Japanese Culture


Human Pillar

Hitobashira (人柱 human pillar), practiced formerly in Japan, is a human sacrifice, buried alive under or near large-scale buildings like dams, bridges, and castles, as a prayer to the gods so that the building is not destroyed by natural disasters such as floods or by enemy attacks. Hitobashira can also refer to workers who were buried alive under inhumane conditions.

Some of the earliest written records of hitobashira can be found in the Nihon Shoki (The Chronicles of Japan). One story centered around Emperor Nintoku (323 A.D.) discusses the overflowing of the Kitakawa and Mamuta Rivers. Protection against the torrent was beyond the ability of the stricken populace. The Emperor had a divine revelation in his dream to the effect that there was a person named Kowakubi in the province of Musashi and a person called Koromono-ko in the province of Kawachi. If they should be sacrificed to deities of the two rivers respectively, then the construction of embankments would be easily achieved. Kowakubi was subsequently thrown into the torrent of the Kitakawa river, with a prayer offered to the deity of river. Through the sacrifice it was possible to construct the embankment completely, Koromono-ko however escaped being sacrificed. The Yasutomi-ki, a diary from the 15th Century documents the famous tradition of "Nagara-no Hitobashira". According to the tradition, a woman who was carrying a boy on her back was caught while she was passing along the river Nagara, she was buried at the place where a large bridge was then to be built. Hitobashira traditions are almost always connected with complex and dangerous projects that were required to be built and mostly with water. The stories of hitobashira were believed to inspire a spirit of self-sacrifice in people.

Stories of hitobashira and other human sacrifices were common in Japan as late as the sixteenth century. Hitobashira is no longer practiced in construction.

Click Read More to see some examples


New Year's Dream

Hatsuyume (初夢) is the Japanese word for the first dream had in the new year. Traditionally, the contents of the dream would foretell the luck of the dreamer in the ensuing year. In Japan, the night of December 31 was often passed without sleeping, thus the hatsuyume was often the dream seen the night of January 1. This explains why January 2 (the day after the night of the "first dream") is known as Hatsuyume in the traditional Japanese calendar.

It is considered to be particularly good luck to dream of Mount Fuji, a hawk, and an eggplant. This belief has been in place since the early Edo period but there are various theories regarding the origins as to why this particular combination was considered to be auspicious. One theory suggests that this combination is lucky because Mount Fuji is Japan's highest mountain, the hawk is a clever and strong bird, and the word for eggplant (nasu or nasubi 茄子) suggests achieving something great (nasu 成す). Another theory suggests that this combination arose because Mount Fuji, falconry, and early eggplants were favorites of the shōgun Tokugawa Ieyasu.

Although this superstition is well known in Japan, often memorized in the form Ichi-Fuji, Ni-Taka, San-Nasubi (一富士、二鷹、三茄子; 1. Fuji, 2. Hawk, 3. Eggplant), the continuation of the list is not as well known. The continuation is Yon-Sen, Go-Tabako, Roku-Zatō (四扇、五煙草、六座頭; 4. Fan, 5. Tobacco, 6. Blind acupressurer). The origins of this trio are less well known, and it is unclear whether they were added after the original three or whether the list of six originated at the same time.

Saidai-ji Eyo Hadaka Matsuri

Naked Festival

A mysterious night festival.
Almost fully-naked men compete for good luck charms.

One of the three most eccentric festivals of Japan. Nine thousand men wearing only loincloths struggle fiercely with one another over a pair of lucky sacred sticks measuring 4 cm in diameter and 20 cm in length, thrown into the crowd by the priest from a window 4 m up. Anyone who luckily gets hold of the shingi and thrusts them upright in a wooden measuring box known as a masu which is heaped with rice is called the lucky man, and is blessed with a year of happiness. The other lucky items are bundles of willow strips, and although 100 of these are thrown into the crowd, it is not an easy task to catch them.

The origins of this festival date back 500 years when worshippers competed to receive paper talismans called Go-o thrown by the priest. These paper talismans were tokens of the completion of New Year ascetic training by the priests. As those people receiving these paper talismans had good things happen to them, the number of people requesting them increased year by year. However, as paper was easily torn, the talismans were changed to the wooden ofuda that we know today.

Shouting out 'Wasshoi! Wasshoi!' the almost fully naked men approach the precincts. Although this festival takes place in the cold season, the fervor of the men waiting impatiently is so strong that they seem to have difficulty breathing, which is why water is splashed over them. Precisely at midnight, the lights are turned off all at once, the sacred sticks are thrown into the crowd, and the vehement rush to grab the sticks starts. Even if someone is lucky enough to get hold of the sacred sticks, they are quickly snatched away by others, almost like a rugby game. Spectators usually crowd around the participants within the precincts of the shrine to experience all the thrills and excitement of the action. But if you wish to look on safely, there are seats available, though you have topay for them.

On the day of the festival, prior to the main event, there is a Hadaka Matsuri from 18:00 when primary school boys compete for rice cakes and cylindrical treasures.


Japanese Incense Ceremony

The Japanese incense ceremony known as kodo is an art form that has been refined over the centuries. To properly perform kodo, it takes many years of practice and study. It is said that it actually takes thirty years of study to master the art. One can participate in the ceremonies and games of an experienced master in multiple cultural centers and department stores around the country of Japan. One can also learn to play the simpler games at home with friends. The kodo ceremony provides an elegant experience that cannot be found outside Japan. It is an activity that tests the senses. Though kodo sets can be purchased on the Internet, it takes an enormous deal of patience to become a true practitioner of the art.

There is an old legend that agarwood originally arrived in the country of Japan when a log of the incense wood simply washed ashore of the Awaji-shima Island in 595 CE. When the wood was put near an open fire, people noticed that it gave off a pleasant smell. This led to them presenting the wood to their local officials. However, the actual way that the wood came to Japan was with the supplies that were brought to construct a Buddhist Temple in 538 CE. The first people burned the wood for religious ceremonies, but it eventually came to be burned simply for appreciation and became a very popular art form. Kodo came into existence from the incense games that Japanese aristocracy played with each other. The actual manner and structure of the rituals were formalized in Japan's Muromachi era. This time in the fifteenth century is also when the Ikebana flower arrangement art and the Japanese tea ceremony rose to popularity.

The basic kodo ceremony involves the participants sitting together and taking turns sniffing a censer filled with burning incense. The participants articulate their observations of the incense to one another and play guessing games to see who can figure out what the material composing the incense actually is. One of these games is called Genjikō. In the game of Genjikō, the players must pick which censers contain the same scents and which ones contain scents which are different from the others.

Kodo is an interesting Japanese tradition still practiced today.

Good Luck Flag

Messages from home

The Good Luck Flag, known as hinomaru yosegaki (日の丸寄せ書き) in the Japanese language, was a traditional gift for Japanese servicemen deployed during the military campaigns of the Empire of Japan, though most notably during World War II. The flag given to a soldier was a national flag signed by friends and family, often with short messages wishing the soldier victory, safety, and good luck.

The Japanese call their country's flag hinomaru, which translates literally to "sun-round", referencing the red circle on a white field. When the hinomaru was signed, the Japanese characters were usually written vertically, and radiated outward from the edge of the red circle. This practice is referenced in the second term, yosegaki, meaning "sideways-writing". The phrase hinomaru-yosegaki can be interpreted as "To write sideways around the red sun", describing the appearance of the signed flag.

The hinomaru yosegaki was traditionally presented to a man prior to his induction into the Japanese armed forces or before deployment. Generally, relatives, neighbors, friends, and co-workers of the person receiving the flag would write their names, good luck messages, exultations, or other personal messages on the field of the flag. The writing usually flowed out sideways in a rayed pattern away from the red sun. However, if the messages became crowded, well-wishers improvised and wrote wherever they could squeeze in a message.

Normally, some kind of exhortation such as Bu un Chou kyu is written across the top within the white field. Loosely translated into English,Bu un Chou kyu means "May your military fortunes be long lasting." Dark, medium sized characters may normally be seen that run vertically down the right or left hand margin of the flag. These usually occur in one, two or three columns and are generally the names of the man receiving the flag, the date, and the name of the individual or organization presenting the gift to him. The kanji characters were typically written with a calligraphy brush (fude) and ink. While it was normally the custom to sign only around the red center of the flag, some examples may be found with characters written upon the red center as well.

When the custom of writing on flags began is up for debate. Some sources indicate that signed flags became part of the military man's off-to-war gear, along with a "Thousand-stitch sash" (senninbari), during the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895.) Any good luck flags that pre-date the Manchurian Incident (1931) should be considered rare. It is generally agreed that most hinomaru yosegaki seen today come from just before or during the period of the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945.)

For the military man stationed far away from home and loved ones, the hinomaru yosegaki offered communal hopes and prayers to the owner every time the flag was unfolded. It was believed that the flag, with its many signatures and slogans of good luck, would provide a combined force or power to see its owner through tough times. Furthermore, it reminded him in a material way to do his duty. The performance of that duty meant that the warrior was not expected to return home from battle. Great honor was brought upon the family of those whose sons, husbands, brothers, and fathers died in the service of country and Emperor. The belief of self-sacrifice was a central one within Japanese culture and was much exalted during World War II. Culturally, the Japanese believed that in doing one's duty, the soldier, sailor, or aviator must offer up his life freely to the Emperor just as thecherry blossoms fall freely from the tree at the height of their beauty. As part of the samurai or bushido code (Way of the Warrior), this worldview was brought forward into twentieth-century Japan from the old warring days of feudal Japan and was impressed upon twentieth-century soldiers, most of whom descended from non-samurai families.

U.S. Veteran Accounts
In Sid Phillips's book, You'll Be Sor-ree, he describes the role of Japanese flags played in the Pacific War, "Every Jap seemed to have a personal silk flag with Jap writing all over it and a large meatball in the center." There are numerous books describing these souvenirs taken home by U.S. Marines and U.S. Army Infantry. Another example is Eugene Sledge's book With the Old Breed, "The men gloated over, compared, and often swapped their prizes. It was a brutal, ghastly ritual the likes of which have occurred since ancient times on battlefields where antagonists have possessed a profound mutual hatred." In a 2008 article of the Monroe News, a World War II veteran talked about the flag brought from the Pacific theatre. He said he did not search every Japanese soldier he shot, as there was usually not enough time. He found the flag while fighting on the island of Mindanao in the Philippines. He said soldiers did not take large souvenirs, such as a katana (sword), for fear that someone would steal it; a flag could be easily concealed. The flag was being returned to Japan through Dr. Yasuhiko Kaji who searches for the owner and/or their family.

Effort to Return Flags To Japanese Families
OBON 2015 is a private organization with the mission to return all of the good luck flags to their families in Japan by August 2015, which marks the 70th anniversary of the end of the war. Obon is Japanese for the month of August. As of July 2014 they have returned ten flags and have more than 20 other flags they are currently working on returning. Published news stories and interviews indicate that the effort to return the flags is seen as a humanitarian act which can provide closure for the family members.

Preservation and Restoration
The United States' National World War II Museum publishes a preservation guide with a list of recommendations for storing and preserving synthetic materials such as flags. Such artifacts should be stored in climate-controlled areas, never in attics or basements, and should also be kept away from bright light such as sunlight and fluorescent lights which have large amounts of UV rays. If intended for display, a flag or any textile artifact should be supported by a backing, never allowed to hang by its own weight. If storing in a box, make sure the textile is flat with no creases. Do not use sealed plastic bags; however, muslin bags can be used. Human beings are a hazard to these artifacts as well, since hands can transfer oils, sweat, or make-up to the artifact and cause damage. Wear clean cotton or nylon gloves when handling heirloom textiles.


The art of entertaining

Geisha (芸者 "person of the arts") are traditional Japanese artist-entertainers. The word Geiko is also used to describe such persons. Geisha were very common in the 18th and 19th centuries, and are still in existence today, although their numbers are dwindling. "Geisha," pronounced /ˈgeɪ ʃa/ ("gay-sha") is the most familiar term to English speakers, and the most commonly used within Japan as well, but in the Kansai region the terms geigi and, for apprentice geisha, "Maiko" have also been used since the Meiji Restoration. The term maiko is only used inKyoto districts. The English pronunciation ˈgi ʃa ("gee-sha") or the phrase "geisha girl," common during the American occupation of Japan, carry connotations of prostitution, as some young women, desperate for money and calling themselves "geisha," sold themselves to American troops.

The geisha tradition evolved from the taikomochi or hōkan, similar to court jesters. The first geisha were all male; as women began to take the role they were known as onna geisha (女芸者), or "woman artist (female form)." Geisha today are exclusively female, aside from the Taikomochi. Taikomochi are exceedingly rare. Only three are currently registered in Japan. They tend to be far more bawdy than geisha. Other public figures who contributed to the creation of the modern geisha were Oiran, or courtesans, and Odoriko, dancing girls. The Odoriko in particular influenced geisha to include dance as part of their artistic repertoire.

Geisha were traditionally trained from young childhood. Geisha houses often bought young girls from poor families, and took responsibility for raising and training them. During their childhood, apprentice geisha worked first as maids, then as assistants to the house's senior geisha as part of their training and to contribute to the costs of their upkeep and education. This long-held tradition of training still exists in Japan, where a student lives at the home of a master of some art, starting out doing general housework and observing and assisting the master, and eventually moving up to become a master in her own right (see also irezumi). This training often lasts for many years.

The course of study traditionally starts from a young age and encompasses a wide variety of arts, including Japanese musical instruments (particularly the shamisen) and traditional forms of singing, traditional dance, tea ceremony, flower arranging (ikebana), poetry and literature. By watching and assisting senior geisha, they became skilled in the complex traditions surrounding selecting, matching, and wearing precious kimono, and in various games and the art of conversation, and also in dealing with clients.

Once a woman became an apprentice geisha (a maiko) she would begin to accompany senior geisha to the tea houses, parties and banquets that constitute a geisha's work environment. To some extent, this traditional method of training persists, though it is of necessity foreshortened. Modern geisha are no longer bought by or brought into geisha houses as children. Becoming a geisha is now entirely voluntary. Most geisha now begin their training in their late teens.

Are Geisha Prostitutes?
Strictly speaking, geisha are not prostitutes. Because they entertain men behind closed doors in an exclusive manner, there has been much speculation about the underpinnings of their profession. The confusion that surrounds this issue has been complicated by Japanese prostitutes who wish to co-opt the prestige of the geisha image, and by inaccurate depictions of geisha in Western popular culture. Although a geisha may choose to engage in sexual relations with one of her patrons.

The first geisha was indeed a courtesan named Kako. Over time, she discovered that she had no need to engage in the red-light district. Kako was directly or indirectly to heir to many schools of Japanese art. She called herself a geisha ("arts-person") and confined herself to giving artistic performances.

Occasionally, a geisha may choose to take a danna (an old fashioned word for husband), which is typically a wealthy man who has the means to support a geisha mistress. Although a geisha may fall in love with her danna, the affair is customarily contingent upon the danna's ability to financially support the geisha's lifestyle. The traditional conventions and values within such a relationship are very intricate and not well understood, even by many Japanese. Because of this, the true intimate role of the geisha remains the object of much speculation, and often misinterpretation, in Japan as well as abroad.

Go Japan Go

Sado - Japanese Tea Ceremony

Tea anyone?!

Japanese tea ceremony is a ritual that is heavily-influenced by the teachings of Zen Buddhism. There are two types of the tea gatherings with Ochakai being the simpler form of ceremony. It usually includes a service of confections, usucha (thin tea), and ten shin (light meal). Chaji is the more formal of the two ceremonies. It includes kaiseki (full-course meal), the service of confections, koicha (thick tea), and the thin tea. The chaji tea ceremony can last more than four hours.

Tea ceremony has very specific traditions which are followed very closely. If the tea house possesses a bench outside, guests are expected to wait on that bench until the host calls them to come inside the establishment. Guests are then asked to use a little stone basin to wash their hands and mouths to "purify" themselves. After this, the guests head inside, but must remove their shoes before the are allowed to enter. Guests are then seated on a tatami in order from the most prestigious person in the group to the least prestigious. The host lays a charcoal fire in front of them and serves several courses of food and sake to wash it down. After the meal, each guest takes out a little sweet from kasha paper and eats it. Once the sweet is eaten, the guests are all expected to return to the waiting area until they are called again by the host.

The host uses specific movements to clean all of the utensils and then prepares the thick tea. It is proper for the host to have an assistant pour the tea for the guests. The host and the guest exchange bows as the guest drinks from the tea bowl. Then, he repeats this with the second guest. The action is repeated over and over until the last guest has consumed tea from the same bowl as everyone else. Then, the guests admire the tea bowl. Once all of the guests have had a chance to admire the bowl, the host takes the tea bowl out of the room.

At this point, the host changes the event from formal to informal and adds more charcoal to the fire. To liven things up, the host brings a smoking set, more confections, and cushions into the room. Then, the host prepares individual bowls of the thin tea for each guest in attendance. At this point in the evening, it is finally acceptable for the guests to engage in casual conversations with one another. After the tea has been taken by every guest, the host takes the utensils and cleans them. The guest of honor is supposed to ask the host to let the guests examine the cleaned utensils. Each guests takes a good hard look at the utensils, but handles them with care. The utensils are often very valuable and irreplaceable. Once everything has been examined, it is time for the guests to leave. The host bows to them as they exit through a small doorway concluding the ceremony.


Patience is a virtue!

Gaman (我慢) is a Japanese term and teaching of Zen Buddhist origin which means "enduring the seemingly unbearable with patience and dignity". The term is generally translated as "perseverance", "patience", tolerance, or "self-denial". A related term, gamanzuyoi (我慢強い gaman-tsuyoi), a compound with tsuyoi (strong), means "suffering the unbearable" or having a high capacity for a kind of stoic endurance.

Gaman is variously described as a "law," a "virtue," an "ethos," a "trait," etc. It means to do one's best in distressed times and to maintain self-control and discipline.

Gaman has been attributed to the Japanese-Americans and others held in United States' internment camps during World War II and to those affected by the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami in northern Japan. In the internment camps, Gaman was misperceived by non-Japanese as introverted behavior or as a lack of assertiveness or initiative rather than as a demonstration of strength in the face of difficulty or suffering.

After the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, the resilience, civility, lack of looting and ability of the Japanese to help each other was widely attributed to the gaman spirit. The 50–70 workers that remained at the damaged and radiation-emitting Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant despite the severe danger demonstrated what was regarded as gamanas well.

Gaman is also used in psychoanalytic studies and to describe the attitudes of the Japanese. It is often taught to youth and largely used by older Japanese generations. Showing gaman is seen as a sign of maturity and strength. Keeping your private affairs, problems and complaints silent demonstrates strength and politeness as others have seemingly larger problems as well. If a person with gaman were to receive help from someone else, they would be compliant; not asking for any additional help and voicing no concerns.

Tokyo's New Final Fantasy Cafe Is Beautiful

The whole thing looks rather impressive!

Recently, websites Game Watch Impress, Radio Kaikan, and Famitsu got to check out the Eorzea Cafe. Below, you can get an inside look at the establishment. Located in Tokyo's Akihabara, the Eorzea Cafe opens on July 31. For those interested in swinging by, you can find directions


Sumo Wrestling

It's not fat when it's Sumo!

Sumo is known throughout the world as one of the most unique and exciting full-contact sports in existence. Sumo wrestling is a match of two large men facing off in a circular ring (dohyō). The man who can force the other out of the circle is the victor. A wrestler can also win by making his opponent touch the ground with any part of his body other than the bottoms of his feet. Japan, the country that created the sport of sumo wrestling, is the only country that supports professional matches. Sumo is considered by most to be one of the gendai budo (modern Japanese martial art), but the long history of the sport means that that classification is not correct.

Sumo includes many elements of ritual including the use of salt for purification. This comes from the time when sumo was practiced as part of Japan's Shinto religion. A sumo wrestler leads a highly-regimented life that is ruled by the Sumo Association's laws. It is required for most of the wrestlers to live a communal existence with their fellow fighters. The heya (sumo training stables) is a place that respects the strict traditions of the sport and controls most aspects of the wrestlers' daily lives, including their meals and clothing.

Sumo has six divisions. These divisions are makuuchi, which can include forty-two wrestlers, juryo, which can include twenty-eight wrestlers, makushita, which includes one hundred and twenty members, sandanme, which has two hundred wrestlers, jonidan, which includes two hundred and thirty wrestlers, and jonokuchi, which has eighty wrestlers. Each wrestler enters the professional sport in the lowest division, which is jonokuchi, and works his way up from division to division. The wrestlers who make up the highest two divisions are called sekitori. The wrestlers Of the lower divisions are called rikishi.

Fans of the sport pay the most attention to the makuuchi division. It also has the heircharchy that is the most complex. Most of the wrestlers are called maegashira. They are a rated, with number one being the best and number seventeen being the worst. There are three champion ranks that are above the prestige of the maegashira. These are known as the sanyaku. From the highest to the lowest, these champion ranks are the komusubi, the sekiwake, and the ōzeki. The very top rank is yokozuna. These are the grand champions. They are expected to win the top tournament titles. Naturally, it is very difficult to make it into the Yokozuna. The criteria for a member of the ōzeki to be considered to join the yokozuna is winning two consecutive championship titles or to achieve some sort of equivalent performance. The Grand Sumo Tournaments (honbasho) are the only matches that are used to determine distinctions. Exhibition matches have absolutely no bearing on how a wrestler is ranked.

The amazing exhibition of physical power and the unique dedication to ancient ritual make sumo a very interesting and exciting sport to watch, whether on television or in person.