Japanese Emoji: Explained

Did you know that the word emoji doesn’t have anything to do with emotions like it seems like it does in English? Emoji is actually a Japanese word, 絵文字, which means “picture letter”. Emoji evolved from kaomoji, 顔文字, which means “face letter”. These kaomoji are called emoticons in English (which actually is related to the word emotion!), and are the typed faces like :-), =D, and 😦 and the Japanese (>_<), (*^^)v, and (;一_一).

Emoji can now be found everywhere online, but there are so many of them that it’s hard to know what they all mean! Emoji first started in the late 90’s in Japan by a man named Shigetaka Kurita. The first emoji were inspired by people out and about, which is why there’s a lot of emoji for signs and with kanji! We’re going to go through those emoji, as well some (relatively) newer emoji that originated from and are culturally relevant in Japan.


People

  • 🙇‍♂️🙇‍♀️🙇 Dogeza: Translated as “to prostrate oneself”, dogeza is kneeling down as a deep apology or to ask a big favor. There’s a couple dogeza poses, but the head is usually facing the ground.
  • 🙅🙅‍♂️🙅‍♀️ Batsu: The Japanese word for an X (×) denoting an incorrect answer or “no”. The arms are crossed to create the cross shape.
  • 🙆🙆‍♂️🙆‍♀️ Maru: The Japanese word for a circle (○) denoting a correct answer or “okay”. The arms are making the shape of a circle.
  • 👹 Oni, or ogres: Mythical beings similar to demons, and, in some regions of Japan, are used on holidays such as Vernal Equinox Day to scold children who’ve been naughty.
  • 👺 Tengu, or goblins: Another type of mythical being that was akin to demons, but are now seen as destructive yet protective. Their signature feature is their long nose, which used to be a beak as tengu were thought to be birds of prey.
  • 🙈🙉🙊 The Three Wise Monkeys: You’ve probably heard the phrase “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil”, and these macaques embody the maxim. Their names are Mizaru (“see not”), Kikazaru (“hear not”), and Iwazaru (“speak not”), which are puns on the Japanese word for monkey, saru.
  • 🙌 Banzai: Yelling “banzai” is a traditional celebratory cheer in Japan, and the celebrators raise their hands as shown in the emoji.

Clothes

  • 🥋 Keikogi: If you practice judo you’ll know this one. It’s a keikogi, or dōgi, the traditional martial arts uniform used in judo, kendo, aikido, etc. In English we usually just call it a gi.
  • 👘 Kimono: You definitely know this one, the national attire of Japan. Or… is it a yukata, the more relaxed version for warmer weather? Depending on what device you’re on, it might be different!
  • ⛑️ Construction helmet: The red cross on the front is used in Japan as a safety reminder.
  • 🎒 Randoseru: This emoji looks like a backpack, and it is! But it’s a particular type of backpack called randoseru, which was borrowed from the Dutch word “ransel”. They are firm, made of leather (or fake leather), and are used by Japanese elementary school students.

Food

  • 🍱 Bento: Boxed lunch, usually eaten at school, work, or while traveling.
  • 🍘 Senbei: Senbei is a rice cracker, eaten as a snack with tea. This one looks like it’s soy sauce flavor and wrapped in a piece seaweed.
  • 🍙 Onigiri: The famous rice ball! Onigiri are usually wrapped in seaweed and either have a tasty filling or use flavored rice.
  • 🍛 Curry Rice, or kare raisu: Curry is usually associated with India, but curry & rice is extremely popular in Japan where it has its own unique Japanese-y flavor.
  • 🍢 Oden: A tasty, wintry dish made of various foods like konnyaku (a plant jelly), fish cakes, daikon (a radish), and eggs, all cooked in dashi (a fish and/or seaweed broth). Sticks of the cooked foods can be bought at convenience stores or street vendors.
  • 🍣 Sushi: Everyone’s favorite seafood dish! Depending on your device, the emoji will either be two nigirizushi (rice topped with raw fish) or one nigirizushi with one makizushi (rolled sushi wrapped in seaweed).
  • 🍤 Ebi-furai: Tempura fried shrimp, often found in bento.
  • 🍥 Narutomaki: A type of kamaboko, or fish cake, naruto (the abbreviation for narutomaki) is a white flowery shape with a pink maki (swirl or roll) in the center. They are named after the Naruto Whirlpools between Tokushima and Hyogo, which is also what the anime character Uzumaki Naruto is named after.
  • 🍡 Dango: A type of popular dessert rice ball. There are many types of dango, but the type the emoji depicts is called botchan dango, which are colored with red bean, egg, and green tea.
  • 🥟 Gyoza: Also called dumplings or pot stickers, gyoza are delicious steamed meat and veggies wrapped and sealed in thin dough.
  • 🍧 Kakigoori: Similar to a snow cone but with thinner ice, kakigoori is a popular summer treat that can be bought at food stalls. It’s often covered with sweetened condensed milk in addition to the flavor syrup.
  • 🍮 Purin: Also known as flan or caramel custard, purin (from the English word “pudding”) is a very popular dessert in Japan. This caramel-covered custard can be found everywhere, from convenience stores to conveyor belt sushi restaurants.
  • 🍶 Sake: While we call this Japanese alcohol made from rice sake in English, it’s called nihonshu (Japanese liquor) in Japanese, as sake is just the generic term for alcohol. The emoji shows the a traditional set of bottle (tokkuri) and cup (choko), but there are many traditional sake-drinking items in japan, like a small plate and a wooden box.

Items & Things

  • 🎎 Hina-ningyo: These two are traditional dolls put on display during Hinamatsuri, usually known as Girls’ Day in English. The dolls represent the Emperor and Empress in ceremonial court outfits. They are often found with many other dolls representing court attendants.
  • 🎏 Koinobori: Koinobori, or carp streamers, are used in Childrens’ Day celebrations. Traditionally, each carp represents a different member of the family.
  • 🎐 Fuurin: A Japanese wind chime – though it is often mistaken as a jellyfish.
  • 🏮 Lantern: These paper lanterns can be found all throughout Japan, with these red ones often being hung near izakaya.
  • 🌸 Sakura: A cherry blossom, the spring symbol of Japan. Sakura are celebrated in Japan and people often go on hanami (flower viewing) in the spring, looking at the beautiful flowers while drinking with friends.
  • ⛄☃️ Yuki-Daruma: Snowmen! Did you know Japanese snowmen are made of two balls of snow instead of three?
  • 🎋 Tanabata Wish Tree: Tanabata is a traditional celebration of the meeting of two stars in July. People write their wishes on strips of paper and tie them on bamboo, which is what the emoji depicts.
  • 🎍 Kadomatsu: Decorations made from bamboo that are placed outside of homes during New Year. Kadomatsu are said to welcome ancestral spirits into their homes to bring good luck for the next year.
  • 🌊 The Great Wave off Kanagawa: While depicted as a large wave on most devices, Apple’s design of the wave emoji is of the wave in the famous Great Wave off Kanazawa woodblock print by Hokusai.
  • ⛩️ Torii: A Japanese gate found at the entrance and within Shinto Shrines. Torii gates signify the border between the ordinary world and the sacred.
  • 🚅 Shinkansen: Slightly different than the other train emoji (🚈🚅), the famous shinkansen are known as bullet trains in English. They can get up to 200 miles per hour.
  • 🚥 Shingo: Traffic lights – but the setup of the lights might be different than you’re used to in the U.S.
  • 🎑 Tsukimi: Literally meaning “moon viewing”, tsukimi are celebrations usually held in September and October to honor the autumn moons. The emoji shows the full moon along with grass and dango, which are traditional decorations for tsukimi.
  • 🎇 Senko-Hanabi: A type of Japanese sparkler that is held firework-side down instead of up. They are lit last among other fireworks, and are said to make the watcher suddenly aware of the beautify and briefness of everything.

Places

  • 🗻 Fuji-san: Fun fact: did you know Mount Fuji is an active volcano?
  • 🏣 Japanese Post Office: There are two different emoji for post office; this one with the 〒 symbol is the Japanese type. 〒 is the postal mark in Japan, which is a stylized テ (te) and is short for teishin, meaning “communications”. This mark can be found on the 🔣 emoji, too.
  • 🏪 Konbini: A convenience store! These can be found all over the world, but, according to my math, there is 1 konbini (the Japanese abbreviation for convenience store) every 3 square-miles in Japan, while the US has 1 convenience store every 30 square-miles. I’ve never walked longer than 5 minutes to find a konbini in Japan.
  • 🏯 Castle: This one probably looks familiar, especially if you’ve seen Hikone Castle. Japanese castles were more like fortresses than palaces, and the architecture is very different from a European castle (🏰).
  • 🗼 Tokyo Tower: The second tallest building in Japan. While the tower may resemble the Eiffel Tower, Tokyo Tower is actually a radio/communications and observation tower. That’s why it’s painted international orange to follow air safety regulations.

Symbols

  • 💮 Well Done Flower: If you’ve taken Japanese classes in high school or at university, you may have seen this symbol. This cherry blossom is drawn or stamped onto school assignments that have a good score. The Apple version (as well as some other devices) says 大変よくできました (taihen yoku dekimashita) which means “well done”.
  • 💢 Anger: If you’ve watched anime or read manga, you’ve seen this symbol before. It often appears on a character’s head to depict their veins popping out from frustration.
  • ♨️ Onsen: Hot springs, or onsen, are found all over Japan. This is the symbol that is used on maps to show where onsen are.
  • 🎴 Hanafuda: Meaning “flower cards”, hanafuda are a type of Japanese playing cards used for many traditional card games.
  • 🀄 Mahjong Tile: Mahjong originated in China, but Japan has their own version that is very popular. This tile has the 中 (pronounced chun here) character on it, which makes this the red dragon tile.
  • 📛 Name Badge: While this emoji looks like a sign of some sort, it’s a name badge. This shape of name badge is very common in Japanese kindergartens.
  • 🔰 Shoshinsha Mark: Shoshinsha means “beginner driver”. Drivers in Japan must have this mark on their car for a year after receiving their drivers license to show that they’re a new driver.
  • 〽️ Part Alternation Mark: This lopsided M is actually a mark used in traditional Japanese music for plays or spoken poems. The mark is used to signify where the singer begins to sing.
  • 🅰️🆎🅱️🅾️ Blood Types: It may be obvious that these emoji represent the different blood types, but it may not be obvious why these emoji exist. In Japan (and other places like South Korea), blood types are believed to determine someone’s personality, much like a zodiac sign. People in Japan may ask you what your blood type is in the same way they’d ask your age or where you from, and it’s not uncommon to see someone put their blood type in their social media bio.
  • 🆖 NG: Stands for “no good”, so this emoji is the opposite of 🆗. Bloopers and outtakes of movies and TV shows in Japan are often called NGs.
  • 🈁 Here: Pronounced koko on it, which creatively means “here” in Japanese.
  • 🈂️ Service: Short for サービス (saabisu, service), which means free of charge. For example, if they knowingly give you an extra nugget at McDonalds, that’d be saabisu!
  • 🈷️ Month: 月 means “moon” or “month” in Japanese and Chinese, but this emoji is supposed to represent “monthly amount”.
  • 🈚 Free: 無 means “don’t have” on its own, but this emoji is short for 無料 (muryou), which means “free of charge”.
  • 🈶 Not Free: The opposite of 🈚. 有 means “have”, so this emoji is short for 有料 (yuuryou), which means “has a charge” or “not free”.
  • 🈯 Reserved: Short for 指定 (shitei), which means “reserved” or “assigned”. A reserved seat on a train would be 指定席 (shitei-seki).
  • 🉐 Bargain: Means “to aquire” or “profit”, but in this case means something is a “good bargain”, likely short for 買い得 (kaidoku).
  • 🈹 Discount: Denotes “discount” because 割 (wari) means cut, as in cutting the prices.
  • 🈲 Prohibited: Short for 禁止 (kinshi), prohibition or ban, and 禁じる, to prohibit.
  • 🉑 Acceptable: Pronounced ka on its own, 可 is used in words like 可能 (kanou), possible/feasable. It is used in everyone’s favorite word kawaii (可愛い), which literally means “can love (adj)” or “lovable”.
  • 🈸 Application: 申 (mou or shin) has a few meanings in Japanese, mostly used to mean “application” or “to request”. It is used to signify requesting information.
  • 🈴 Pass: Short for 合格 (goukaku), this emoji means “to pass (an exam, etc.)” or “success”.
  • 🈳 Vacant: 空 (sora) usually means “sky” on its own, but in this context it means “vacant” or “empty” and is pronounced “kara” or “kuu“. You’ll see the character on this emoji on empty taxis, open parking spots, and hotels with vacant rooms.
  • 🈵 No Vacancy: 満 (man) is the opposite of vacant; this emoji means “full”.
  • ㊗️ Congrats: 祝う (iwau) means “to celebrate” and is used for festivals, holidays, and when wishing someone a happy birthday or congratulating them on something.
  • ㊙️ Secret: Short for 秘密 (himitsu). Further explanations of this emoji’s origin story are confidential.
  • 🈺 Open for Business: 営 alone means “business” or “work”, and this emoji means 営業中 (eigyou-chuu), or “open for business”.

There’s No Place Like Kansai For the Holidays

Tori gate covered in snow
(Photo Credit: Shiga Photo Library)

You did it. Your first semester abroad is almost over. You might be preparing for you flight back home, or for your next semester abroad. Either way, you have a unique opportunity before you leave: exploring another country during the holidays!

Japan offers a lot when it comes to the winter, whether it be festivals, lighting ceremonies, or just the gorgeous scenery in the snowfall. Here are some of the top things to do in Kansai during the holiday season.

Chion-in Temple in Kyoto

Priest ringing bell

Visiting a temple on New Year’s Eve is a staple of Japanese culture. You get to eat good food and ring in the New Year with an unforgettable experience. While there are temples closer to JCMU, you just can’t beat Kyoto’s temples.

Otsu’s Rose Fantasy Garden of Lights

Lights display on Lake Biwa
(Photo Credit: Shiga Photo Library)

Starting on December 1st, Otsu hosts a spectacular light display along the shore of Lake Biwa. It features over 100,000 holiday lights! So bundle up, grab some hot chocolate and a friend and take a night time stroll through this luminary garden.

Winter Festival’s in Tohoku

Ryokan covered in snow by river
(Osawa Onsen, Hanamaki, Iwate)

Maybe you want to go all out and see more of Japan. JCMU Program Director Kate Simon recommends going to the Tohoku Region! The winter festivals are incredible and you get to see a very different side of the country. If you have the travel bug, there is no better place to go for the winter. Most of the festivals do take place in February though, so you might have to be patient.

Honke Tsuruki Soba

Who needs fancy lights and pretty sights – after all, the only thing you really need is some good food. Our follower Ian Shepard recommended Honke Tsuruki Soba, a 300 year old soba shop located in Otsu. So if you have the itch for some traditional Japanese food this winter, this is the spot.

Ryokan Beniyau

It’s been a hard semester. Adjusting to a new culture and the daily grind of learning Japanese have taken their toll. You need somewhere to relax. Look no further than Ryokan Beniya, located just north of Hikone in Nagahama. This Ryokan has amazing baths! From the outdoor bath you can see Lake Biwa and watch the snow fall. So treat yourself and enjoy some classic Japanese bath houses!

Jazz-Bar Coltrane in Kusatsu

What better way to wring in the roaring 20’s part two then some Jazz! Recommended by JCMU’s very own Harada-san no less. This bar sports a classy feel and some smooth jazz. In short, all you need for a relaxing and fun evening. So now that you know your onions go and have some fun!

Japanese Media as a Study Tool

When you get to a certain point in your Japanese studies, you’ll begin to look towards authentic material to aide your progress. Not only is it a fun alternative to the standardized textbooks, you get a glimpse into the culture and thought process of native speakers.

At the same time, you don’t want to jump into to your local Hikone newspaper and undoubtedly be discouraged by the sheer amount of Kanji.

That being said, what sorts of material should you use to help your studies? This quick list may give you some suggestions on what you could be using.

Children’s Books & Manga

Children’s books are a great resource for any level learner and can aide you in numerous ways. Since these books are designed for children, the vocabulary and grammar used is not too hard, but not easy enough to simply breeze through. It’s a healthy medium in which you can learn about some of the cultural themes expressed through the literature as well as some tango (vocabulary) you may not have known.

If you’re feeling drained reading books meant for 5 year olds all day, as a substitute try reading your favorite manga (Japanese comic book). The pictures included help guide the story in case you don’t understand everything. Assuming your manga of choice is one you’re familiar with, following the plot shouldn’t be an issue either.


Video Games

I recently started playing through the newly released Pokémon Sword on my Nintendo Switch. It has options for kanji text or simply hiragana. Although it’s a slow, note filled process, playing through on one my all time favorite series in another language is a fulfilling activity.

Other games I’d recommend you try out are the Persona games, Earthbound, and any other text-heavy RPG.


Anime/Reality TV

Anime (Japanese cartoons) and reality TV shows give you unfiltered, native speed Japanese to help your listening skills.

The drawback to anime in particular is that the Japanese used may not always be conversational or grammatically ‘correct’. For example, a character in One Piece or Naruto may have a catch phrase that might garner some stares if said in normal conversation. As such, this method isn’t recommended for you if you’re a beginner as you may pick up bad habits.

My suggestion is to watch with Japanese subtitles, allowing you to read and process what you hear. Netflix’s Terrace House and other original Japanese-Netflix series have the option for both Japanese audio and captions.


I hope you’ve been able to expand your approach to language learning and realize that the experience is what you make it. Take it slow and have fun! がんばってくだい (ganbatte kudasai)! Do your best!

The Story of Yasuke – The African Samurai

One day in my Japanese class while studying abroad, we got into a discussion regarding Japanese history. The conversation eventually turned in my direction, where I asked sensei and the class if they’d ever heard of a man named Yasuke.

They had not.

That prompted me to inform the class about his existence and legacy. This is the story of the one and only African Samurai, Yasuke.

A painting of a man (Yasuke) on a horse.

Yasuke was the only African and first non-Japanese samurai. His story began around 1579 in Edo Japan. Not much is known about his life before arriving in Japan. Some say he was from the country of Mozambique and came to Japan on a ship with an Italian missionary named Alessandro Valignano on an inspection tour. Other accounts say he was an escaped slave.

Yasuke arrived in Kyoto where he found himself at the feet of the Feudal Lord Oda Nobunaga, who praised his height and build. It had been the first time he had seen an African.

Grayscale drawing of samurai wielding swords against each other

Nobunaga quickly enlisted him into his ranks. They soon became close, treating him almost like family. Nobunaga described Yasuke as a man who had the might of 10 men, and was among the few people permitted to dine with the lord — a high honor. He fought in a number of important battles and is said to even be present the night Nobunaga took his own life.

The fall of Nobunaga’s empire in 1582 also marks the end of Yasuke’s known history, when he was exiled.

The tale of Yasuke has perplexed and fascinated me from the moment I’d heard it. It is a story I and many other people would like to preserve in history.

There’s also some media regarding the topic if you’d like to learn more about him. There are many books such as “African Samurai: The True Story of Yasuke, a Legendary Black Warrior in Feudal Japan” and Yoshio Kurusu’s 1969 award winning children’s book “くろ助 Kurosuke”. Hollywood studio Lionsgate also announced a movie focusing on his life is in production.

Cover of a book with a person in samurai gear. Title reads "Yasuke: The True Story of the Legendary African Samurai".

What’s the deal with ように?

If you’re learning Japanese, you’ll undoubtedly haunted by the phrase ように (yō ni) at some point in your studies. ように is one of the most common, yet difficult phrases to master.

But why? The reason lies in its versatility.

Broadly, ように can mean “in order to” or “so that”. However, the context of the sentence it’s in can change its meaning entirely. For example, ようになる (yō ni naru) translates to “is now possible”, ようにする (yō ni suru) is “to do so that”, and のように (no yō ni) is “in the same way”.

Here are some examples of the different uses of ように. Notice how it changes in meaning depending on what words are by it:


1.) 明日早く起きるようにする
Ashita hayaku okiru yō ni suru.
I’ll try to wake up early tomorrow.

2.) それから、家に帰って子供のように寝ちゃった。
Sore kara, uchi ni kaette kodomo no yō ni nechatta.
Then I went home and slept like a child.

3.) 日本語が話せるようになりたいな。
Nihongo ga hanaseru yō ni naritai na.
I want to become able to speak Japanese.

4.) これはチョコレートのように見えるけど、消しゴムだから、食べないでください。
Kore wa chocorēto no yō ni mierukedo, keshigomu dakara, tabenaide kudasai.
This looks like chocolate, but it’s an eraser, so do not eat it.


It is often compared to ために (tame ni), which can also mean “to do” in many cases. However, ために expresses aims, benefits, and causation, whereas ように expresses ideal situations:

〇 お金を集めるためにコンサートをした。
okane wo atsumeru tame ni consāto wo shita.

× お金を集めるようにコンサートをした。
Okane o atsumeru yō ni consāto o shita.


JCMU's official mascot, Hiraku the Swan with a question mark above his head.

Confusing, right? A good way to think about it is to consider the meaning of ように as “towards a certain state”. Looking back at ようになる, you can see that it is changing something from impossible to possible.

To make a long story short, ように can be a very useful phrase if used correctly. However, it can quickly become frustrating due to its nature. But as challenging as it may seem, don’t be overwhelmed with the learning process! You can do it!

それでは、お勉強、がんばってください~
Sore de wa, obenkyō, gabatte kudasai~
And with that, good luck with your studies~

An animated raccoon character exclaiming, "Do not give up!" in Japanese

Japanese Mythology: Imperial Regalia

Last time, I explained the Japanese creation myth including the story of Izanagi and Izanami. In this post, I’m going to explain what happened next with their Three Precious Children. Their stories gives way for the Imperial Regalia of Japan (三種の神器, sanshu no jingi, “Three Sacred Treasures”) and are among the most well known Japanese myths!


Amaterasu, the goddess of the sun, and her brother Tsukuyomi, the god of the moon, were married. Because… you know, that’s just what ancient gods did. Together, they lived in the heavens. One day, Uke Mochi (保食神, “The Goddess Who Protects Food”), the goddess of food and cooking, invited Amaterasu over for a feast. Amaterasu couldn’t go, so she sent Tsukuyomi to represent her. Once Tsukuyomi arrived, Uke Mochi began to prepare the food; she turned into the ocean and spat out fish, faced the forest and spat out game, then turned into a rice paddy and coughed up rice. The food looked delicious, but Tsukuyomi was so disgusted by the way Uke Mochi produced the food that he killed her. Her body then produced more food: millet, beans, more rice and meat, and even silkworms.

When Tsukuyomi came home, he told Amaterasu what had happened. Amaterasu was so upset with Tsukuyomi for killing Uke Mochi that she labeled him as an evil god and broke up with him. She then moved to a different part of the sky, which is why day and night are now separate.

Tsukuyomi

Amaterasu had a long standing rivalry with her other brother, Susano’o. Their father Izanagi ordered Susano’o to leave the heavens. Susano’o went to Amaterasu to say goodbye, but she was suspicious of him. He proposed a challenge in order to prove his sincerity: they were to take an item from each other and produce gods from it (because that shows you’re sincere, right?). Susano’o created five male deities from Amaterasu’s necklace, and she created three female deities from his sword. Amaterasu claimed that she had won, because the five male deities were birthed from her necklace, and this upset Susano’o. Overcome with anger, he destroyed Amaterasu’s rice fields and threw a giant horse at her loom, which killed her favorite attendant. Amaterasu was incredibly upset and banished Susano’o from heaven; She then hid behind ama-no-iwato (天岩戸, “heavenly rock cave”). With the sun goddess gone, the world was plunged into darkness.

With no light in the world and evil spirits everywhere, all the other gods worked together to figure out a way to get Amaterasu to leave the cave. They eventually came up with a plan. Roosters were let out near the entrance to trick her into thinking that dawn had come. A tree was also placed near the cave and was covered in magatama (勾玉), traditional Japanese curved beads, and a big beautiful mirror. Then the gods threw a party right outside of the cave! Eventually, a goddess started dancing. The dance was so entertaining that the other gods filled the place with laughter. Hearing the excitement outside, Amaterasu peeked out from behind the boulder, and was amazed by her own reflection on the mirror. With the cave opened up enough, some strong gods pulled the boulder away and yanked her out of the cave. They told her not to hide any more, and the world was filled with light again.

Amaterasu emerging from the cave, surrounding the world in light

After he was exiled from Heaven, Susano’o ended up near a river in Izumo Province. He heard crying, and found a family of earthly gods: a mother, a father, and a daughter. Susano’o asked them why they were upset, and they explained to him that they used to have eight daughters, but every year for the past seven years, an eight-headed and eight-tailed serpent named Yamata no Orochi (八岐大蛇, “8-branched giant snake”) came and ate one of their daughters. They only had one daughter left, and Orochi was coming soon.

Susano’o offered to help the family by killing Orochi if he could marry their last daughter, Kushinada-hime, to which they agreed. Susano’o turned Kushinada-hime into a comb and put her in his hair. He then instructed the parents to build a fence with eight holes and to put eight large vats of sake behind those holes. When Orochi showed up, it put each of its heads through the holes in the fence to drink the sake, which made it drunk and start to fall asleep. Susano’o used this opportunity to cut off all eight heads, then cut off all eight tails. While cutting the fourth tail, Susano’o’s blade hit something: the Ama-no-Murakumo-no-Tsurugi (天叢雲剣, “Heavenly Cloud Gathering Sword”), now called Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi (草薙剣, “Grass Mowing Sword”). With his new comb wife, he gave the sword to Amaterasu as an apology.

Susano’o slaying Orochi

Amaterasu then had all three pieces of what would be considered the Imperial Regalia. Kusanagi, the sword, represented valor. Yata-no-Kagami (八咫鏡, “Eight Span Mirror”), the mirror used to lure Amaterasu out of the cave, represented wisdom and truth. Yasakani-no-Magatama (八尺瓊勾玉, “Eight Saka Agate Magatama“), a bead from the tree that mirror hung from, represented benevolence.

Amaterasu eventually gave the Imperial Regalia to her grandson, Ninigi-no-Mikoto, and sent him to earth to pacify Japan and plant rice. It is said that Ninigi-no-Mikoto later passed the Imperial Regalia to his great-grandson, Jimmu, who became Japan’s first emperor in 660 BC. This is why the Japanese believed that the Imperial Family is directly related to the gods and why the Imperial Regalia are still presented during the enthronement ceremony today.

an artist’s rendition of the Imperial Regalia

What the regalia look like is a mystery, and their locations aren’t confirmed. It has been stated that the sword is at Atsusa Shrine in Nagoya, the mirror at Ise Grand Shrine in Mie, and the bead in the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. Throughout their 2000+ years of existence there have been stories of them being lost at sea or stolen, so we may never really know where they are. Wherever they may be, whatever they may look like, the Imperial Regalia and the myths surrounding them certainly have impacted Japanese culture even today.

Sounds of Japan

One of the most liberating elements of Japan and its culture resides in music. Outside of the popular idol culture, the music industry in Japan showcases too many niches to count. You may stumble upon a Jazz cafe right next to a Hip-Hop bar, for example. Or you may walk down the street and catch a taiko (Japanese drums) group preparing for their next performance.

To put it starkly, Japan has a music culture that is rapidly growing, giving a chance to any and all styles.

I experienced this firsthand. During my stay in Japan I had the opportunity to personally see and even participate in the music.

The first of which is the Hikone Community Taiko Club. Though taiko itself just means “drums” in Japanese, it typically refers to what is called kumi-daiko: a traditional style of drumming that has been integrated into the Japanese culture for centuries.

A man playing an Ohira-daiko drum in front of women playing Nagado and Shime-daiko drums
The Hikone Community Taiko Club rehearsing a performance piece

The Hikone Community Taiko Club offers classes for all ages, from younger generations looking to get a start on their music career to older generations aiming to preserve the spirit of kumi-daiko and stay fit. The culmination of musicians from different backgrounds come together to form an elegant cacophony of sound.

A man and a woman playing Shime Daiko drums
Practicing taiko with the club

Another unique opportunity I was able to participate in regarding music in Japan lies within styles far removed from Taiko. Those of which are Rock and Hip-Hop music.

I got the chance to meet members of a fast growing rock band, WOMCADOLE. Their lead singer, Higuchi, and myself performed a concert in Otsu City, Japan. There, I was able to not only join him in a few hard rock pieces, but I also got to perform a few of my own Hip-Hop/Rap songs. This experience was a once-in-a-lifetime chance, and I cannot thank him enough for giving me the opportunity.

Higuchi and the rest of WOMCADOLE boast an explosive yet melodic rock type of music, similar to that you might hear in an anime. His band was also recently featured by Universal Music Japan.

Two men close together posing with guitars
Me and my good friend/lead singer of WOMCADOLE, Higuchi

The last set of music I’d like to tell you about is one many people can relate to and enjoy from around the world: street music/performance. No matter where you go, a big city is not complete without the sounds of singing, unique instruments, and the like. Osaka, Japan is no exception.

During the Halloween season, Osaka is filled to the brim with people. The atmosphere is completed by crowds of people surrounding street performers, some with large speakers and bucket drums with a kit made from pots and pans. The uniqueness each performer brings tells their own story of life in Japan.

A drummer using buckets, pots and pans to make music
A street drummer in Osaka on Halloween

The culture of music is just as inviting as the other aspects of the country and will continue to grow as time goes on. Even though the produced sounds can be polar opposites, having performed and seen up close music in both America and Japan I can say with certainty that it brings people together all the same.

Michigan host families needed ASAP!

Length: 2 weeks

Guests:
1 – Ming-Ku (Taiwan), male, 37
2 – Jhih-Hao (Taiwan), male, 38

Dates:
Guest 1 – Sept 30 through Oct 13
Guest 2 – Oct 13 through Oct 28

Overview: Would your family be interested in hosting one of these IFYE program delegates for two weeks? They are here to experience Michigan 4-H, agriculture, environmental conservation, and experiential learning. They are also interested in learning about your family, culture, and Michigan during their homestay.

Requirements: Since they are adults, they do need their own bedroom and hosts to provide three meals a day

Interested? Please contact MSU Extension Educator D’Ann Rohrer, by phone (231-845-3361) or e-mail (drohrer@anr.msu.edu) as soon as you are able.

Description of the IFYE program:  The IFYE Association conducts international exchange programs and cross-cultural education while promoting global awareness. Exchanges have continued for more than 70 years. Approximately 4,000 Americans have lived in 116 countries and a like number of people from those nations have come to the United States. Upon returning home, IFYE participants share their once-in-a-lifetime experiences with thousands of people in their communities, state, and nation. Today, IFYE exchanges are conducted in collaboration with State IFYE Associations and State Coordinators.  Programs are facilitated and supported by the IFYE Association of the USA, Inc. with a National IFYE Program Director.

Being a POC in Japan

皆さん、こんにちは! Hello, everyone! 

My name is Tariq Muhamed, and I am an alum of the 2018-2019 academic year program at the Japan Center for Michigan Universities (JCMU). I was asked to provide some insight into my life in Hikone from the perspective of a person of color, so here is my story:

I should first explain what led me to this point. With my home institution being Michigan State University (home to JCMU’s administrative office in Michigan), I had many professors and instructors advising me that if I wanted to improve my Japanese skills and have the experience of a lifetime, studying in Hikone was the way to go. So I packed my bags and did just that.

Two young students wearing jackets in front of a pine tree
My older brother and I outside of JCMU

I was greeted in Hikone and JCMU by a very common occurrence in Japan: a typhoon. Weirdly enough, that was when it finally set in – I’d finally achieved my lifelong dream, I’d finally made it to Japan.

I quickly became adjusted to life, going to karaoke with friends, the bi-daily trips to the convenience store, hanging out at the local restaurant Diner Pop, the works. My academic life also had been progressing well. Although I don’t want to get into the preachy stuff just yet, I want to give my first piece of advice to prospective JCMU students, whenever that may be – it is regarded as an intensive program for a reason! You will most definitely be pushed to the limits in your Japanese classes, so don’t be discouraged by the amount of work you will have to put in to your studies, you will definitely see results.

Now for the meat and potatoes, my experience in Hikone and Japan in general being a POC. Coming from a country in which I am already a steep minority, I couldn’t help but not expect many more stereotypes than the preexisting ones surrounding mine and many other’s lives in America. Excuse me if this is a generalization, however through my time in Japan, I’ve learned firsthand that many people know only kindness. I had been shown nothing but respect and love from almost every encounter I had.

That is not to say I didn’t have my share of questionable actions. More so than my friends and peers around me, I got stares and many more questions. Shrugging it off as the classic ‘gaijin’ (foreigner) enigma, I didn’t think much of it. Though I have been asked many questions such as “How do you feel about Trump?” or the classic “Can I touch your hair?” Nonetheless, I believed then and still do that they come from a place of genuine curiosity. Especially for a town such as Hikone, foreigners (specifically those of African-American descent) are quite scarce. All-in-all, I faced no discrimination at all during my time abroad.

Five Japanese and U.S. students together, with two in the front holding acoustic guitars
A fellow JCMU classmate, myself and some Japanese friends

So to prospective POC students of JCMU: you get back what you put in. I believe the saying “respect goes both ways” reigns true in this regard. Much in the same way you’re both surprised and amazed about the brand new culture in front of you, the Japanese person to your left or right feels the same way about you. Just think, through every conversation you have an opportunity to teach someone from an entirely different background and history, about YOUR heritage, own it.

I sincerely hope that you take the opportunity to expand your cultural horizons by taking a chance and putting yourself out there. If you are on the fence about studying, not just in Japan, but anywhere due to the color of your skin, I am here to tell you to not worry, and take that leap of faith.

No, liking anime doesn’t mean you’re a bad student

While I was studying Japanese at Michigan State, there were two distinct factions of people: those that liked anime and those that didn’t. Those that liked anime were often derided as wanting to learn Japanese for the wrong reasons.

Weirdly enough, many classmates automatically assumed that I didn’t like anime – after all, people that like anime can’t be serious about their studies, they thought. I didn’t really think much of it until one of my classmates pointed at two others across the room and whispered: “Those two are always talking about anime – no wonder their Japanese is awful!” The classmate then looked at me, expecting a chuckle or other amused response. Instead, all they got was a look of bewilderment. After all, I felt like I was being judged as an anime fan myself.

Group photo of study abroad student in front of Japanese temple gate
My classmates and I on the 2015 JCMU “Crossroads of Japan” short history program

Till that point, I didn’t realize just how ingrained this culture against anime-watchers was within the Japanese program. It was argued that people that like anime often equate the fictional worlds within their favorite TV shows to being exactly what Japanese culture is like, which would be culturally insensitive. Indeed, I have certainly come across some people that do think like this: they talk of going to Japan solely to visit Akihabara, a popular destination for pop culture fans filled with various anime-centric stores. However, I have never come across anybody in the upper levels of the Japanese language program that would assume anime and real-life Japan to be one and the same. That’d create a lot of contradictions with what you’re studying!

Generally, if you’ve committed to studying Japanese for two, three, four, or more years of your life, you likely are more dedicated to it beyond a simple desire to watch a television show without subtitles. Sure, anime was the reason I first got into my studies, but that was really it: a start. From there, my interest in Japanese culture coupled with the challenge of learning kanji and the grammar structures propelled me to three separate study abroad programs and a major in Japanese. I spent hours every days bettering my language skills, and prided myself on my ability to achieve high marks. So to hear people assume that certain hobbies necessarily meant you were an insensitive, low-achieving student was pretty hurtful.

Now working at JCMU, I have the opportunity to meet with students across the state at various events promoting our study abroad programs. During my conversations, some lamented the same thing happening at their school. Many of them went on to have successful semesters at JCMU.

Close-up picture of 6 people smiling
Meeting up with JCMU alumni at Japanese pop culture conventions

With this all said, I think it’s time we put this rumor to bed: your hobbies are not indicative of your ability to succeed in the classroom! So rather than focusing on whether or not your classmate watches anime, cosplays, reads Harry Potter, goes to the gym, plays sports, or what have you, instead work together and focus on the one thing we all collectively hate: keigo.