A case for Japanese ‘religion’

I recently participated in a Shinto festival, and also visited a couple of shrines and temples in the last couple of weeks. Autumn festivities are at their peak in Japan, with its four-seasons obsession, which to be fair is pretty well deserved. The seasons definitely are more noticeable than in Melbourne (then again, we have less contrast throughout the year there because you get so many every day). Autumn is pretty spectacular in Japan. They just need to change the wording from ‘we have four seasons in Japan’ to something more like ‘Japan’s seasons are marked, clearly defined and colourful.’

Being part of the autumn festival a few weeks back, I was really struck at how much fun it was, and how I strangely felt like a useful part of the community even though it was in a part of the prefecture I’d never seen before, almost entirely with people I’d never met. It was a small community festival, in which a mikoshi was carried on a designated route (marked out by little white flags) around the town, making stops at particular houses or empty lots to either give a blessing (is that the right word?) to the people living in the house, or to put the mikoshi down and give all the carriers a rest. Or sometimes both of these things.

At lots of the houses there was food and drink – snack foods, juice, tea and/or sake or beer. This was for the people doing the hard work of carrying the mikoshi around, and it really was hard work. But while we walked with it on our shoulders, there was singing, a kind of chant going on all the while and a flute player who walked ahead. Hard though it was, it was really quite fun. The trickiness of shaking it, or dipping it from side to side, was also exciting.

The exhilarating and difficult tilt that conveyed the blessing. Image taken by my friend Yayoi 🙂

For all the participants, the local shrine office supplied lunch – rice balls, lots of snack foods, tea and beer before setting off to pick up the mikoshi and then a hearty good-quality bento after the whole thing was finished.

I didn’t really know, when we went, what this festival was going to be. A friend had recommended it and I had friends staying, and they said they were happy to have a look. We showed up halfway through the thing and were surprised at how welcome we were. There weren’t enough big, strong people to carry the mikoshi easily so they wanted all the help they could get. It turned out there were another 3 foreigners there, all biggish American men. I wasn’t much use because compared to the men I wasn’t tall enough to effectively shoulder much of the weight, but I did my best anyway, and everyone’s efforts were appreciated – my tallest friend especially so.

As we were carrying this thing around, drinking sake at all the stops and getting gradually soaked through in the light rain that refused to let up, it occurred to me that I’d never heard of any events that were this much honest fun in Christianity or any religion I know of. I myself don’t, what’s the expression? subscribe to any organised religion, but Christianity is the one I have the most experience of, being a choir musician back in Australia. I have definitely had a lot of fun on choir camps, and enjoyed singing Bach or Faure or Mozart or whoever’s done a relevant Mass or Requiem, but through the activities I’ve sat through for those things, I felt something like a pressure or expectation of being converted sooner or later. I felt like a fraud sitting in the choir stand and standing up, sitting down at the right times and responding ‘And also with you.’ As a singer in a church choir once, I accidentally took communion without knowing that you have to have been baptised? Oops. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the embarrassment I felt when I realised.

After carrying this mikoshi around for a couple of hours though, everybody prayed (clap twice, bow twice, clap once), was blessed and received some ceremonial sake from an official man at the shrine. No induction, nor any future commitment, necessary or even considered. I actually tried to skip that bit because I wasn’t sure it was for ring-ins like me, and the other guy who prayed at the same time said ‘Hang on! You’ve got to go and have your blessing and sake.’

Have you ever seen people do this for a yearly event related to modern Christianity? Maybe in some parts of the world. Taken at Kishiwada Danjiri festival in Osaka, 2017.

The danjiri of the Kishiwada Danjiri festival I saw in September 2017.

In this Shinto business though, there’s no ‘God’ because it’s not a religion, so nobody tries to convert you (at least not in modern Shinto. It wasn’t always so, apparently! And these cultural activities are also largely historically limited to men. I’m not trying to say Japanese spirituality is without its problems). Or maybe there are lots of gods, as they see it. The Buddhism I’ve experienced in Japan is similarly welcoming and non-judgmental, with no proselytism. Again, Buddhism is not supposed to be a religion. And maybe that’s just it, that Shinto and Buddhism are not actually supposed to be religions, but some of the most exciting and enjoyable things I’ve seen and done in Japan have been based around shrines and temples. As far as I can tell, there’s no air of normal life and enjoyment stopping because of something being holy. Shinto and Buddhism seems more in touch with normal people. Normal people go to shrines and/or temples to pray at least once a year (at New Year) and at other times, for festivals – usually for fun, in the case of festivals, rather than any sense of obligation. On the other hand, reasons for a non-Christian to go to church in my personal experience in the West are:

  • garage sales
  • concerts/rehearsals I’m singing in
  • tourism (like going to cathedrals or Christmas plays in Europe)

And some of those are definitely fun, but not as much as heaving around a stack of bamboo and rice, singing and shouting while doing it, and drinking sake and eating fish cakes in a stranger’s backyard. Or watching almost-naked men tramp around in the snow, chanting and pouring icy water on themselves.

Sominsai, 蘇民祭 a.k.a. ‘naked festival.’ The kanji actually translates to something like ‘saving citizen festival.’ There are lots of naked festivals. This one was at Kokusekiji in Iwate, 2013. Image taken by my friend Frank.

I also want to note that Japanese temples and shrines tend to have a natural element to them, with peaceful gardens and beautiful grounds, in a way that is different to the Western churches I’ve seen. I can’t comment on other places of worship like synagogues or mosques, and I’m not trying to say other places of worship don’t have their own beauty or peace, nor that places are welcoming refuges for many, many people. I just wanted to take a minute to appreciate and share that nature is a huge part of Shinto and Japanese Buddhism, and that appeals to me.


The whirlpool

I may have mentioned this before, but it’s really noticeable for me recently. You know how posts on this blog are really rare in recent times? Well, that’s because of the whirlpool that has kind of sucked me in with the job I’m now doing.

Japanese society has particular ways that things are done. Roles are fairly set, and it’s easy to get locked into one from the outside – even if you don’t see yourself as fulfilling any particular role in society, if others see you and treat you as if you are, it can be easy to feel labelled or even caged by that. There’s a popular notion (that Youtube’s Kanadajin3 disputes) that a ‘foreigner’ can never become Japanese – you will always be seen as a foreigner. Of course that means different things for different people – for some people, foreigners are all handsome white men in their 20s who are big, loud and hilarious. (They may also be black and big, loud and hilarious. If they’re women of any Western-looking description they are either interesting, cute and/or hypersexualised.)  For some, they might be lower-class Asian migrants who do labour-type jobs like working in factories or harvesting oysters. Or maybe they are simply migrants from China or India doing engineering jobs with less prestige. For some, foreigners are Trump. For some they are amazing, magical people who can actually speak English or even another language!! as a means of communication. (For some, Trump is just that. An orange version.) And for some they’re just people.

Another role you can be is housewife. Obviously this is not limited to Japan, but a Japanese housewife generally cooks, cleans and looks after her husband and maybe his parents and/or her own, plus kids if they’ve got them. She manages the household finances, giving her husband a monthly (??) allowance he can use for going out with his mates, playing pachinko or whatever.  She can sleep and watch TV in between whatever she does for those she cares for, or she may have a part-time job.

Image: Hoshino Gen and Agaraki Yui in Nigeru wa Haji Da Ga Yaku Ni Tatsu, where her character is a professional housewife whose tasks are all specified in a contract.

Part-time workers are generally housewives and students.

There’s also an alternative world of people who change careers, like the guy who was once my hairdresser and the next time I met him was painting houses. You can go between being a housewife/part-time worker and a member of this alternative world.

Full-time workers are generally a different story. As I alluded to in the job-hunting post, being a company employee is pretty well a one-way lifetime commitment. If you never stray, you can get to the top of the ladder. In the school system, this means eventually being a school principal or maybe getting to the top of your section at the Board of Education. Ways you can stray include: Taking a break of longer than about 5 days for something that is not work-related (including illness – but maybe not including maternity leave); committing any sort of crime including taking money that’s been left in an ATM; having a tattoo/piercing that someone knows about; having lightened hair; suffering from mental illness, and other things. These are all things that make it hard to get a graduate job in the first place, and then if you do them after getting a job, you risk halting your progress up the corporate ladder.

As a full-time worker, if you leave a big company, you can’t get back in. Unless you want to be a generic ‘office worker’ – of which there are many. But if you are an engineer for Toyota and then you leave, it will be pretty difficult to get back in as an engineer, and other similar companies probably won’t hire you either in a similar role.

Another thing about full-time work in Japan is having ill-defined hours. Japan is pretty well-known for people working long hours and sleeping too little. The government knows it’s a problem that contributes to 過労死 karōshi (death from overwork) so they’ve brought in a rule that big companies adhere to of No Overtime Wednesdays. Apparently when it was brought in, lots of teachers started complaining that now they wouldn’t be able to finish all their work. Anyway karōshi is a pretty famous social issue in Japan. As well as no overtime Wednesdays, the country is at least nominally trying to do something to change Japanese working culture.

The reason I’m writing about this now is my renewed awareness of it, due to my own work situation. Until 7 months ago, working in Japan, I’d been sheltered by my alternative, foreign position of being an ALT contracted out to public schools for regulated hours. Most schools don’t expect ALTs to work the same hours as other teachers. It’s a kind of unique position in that there’s usually only one in the school and you  might not be at that school every day – so it has an element of mystery for the other full-time teachers in the schools. Most schools also have other part-time or contract workers doing various work like counselling or assisting particular students or other teachers. So, while I was living the ALT life with all its random moments and frustration, I was also protected by my unique role.

In my new job, I’m a full-time teacher in an international educational institution.  The full-time contract requires me to work ‘at least’ a certain number of hours, but there is no maximum and there’s no provision for paid overtime. There is no pay for working beyond that number of hours. The minimum number of hours equates to about 40 hours a week, but all the full-time teachers work more like 10-12 hours a day. There’s a lot to do, and being new and not knowing lots of things I’m not very efficient so things sometimes take longer than they should. After a bad couple of weeks where I was feeling really over it a few weeks back, I decided I wasn’t going to stay after 8pm more than once a week and I’ve been more or less able to stick to that. I guess it’s what you call a toxic environment where everyone’s just there all the time and it’s completely normalised. The solution in this job for me, I think, is to get more efficient and just finish things and go home earlier, so that I can have my life back and start doing stuff like taking care of my body and having hobbies again. But I’m lucky that as a non-Japanese person, if I decide I’m not up for this kind of situation, there’s another country I can go to where you can work an 8-hour day in a full time job, go home at 5pm without apologising and nobody will bat an eyelid.

This article explains the situation really well, I think, and reminds me that I know at least one person who openly admits to staying at work just cruisily doing their work because there’s nothing to do and nobody to chat with at home. Some other workers who stay late are still living with their parents, which probably means they don’t have to cook. Other workers of my workplace who are living alone often take home leftover food from school lunches.

Before I came to this job, it seemed silly that so many people in Japan worked such long hours. I could see that many of them were not working efficiently (teachers reading magazines and sleeping at their desks, for example). Now I’m stuck in a similar situation. It still seems silly, but it’s going to take decisive action to change inefficient habits for me, and I’ve only been doing this for a few months. So I get it, Japan. This whirlpool thing. But when are you going to start valuing people’s time, and teaching your people to value their own time? When are people going to be able to go on a 2-week family holiday, instead of 5-day trips to Spain? And now, good luck to me in achieving some efficiency in my life. If I manage it you’ll see at least one blog post within a month of this one. If not, well, see you when I next manage to break free! Yes, that may be a slight undertone of desperation. Cheer for me, reader. May workers in Japan increase efficiency, at least this one. Ganbarima-su!

An Idiot’s Guide to Baseball Leagues in Japan

A couple of weekends ago, a few things happened. I went to a festival in Osaka and then Hiroshima beat Osaka to win the Central League, which is a baseball league in Japan.

I don’t know much about baseball. We don’t have it much in Australia: I know more people in Australia who regularly play Ultimate Frisbee than who have ever regularly played baseball, and this is not an exaggeration. I knew one kid at school who played baseball, and his dad was American. I did play softball at school, which I gather is related. So I can kind of understand the very basics.

Something I still don’t really understand is the different leagues within Japan. In 2016, Hiroshima Toyo Carp was the champion of the Central League series for the first time in 25 years. This was a big deal in Hiroshima, which is baseball-mad as of the last few years, apparently (the ‘apparently’ is that I’m told it used to be not quite so big as it is now). So everyone was really excited about the win… and then the baseball season kept going, and everyone kept watching. Apparently if they hadn’t won the match that made them champions, they would have stopped for the season, but because of winning, they kept playing. I now realise that this is because there are two regional leagues, the Central League and the Pacific League, and the ‘best teams’ from both then play against each other in what is called the Climax Series. Also known as… the Japan Series? Wait, I need a cup of tea.

No, the Climax Series is not the Japan Series. The Climax Series decides who gets to play in the Japan Series. Important distinction.

Also, Osaka has a team in each league. The Orix Buffaloes play in the Pacific League and the Hanshin Tigers in the Central one. That’s not fair, Osaka. Except… it seems the Hanshin Tigers are actually not based in Osaka anymore, but Hyogo. Even though they used to be called the Osaka Tigers. But even at that time their home ground was always in Hyogo? My friend tells me that’s just because Hyogo is close to Osaka.

Furthermore, most of the teams are named after the companies who sponsor them. Hiroshima Toyo Carp, I have been told, is the exception – it’s supposed to be sponsored by the City of Hiroshima. But I looked this up just now and Wiki reckons Mazda is the biggest sponsor. Mazda’s name used to be Toyo Kogyo. So when Toyo Kogyo became the principal sponsor in the late ’60s, Hiroshima Carp became Hiroshima Toyo Carp. Their home ground is Mazda ‘Zoom-zoom’ Stadium, pronounced by locals as Matsuda Sutajiamu. Speaking of which, did you know the spelling of Mazda is just a stylisation? It’s said Mr. Matsuda thought it looked cooler than ‘Matsuda.’

Back to baseball basics. In the Central and Pacific Leagues both, the best teams are decided at the end of a 144-game season. The top 3 get to Stage 1 of the Climax series, in which no. 2 and no. 3 compete for the chance to play in Stage 2. In Stage 2, those winners play the no. 1 team from their leagues. The winners of Stage 2 advance to what is not Stage 3, but the Japan Series. Wiki has a handy diagram of this progression.

The Japan Series, it turns out, is a series of up to 7 matches between just the two teams who were the winners of the Climax Series. It’s a best-of-7 tournament, so whoever is the first to win 4 matches becomes the victor. That’s the end of Japanese Professional Baseball for that year.

So… in 2016 when Carp won the Central League, Hiroshima went mental.

When Carp won Central League in 2016.
Image: tabiyaka hiroshima

The streets in the city filled with people, the izakayas served free beer, there were all sorts of sales. Various shops started selling/displaying V7 (7-time Central League Victors) stuff.


2016 Central League champion edition phone cover. Image: this blog Munesada by some dude who was excited about it

Public places displayed stuff like this a fair bit

Then they kept playing and people kept watching. I was confused, because I didn’t know about the Climax Series and Japan Series, but when a friend invited me to go and watch a match where a bar had turned one of their TVs out to face the street, I went. It turned out to be the 6th match of the Japan Series, and at the start of the match it was 2-3 where the 2 was 2 wins for Hiroshima Toyo Carp and the 3 was for Nippon-Ham Fighters from Sapporo… and Carp lost, which made Nippon Ham the champions of Japanese baseball for the year. There was a point where the match was really close, and then one particular pitcher went on and the other team got about 3 batters home safe, and the Hiroshima fans were pretty angry with that pitcher, and with the manager or whoever was responsible for putting him on the field at that point. It was Halloween and a friend I was watching with was dressed up as a zombie or something in a Carp uniform, and standing out as she did, some TV crews kept watching us and filming us. So they got her saying, ‘I HATE that pitcher!’ in Japanese.

A few weeks after this, my parents came to visit Hiroshima and came to a couple of the schools where I was working at the time. I’d told Mum and Dad about how the championship had gone to the other team and how disappointing it was for the Hiroshima crowd. The principal of the junior high school, though, said something like, ‘Oh, do you know about our baseball team, the Carp?’ and Dad started to say something commiserative like ‘Yeah, sounds like they got so close!’ and the school principal continued, ‘We are all so happy and proud because they won this year.’

Mum, Dad and I were all a bit dumbfounded. I think we said something like ‘Yes, that’s good.’

So, Mum and Dad, now I think I understand what happened – they were simply choosing to acknowledge the results of the series they had won, as opposed to the later one they entered (and ultimately lost) as a result of that win.

Tell you what, in AFL (Australian Football League, no, not soccer and not rugby) there’s just the one season. It goes for ages, but it’s got its quarter-finals, semi-finals and the ‘grand final’ and whoever wins the Grand Final is the winner. Then it’s finished. Seems so simple. Are rugby and cricket leagues/series easy to understand?

This year, 2017, Carp won the Central League again, on Monday the 18th of September, the day of the national holiday ‘Respect for the Aged Day.’ That day, I had just come back on the train from Osaka where I’d been to a particular local festival and then had dinner in a place where the beer mugs had Hanshin Tigers on them. It felt weird and traitorous to drink from those mugs.

So now it’s V8. I think the Climax Series starts soon. So in Stage 2, Carp will play either Hanshin Tigers or Yokohama BayStars for the chance to play in the Japan series. Right?

‘Very Carp! Celebrate V8’

A really good Viking


Today we went to Ohnan Town, as it calls itself,邑南町, in Shimane Prefecture. Our intention was to go to Cafe Torimichi, an apparently friendly cafe in the middle of nowhere, about which we’d read in the most recent issue of Get Hiroshima. When we arrived at the cafe at around 1pm it was closed, even though it’s supposed to be open on Saturdays. We looked around on Google and found a pricey Italian place nearby, so we went there, only to find that despite the OPEN sign out the front, they were having an event and not doing normal lunch.

After a bit more Googling  and finding not much nearby we went to a buffet place called Jōmon Mura  (縄文村/Jōmon Village). (Random fact: in Japanese they call buffet-style meals ‘baikingu‘ or ‘viking’ バイキング). I don’t usually like baikingu: they don’t seem very classy to me, as in, reminiscent of Sizzler and residential college meals, and I always eat too much so that even the good things end up not tasting that good. So I didn’t have high expectations of this place today.

Outdoor seating at Jōmon Mura

It was amazing. It had a great view, up from on top of a hill, and a really nice feel with outdoor seating. The food was delicious, all from local produce and accurately described on Tabelog as ‘natural food,’ and the people that ran it were really laid-back and friendly.


If for any reason you end up going to countryside Shimane, I recommend this place. Note that you need a car.

View from the garden of Jōmon Mura

We also went to the gorge afterwards that we’d intended to originally from Get Hiroshima. It’s called Dangyo-kei, which means something like Definitely Fish Gorge, or perhaps Refuse Fish Gorge. Whatever the deal with the fish, it was a beautiful spot. There are a few paths down that are a bit removed from the car park. We chose the closest one and when we got down to the river, we found that after a little way there was a shrine, and there the path went no further. Or rather, it went further but it was taped off with a ‘No Entry – Falling Rocks’ sign. We had a nice sit and read/nap near the river and called it a day.

Nice getting out of town. Nature in Japan is worth experiencing, and might be something that people who only go to Tokyo or Osaka don’t really know about. But there’s plenty of it all over the country and you don’t usually have to go far to find something pretty nice – maybe not even as far as you have to in Australia, actually.

At the gorge

今日、島根県の邑南町に行ってきました。Get Hiroshima 雑誌で知った田舎の遠いカフェ, Cafe Torimichi に行こうとしたけど、いつも土曜日はやっているはずなのに、ついたら、やっていなかった。午後一時だった。ちょっとググって、高いイタリア料理屋があるみたいだったから、イタリアのレストランに行きました。OPEN って書いてあったのに、入ろうとしたら、「イベントで今入らせない」と言われた。





The need for speed

There is internet in my house! It’s only been 11 weeks. Moved in on the 17th of June, got internet on the 3rd of September.

Had a recent trip back to Australia and found myself making the generalisation that everything is faster in Australia, except going through the turnstile at stations. That takes ages in Australia. And the arrival of trains, that is also often slow. No bullet trains in Australia, either, so those kinds of trains are obviously slower. And postage. That is unpredictable these days – not consistently slow, but not as fast as it used to be, I think. And building is definitely slower in Australia, not like how things just pop up in Japan. Also Australian ski lifts are ridiculously slow – no double speed ones – but then again, the mountains are pretty small compared to Japanese ones.

Is it faster to get internet installed in your house in Australia? I don’t know – I’ve always lived in places where it was already connected. But in Japan, it’s always taken months in the places I’ve lived.

Road construction workers work at the same speed in Australia and Japan. How many tradies does it take to dig a hole? Seven-ish: one to operate the machine, one to stand out the front directing traffic, one to stand out the back directing traffic, and another four to stand around doing nothing in particular. Having a smoke, maybe. That’s the same everywhere, right? Sorry if that’s offensive to you. But construction/roadworks people, you often seem a bit free.

So some things are faster in Australia. What’s faster?

Marking exams. Takes what one might assume is a reasonable amount of time, like, I dunno, a week or two for a multiple-choice test. For private music exams, it takes, what, a few days for it to be processed? I don’t know how that’s done these days. For written and oral school state-wide exams it might take longer, like a few weeks to a month.

The Japanese Language Proficiency Test, aka JLPT or 日本語能力試験, is a colour-the-bubble-with-an-HB-pencil kind of multiple choice test. It takes about 4 hours to do. The results are available online after about 2 months. The little certificate that presents the results officially on paper comes after about another month or two. Why does it take this long? Nobody knows, that I know of.

Also faster in Australia is people’s shower/bath time. In Australia I’m probably the slowest showerer in my family, and that’s not because of any funny business, I’m just slow. In a lot of Australia there used to be an official target of 3- or 4 minute showers, and there were (are?) specific times of specific weekdays where people were allowed to use mains water to water gardens, wash cars etc.

Signs like this are available at home/hardware shops. This is from Bunnings.

Australia is pretty short on water, and I grew up in a 14-year drought. My state talked about whether to get a water recycling plant or a desalination plant and ended up going with desalination. When water restrictions came in to my area, lots of people installed rainwater tanks and worked pretty hard to get more water-efficient. Now most healthy-looking gardens have signs in them to let people know they’re not using up the city’s water reserves.

A lot of Japanese people seem not to have ever heard of water restrictions and do stuff like watering their driveway. Every time I stay with Japanese people, they comment on how quickly I’m out of the shower. Even if I have a bath too, which I think most Japanese family members do. I guess the national habit of washing yourself at night, at the end of the day, is really seen as a way to relax and take your time. I also like to relax and take my time, but apparently it doesn’t take so much time for me to do this?

Driving in Australia is pretty fast compared to Japan. Heading to the airport in Sydney to pick someone up, I was distraught to see a sign that it was still another 6km, because we were running late and in Japan with the traffic on that kind of road, it would take 20-30 minutes. I’d forgotten that in Australia, 6km=6 minutes on major roads. It did take about 6 minutes or maybe 10 with the traffic and lights.

It seems to take about twice as long to drive anywhere in Japan unless you use toll roads. I used to do a 70km drive to the prefectural capital pretty often when I was living up in the north of Japan, and that usually took about 2 hours. On the tollway it only took 1, or maybe not even that, but it cost about AU$12 (1,100 yen) so I didn’t use it that often. It wasn’t a bad way to spend a couple of hours with the friend I was often car pooling with. In Australia 70km would usually be more like a one-hour drive. If you have to drive across Melbourne or Sydney as part of it, make it an hour and a half.  Last year, in Hiroshima, I drove 20km to work every day. It took an hour or thereabouts, depending on what time I left home. Once it took an hour and twenty minutes. On Saturdays it took 30-40 minutes. Traffic can be slow in Australia too, but it’s kind of more accepted in most cities in Japan. I guess Japan does have more cities, more people and less space.

Australia’s not faster than Japan in most ways. I reckon the two countries even out to roughly the same for most things. Just some odd things I noticed being back in Oz recently.

On bento culture

Hello, reader! And long time no writey, eh? My excuse for not posting regularly has gotten even better: moving house and having no internet at the new place. But honestly, now that I’m not so immersed in the machine that is the Japanese public school system, there aren’t so many working-life things that I care to write about. Also, having no internet, I haven’t been keeping so up to date on news and other blogs I follow… so didn’t realise until today that Japanophile blossomkitty had asked me a question, which was what my take is on ‘bento boxes,’ as they’re known in the West.

The infamous kyaraben, character bento, with something out of Yokai Watch, a cartoon that little Japanese kids love.

Basically, I like eating them, especially if they’re professionally made, but I’ve never made one myself. Because ceebs (cbf, equates to ‘can’t be bothered.’ Read here if you really want to know).

‘Which do you like, school lunch or bento?’ is one of the standard questions that inevitably come up from about year 7 (中1/first year of junior high school) English classes in Japan. I don’t know what high school kids say, but to me it seemed the majority of junior high school kids said ‘bento’ because they could have what they liked in their lunch every day if their mum was making it for them, and their mum could give them the right quantity, whereas school lunch might sometimes be too much or too little. How often did consideration for their mums come into it? Not very.

Some kid’s school lunch in Gunma. Image: City home page

As a non-fussy eater, I would choose school lunch every time. I know this wasn’t your question, Blossomkitty, but it is a thing in Japan, and as far as I’m concerned, school lunch is the best thing since sliced bread, except it’s so much better than sliced bread. Here are my many reasons (none of this ‘I have two reasons’ stuff, kids):

  1. Someone else cooks it
  2. Someone else cleans up
  3. It’s different every day, and therefore fun to eat
  4. It’s nutritious and makes an attempt at balance
  5. It usually tastes pretty good. Naturally there are some misses
  6. Doesn’t spill in your bag
  7. It minimises lunch envy
  8. You don’t have to remember to bring it to school or take it out of your bag when you get home
  9. It has various components within the meal (rice, meat/fish, salad, soup, milk, whatever) which makes it interesting – similar to (3) but I reckon this merits another dot point
  10. Someone gets properly compensated for making it
  11. It uses mostly local and seasonal ingredients
  12. It’s cheap (approx. 200-300 yen a day, which is something like $2 – $3)

OK. Now I think I’d better go into the bento.

First of all, if you have to take a portable lunch somewhere and can’t have a proper nice sit-down lunch on a plate, the bento is the way to go. Might as well do a list. However, this list turns into less things I like about bentoes than just things I have noticed.

Yeahhh, the professional ekiben (station bento). Image: matome

  1. It has compartments. (I know from googling it just now that lunch boxes around the world also now have compartments. Fine.)
  2. It seals nicely and doesn’t seem to spill in anyone’s bag. That being said, people don’t gung-ho chuck their lunch boxes into their bags in Japan and run around with said bags on their backs or throw their bags around. Maybe that was my problem.
  3. Some people wrap their bento in a cloth called a furoshiki 風呂敷. Makes it look nice, absorbs condensation perhaps, and you can use the cloth to carry it if you want.
  4. The compartments thing means you can have rice and other things separately.
  5. People use little patty pans to put lots of different things into the larger compartments. You can get silicone, i.e. washable ones these days, which makes it a bit more eco-friendly than plastic/paper or foil ones.
  6. The average school kid’s bento can often be expected to contain a miniature sausage, though not necessarily a whole one, and a little patty-pan-full of ‘Napolitan’ (tomato sauce, aka ketchup) spaghetti, and either or both of a piece of fried chicken and a piece of rolled omelette (卵焼き, tamagoyaki, たまごやき). Sometimes it has a little hanba-gu (hamburger steak/rissole) too. Last year at one of my primary schools there was one day when all the kids had to bring lunch, maybe the last day of term, and I swear 9 out of 10 lunches I saw had a little wiener and a tiny patty pan of this spaghetti. None of them were as cute/pretty as the lunch pictured here, however.

  7. The average homemade bento doesn’t have a lot of vegetable content. Japan doesn’t eat much fruit in general, so that’s not so noticeable. You might have a slice of orange or apple, or a few strawberries or grapes, and maybe a cherry tomato or a piece of cucumber. It’s rare that I’ve seen more than that in a homemade one. The ones you see posted on the Internet aren’t what everyone makes – some people don’t have that sort of time.
  8. A well-made, especially a professionally made bento, is really nice to eat, and in my experience has more vegetables and some pickled things in it.

8. This is my main issue with bento-making and eating. Bentoes are usually made by mums/wives; some junior high or high school girls make their own. I have never heard of boys doing so, though such people must exist somewhere, and there are probably dads who make them too – I just haven’t seen/met any. It’s generally assumed in Japanese society that a wife/mum will do all the cooking and cleaning, which is basically a full-time job if you’re going to cook all the various little parts that make up a good Japanese meal. Of course, if being a full-time housewife is your thing, that might be fine. If you want to have a job, though, this puts a lot of pressure on women to get up at or before 5am, make breakfast and pack lunches for husband (who probably leaves the house by around 7?) and children and maybe yourself, then go to work and work a full day, come home, buy ingredients on the way home, cook dinner, wash everyone’s lunch boxes, wash the dishes after everyone’s dinner, wash the dishes again after your husband has finished dinner later than everyone else, go and have a bath, dry your hair… by this time it may well be 11, 12 or 1am.

It’s also really ingrained that girls make bento for boys. It’s a kind of trope in every anime or high school drama that a girl brings a lunch for a boy if she likes him. On Terrace House (a Japanese reality show about a sharehouse situation) they do it if they like the boy or if there’s some thing on and they’re all going somewhere.

‘Eating whatever bento as if you’re enjoying it is a boyfriend’s duty kindness’
Image: ‘Girl power up blog

So I’m all for eating cute, delicious and healthy lunches. And if it’s fun to make them, then so much the better. But if it’s an everyday necessity and kids are going to get bullied because their lunch isn’t as cute as the next kid’s, and it puts pressure on women and girls who also probably aren’t getting as appreciated as they deserve, then I reckon it’s better to pay someone to make your lunch. At least if I have the choice, that’s what I do.

Physical contact

I’ve recently started working as a kindergarten teacher in an international kindergarten. This has caused both the slowing of posts on Bijinjapan, and a few realisations about kids, both Japanese and in general.

Japan is, well, not famous exactly, but to put it another way, not known for having a very touchy-feely kind of culture. It’s kind of a paradox in that hugging and kissing are not seen in public, but everyone fully expects to be squished up against strangers in trains and pushes people out of the way in order to get out of said trains. Naturally this is not because everyone wants to be close to everyone else but because there is no space, but it’s seen as しょうがない: something that can’t be helped, so it’s accepted.

Australia is kind of the opposite in both of these things: it’s normal to hug and/or kiss friends and loved ones and to physically express affection (to a point), but I think most people would avoid contact with strangers. That being said, people in Australia are probably getting more used to having other people in their face/armpit/back on trains and buses as the population grows in the cities.

Adults and adults

Having been in Japan on and off for about 5 years, I’m used to not making physical contact with anyone in Japan other than a significant other. As an ALT of course there were many many high-fives and tag games, and thumb wars, and getting hugged by kids I wasn’t allowed to hug back. But with other adults and people I meet as friends, nope. Waving, bowing, just saying bye… it’s got to a point now where when I have other foreign friends from hugging cultures, it’s kind of awkward waiting to see if one of you is going for the hug or not. And then there’s this thing where people go for group dinners and then everyone’s saying goodbye, and it somehow gets to hugging everyone one by one, kind of lining up creeping-death style, which can get an extra level of weirdness if there are some in the group you don’t like.

The cheek bump, a.k.a. kiss. Image: the Globe and Mail

In Australia I don’t remember it seeming such an issue. As I might have written before, men usually do some sort of handshake thing, or occasionally a back-clappy hug, and when women are involved it’s cheek kisses and/or hugs. Greeting hugs aren’t great hugs, to be sure, but they’re a thing.

As also mentioned before, friends of the same gender do hug each other in Japan, and it’s less homophobic than Australia for boys.

Baseball kids. Image: this livedoor popo blog

The physical contact that does seem accepted in Japan the way a hug would be in Australia is hand-to-hand contact. Not just handshakes, but double high-fives between excited friends, or even occasionally kind of grabbing onto the other person’s hands and holding on tight for a few seconds. Of course, that really is a special occasion one. A drunk co-worker who was always fairly quiet and hard to read did this to me kind of emotionally, saying ‘thank you’ at the end of a farewell party. It felt as expressive as a hug, though in a different way. The only people who have held my hands in such a way in Australia are my mum and grandma. But at that party, I realised this sort of exchange was why I could see all the other people parting ways doing the same thing. Hands are powerful emotive tools in Japan… maybe that’s why it’s popular to wave with both?

The thing is in Japan, I’ve worked as an ALT until now, which in my case has meant working in public schools. I’ve been an ALT at a total of 16 schools in 4 prefectures, including elementary, junior high and senior high schools. So I’ve worked in 16 staff rooms and seen the working environment at a couple of Boards of Education, as well as watching various office-based TV dramas. And I can say with confidence that other than handshakes or adjusting the clothes on another teacher who is more junior than you (happened to me at least twice), people don’t usually touch other people at work. This probably doesn’t sound weird – it’s work, after all.

So it was quite a surprise when I came along to the international kindergarten and another teacher touched me on the arm, as in, held my arm for a second, when she said hello. I’d forgotten that some people do that. Then I noticed that quite a few people in the office had this kind of friendly touching going on in their interactions. It wasn’t out of place to see 2 workers (who are obviously friends) sharing a hug this morning. It really is an international environment, and it was strange for me because it both made me feel more at home and less like I knew how to behave at work.  We went to a work party and the principal hugged everyone.

To be fair, in Australia I’ve only worked in a limited number of places, so I don’t know what most working environments are like. Does this sound unusual to you? Maybe it’s normal for a kindergarten or childcare centre?

Adults and kids

In Australian families, I think that while it varies between families and individuals, hugging and kissing family members is seen as totally normal and expected. Everyone has probably had the experience of dreading giving the mandatory kiss on the cheek to some older relative who we find gross for some reason.

I’ve heard that in Japan, kissing is seen as reserved for sexual relationships (that seems to fit with how you never see it in public, I guess). It’s seen as so intimate that a lot of the time, even a romantic drama will culminate in a hug and you won’t see an on-screen kiss… so kissing would be seen by some as perverted to do it to your kids. I’m not sure how true this is, or rather, for how many people this has any truth. But there is definitely less kissing of children in Japan than in Australia, especially in front of others and especially between opposite-gender parent and child, I think.

What about kids kissing their parents in Japan? I can’t yet comment with any accuracy, but I can tell you that my kindergarten kids kiss their teachers. Maybe a third of my class is on the cuddly side, and one kid is always grabbing and kissing my hand (which is usually about said kid’s head height). This kid and one other do like to kiss my face when I’m at their height too. One Japanese friend tells me that those who are inclined to kissing and hugging may do it a lot, and other kids may not be so inclined – that sounds pretty much the same as Australia to me.

The other thing you get with kids in Japan that I never heard of outside Japan is the dreaded kancho (浣腸, かんちょう or カンチョー, Dad and Ed) which translates to ‘enema.’ Kids do it to each other and to teachers too. Not usually to woman teachers, luckily for me. I’ve also almost never seen girls do it, but boys I have, plenty of times. To kancho someone, clasp your hands together and point the index fingers together – the middle fingers too as an option – and then try to poke them up the behind of your victim. This excellent Tofugu post has some strategies on coping with kancho and other things Japanese kids like to do to their teachers, including boob grab, crotch grab and others.

Kancho. Image: Quora

Political correctness and workplace etiquette

In Australia, though it’s quite a hugging society, school teachers these days don’t touch kids for fear of anything going awry, being misunderstood and getting sued. I don’t know what it’s like in childcare and kindergartens, or even primary school, but I’m pretty sure I’ve heard of parents suing high schools for their kid getting an injury after leaning back on their chair and the teacher trying to make them stop. And everyone is terrified of paedophilia. So I have the impression that most teachers and schools are very careful about their policies on what kind of contact (if any) is acceptable. This ‘No Touch Teachers’ article is a bit old but explains what I’m referring to here.

This is the kind of hugging you get in kindergartens here. Image: a Nara kindergarten in nobinobi blog

Japan doesn’t seem to have compunctions about touching kids. I’m not talking about corporal punishment as such, but at primary schools, a kid who’s being silly might get lightly boffed on the head, or a crying child might get a hug. As an ALT I was told not to hug, but my companies often suggested activities that would involve patting kids on the head, and high-fives are pretty much mandatory. Through junior high school and maybe even high school, arm wrestling and thumb wrestling are also pretty common ALT activities. Teachers of the man kind will manipulate boys’ bodies into various stretches or positions for sports training, as will woman teachers with girls (this is me trying to be PC with my gender terminology here, if ‘man’ and ‘woman’ sound weird to you in this sentence instead of male and female). I think this is probably seen as a bit risky in Australia these days – Australian readers, does that sound right?

Some sort of training with teachers helping students. Image: Interaction school blog

Think that’s all on this for now. I’ll try to write again soon; with the job, moving house and a Japanese test coming up in the next few weeks it’ll be short and hopefully sweet. As always, thanks for reading!

Romaji ローマ字

This post is about romaji: what it is and isn’t. More about what it isn’t than what it is.

Romaji ローマ字 (‘Rome letter’) is: a way of writing Japanese using Roman letters 

It is not:

  • -standardised
  • -English
  • -a complete way to read and write Japanese

And here I’ll go into some more detail.

Romaji is a way to read and write Japanese using Roman letters

It’s useful for words like Asahi, wagyu and Tokyo – Japanese things that people around the world want to talk about and use those words more or less as they are, with an approximation of Japanese sounds, rather than translating them. ‘Morning sun,’ ‘Japanese cow’ and ‘Eastern metropolis’ don’t have quite the same ring, I guess.

Romaji is not standardised

There are some romaji spellings that are widely accepted and known in English-speaking countries, such as Osaka, Kyoto, Tokyo, sushi, cha, sayonara, Mt Fuji, etc.

Here are a few spellings you might see for those words in various schools in Japan.

Oosaka, Ôsaka, Ōsaka, Ohsaka

Kyouto, Kyôto, Kyohto

Toukyou, Tôkyô, Tōkyō, Tohkyoh

sushi, susi

cha, tya

sayonara – sayounara, sayônara, sayōnara, sayohnara

Mt Fuji, Mt Huji

And while we’re at it, romaji could also be roomaji, rohmaji, rômaji or rōmaji. And tempura could be, in alternate-Romaji-land, tenpura. 

So which spellings are correct? Well, that’s the problem – it depends who you ask. I believe the romaji taught in most (??) middle and high schools is Hepburn. Which version of it also depends on the school, or maybe the teachers in the school, or maybe the Board of Education.

The Hepburn Romanisation system, a.k.a. ヘボン式ローマ字 hebonshiki romaji. Image: this romaji middle school page. Found via Google.

Even if teachers dedicate themselves faithfully to one particular version of Hepburn, it’s hard to stop the kids referring to the Kunrei – or is it Nihon? – charts of romaji in the back of their 108-yen notebooks. And whatever their homeroom teacher taught them 3 years ago in primary school, which was almost certainly not Hepburn, though they might have learned it at extra-curricular English lessons.

In romaji, tuki and tsuki sound the same.

My parents went to Shikoku last year and then brought back some omiyage custard cakes called hime no tuki. We talked about how it probably means ‘princess of the moon.’ Dad noticed that when read out loud,  the Japanese speakers in the room seemed to add an S after the T in tuki. Having painstakingly learned all the syllables in Japanese, Dad had learned tsu but not tu – what’s tu? Just another way of writing tsu. Because everyone knows that if you combine T and U an S sound will have to come in between, because that’s how Japanese works. Unless you don’t know Japanese. Which means you don’t know other things too, like that di, ji and zi all sound the same in Japanese and so do zu and du.

Actually, there is a good reason to keep du and di instead of just using zu and ji all the time, and that is typing. Perhaps the reason students learn romaji so long before they start learning to write and read other languages is so that they can use it to type. And if you want to type ぢ, the only way to do it is di, because ji will come out as じ every time. It’s important for spelling.

A non-Hepburn romaji chart. Image: Wisdom Bag, Yahoo JP

In the middle school where I most recently was an ALT, I don’t know which version of Hepburn they were teaching, but in the previous school it must have been some version of traditional as opposed to modified, because they learned a rule that the letter N had to change to M if it came before a bilabial consonant like P, B or M. This means, for example, that shinbun would be written as shimbun. It weirded me out when they had to write sanma さんま as samma, because you would only know how to read that if you either 1) speak a language with geminates like Italian’s ‘mamma’ with the long M or 2) already have an understanding of Japanese phonology. You need to know some Japanese phonology, too, to know that the U in shinbun or shimbun doesn’t sound like the U in the English ‘bun’ but more like the ‘oo’ in ‘toot.’ If you know no Italian or Japanese, depending on your variety of English you might read samma さんま to rhyme with stammer or Gramma (as in Grandma). This brings me to my next point.

Romaji is not English

If you are reading this post in English, then this might seem pretty obvious. To a Japanese kid (or adult) who learns romaji in about grade 3, way before they officially learn the alphabet in grade 6 or year 7, it’s not so clear-cut. When they see the letters in the alphabet it’s natural to try to read them as they were first taught, as in romaji. If you learned at 8 years old that the thing you know as チョーク is spelled tyôku, as opposed to chôku or another spelling, it’s going to be much easier to recognise and remember that than chalk. Even if you do copy out chalk 5 or 10 times in your notebook, it’s not going to stick anywhere near half as much as tyôku did. Even though it might not sound all that different, one is going to be much more comfortable, familiar and immediate than the other.

I believe this contributes to obstacles in language-learning. Much like katakana, I have mixed feelings/opinions about romaji – more about its teaching and usage than its existence. It can be a great tool for Japanese language users and non-Japanese language users to communicate. So in theory, all that should be necessary for it to trap fewer people should be something like, English teachers saying at the start of Year 7 English, hey kids, welcome to English. Let’s practice the alphabet and learn some PHONICS (hello, last year’s junior high school! To be fair, some schools do, but it’s not standardised either) and before we can properly start that, let’s take a moment to recognise that romaji and English are not the same thing, despite having a similar physical appearance. Their biggest difference is the fact that romaji is Japanese, and English is not.

Romaji is not a complete way to read and write Japanese

You may have noticed the word ‘probably’ used to talk about the meaning of the name of the custard cake package shown above. Well, hime usually means ‘princess’ (姫、ひめ), but it’s also the old name for ‘hawfinch’ (鴲 ,ひめ), which is a kind of bird. Who knows, though, it could also be the verb stem for himeru (秘める) ‘to hide.’ Then there’s the possibility that the E was supposed to be a long one, as in himei, which can mean ‘an inscription’ or ‘a scream.’ All this information is stuff that native speakers know from context or from reading the kanji, much as native speakers of English know the difference between ‘know’ and ‘no.’ But if you take away spelling and context, there’s no way to know.

When I was about high school age, I remember watching Inuyasha with my siblings. We were constantly perplexed by the name of Inuyasha’s sword, Tessaiga (鉄砕牙、てっさいが). The person doing the subtitles had transcribed the little tsu (っ) into the romaji in the subtitles* so we were reading ‘Tetsusaiga’ while hearing TESSAIGAAAAA!!! and trying to hear the extra tsu. Drove me nuts for years. Eventually I looked it up on the Internet – might have been doing some research for this blog, actually! – and discovered that it hadn’t been only us who had been troubled by this.

Even foreigners who speak Japanese fluently – even Japanese people, actually – can look kind of dumb sometimes if a Japanese name is written only in romajiIt can mean the difference between your name meaning Big-field or Little-field.

大野さん Ôno-san/Ohno-san/Oono-san ‘Ms./Mr. Big-field’

小野さん Ono-san ‘Ms./Mr. Little-field.’

In the above examples, I’ve used 3 different ways of showing that the first O is long in the Big-field name. But because it’s not standardised, students of English may learn any one of these spellings or may be taught not to indicate vowel length at all, because it’s ‘not what people are doing these days.’ The length of vowel sounds doesn’t usually affect much in English other than to give you an accent. It can affect meaning in minimal pairs like ‘ship’ and ‘sheep’ but it’s not only the length that distinguishes these words. In Japanese, though, as you see above, it can change the meaning of words. It’s the difference between snow (雪, ゆき, yuki) and courage (勇気, ゆうき, yuuki). Yuki can also be a boy’s name or a girl’s name, depending on the length of the U.

These aren’t necessarily world-changing issues, but they can create what are surely at least partially avoidable obstacles to effective communication. It has probably come up in studies. Naturally, I have the power to whinge about it, but no solution. That being said, I think standardisation would be a start, and within that, I don’t think it should be left up to the will of the writer (as it is on this page) whether they want to indicate the length of a vowel or not. That’s information that can help people understand more about your language, Japan. And if what people see and hear is consistent, it will make more sense.

*Romaji in the English subtitles: By this I mean that they’d left the sword name in Japanese, writing it in romaji rather than translating the meaning. Someone must have decided ‘Tetsusaiga’ was easier to read repeatedly than ‘Iron-Crushing-Fang.’

Quick update アップデート

(English below)





Still here yo.

Just been busier than usual lately, having started a new job. With the new job I’m at work until 6:30 or 7pm every day, then come home, eat while watching a TV show, read a bit and sleep. It’s totally OK to leave on time at this job, except I’m new and don’t know what I’m doing, so can’t really get to the level of efficiency where I’ve got everything I need to done by 5.

Also, I haven’t felt as stirred to write because in my new job it’s really international and there are heaps of non-Japanese people, so I feel more, well, normal and don’t really think ‘This wouldn’t happen in Australia’ nearly so much. My job now is less to be something to gawk at and expose students to otherness, and more just being part of an international thing.

So I’ll probably want to broaden/change the scope of this blog, not sure how at this point, and for a bit will probably continue to write less until life settles down a bit again. That being said, it’s Golden Week next week so we’ll see.

桜 (sakura = cherry blossoms) 2017


Japanese readers will be familiar with the concept of hanami 花見 ‘flower-look,’ which essentially means a picnic with alcohol, with/under/around sakura (cherry blossom) trees. It’s really popular. Some people say it’s the heart of the Japanese people.

The weather this season has been sunny on a couple of weekdays over the sakura season, but cloudy and/or raining on the weekends. I went and hanami-ed anyway and took some photos.