along strict guidelines which bear a closer resemblance to military training than formal education.

Social Totalitarianism: To be or not to be Japanese

Totalitarianism is a political system that prohibits any opposition whatsoever to the government. Regarded as a form of authoritarianism, it exercises an extremely high degree of control over public and private affairs. Mao Zedong, former Chairman of the Communist Party in China, Joseph Stalin, former leader of the Soviet Union, along with Adolf Hitler, led prototypical totalitarian regimes. In contrast to these dictatorships, the programming and the pressure to “be Japanese” is not coming from the government per se but, instead, is being imposed on the peopleby the people themselvesEach Japanese heart yearns to beat in accordance with the drumbeat of society: this is the Yamato spirit. For this reason, instead of Shinto, Buddhism, or Confucianism, perhaps it would be more appropriate to call the Japanese religion something with “Yamato” in it. Or, we can simply call it Tatamae which, after all, is the embodiment of social totalitarianism because anyone who does not comply with the “Japanese programming” is subject to the societal thought-police who regulate through a special type of bullying called Ijime (イジメ, 虐め). A former colleague of mine, Watanabe-sensei, explained that “Ijime is as much a part of Japanese culture as sukiyaki, sumo wrestling, or green tea.” So accordingly, when Shinnosuke Komatsuda, a 15-year-old boy from Saitama Prefecture, committed suicide in September due to being the target of bullying at school, even though it is no secret as to what took place, no one was surprised to hear the boy’s mother blame the school and ask for a full investigation. Why? Because it’s in the script; this is what grieving parents of bullied victims always say on the news. What else could she do? Admit she had failed to teach her son the values of society?Jigoku-620-10 No. She, along with everyone else, knows her son either could not, or would not, adjust to the standard that had been set by the members of the homeroom—his society—and therefore he was sacrificed to the game. At that point, her only concern was to be granted a reprieve. Not only was she grieving the death of her son, she was being singled-out (which we’ve already defined as communal purgatory); so in order to “save face” she had to say what was expected of her. The essay entitled Shame, Honor, and Duty really drives this point home:

Why does shame have to be avoided at all costs? In Japan, relationships between people are greatly affected by duty and obligation. In duty-based relationships, what other people believe or think has a more powerful impact on behavior than what the individual believes. Shame occurs through others’ negative feelings towards you or through your feelings of having failed to live up to your obligations…but in Japanese culture, shame cannot be removed until a person does what society expects

~Takako McCrann, Ph.D.


Takuan Amaru is the author of Gaikokujin – The Story

Nippon Series 14: Why are Japanese so Strange?

Takuan Amaru

Japan is a strange country

~Jonathon Rice, author of Behind the Japanese Mask

As a child growing up in the United States, I got teased more than once due to my mother being Japanese. I’ll never forget the time my friend, Terrence, and I went to my house for some ice cream. As I was getting the ice cream out of the freezer, Terrence shrieked in terror. fish truckTaken totally by surprise, I looked at the shelf above the ice cream to where he was pointing and, to my dismay, spotted a frozen octopus. To make matters worse, the very next day—while Terrence just happened to be walking down my street—a big truck drove around the corner and parked in our driveway. Reading the words “Fresh Fish” written above the image of a salmon being scooped into a net, I cringed knowing that this was just another example of something which only occurred at my house. While we’re on the topic allow me to mention that, aside from the truck that came to our house, to this day, I’ve never seen a seafood home-delivery service. Have you? 

The next week, at school, when Terrence yelled “Freeeshh Fiiish” down the hallway—making sure to stretch each word in a sarcastic tone—followed by my friends busting-out laughing, I imagined he had told everyone about both the ice cream incident and the truck. “Oh, you wanna crack jokes?” I said after walking up to him and the rest of my friends. And then I proceeded to make the same mistake I always made in this situation. Being a confident kid who was blessed with the gift of gab when it came to playing “the Dozens,” I repeatedly fell into the trap of trying to defend Japan by talking about weird things Americans do. Talk about a bad strategy! Why, you ask? Because this always led to what I call “Ching-chong” jokes. fu-manchuThe subject-matter for this type of satire encompasses all Asian stereotypes but usually centers on something “China-like,” such as movies with Jackie or Charlie Chan, or even Fu-Manchu. Suffice to say, they really used to laugh-it-up at my expense. Back then, I would get angry knowing that the majority of their references were not even Japanese. That said, in 2019, when I reminisce on losing those battles with my buddies, I count my blessings none of this occurred during the Age of the Internet when they would have had access to actual facts and visuals on Japan that really are embarrassing! Facts like back in 2016 when Godzilla was granted citizenship in Tokyo; and visuals such as Japanese eating what appears to be live squid while the tentacles are still moving. This spectacle really seems to freak westerners out. Another Japanese favorite that bewilders me—and I know some may disagree—is this irrational obsession with all things “kawaii.” I am specifically referring to the ever-expanding horde of furry mascots which make appearances at local events, shrines, festivals, or even on television. Many people look at me sideways for what they consider to be condemning Japan’s Kawaii Culture. “What’s wrong with a person falling in-love with his or her own conception of cuteness?” one of my students responded on behalf of the animated creatures. And I agree with this sentiment to a point; so let’s unpack this.

mascot citizen

The Mayor of Shiki City presents “Kapal” with a special resident’s card.

Perhaps it’s harmless to be infatuated with over-sized munchkins if you’re still in elementary school but these fuzzy characters are more beloved and adored by adults than children. And this fascination with childishness, in my opinion, lends itself to more debased, juvenile-related idiosyncrasies such as Lolicom, which is the Japanese abbreviation for the “Lolita complex.” This is the term for Manga and Anime featuring sexually explicit images of children. Lolicom can involve extreme violence, rape, and incest; therefore it’s not hard to link it with the social pathology known as Chikan 痴漢チカン, or ちかん. This is the act of being sexually fondled / raped in public by strangers. So at the end of the day I guess it’s true: Japan is indeed a weird place to live.

Want to be Japanese?

Back in junior-high school, as I was experiencing the teenage challenges associated with adolescence, I vowed to return to Japan later in life—foolishly believing, at that time, I would’ve been able to escape peer pressure had I lived with my cousins. Therefore, when I finally did arrive, similar to some expats and Japanophiles, I had unrealistic, starry-eyed visions of totally relinquishing western culture and immersing myself in Japanese society. For anyone from the western hemisphere, the first impression of Japan can appear quite attractive for many reasons. At the top of the list has to be the clean, orderly streets and neighborhoods which, clean street japanfor the most part, are free of debris, criminals, and even homeless people. “The streets here are so clean that you can eat off the ground!” is how one American singer who lived in Shizuoka told me back in 1999. And this strong hygienic-ethic is upheld everywhere from parks and rivers, to public restrooms (even those in convenience stores and subway stations).police brutality In addition, for people sporting a melanin-rich hue like mine, it is reassuring to know that racial-profiling by police doesn’t come close to comparing with the U.S. or U.K. More importantly, even if I am stopped by five-oh, I’m not fearful of being attacked or killed when I reach for my I.D. or driver’s license. 

For years, I was lulled to sleep by my sanitary, shiny surroundings and the quiet, incident-free train rides to and from work. Then, one day, on my normal Osaka – Kyoto commute on the Keihan Railway (which has to be the slowest train in Japan), just as I was drifting off to sleep, an ‘a-ha moment’ hit me so hard I was suddenly jarred wide-awake. Removing my headphones, I noticed that aside from the public announcements and the jolting movements of the train as we glided down the tracks, like always, there was barely any noise at all. Japanese are reserved by nature—okay I get that—but on such a crowded train during rush hour it was too quiet. And like I said, it was always too damn quiet! I now realized that what I initially mistook for peace and tranquility was actually more comparable to the imposed silence and depression in a concentration camp. To confirm my theory, I glanced around at some of the other passengers from my seat⁠—even though I knew this was taboo. bullyAs soon as I committed this social gaffe everyone, it seemed, turned in my direction and trained their eyes on me. Although they only stared, I could’ve sworn they were at least pointing, if not spitting and hurling insults⁠—this is how much I felt their resentment. Suddenly, the incessantly repeating announcements instructing passengers to be quiet, and to put their cell-phones on manner-mode so as to “not bother anyone nearby,” sounded louder than ever. Feeling claustrophobic, I stood up and grabbed my bag before navigating through the crowd toward the exit of the still-moving train. Although I did not feel physically threatened, I was now painfully aware of the severe level of anxiety around me. It felt like I was suffocating so I just wanted to change locations. After finding a vacant area near the door, I leaned back, took a deep breath, and just stared out the window as blurred images of houses, parking lots, and pachinko parlors whizzed by.

From that day onward I’ve been keenly aware of an intangible cloud of depression, despair, and loneliness that hovers over Japan. Despair-and-DiscouragementUnlike in the Americas, where life’s challenges are so tangible and direct they might slap you in the face (i.e. police brutality or getting mugged), Japan is a world of illusion: nothing is ever what it appears to be. Many issues that seem insignificant due to their passive, kawaii packaging may be, in reality, as constant and never-ending as the “Chinese Water Torture.” For example, Japanese are inundated with simple obligations such as exchanging winter-holiday greetings called Nenkajo (年賀状), or buying Omiyage (お土産), which are souvenirs for friends and co-workers while on a trip. From these descriptions, both customs seem like nothing more than amicable gestures. That is until one realizes they are obligatory—not optional. And furthermore, there are several times a year when etiquette dictates the exchange of gifts—not just on New Years and the occasional business trip. Again, it cannot be emphasized enough how Japanese constantly feel pressure to fulfill a plethora of responsibilities. To do otherwise would be to lose face. And since these duties to their family, company, school, or even town are persistent and without end, over a period of time, they have a tendency to wear down even the strongest wills.

Daily Life = Stress Overload

Over the years, some of my private English lessons have gradually morphed into something closer to psychotherapy consultations. I imagine these counseling sessions, which have been occurring more frequently as of late, have less to do with my experience as a social worker and more about the fact that most Japanese don’t feel comfortable enough to discuss (Japanese) issues with either people who they believe know nothing about their culture, i.e. foreigners, or those who are fully-integrated into their society, i.e. a born-and-bred Japanese. It seems I am regarded as being somewhere in the middle. One of these students, a married woman in her late-30s, told me that whenever her husband goes on business trips she is required to spend a couple hours each day with her mother-in-law. Although it is done under the pretext of helping her husband’s mother with cooking, cleaning, shopping, etc., the woman told me she knows it’s just an excuse for the mother-in-law to be nosy and to keep an eye on her. While it’s true that over-bearing mother-in-laws are not unique to Japan, I’ve never heard of them (across the board) wielding so much power. In addition, the same lady oftentimes complains about the numerous Shinto or Buddhist rites that fall on certain days which, in addition to a financial contribution, also require a visit to a consecrated place like a shrine or temple. To be honest, for over a year, I wrote her off as nothing more than a whiner, especially when one of her distant relatives died and she was moaning about the Buddhist ceremonies called Shonanoka (初七日) and Shijūkunichi (四十九日), which are rituals held on the 7th and the 49th day after the death. But then, I began to reflect on how any extra obligations she incurs are in addition to her 8-hour work day as an OL (Office Lady); and since her husband has a 10 – 14 hour work-day—plus mandatory drinking parties after-work—it is just as hectic for him too. —cŽ™‚Qlæ‚é“d“®Ž©“]ŽÔAlthough women normally have a shorter work-day and fewer after-work responsibilities than men, this is only because it is understood they have housewife duties waiting at home which include picking-up and rearing the children all by herself. In Nippon Series 9, we examined some of the consequences of surviving in such a stressful environment such as karoshi (death from overwork), jisatsu (suicide), and hikikomori (vagabond hermitage); so in this edition we shall examine a few of the unique and—I might as well just say it—weird ways Japanese choose to combat their own feelings of isolation and stress. 

Rent-A-Family (レンタル家族)

It’s extremely strange to me that people would want to rent families, and even more surprising that they seem to be satisfied

~Dr. Takeshi Sato, Sociology professor, Hitotsubashi University.

A Rental Family Service  or Professional Stand-In Service sends actors to spend time with their clients. Normally, the actors go the client’s home; but occasionally they attend social events such as weddings or other public ceremonies. Since the actors portray the client’s family members, friends, or coworkers, this allows the client to exist in a temporary, superficial world of illusion where they have positive relationships and are the center of attention. “I suppose people nowadays really find the need for kinship. rent-a-weddingCompared to 50 years ago, the family system in Japan has really changed, and family-like relationships are gradually disappearing,” commented Dr. Sato in an attempt to explain this phenomenon. Since these services started popping up during the early 1990s, by now, many people have gotten used to them. For this reason, it seems, Japan felt the need to move the “strangeness bar” up a notch higher; and low and behold, they did it with their newly introduced, “Do-Nothing Services.” Called レンタルなんもしない人」 or just 「何もしないを職業」 in Japanese,  these agencies send people to clients just like the rental-family-services; however unlike the previously mentioned establishments, these employees are paid to do nothing except show up—that’s right absolutely nothing. They literally just stand next to, or sit with, the client and do nothing except provide quiet company; they don’t even talk! How lonely does a person have to be before they start contemplating on hiring a complete stranger to accompany them to the mall? Or sit across from them (quietly) in a coffee shop? For those who have never lived here, it’s almost impossible to understand to the degree in which Japanese have been indoctrinated with a “group-only” mentality. Put another way, an individual has very little value in this society; his/her worth is equivalent to the reputation of their family, school, company, or other affiliation.

Some stress-release systems which are not so odd but may only have a real foothold in Japan are Host/Hostess Clubs, Kyabakura キャバクラ」, “Snack” スナックbars, and the newly popular Aiseki-izakayas 相席居酒屋 」. All of these are varying levels (as far as price and quality) of lounges where clients pay to be catered to by the opposite sex. Established in the late 1960s, even before the Economic “Bubble” (in the 80s) this type of entertainment had already become a staple of Tokyo nightlife. Everyone I spoke with agreed that nowadays these clubs are so widespread they are considered a custom or tradition among Sararimen. If you are interested in further details there is so much information available on the first three clubs, but not so much on the newest kid on the block. Aiseki-izakayas are pubs where people who are seeking a romantic partner are paired with a complete stranger of the opposite sex.  Over simple dishes and alcoholic beverages, the two talk and get to know each other.

Evidently there is a fortune to be made by capitalizing on the loneliness and isolation that many Japanese feel. For a nation obsessed with group ethics, Japanese pay top-dollar to escape the rigid parameters they impose on themselves and each other. This feeling of being trapped, in many cases, leads to forms of entertainment which satisfy the lower, more base (and oftentimes concealed) desires—especially in the sex industry.

Cuddle Cafes

The first Cuddle Cafes opened in Tokyo in 2012. Called Soine-ya 「ソイネ屋」, which in Japanese literally means “sleep-together shop,” these venues provide male customers the opportunity to sleep next to a beautiful woman for a fee. According to one article I found about shops in Akihabara, Tokyo, prices range from a 20-minute nap for ¥3,000 ($38 USD) to a 10-hour full-night-sleep package for ¥50,000 ($640 USD). cuddle cafeHowever, there are options as well. If you want to choose which girl you want to sleep with, it is an additional 1,000 plus another 500 for each hour. Moreover, if you want to sleep on the girl’s lap, that’s another 1,000; and if you want her to sleep on your lap, the price doubles to 2,000. Although the sites I perused emphatically state there is no sexual activity occurring, when you look at some of the available choices such as stroking the girl’s hair, staring in each other’s eyes for 1 minute, or giving/receiving special types of caressing—plus the women are attired in panties and sexy nightgowns—it is beyond my understanding how this does not lead to intercourse.

Creepy or curious – you decide. It’s undoubtedly weird, however. 

~Nicci Martel

Hentai Comics

From a young age, I was exposed to Shunga art from the Japanese magazines lying around our house; so I knew that compared to Caucasians, Japanese had a much more liberal perspective on sex and the (naked) human body. hentai comicsThat said, the porn industry in Japan is a dark, vast, bottomless pit which goes deeper than the average person can imagineway down into a diabolical, hellish realm which can only be described with adjectives like obsceneghoulish, or even macabre. For this reason, we are only going to skim the surface of this topic. By now (from the Internet), we should all be aware that what may be considered nasty, lewd, or indecent to some is sure to be described by others as suggestive, seductive…even erotic. The word Hentai is composed of two a kanji characters: 「変」 , meaning weird, and 「態」, meaning appearance or condition, i.e. perversion. Although perverts are not limited to Japan, many of the images in these comics / anime are rarely, if ever, seen in western erotica. While Japanese (Tatamae) identifies Hentai Comics as “strange,” the real deal (Honne) is sexploitation thrives here like nowhere else in the world. Here are a few of the more popular fetishes from a very long list.

  • Shibari縛り」 is a Japanese word that literally means “to tie decoratively.” It is a Japanese form of BDSM (bondage, discipline, dominance and submission) using ropes. Basically, it is a form of sadomasochism.
  • Bukkake 「ぶっかけ」 is the act of having sex in which one participant is ejaculated on by two or more other participants. Although this, in and of itself, is not so strange by western standards, for it to be so popular in comics is bizarre.
  •  Gokkun「ゴックン」 is sexual activity in which a person consumes the semen of multiple men, usually from some kind of container.
  • Omorashi 「おもらし / オモラシ / お漏らし」 is arousal from wetting yourself; or watching someone else do so.
  • Shokushu Goukan 「触手強姦」 Since the translation of this is “Tentacle Violation,” “Tentacle Erotica” or “Tentacle Rape,” I’ll let you use your imagination for a description; nevertheless one question needs to be asked: what’s up with Japanese and octopus?

As I mentioned before, thank God my friends had not known about Hentai Comics back when they were making fun of that octopus in my freezer!


Becoming aware of the skyrocketing levels of stress and anguish lead to understanding why Japanese are so desperate for human contact. weird japan food.jpgThere’s a saying: “Everything is okay in moderation.” However the strict, unforgiving rules in their world provide neither the time nor the luxury for sober self-restraint. This is because what is demanded of Japanese on daily basis almost forces them, in their few moments of free-time, to seek extreme methods to release their frustration. And it’s this type of desperation which sows the seeds for the weird sexual fetishes and other pathological behaviors which abound in Japan. It is also worth noting there is a large amount of research to substantiate the idea that problematic pornography use correlates with psychological problems such as depression and anxiety. I am not here to impose moral judgment on what is, or isn’t, an appropriate form of recreation but, rather, to direct attention to both the source and the consequences of the issue at hand. Recently, at a Me Too” rally in Tokyo, a woman named Ms. Wakana Goto perfectly expressed my point: “In Japan, with its reputation as one of the world’s safest countries, I have been exposed to sexual harassment since the age of three, forced to get used to it, and to learn to deal with it.”

Takuan Amaru is the author of Gaikokujin-the Story.

Nippon Series 13: Key to the Japanese Code is knowing “the Script”

behind mask
Takuan Amaru

Having taught in Japan for a number of years at various institutions, which includes schools, universities, and even the popular Eikaiwas (language-conversation schools), a common question I get from non-Japanese teachers is: “Why do Japanese call you by your last name?” Some even phrase it as: “How did you get them (Japanese) to call you Amaru-sensei instead of by your first-name?” In addition to this they are usually curious as to why Japanese communicate with me in their language instead of English. Since many westerners only speak in their native tongue some naturally assume it has to do with my Japanese-ability. Well, considering that I’m far from fluent, I assure you this is not the case. Perhaps these people should just be more upfront and ask what they really want to know, which is: How are you able to circumvent the Japanese Code?

Until about 10 years ago, I used to respond to this question very frankly; but I stopped doing so because, simply put, nobody believed my answer. Therefore, I concluded, the best way to respond (if I reply at all) is to encourage people to use their common-sense.

Code of Ethics

For a Japanese person who deals with a non-Japanese on a daily basis in any type of professional relationship—especially a westernerthere are systematic rules of conduct. Perhaps at the top of the list is NOT speaking to them in Japanese, but instead in English (the Figurative Eigo-hoe mentioned in the 9th edition is a great example of this). And be forewarned, it doesn’t matter if the person is from a country that doesn’t speak English such as France, Germany, or Italy because Japanese are trained that all foreigners speak English. Another tenet which is followed closely is to address foreign teachers by their first names plus the honorific sensei, which means teacher. However for Japanese teachers the last name plus sensei is used, which corresponds with the western custom of using Mr. / Ms. (or Professor) plus the last name. Hmm, let’s think for a moment: if students in the U.S. or Canada, as a rule across the board, insisted on calling their foreign-language teachers by their first names, would this be considered disrespectful (if not discriminatory)?

Can you imagine addressing your  high-school, Spanish teacher as ‘Mr. Jose’ instead of ‘Mr. Gonzalez?’

Saving Face is a Component of Tatemae

Although every nation instructs their youth on what is, and what is not, acceptable behavior, I believe many westerners would be shocked if they understood the amount of time and effort the average Japanese spends (not to mention all the counseling from elders) learning how to avoid committing any sort of social gaffe which might result in embarrassment or public humiliation—which just means learning how to save face. two masks“It’s been pounded into us so hard it has become instinct,” explained Morimoto-sensei who, in addition to being a Buddhist priest, also taught History at a school where I worked. According to him, this inclination has become so natural…so ingrained in the mind of every Japanese he compared it to “a program which is constantly running in the background of our psyche.” You may be wondering, where is all this “pounding” into the psyche taking place? The answer is everywhere; but perhaps most importantly at school. If truth be told, teaching students how to function in society—not academic studies—is the main theme of both public and private schools in Japan. While students do attend classes on math, science, geography, etc.the actual nuts and bolts of the teaching occurs in after-school lessons called Gakushu Juku (学習塾), or simply “Juku.” I was confused as to why so much emphasis was being placed on training youngsters on how to function in society until Morimoto-sensei explained that the ability to “save face” is the basis of all Japanese interactions, which includes relationships. Unlike in western culture, where children are encouraged to think independently, Japanese are taught from pre-school not to “rock the boat.” It must be noted that although maintaining the harmony, known as Wa (和), is indispensable to navigate through life’s daily challenges, it is virtually impossible to maintain “Wa” in all situations; therefore behavior is constantly being policed in various ways by the greater society. Some of this reinforcement is as subtle as people simply staring at whoever is deemed to be coloring outside the lines, which is the same as a “glitch in the matrix.” 

Only 1 Correct Way

Seiza (正座) is translated as the “correct or proper way of sitting.” Since Japanese are instructed there is only one correct way to do things, by default, this means all other forms of sitting are incorrect. Although this is just one example, please be aware this extends to every life activity; so there is a “correct way” to eat, walk, sleep, have your hair cut, so on and so forth.  Geisha seizaA writer / world traveler that I had the pleasure of chopping-it-up with last year in New Zealand, David Leberknight, told me about 20 years ago he worked as a systems-engineer in Tokyo and, during that time, he noticed that Japanese tend to live by what he described as a “(pre-ordained) script.” While he explained his theory, a bell rang in my head as I realized the script he referred to was equivalent to learning the “correct” and “proper” way to respond or behave in EVERY situation. Please understand, if this is true, it suggests that anyone who has a copy of the script can learn how to avoid any unpleasant situation—including being treated as a gaijin. Now this is where I may have an advantage. Even though I never met my (biological) grandparents due to both my folks being shunned by their families for marrying outside their race, like many in need, I was fortunate to meet others who stepped in to fill the void. One such man, who I revere as a grandfather figure, told me as a boy: “Never allow Japanese to call you gaijin.” Moreover, he also warned me not to accept any of the discrimination which accompanies such a designation. According to him, it was okay for whites to be labeled ‘gaijin’ because, in his own words: “those bastards dropped atomic bombs on usbut not on Germany!”

Japanese vs. Gaijin

For every Japanese (whether they admit it or not) there are only two types of people: Japanese and foreigners. A possible third choice is the biracial label, Hafu, which has gained some popularity in the media with the rise of numerous biracial entertainers/athletes including, Naomi Osaka and Rui Hachimura.Rui_Hachimura_with_Japan_(2018) I have never chosen this tag to describe myself for reasons I won’t explain here. That said, it’s a complete slap in the face for me to be classified with gaijin by my Japanese brethren. This is totally unacceptable. So have you figured out how to trump the code yet? If not, you haven’t been paying close attention because I have given all the clues but you have to use some wit and common-sense to piece the fragments together.

If there is a “correct” way to be Japanese—a code so to speak—then all one must do is follow the code. If done correctly, no matter by whom, any Japanese person is forced to comply accordingly or  lose face, which can result in being ostracized by the members of their group. So yes, believe it or not, native born-and-bred Japanese can be marginalized just like a foreigner. This is on-par with how conservative Caucasians have been known to stigmatize liberals with the label “N-gg-r-lover” if they become too radical. Is cracking the code easy to accomplish? Of course not. In addition to memorizing the script and attaining some competency in the language, the ability to access a certain frequency—a Japanese frequency—is also necessary. For more details on these factors plus much more, please stay tuned for the book: Modern Japan—decoded!

how to be japTakuan Amaru is the author of the trilogy, Gaikokujin – the Story.

Nippon Series 12: Is Japan a Dangerous Country?

danger country

Takuan Amaru

From 2002-2008, I was a teacher at a private high school in Kyoto, Japan. One winter, I had the pleasure of traveling to Brazil to celebrate Carnaval. Upon my return, I was excited to recount my experience because I knew the teachers and students assumed I had went to Rio de Janeiro. However my friends and I were interested in Afro-Brazilian culture; therefore we decided to go to Bahia. Located along the northeast seaboard nearest to the west coast of the African continent, Bahia became the first established port in the Americas for the importation of goods from Africa which, of course, included kidnapped Africans.

Loaded down with all types of souvenirs and memorabilia, I remember stumbling into the classroom ten minutes early to set-up the slide-show. Nevertheless, all this effort turned out to be a waste of time as no one was the least bit interested in learning about the African nuances embedded in Brazilian culture. Instead, it seemed, the students only wanted to discuss the dangers of life in Brazil. “Weren’t you afraid?” one boy asked. “Did you see anyone get killed?” asked another girl next to him.

Feeling disappointed that no one wanted to hear about my trip, I decided to disagree with them, at any cost. “Afraid?” I retorted in feigned surprise. “Afraid of what? If you think about it,” I said, looking at the boy. “Brazil’s not nearly as dangerous as Japan.” Again, I said this just to be disagreeable. Brasil carnaval policeI only wanted to rattle the students a little about their beloved country before telling them the truth; which was that we did see our share of violence—mostly from the police patrolling the festivities. Walking in single-file with tonfas strapped to their belts, these stormtroopers would beat anyone who they deemed looked suspectFor this reason, as you can probably imagine, my anxiety level skyrocketed once I heard a voice which I knew belonged to the vice-principal.

“Amaru-sensei, he uttered in response to my comparison between Brazil and Japan, “what do you mean? Can you give us an example?”

Hastily turning my head toward the sound of his voice, only then did I realize in addition to Kyoto-sensei, three other teachers had entered the room. Although I recalled inviting the entire staff to observe my lesson about Brazil in the chorei (morning meeting), since I was just practicing tatamae, I never  expected anyone to actually show up. Feeling more than a little nervous and put on the spot, I was just about to concede that I was joking when a thought suddenly took hold of my mind. Hiki-komori,” I blurted out without thinking.

This was met with dead-silence. From my vantage point, it appeared the students and staff were taking their cues on how to respond from the vice-principal’s reaction. For this reason, I exhaled a sigh of relief when the vice-principal started nodding his head in agreement. Seeing this emboldened me to speak further as the murmurs of thirty-plus students circulated around the room. “And of course, we can add jisatsu (suicide), karoshi (death from overwork), and just general ijime (bullying) into the mix. All of these are “special dangers” which are pretty much unique to Japan. So yeah, there’s some danger when traveling to (so-called) developing countries; however, since it’s ‘obvious danger’ that everyone knows about,” saying this, I began tapping an index-finger against my right temple, ” by using your common-sense it can be eliminated.

“What do you mean?” asked the same girl from the first row.

“Yumiko-san, there are many methods designed to stop criminals from entering your space, right?” I paused to encourage Yumiko to think on her own. “Burglar alarms, guard-dogs, security cameras, or just simply calling for help. This type of danger—which is basically what you face in Brazil—comes from criminals who are outside but,” pausing here I looked around the room, “the danger in Japan is different—it’s much more lethal because the criminal attacking you is inside so no one can help you, not even the police.”

“Inside what?” inquired the boy next to her, Masafumi, as if it was his turn to speak.

Before I could respond, Kyoto-sensei interjected on my behalf. “Inside of you, Masafumi-kun.” While saying this, he walked toward the front of the room. “Amaru-sensei is saying that here, in Japan, we have shown the tendency of becoming our own worst enemy…sometimes even becoming our own murderer.” Now standing next to me, he turned to face the students. “And he is absolutely correct.” Flabbergasted that Kyoto-sensei would agree with me on such a controversial issue, I was almost at a loss for words to answer his next question. “Amaru-sensei,” he began, “it is said that Japan is among the safest countries in the world. What is your opinion?”

My natural impulse was to agree. After all, compared to any country I’d lived in, Japan is the cleanest, most harmonious, and the most crime-free. Nevertheless, something about this blanket statement did not sit right with me and I knew what it was. Put simply Japan isn’t safe! In fact, it’s fraught with countless dangers which are unique to the tiny, island-nation. While many believe that external danger in the form of thieves, police brutality, corruption, gang violence, muggings, etc. pose the greatest threat, I would argue that the “pressure-cooker” internal variety, which gradually drives people insane and encourages the victim to abuse him/herself is much more menacing. Again use your common sense, we’re talking about being overloaded with stress; and not only is stress legal, it’s actually sanctioned by society.

Modern Japan

The financial assistance provided to Japan by the U.S. following World War II led to the Bubble Economy of the 1980s. As Japanese society modernized from a rural, agricultural society into the era of technology, one of the consequences was forcing men away from their homes to work long hours as a salaryman. Not only did this severely limit interaction with their children, but in addition, according to Dr. Henry Grub of Maryland University, these white-collar positions “took away the skills which gave men any prestige in their children’s eyes.” The fact this occurred simultaneously with a sharp increase in single-child families cannot be overstated. In essence, women have been left at home to cope with a child all by themselves; and, in too many cases, this has led to an estranged, isolated situation for the mother and child—especially when the child is a boy. Having no siblings to practice social skills, plus the lack of a male role-model in the home (to enforce rules), has led to various societal phenomena.

Kyōiku mama (教育ママ)

This Japanese pejorative term, which literally translates as “education mother,” is a stereotyped figure in modern Japanese society. This strong-willed mother is portrayed as a woman who relentlessly drives her child to study—to the detriment of the child’s social, physical, and emotional development.kyoikumama Similar to other cultures’ stereotypes of self-sacrificing, strict mothers who coerce their children to success such as the Chinese Tiger Mother, or the American Stage Mother, the Kyoiku mama is feared and resented by her children and has been blamed (by the media) for medical issues including bronchial asthma, stammering, poor appetite, and proneness to bone fractures, not to mention mental-health issues such as school phobias, youth suicides, and even the advent of perhaps the greatest social menace of the 21st Century: the Hikikomori.

(In Japan) A person’s value is contingent upon their ability to conform to the norms of society. However, hikikomori are unable to conform; therefore they feel completely useless

~ Teppei Sekimizu

Hikikomori (引きこもり)

Literally translating as “pulling inward, being confined,” this acute mental condition results in a complete withdrawal away from people. These societal recluses, which include both Japanese youth as well as the middle-aged, have been estimated in excess of a million people. Until recently, although hikikomori may have been embarrassments to their families, they were pretty much viewed as harmless. Nonetheless, in the spring of 2019, in the wake of some tragic murders which occurred in the Tokyo area, public opinion has been changing concerning this mental-health kills son Hideaki Kumazawa, a 76-year-old retired bureaucrat from the Agriculture Ministry, stabbed his 44-year-old son, Eiichiro, to death. Mr. Kumazawa claimed it was his duty to kill his son in order to prevent another violent outbreak such as the one which occurred on May 28, in Kawasaki City. On that fateful morning, a 57-year-old man—who was alleged to be hikikomori—stabbed 17 people, resulting in 2 deaths before also killing himself. Since then, hikikomori in their 40s and 50s (with parents in their 70s and 80s), have been a target for media attention. Dr. Carla Ricci, an anthropologist and researcher at the Department of Clinical Psychology at the University of Tokyo, searched for hikikomori in Italy and discovered a case in the southern part of the country. Since Italians are not known for having a stressful work society, she searched for something else the two countries shared in common. Dr. Ricci claims that, similar to Japan, Italian households tend to be matriarchal. Could the pressure exacted by overbearing Japanese mothers be to blame for millions of socially inept offspring who may later develop violent behavior?

Mind Playing Tricks

Voices in my head

Many of us have no problem going on vacation (or living) in urban areas with high crime rates like NYC, London, or Paris as long as we stay in buildings equipped with gates, alarms, and security-cameras. Once inside our locked doors we feel pretty safe. However, what if the stress of this world became so greatso unbearablethat you started hearing voices telling you to kill yourself? How could you possibly hope to protect yourself from yourself?

I’ve had the pleasure to teach and coach sports in more than a few schools and universities throughout Japan. Overall, my teaching experience has been very rewarding; however in every school where I worked, at some point, there was talk about a student (or teacher) who was contemplating suicide. Many people know that Japan has a special relationship with suicide, but most are unaware to what extent. Let’s put it like this: if there are less than 30,000 suicides committed annually, Japan considers this a good year. 30,000 deaths! In 2014, it was reported that, on average, 70 people committed suicide every day! Please understand that ritualized death has been historically woven into the fabric of Japanese society, therefore there are various categories and some of them are considered honorable.

Death Culture

japan seppuku

According to the late author/actor, Yukio Mishima, who disemboweled himself in what is probably the most publicized suicide in Japanese history, seppuku (切腹) differs from “the western concept of suicide.” Originally reserved for samurai families, eventually it became a method for people of any class to restore honor for themselves or their family. Most people are aware of the Kamikaze pilots during World War II who became renowned for crashing their planes into the enemy ships. In addition to seppuku, there are several death-ritual categories not commonly found outside of Japan such as shidoshi (指導死), which is students who kill themselves as a result of teachers being too strict; or karoshi (過労死), which is death from overwork. Another popular category is Shinjū (心中), which are suicide pacts formed among individuals. Nowadays, the victims are usually strangers but traditionally, especially in the bunraku puppet theaters of the 17th century, this final-act was undertaken by two people bound by love—typically lovers or parent and child. The more contemporary version, which may include more than two people, has become so popular it has been dubbed “Internet Group Suicide.” 

suicide_clubThese people share in common a longing to end the suffering called life; and therefore, they vow to end theirs together at the same time, using the same method. The ever-increasing popularity of these pacts have resulted in the rise of famous “suicide areas” where police constantly patrol in an attempt to catch victims before they can fulfill their grim objectives. A forest at the base of Mount Fuji, called Aokigahara, reported 247 suicide attempts in 2010. Another such site in Fukui Prefecture, Tōjinbō, is a series of cliffs along the Sea of Japan. Legend claims that a Buddhist priest named Tōjinbō was disliked by the townspeople so much they threw him off the 70-foot-high cliffs and his spirit still haunts the area. Yukio Shige, a retired police officer, took it upon himself to patrol the cliffs, and in 2015 reported that his efforts saved over 500 lives. Railroad tracks have become such a common place for suicide that in an attempt to decrease incidents, Japanese railroad companies have installed chest-high track barriers as well as blue-tinted lights which are intended to calm people’s moods. As a further deterrent, there is a hefty fine to be paid by the surviving family members of anyone who commits suicide by laying down on the tracks for “the disruption of service.”


As I collected information for this article, I checked out several suicide-prevention websites. Each of them preached the same window-dressing remedies of education, investing in research, and communication; but nothing addressed the huge, nasty elephant in the room. No one wants to assign blame to, nor shoulder any responsibility for (their participation in), a sick, biased society…a death culture. Acute social-withdrawal is not temperamental shyness but, rather, it’s a marked change in which an individual used to be engaged with family and friends and, due to some form of trauma, she/he suddenly decides to withdraw away from people. Dr. Thomas Joiner, author of Why People Diecalls this “an inward gaze of bemused resignation and resolution.”

Understanding there are virtually no ghettos or slum areas in Tokyo or Osaka, it’s easy to compare Japan’s Hikikomori crisis with the homeless situation in most western countries; both have turned away from society and both are seen as pariahs. What could be so traumatizing about the society in a (so-called) developed country that it results in millions of people throwing in the towel and giving up?

Hmm, I think that brings us back to the stinky elephant in the room.



Note: This is only one of topics that will be covered (in more detail) in the upcoming book: Modern Japan—decoded!

Takuan Amaru is the author of the trilogy, Gaikokujin – The Story.




Thomas Joiner, Why People Die by Suicide (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2006).

Nippon Series 11: To be…or not to be “Gaijined”

Takuan Amaru

As I waited for my friends in front of Yagoto Station, a middle-aged Japanese man approached. Just seconds earlier, as I crossed the street, I noticed him standing with three others outside the Aeon shopping center. The reason the foursome stood out was because they were staring in my direction as if they were targeting me. “Ha-ro, oodju rai-ku somu tishoo?” the man politely asked.Jap Man_handing_out_Advertising_Tissues Due to the fact that my mother, like this gentleman, spoke English using phonetically Japanese-sounding syllabary, I plainly understood he was offering me a complimentary pack of tissue. In Japan, this is the method-of-choice for many organizations who wish to advertise their business, event, or even humanitarian cause. The pack of tissue will either have whatever they’re promoting printed on the package itself or, in addition to the tissue, these solicitors might hand passersby a flyer too.

Turning in the direction of the voice, I acknowledged the man’s well-mannered offer with a smile—but never uttered a word; nor did I even glance in the direction of the hand offering the package of tissue. After taking a few steps away from the stranger, I reached for my phone to see if either of my friends had texted me. As I did so, another gentleman from among the quartet ambled up to me. “Ha-ro, how ah yoo?” It took a second or two to verify there were no messages before I looked up and made eye-contact with the blue-suited man extending a pack of tissue in my direction. Seeing me standing there just smiling back at him, his overbearing confidence seemed to take a hit. “Doo yu rai-ku tisshoo?”

Fortunately, before this stand-off could escalate any further, my friends pulled up to the curb in a brown, Honda CR-V. “Taku!” shouted Sayako from the passenger-seat as Ryo rolled down his window and apologized for being late (even though they were tardy by less than a minute). “Okurete-gomen-ne.” Before turning to leave, I glanced at the man holding the tissue one last time—just long enough to notice that his previous smile had now been replaced with a look of sheer astonishment.

Civilians on a Military Garrison

Japanese are notorious for “borrowing” other countries’ refinements and turning them into cultural specialties. J-Pop, ramen, baseball, and curry are examples of how Japanese pick and choose certain aspects of other cultures only to give birth to their own version. Interestingly, it appears that to some degree, they have been able to apply this uncanny trait even to the system of racism/white nationalism. Although it is undeniable that the mainstream media has been whitewashed—especially in anime—many gaijin in Japan are surprised to find that while they may be revered on a superficial level, unlike other people of color, Japanese have not had the “white is right” mentality pounded into them. In other words they don’t regard Caucasians as the ultimate authority.

For gaijin living in Japan, their existence could be compared to a civilian visiting a military base: they’re acknowledged…kind of; but they are definitely insignificant in the overall scheme of things. Hence, gaijin are rarely taken seriously, being treated more as visitors no matter how long they have been living in Japan. In fact, one of the basic questions in the Gaijin Interview is: “How long are you planning to stay in Japan?” Or, it might be phrased: “When are you going back to your country?” Understanding the nuances of the Japanese Complex took some time and effort; nevertheless one of the rewards has been learning how to side-step the gaijin treatment. Mind you, this does not involve being rude, nasty, or unleashing any type of negative attitude, as those expressions only result in losing face; which, again is another character-flaw attributed to gaijin. In accordance to societal standards, I did precisely what any “normal person” would in a case of mistaken identity…I politely excused myself.

Not to be Gaijined

Gweilo (鬼佬), Toubob, Gringo, Cracka, and Pale-face are some of the derogatory terms that victims of racism/white supremacy all around the world use to label the invaders of their land—i.e. their oppressor. However, unlike these labels, Europeans do not seem to find the term “gaijin” to be offensive. Case in point, most westerners I meet in Japan—both black and white—are quick to refer to themselves as a gaijin. For this reason, I find it to be amusing when they show resentment if I declare that, unlike them, I am NOT a gaijin. In recent years, there have been some notable exceptions to previously accepted notions of “Who/what is Japanese?”

Nevertheless, in my opinion, this has little to do with why any melanin-rich person does not fit the description of a gaijin. We could never be gaijin for the same reasons we could never be gweilo, toubob, gringos or crackas. To put it more succinctly: gweilo are the cutthroat gangsters who forced opium onto the Chinese—which not only created hundreds of thousands of addicts but when the Chinese tried to resist, the British used this as an excuse to exterminate thousands more in the so-called, “Opium War.” The toubob are kidnappers, slave-traders and outright killers/rapists/pilferers of African lands, as are gringos and pale-faces to the Americas. Crackas are ones who crack the whip, not to mention divide and crack the unity among melanin-rich people. And, of course, we can never forget how gaijin dropped two atomic bombs on Nippon.

Please think about this the next time someone refers to you as a gaijin. Or, even more importantly, when you refer to yourself this way.

Note: This is one of the topics which will be covered in the upcoming book: Modern Japan—decoded!

Takuan Amaru is the author of the trilogy, Gaikokujin – The Story.