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.
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 (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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
🙇♂️🙇♀️🙇 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.
🥋 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.
🍱 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.
🗻 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.
💮 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”.
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 ninaru) translates to “is now possible”, ようにする (yō nisuru) 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 noyō 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 ninaritai 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 noyō nimierukedo, 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 niconsāto o shita.
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~
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!