If there was one group of warriors that produced more myth and exaggeration and shrouded in so much mystery, it would be the ninja. The word ninja（忍者, or its alternative name shinobi, appears throughout historical accounts in the context of secret intelligence gathering or stealthy assassinations carried out by martial-arts experts.
Photo Credit: govoyagin.com
Many opportune deaths may be a result of clandestine activities by ninjas but because they work in so much secrecy it is impossible to prove them. The ways of the ninja are an unavoidable part of samurai warfare, and no samurai can ignore the utility and fear that they represented. However, ninjas were despised because of how they contradicted the samurai code due to their use of secretive and underhanded methods.
In the mid 15th century onward, certain samurai families began to develop particular skills in intelligence gathering during feudal warfare. These were the ninja families. Like so many martial arts traditions in Japan, their skills were passed down from father to son or more usually from sensei (master) to chosen pupil, who may not always have been a relative.
The most celebrated “professional” ninjas were leaders of the provinces in Iga and Koga. They were minor landowners who, just like any daimyo of any size, emphasized the value of family and loyalty.
Ninja Training (Photo Credit: Ninja by Stephen Turnbull)
1 – Learning to balance exceptionally well
2 – Breathing underwater using a bamboo tube. This technique will come in handy when hiding underwater for hours
3 – Practicing how to handle a sword
4 – Training to aim shuriken accurately
5 – Survival skills in the mountains
6 – A Shonin (ninja leader) evaluates the trainee before he is sent to his first mission
7 & 8 – Acrobatic skills that allow them the ability to “fly”
9 – Human pyramid technique
10 – Training …continue reading
Have you ever been to Japan? You may have noticed that several of the common gestures used by Japanese people are actually quite different from the ones used in your home country. Here is a picture guide of the most commonly used gestures in Japan, along with their meanings!
1. Me/ I
In Japan, this meaning is conveyed by putting your index finger to your nose. This is how people indicate themselves, or ask “Me?” Usually, people also say “Watashi?” (わたし) which means “Me?”
2. Come Here
To gesture for someone to come to you, put your hand up with your fingers down, and beckon for them to come! This can be done with one or both hands. Usually, Japanese people also say “kochi kitte!” (こっちきて）which means “come here” or “kitte, kitte” (きて！きて！）which means “Come! Come!”
To make the gesture for “please”, put your hands together with your fingers up as if you are praying. This gesture is used when asking for something, or making a request. The Japanese for “please” is “onegai” (おねがい). It’s a very polite gesture!
The word for money in Japanese is okane (おかね). The Japanese gesture for money is a circle made with the thumb and index finger, with the fingers out laying flat. The origins of this gesture aren’t commonly known, but it does look a bit like a coin and some bills!
Winter in Japan usually lasts from December until February, and can be pretty unforgiving if you’re not used to the cold. Temperatures average around 2ºC~10ºC (35°F~50°F) in city areas, and can get as low as -6°C (21°F) in country side and even colder in Hokkaido! If you’re visiting Japan during the winter months, you’ll definitely want to take care to stay as warm as possible. Here are some tips for keeping warm during winter in Japan!
1. Warm Drinks
If you’re spending time outside, one of the best things to do is grab a hot drink from a convenience store or vending machine. Called jidōhanbaiki (自動販売機) in Japanese, vending machines can be found all over cities, towns and even in the countryside. These drink machines usually offer both hot (あったか〜い attakaai, formal word is あたたかい atatakai) and cold (つめた〜い tsumetaai, formal word is つめたい tsumetai) beverages in the same machine. Even if you can’t read Japanese, it’s easy to understand, as cold drinks have a blue label, and hot drinks have a red label.
The different items available inside the vending machines’ change depending on the time of year. In the summer, most of Japan’s vending machines mostly offer cold drinks only, but as soon as the weather starts to cool down at the end of fall, the machines will switch to feature warm beverages for winter. And, there’s more than just drinks for sale! Many vending machines serve hot canned soup with flavors like corn potage or creamy pumpkin. Apart from warming you up as you drink, it also feels good to just hold the hot can in your hands while you’re waiting for a bus or train.
From left: Corn potage, Onion gratin soup, Japanese chestnuts Mont Blanc cake drink, Milk shake (costard taste)
Learning to differentiate the subtle nuances between 〜ている, 〜てある, and 〜ておく might be one of the biggest headaches for Japanese learners. Not only do they look similar, but they can all serve a similar purpose, too: these grammar patterns describe a situation… …continue reading
When you were a student growing up, did your school have uniforms? Most schools in Japan do! Japanese school uniforms, called seifuku (制服), were introduced to Japanese private and public schools in the late 19th century. The uniform traditionally consists of a military-styled uniform for boys and a sailor outfit for girls, but Western-styled Catholic-school uniforms are also very common. In addition to following the dress code, students are not usually supposed to have makeup, piercings, or crazy hairstyles, or unnatural hair colors. It’s a very pure and natural look, and it has become an iconic symbol of Japanese youth and culture!
Japanese school uniforms first originated during the Meiji era, when Meiji Emperor opened Japan to a number of western countries for trade and business. Before that, Japanese students just wore traditional formal clothing to school, as students at that time were typically from relatively wealthy families. Girls wore kimono and boys wore hakama.
Traditional Male Hakama
Towards the end of Meiji era and the beginning of Taisho era, Japanese culture began to mix with Western culture as a result of the newfound influence from foreign countries. This mixture took many forms and resulted in a new variety of products, technologies, fashions, subcultures, and ways of life. One of the noticeable influences was in the transformation of Japanese school uniforms.
Boys started to wear a uniform called a gakuran. It was made up of a hat, a black top with a stand-up collar, five golden buttons, and black straight-legged pants. It is actually the same uniform that boys continue to wear to this day, but back when it was first introduced in the Taisho era, the Japanese boys wore it with geta (wooden platform sandals) on their feet.
As for Japanese school girls, they began to wear colorful hakama that were different …continue reading
If you’re preparing to have a baby in Japan, you’re probably feeling a wild mix of emotions right now. If you’re feeling anxious or unsure, you’re not alone. Every new mom feels this way, especially when you’re in a foreign country like Japan.
In this article, I’ll share my experience having a baby in Japan (actually, 2 babies!). Along the way, I hope to calm your fears and arm you with some knowledge to help you have the best possible birth experience in Japan.
My Birth Stories
My two birth stories couldn’t have been more different.
I had my first baby in 2019. I was induced, but didn’t use an epidural or any pain medicine. I had him at a large general hospital in Tokyo. (And this was before the pandemic, so there were no restrictions.)
I had my second baby in early 2021. I was induced again. But this time, I had an epidural from beginning to end. This baby, another boy, was born in a private birthing clinic. And this was in the middle of the pandemic, so there were plenty of restrictions to deal with. The birth was easy, but the baby had to go to the NICU for a couple of weeks (luckily, he ended up fine!).
I’ll share my experience with both babies, starting with pregnancy tests and ending with post-partum care.
Finding Out I Was Pregnant
I found out I was pregnant with an at-home pregnancy test.
Pregnancy tests in Japan don’t work before your missed period, so you need to wait 7 days after your missed period to use one. Those 7 days felt like forever!
At 6 weeks, I went to a nearby OB-GYN to confirm the heartbeat. We couldn’t hear anything. The doctor looked at the ultrasound and said, “Either it’s too early, or the baby isn’t doing …continue reading
The number of truant elementary and junior high school students in Japan is also the highest ever recorded.
Every year, Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) conducts a study related to truancy, bullying, suicide, and more at elementary, junior high, and high schools across the country. The results of last year’s study, released publicly on October 27, reveal some startling numbers, particularly related to students not attending school on a regular basis (defined here as missing school for more than 30 days of the school year).
Last year, over 244,940 students (1,498 elementary school-aged and 163,442 junior high school-aged) didn’t attend school for over 30 days. That’s a 25-percent increase of nearly 49,000 students from the previous year’s numbers, and means that one in 20 junior high school students are considered truant.
▼ In other words, the numbers indicate that roughly 1-2 students in a typical classroom of 30-40 junior high school students are often absent.
While MEXT has cited multiple factors for these numbers, it’s likely that interruptions caused by COVID such as temporary closings of schools and drastic alterations in school life have been a driving factor in causing many children to feel unmotivated to study with their peers in a classroom atmosphere. Approximately 590,000 COVID infections in children were also reported, especially around new year’s and the summer.
It’s important to note, however, that this is the ninth consecutive year that the study has found an increase in the number of students regularly missing school, which indicates that there’s more at play than just COVID. In fact, the current number of truant elementary school students is 3.6 times higher and the current number of truant junior high …continue reading
Festivals (matsuri , 祭り in Japanese) are an integral part of Japanese culture. Every year in Japan, there are thousands of festivals held all across the country, and they come in many different varieties. Fire festivals in particular are incredibly beautiful, powerful, and lively, and are definitely worth checking out if you visit Japan! Here is a list of the 10 top fire festivals in Japan.
Nozawa Fire Festival (野沢温泉の道祖神祭り)
The Nozawa Fire Festival is one of the three biggest fire festivals in Japan. It is held at Baba-no-hara, Nozawa Onsen Village on the 13-15th of January every year. There are festivities on all 3 days of the festival, with the biggest event occurring the final night on January 15th from 7 to 10pm. Massive crowds gather around the large, burning torch, as tall banners are carried and set afire as well.
When: Jan 13 – 15
Where: Baba-no-hara, Nozawa Onsen Village, Nagano Prefecture
Natsuyama Hachimangu Fire Festival (夏山八幡宮火祭り)
This festival is held every year on the Sunday that is the closest to September 9th of the Lunar New Year Calendar. In this lively fire festival that dates back 1500 years, participants light a giant bonfire and gather around it in a circle. Five people are chosen to play the role of demons, which they do one at a time by wearing a mask and carrying a long stick. The demon then chases people in circles around the bonfire, and it is said that if you get hit by the stick, then you will not get sick for an entire year.
This festival is held every year on the fourth Saturday of September. This “fox fire” festival begins with a large procession of torches, costumes, masks, face paint, and a bride and groom that are …continue reading
I went to the Otsu Festival on October 8 and 9, 2022!
This is YouTube Live in Yoyama (Pre-festival event).
The Otsu Festival is the largest of the festivals in the area and is held in Otsu City, Shiga Prefecture. It has been held for the first time in three years, having been canceled the last two years due to Corona!
This festival is held on Saturday and Sunday every year, the day before and two days before the Sports Day, a national holiday that falls on the second week of Monday. Saturday is Yoyama 宵山 and Sunday is Honsai 本祭, the main festival.
The festival site is a 3-minute walk from Otsu Station. In front of the station, there was information booth about the festival.
Origin of the festival
The origin of the Otsu Festival is so unique that I would like to introduce it here.
The Otsu Matsuri is a festival that has continued for more than 400 years since the beginning of the Edo period.
It is said to have started when a man named Shioya Jihei (Shioya Jihei) from Kajiya-machi entertained the townspeople by dancing on the festival day wearing a raccoon dog mask. However, the current style of the Otsu Festival appears to be heavily influenced by the Gion Festival in Kyoto.
In 2016, the festival was designated as a National Important Intangible Folk Cultural Asset, making it a festival with a rich history.
On Yoyama day, Hikiyama 曳山 (festival float), Hikiyama decorations and Karakuri (gimmick) dolls are displayed, and the lanterns create a wonderful atmosphere in the evening.
If you work at a Japanese school, you will inevitably be invited to attend a school sports day. These events are an institution in Japan and while the schedule may well be difficult – many sports days are held on weekends or national holidays – the events can be a great opportunity to have some fun with your students and get to know the other side of them. Even the most rebellious student can become strangely amenable during sports day.
The basics of Undoukai
In Japan, sports day (運動会（うんどうかい）) is usually held shortly after the start of term in April, typically May or June in the cooler northern parts of Japan, although in the baking southern parts of Japan it may even be as late as September.
In many areas, the sports day is held on the weekend or a national holiday to ensure that as many parents can attend as possible. Don’t worry if this is the case at your school, as you will likely be offered a replacement day off on a different day of the week in exchange.
Cultural differences between Japanese sports day and Western ones
While most countries have sports day, the event in Japan has a couple of small tweaks that make it unique, as everything from the events to the atmosphere is different to most other countries. The small differences start at from the beginning of the event as the students march around their playground while a marching band plays a mixture of popular and classic music. This may well be accompanied by singing or dancing from all clubs, even the non-musical ones. Naturally, this climaxes with a rendition of the song Kimigayo (His Imperial Majesty’s Reign), the national anthem of Japan, and the raising of the Japanese flag.