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”.

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.

Japanese Mythology: Cosmogony

Japan’s oldest historical record, the Kojiki (古事記; Records of Ancient Matters, 712 CE), and the second oldest book of Japanese history, the Nihon Shoki (日本書紀; The Chronicles of Japan, 720 CE) are both full of Shinto (the polytheistic religion native to Japan) myths and legends. This includes cosmogony, or the creation story of the world and the universe. Some of the figures in the creation myth are rarely mentioned since the books were written, but some play important roles in other Japanese legends and Shintoism.

While Japanese people don’t believe this anymore, the creation story is a good place to start if you’re interested in Japanese mythology and how it impacts Japanese culture. I’m going to tell that story in (hopefully) plain language. The creation myth is a little different in the Kojiki compared to the Nihon Shoki, but most people go by the Kojiki version, so that’s what I’ll be using.


Like many creation myths around the world, the universe started as silent chaos. Within this chaos, particles and light started to move. Light floated up faster than the particles, so the light is above the universe. The lighter particles floated up to form the clouds of takamagahara (高天原, The Plain of High Heaven). The heavier particles couldn’t float up, so they formed a mass called Earth below heaven.

When heaven was formed, five deities, the kotoamatsukami (別天津神, The Separate Heavenly Gods) appeared. Three came into being before the last two and are known as the zouka-sanshin (造化三神, The Three Creation Gods). These five kami (神, god or deity) were hitorigami (独神, Lone God) because they appeared spontaneously (as opposed to a male-female pair, which most gods are said to come from), didn’t have a partner, and were essentially gender-less. After these kami emerged, they went into hiding.

The Zouka-sanshin
clockwise from the center: Amenominakanushi, Kamimusubi, Takamimusubi

From there emerged the kamiyo-nanayo (神世七代, The Seven Generations of the Age of the Gods). Two more hitorigami appeared, followed by five pairs of male-female kami. Also like many myths throughout the world, these pairs were husband and wife, but also brother and sister.

While there is an innumerable amout of kami now, the Japanese creation myth shows how the first 17, the 5 kotoamatsukami and the 12 kamiyo-nanayo, emerged. The last pair of the kamiyo-nanayo were Izanami (伊邪那美神, She-Who-Invites) and her brother Izanagi (伊邪那岐神, He-Who-Invites). Izanagi and Izanami are two of the most important kami and are said to be the parents of hundreds to millions of other kami.

Izanagi and Izanami were tasked by the elder kami with kuniumi (国産み, Birth of the Country). They went to ame-no-ukihashi (天浮橋, The Floating Bridge of Heaven) connected to Earth, which was still just a floating mass of water. They churned the Earth with a jeweled spear, and the water that dripped off the tip of the spear when it was lifted created the first island, Onogoro-Shima (it is not known where this island is today). Izanami and Izanagi then moved to the island and built a castle with a heavenly pillar on top of it; they circled the top of the pillar to get married, and created the ooyajima (大八洲, Eight Great Islands): Awaji Island, Shikoku, Oki Islands, Kyushu, Iki Island, Tsushima Island, Sado Island, and Honshu. Other islands, like Hokkaido, and the rest of the world, were not mentioned as they were not yet known by the ancient Japanese.

Searching the Seas with the Tenkei by Kobayashi Eitaku
Izanagi and Izanami creating Japan

After kuniumi, the kamiumi (神産み, Birth of Gods) occurred. After creating the islands of Japan, Izanagi and Izanami birthed many kami, some male, some female, and some genderless. Giving birth to their last child, Kagutsuchi, the god of fire, Izanami was fatally injured. From her dying body some kami were born, and Izanagi’s tears while mourning her death birthed more kami. He then got so upset that he killed Kagutsuchi with a sword and cut him into 8 pieces, which created 8 volcanoes. Also from Kagutsuchi’s body 8 more kami were born, and his blood on the sword and surrounding rocks created another 8 kami.

According to Shinto mythology, there is a land of the dead called yomi (黄泉, literally “yellow spring”; the real meaning of yomi is unknown in Japanese, but the writing came from Daoism). Izanagi went to yomi to bring Izanami back, but found out that she had already eaten food in yomi, which makes it incredibly hard for one to leave. Izanami said that she will ask the gods of yomi if she could leave, but Izanagi would have to promise to not look at her, to which he agreed. She was taking a long time and Izanagi got worried, so he lit his comb from his hair to create some light in order to look for her. He eventually found her, but saw that her body was now a rotting corpse. He was scared, so he decided to abandon his wife and leave. Izanami was so embarrassed that her body bore eight thunder kami, and she commanded the yomotsu-shikome (黄泉丑女, female demons from yomi) to chase him.

While being chased, Izanagi threw his headress, which turned to grapes, and his comb, which turned into bamboo, making the shikome stop to eat. Izanami then sent yomi warriors and the 8 thunder kami after him, but Izanagi threw three peaches at them, so they ran away (peaches were thought to have evil-banishing magic at the time). At the slope that connects the land of the dead and the land of the living, Izanami and Izanagi met, and Izanagi lifted a huge rock and blocked the path (which is said to be in Matsue, Shimane Prefecture). Izanami yelled over the rock and said that if he leaves her she will kill 1,000 people every day, to which Izanagi replied by saying that he will ensure that 1,500 be born every day. That was the last time they saw each other, dissolving their marriage with Izanagi becoming the ruler of the living and Izanami becoming the ruler of the dead.

Izanagi and Izanami arguing through the rock

After leaving yomi, Izanagi decided to perform misogi (禊, a Shinto purification ritual) in a river to cleanse himself. Performing this ritual created 23 kami; the last step of the ritual created an additional 3 kami, known as the mihashira no uzu no mikoto (三貴子, Three Precious Children), the three most important kami in Shintoism. Amaterasu ( 天照大御神, roughly means ‘The Light of Heaven’), the female goddess of the sun, was born from the washing of Izanagi’s left eye. Tsukuyomi (月読命, roughly means ‘Reader of the Moon’), the gender-less deity of the night, was born from the washing of his right eye. Finally, Susano’o (須佐之男命, probably means ‘the man/male god from Susa’), the male god of the seas and storms, was born from the washing of his nose. This is why we wash our hands at the entrance of shrines and temples: to cleanse ourselves before entering a sacred place.


These myths explained how the universe and kami came to be, creating the basis for other Shinto stories and beliefs. The story of Izanagi and Izanami, along with stories about Amaterasu and Susano’o, are some of the most well known. I’m going to be writing about the Three Precious Children next, so stay tuned if you want to know more Japanese mythological stories!

What should I bring to JCMU?

While study abroad and traveling are incredibly exciting experiences, they come with a lot of stress. On top of worrying about flights and visas, you have to think about what to bring with you. “How am I supposed to fit everything I need in one or two suitcases?!” is a line of panic we all feel the day or two before departure.

The JCMU handbook gives some packing tips, but I’m going to go a little more in depth into what I would recommend you bring and what I think you should leave at home, based on my own experiences at JCMU.

Deodorant

The first thing you’ll hear when you look into packing for Japan is to bring your own deodorant/antiperspirant. It’s true! Unless you’re an incredibly lucky person born with a superpower that prevents you from sweating, bring your own deodorant.

Americans tend to use stick deodorant, while the majority of what you’ll find in Japan are roll on or spray type deodorants. And, according to… well, everyone I’ve ever talked to, they all assured me that Japanese deodorants don’t work as well. It’s safer to bring your own that you know works for you, especially if you’re going to Japan in the summer. In fact, if you are going in the summer, consider bringing extra! There’s no escaping the sweat during a Japanese summer.

Hair/Body Wash

For products like shampoo, conditioner, body wash, and face wash, I tend to go by this rule: if there’s a brand you can’t live without, bring it; if not, buy it in Japan.

For example, I have really frizzy hair and use a particular anti-frizz shampoo, so I bring a full supply of shampoo and conditioner with me. However, in the US I tend to buy whatever body wash is on sale, so I pack a tiny travel size body wash and get more when I’m in Japan. I do the same for face wash and toothpaste; bring a little bit and buy more when I arrive. This really just comes down to personal preference, so only you will know what’s best for you.

Other Personal Care Products

If you have a period and use pads and/or tampons, I recommend packing enough for your whole trip. Pads in particular can take up quite a bit of space, but that space will be emptied up by the end of your trip. That’ll leave you with extra room for souvenirs! You can also buy pads in Japan if you’d prefer (and if you do, this guide to pads in Japan might be helpful for you), but tampons are a little harder to find.

As for items you can go a day or two without, like sunscreen, I wouldn’t pack any and just buy it when you arrive. Also, whether you pack it before leaving or buy it after arriving, I would suggest carrying hand sanitizer or hand soap in a travel container and a small towel. Most public bathrooms don’t have towels and some don’t even have soap.

Makeup

If you wear makeup, I would recommend bringing your favorites and leaving space for additions. I usually bring my most used mascara and eyeliner and buy blush and lipstick in Japan (mostly because it’s fun! Check out RatzillaCosme if you’re interested in Japanese cosmetics).

Japan has a very limited range of skin tones when it comes to makeup compared to the US, so it’s best to bring your own foundation as it might be hard to find one that matches.

Travel sized versions

Electronics

Japan uses the same type of outlet as the US does, but they only have the two-prong type. That means for most things like phone chargers you won’t need an adapter, but you will need one for things that require a third grounded prong like most laptop chargers. Japan (100 V, 50/60 Hz) runs at a different voltage and frequency than the US (120 V, 60 Hz), but you most likely won’t need a converter. Most chargers, like an iPhone charger, can accept any voltage/frequency.

The only things I ever needed to plug in were chargers and a hair dryer, and I personally never had any issues. If you’re unsure about an item, check the label. If it says something like “INPUT: 100-240V, 50/60 Hz”, it can be used in Japan.

A Japanese outlet

Shoes

I would also bring at least one pair of good, comfy shoes that can withstand longer days of walking. You’re most likely going to be moving around a lot in Japan. I ended up walking a hole into a pair of off-brand Converse I brought when I was in Japan for an academic year.

Depending on your shoe size, you might also have a hard time finding a new pair in Japan. Generally, it can hard to find sizes over U.S. men’s 9/women’s 11. I have pretty big feet for the average American woman, but I was lucky and found a replacement pair of shoes that fit me in the men’s section of Trial (a grocery store near JCMU). They definitely weren’t cute or comfortable and didn’t last me very long, though.

It would be best if your shoes are easy to slip on and off, or at least bring a pair that is. You’ll be taking them off entering the dorms, academic building, and some restaurants, izakaya, and old buildings you might go to.

Clothing

In general, Japanese sizes are smaller than those in the U.S., so I would definitely bring around 1-2 weeks’ worth of clothing that you know already fits you. You might still find clothes that fit in Japan though; I’m a bit chunkier than the average American woman and I found quite a few T-shirts that fit me fine.

Although not necessary, you may want to bring a swimsuit. You will be living on a lake and may want to take a dip at some point, especially if you’re there for the summer!

While unavoidable if you’re going to Japan in the winter, pack clothes and towels that dry quickly. Most everyone air drys their clothes, and it can take days to dry when it’s humid. There are clothes dryers at JCMU, but like other dryers I’ve used in Japan, they never quite reach completely dry, so I wouldn’t rely on them.

Towels & Bedding

Speaking of towels, I would pack one good absorbent towel, and buy another one (and a hand towel) once in Japan. For reasons mentioned above, towels in Japan are pretty thin, so, in my experience, don’t really feel like they’re absorbing any water. I use the towel I bring with me most days and use the one I buy in Japan when the other is in the wash or drying.

Fortunately, there’s one thing you definitely don’t have to bring unless you have allergies to certain materials: bedding. Your sheets and blankets are provided by JCMU, so you don’t have to worry about packing them!

Seasonal Items

One of the hardest things about packing clothes is knowing how to dress for the weather, and it really depends on what time of year you’ll be in Japan.

This can be especially difficult if you’ll be there in the winter, because bulky winter clothes takes up a lot of suitcase space. To save up space, I packed my coat but bought new gloves and a scarf in Japan when it started getting cold.

A friend and I after walking to a nearby konbini. I regretted not bringing a better coat!

On the other hand, if you’re going to Japan during the summer, you’ll be there for the rainy season. Make sure to bring good water resistant shoes, but I would buy an umbrella and rain poncho after arriving. If you’re on the heavier side, you might want to bring your own poncho, as bigger ones are harder to find in Japan. If you’re thinking to yourself, “I don’t need a poncho, I don’t really wear them anyways,” think again: biking in the rain sucks without one.

School Supplies

I would pack a small notebook and pencil and buy anything else you’ll need after you arrive. There’s lots of stationery at the grocery stores and konbini near JCMU. Don’t worry about bringing any textbooks; they’re included in tuition and you’ll be given the books you need after class placement.

Gifts

Pack some gifts for your new friends in Japan! Small trinkets, like keychains from your hometown or home state make some of the best gifts. Then, use that space in your suitcase for gifts for your friends and family back home. Remember to be careful not to bring anything perishable or fragile, and don’t forget to buy a little something for yourself. You earned it!

Of course, don’t forget to bring your passport and money!

Foods of Shiga

Every place has a food that it’s known for. Michigan, for example, has Mackinac Island fudge, Traverse City cherries, and Upper Peninsula pasties. But what about Shiga?

Of course, sushi, ramen, and tempura come to mind when thinking of Japan, but each prefecture has its own meibutsu (名物; famous product, typically food). Thanks to the lake and its rich history, Shiga is full of tasty meibutsu for you to try next time you’re visiting!

Ōmi Beef

You’ve probably heard of Kōbe beef, the famously delicious beef from the Japanese Black Cattle in Hyōgo. But did you know it’s only one part of three famous Japanese beefs, all from the Kansai region? The 三大和牛 (sandai-wagyū; the three big beefs) also includes Matsusaka Beef (松阪牛; matsusaka-ushi) from Mie and Ōmi beef (近江ビーフ, ōmi-biifu) from Shiga!

Thinly sliced Ōmi-gyū
Thinly sliced Ōmi-gyū

Ōmi Province (近江国; ōmi no kuni), or just Ōmi, is the old name for Shiga Prefecture, and this is where the name of the beef originated. With over 400 years of history, it is said that Ōmi beef is the oldest of the three big beefs, and was presented as gifts to the daimyō and shōgun. Ōmi beef is known for its marbled fat that melts in your mouth without leaving an oily feeling. Restaurants all over Hikone and Shiga sell Ōmi beef, so be sure to try it at least once!

Funazushi

Narezushi (馴れ寿司) is the granddad of modern sushi, and looks nothing like what we call sushi today. Hundreds of years ago, narezushi was a great way to preserve fish and an important part of the diet of people who lived around Lake Biwa. The fish is preserved in salt then covered in rice and left to ferment for months or even years. People would typically throw out the rice and only eat the fish, but eventually people started eating the rice too, which gave way for nigiri-zushi we know and love today. Most people stopped eating narezushi long ago, but you can still find a type of narezushi, funazushi (鮒寿司), in one prefecture of Japan: Shiga.

Packaged funazushi found at the supermarket
Packaged funazushi found at the supermarket

Funazushi is typically made with nigoro-buna (煮頃鮒 / ニゴロブナ), a type of fish that can only be found in Lake Biwa. It’s certainly an acquired taste, even for people who’ve grown up in Shiga, because of its strong cheesy smell and creamy texture. However, people who like funazushi really like funazushi. It can be found everywhere in Shiga, from traditional restaurants to supermarkets. It is usually enjoyed with rice or ochazuke (お茶漬け; “submerged in tea”), a savory rice dish with tea poured over it, and it goes great with sake. If you have the opportunity and are feeling up to the challenge, try some funazushi while in Shiga!

Kamonabe

Thanks to the lake, fish dishes are very popular in Shiga. There are about 60 types of fish that can only be found in Lake Biwa (such as nigoro-buna and the Biwa salmon), with another 1000 types of fish living there too. You can find all kinds of fish dishes in Shiga, including sōmen (素麺; a type of thin wheat noodle) with grilled mackerel and eel hot pot. The lake is important for migrant birds from Russia in the winter, so dishes like kamonabe, hot pot (nabe) with duck (kamo) are common.

Bowl of Kamonabe
Bowl of Kamonabe

The duck is lean and slightly sweet compared to chicken. It’s illegal to hunt for birds near the lake, but legally made kamonabe is a nice way to warm up in the winter.

Champon-tei

There are plenty of other foods that Shiga is known for, like Omihachiman’s red konnyaku (赤こんにゃく), a bright red version of the (often grey) firm jelly found in various dishes, and Nagahama’s noppei-udon (のっぺいうどん), a noodle dish with very thick, almost syrupy soup. The list is endless! But of course, there are also restaurants that call Shiga home; one of the most famous is a ramen stop called Champon-tei (ちゃんぽん亭).

Champon-tei food
Champon-tei food

Champon-tei (stylized as CHANPONTEI) first opened up as a noodle restaurant in Hikone. As they grew in popularity, they began opening more restaurants in Hikone and the rest of Shiga. Hungry business men said that their ramen was the best, and, with that in mind, Champon-tei came up with their signature dish, Ōmi-champon (近江ちゃんぽん), known as “Shiga’s soul food”. Champon-tei’s ramen is unique; they cook the noodles in the soup broth (traditionally, the noodles are cooked separate and placed in the soup), and they recommend mixing some vinegar in the ramen after eating some for a refreshing new taste.

There are now Champon-tei restaurants in nearby prefectures outside of Shiga, and there’s even one in Hawaii! Luckily for JCMU students, there is a Champon-tei just down the street from campus, a little past 7-11. If you stop by for a quick and cheap bite, be sure to try their karaage (唐揚げ; fried chicken) too!


Food is a huge part of culture, so learning about (and tasting) what is eaten in Shiga will help you understand the locals even more. Enjoy your Shiga food adventures!

Fireworks in Shiga

The Fourth of July is right around the corner, which means everyone in the U.S. is preparing to see fireworks light up the night sky. But did you know that Japan is also known for its summer firework shows?

Rather than being a nationwide fireworks spectacular, hundreds of firework festivals take place throughout the summer and across Japan – including plenty of big ones in Shiga! These festivals typically begin in July and continue into late August. So if you want to see fireworks more than once or twice a year, Japan is the place for you!

Hiraku character firework

Japanese fireworks can be viewed from any angle and often include special fireworks that look like flowers, hearts, and even cartoon characters. These displays are best enjoyed with friends and delicious food, like grilled corn, shaved ice, and candy apples, from 屋台 (yatai, food stalls) found at every festival.

Firework festivals are generally free, but you need to show up early to find a good place to sit as they tend to get crowded. If you want to secure a good, comfortable seat for yourself and your friends, most firework festivals have chairs in a premium sitting area ranging anywhere from 2,000円 to 20,000円 (about $20~$200).

Firework festivals are especially beautiful in Shiga, with the fireworks reflecting off of Lake Biwa and the lake breeze staving off Japan’s summer heat. Be sure to check out one of the following firework shows if you have the chance!


びわ湖大花火大会
The Lake Biwa Great Fireworks Festival

Fireworks in Otsu from the Michigan Boat

Date: August 8th, 2019 7:30PM

Location: Otsu Port (大津港; Ōtsu-kō)

Getting there: From Hikone Station, take the rapid service train (快速, kaisoku) to Otsu Station (~55 minutes, 970円). From there, walk down the hill to the lake (~15 minutes).

Otsu, the capital of Shiga, has the most famous fireworks display in all of the prefecture. It’s definitely worth the trip! If you really want to see how beautiful the fireworks can be, take a ride on the Michigan Boat to watch the show from within Lake Biwa.


長浜・北びわ湖大花火大会
Nagahama & Northern Lake Biwa Great Fireworks Festival

JCMU Summer 2018 alum Rebecca Phoenix at the Nagahama Fireworks Festival

Date: August 5th, 2019 7:30PM

Location: Nagahama Port (長浜港; Nagahama-kō)

Getting there: From Hikone Station, take the train to Nagahama Station (~20 minutes, 240円). Walk to the lake from there (~10 minutes).

Nearby Nagahama also has its own fireworks festival and can be enjoyed from any spot on the lake in town. Be sure to prepare for the crowded trains after the festival, and bring a fan to fight the heat!


彦根・北びわ湖大花火大会
Hikone & Northern Lake Biwa Great Fireworks Festival

Fireworks near JCMU

Date: August 26th, 2019 7:40PM

Location: Matsubara Beach (松原水泳場; Matsubara-suieijō)

Getting there: Matsubara Beach is just a 10 minute walk from JCMU!

If you want to experience the magic of a Japanese fireworks show without the travel, look outside your dorm window from the JCMU campus! While a smaller festival than the previously mentioned ones, there are still a lot of fireworks to see – including a Hikonyan one often!Yatai line the path along the beach, so be sure to take out some money at the nearby 7-11 to try some festival food.


Want to learn more? Visit the Shiga Tourism Board to read more about these events & other summer festivals happening in Shiga.

Understanding the Kansai Dialect

When I was first in Shiga, I could barely understand what people were saying. I thought it was just because I’d only taken a year of Japanese by this point, so I didn’t think much of it. This was certainly a factor, but my Japanese friends told me I was at a bit of a regional disadvantage, too: according to them, the Japanese students in the U.S. are taught is different from the Japanese spoken in Shiga and the rest of Kansai (southern-central region of mainland Japan).

Label on a package of sardines found in a supermarket in Kyoto. Reads いわしを食べなあかん! (iwashi o tabena akan!, “You must eat sardines!”)

Most foreigners are taught a variant of Japanese called 標準語 (hyōjungo), or ‘Standard Japanese’. Hyōjungo is based on a Tokyo-area dialect, much like how Standard American English is based on the Midwestern dialect. However, if you go to different parts of Japan, people will speak a slightly different language. The problem for students studying Japanese is that we aren’t usually exposed to any other types of Japanese, so when we travel to Japan it’s very likely we will run into words and grammatical patterns that we’ve never heard of.

Shiga Prefecture is located within the Kansai region of Japan, which has its own type of Japanese called 関西弁 (kansai-ben), or Kansai dialect. Kansai-ben is one of the most common and well understood dialects throughout Japan. This means that someone from Kansai and someone from Kanto can have a conversation in their respective dialects and understand each other fine, much like how someone from Michigan and someone from Alabama can understand each other even though they speak different types of American English.

We’re going to go through some basic parts of kansai-ben so that you have a higher chance of understanding the locals when you’re in Shiga. Keep in mind that these vary depending on where you are in Kansai, i.e. kansai-ben in Osaka, Kyoto, Shiga, Wakayama, etc. is slightly different.


Pronunciation

[Bold letters indicate pronounced or stressed sounds.]

The first thing you may notice about the dialect is that some sounds that are devoiced (i.e. unpronounced) in hyōjungo are pronounced in kansai-ben. For example, the u in です (desu) or します (shimasu) is devoiced in Standard Japanese, being pronounced like des and shimas. However, this u is voiced in Kansai. So, desu is actually pronounced like desu and shimasu like shimasu. You will often hear shopkeepers say arigatō gozaimasu!

Accent and pitch is also different in kansai-ben. In Tokyo, はし (hashi, chopsticks) has stress on the first syllable and is pronounced like hashi; kansai-ben is the reverse, where it is pronounced like hashi. To make things more difficult, hashi (bridge) is the exact opposite of hashi (chopsticks) in both dialects. Hashi (edge) in Tokyo is pronounced the same as hashi (bridge), so you can’t tell them apart, but hashi (edge) is pronounced differently from hashi (chopsticks) and hashi (bridge) in kansai-ben. Confused yet?

StandardKansai-ben
chopsticks
(hashi)

(hashi)
bridge
(hashi)

(hashi)
edge
(hashi)
はし
(hashi)

Some words that contain a short vowel are pronounced longer while those containing long vowels are pronounced shorter. For example, 目 (me, eye) might be pronounced めぇ (mee), and そう (sou) might be pronounced as just ほ (ho -why an h? Keep reading!). People from Kansai also sometimes roll their r sounds, which makes people outside of Kansai think of ヤクザ (yakuza)!

ICOCA train card featuring its platypus mascot

Fun fact: The rechargeable ICOCA card for the JR West rail (you can buy one at Hikone Station for 500¥!) is a pun in kansai-ben. Technically standing for IC Operating CArd, it’s pronounced the same way as 行こか (iko ka), which is how 行こうか (ikō ka, “Shall we go?”) is said in Kansai.

Grammar

The most common difference in grammar I’ve noticed in kansai-ben is the use of へん (hen) as a way to negate a verb. This happens because the s sound in some kansai-ben changed to h (e.g. さん [san] may be pronounced はん [han]). The s in ~ません (~masen) changed to h at some point, but this mostly happens for verbs in short form.

StandardKansai-ben
わからない
(wakaranai)
わからへん
(wakarahen)
いけない
(ikenai)
いけへん
(ikehen)
ありえない
(arienai)
ありえへん
(ariehen)

A similar pronunciation change happened with the copula (a connecting verb, basically ‘to be’) だ (da). In fact, many sentence final particles have a different Kansai version:

StandardKansai-ben
だ / だった
(da/datta)
や / やった
(ya/yatta)

(ne)

(na)

(yo)
で / わ*
(de/wa)
の / んだ
(no/nda)
ねん
(nen)

(ka)
かい
(kai)
もの
(mono)
もん
(mon)

[note: the kansai-ben わ (wa) is different from the ‘feminine’ わ (wa) most of us are taught]

Vocabulary

A sign near JCMU reads: おいでやす彦根市へ

In addition to pronunciation and grammar, kansai-ben has its own words and phrases for things. Keep in mind that some of these, especially greetings, are mostly used by older generations.

StandardKansai-ben
ダメ / いけない
(dame/ikenai)
あかん
(akan)
本当
(hontō)
ほんま
(honma)
違う
(chigau)
ちゃう
(chau)
面白い
(omoshiroi)
おもろい
(omoroi)
とても
(totemo)
めっちゃ*
(meccha)
バカ
(baka)
アホ**
(aho)
マック
(makku)
マクド
(makudo)
いい
(ii)
ええ
(ee)
じゃ
(ja)
ほな
(hona)
おはようございます
(ohayō gozaimasu)
おはようさん
(ohayō san)
おやすみなさい
(oyasumi nasai)
おやすみやす
(oyasumi yasu)
さようなら
(sayōnara)
さいなら
(sainara)
ありがとう
(arigatō)
おおきに
(ookini)
どうもありがとうございます
(doumo arigatō gozaimasu)
えらいおおきにすんません
(erai ōkini sunmasen)
いらっしゃいませ / ようこそ
(irasshaimase/yōkoso)
おいでやす
(oide yasu)

[note: If you want to check out more, visit this page of kansai-ben vocab!]

*Like lots of words from other dialects, めっちゃ (meccha) has spread throughout Japan and is used in many places outside of Kansai.

**Be careful using アホ (aho) and バカ (baka): it is said that using baka in Kansai sounds much more rude than aho and is less likely to seem like a joke. On the other hand, outside of Kansai aho is much more rude than baka. If you’re not sure which to use, it’s best not to say either.


Kansai-ben has a reputation of sounding rough, direct, and slurred, but people who speak it are also known for sounding lively, fun, and expressive. While the older generations use more kansai-ben, with the younger generation adopting some Standard/Tokyo dialect with a Kansai twist (sometimes called a neo-dialect), it’s important to learn about the local dialect of wherever you are in Japan in order to understand everyone on a deeper level.

There are plenty facets of kansai-ben that we haven’t covered here, including Kyoto-specific honorifics (yikes!), so keep your ears open when in Kansai! For now, let’s put everything we’ve went over together and check out some common phrases:

StandardKansai-benEnglish Meaning
本当だよ
(hontō da yo)
ほんまやで
(honma ya de)
it’s true!
本当に
(hontō ni)
ほんまに
(honma ni)
really
いいよ
(ii yo)
ええで
(ee de)
it’s good; okay
いいよ
(ii yo)
ええわ
(ee wa)
no thanks
いいね
(ii ne)
ええな
(ee na)
it’s good, right?
いいの
(ii no)
ええねん
(ee nen)
is it okay?
じゃまた
(ja mata)
ほなまた
(hona mata)
see ya
違うよ
(chigau yo)
ちゃうで
(chau de)
no!; isn’t it?
そうだ
(sō da)
ほや
(ho ya)
that is so
だめよ
(dame yo)
あかんで
(akan de)
don’t do that
もういいよ
(mō ii yo)
もうええわ
(mō ee wa)
that’s enough
[No equivalent]なんでやねん
(nande ya nen)
what the heck?!