Why Are There So Many Japanese People Living In Brazil? A Historical Overview

Japanese mass immigration to Brazil began on June 18, 1908 when the steamship Kasato-maru brought the first group of Japanese immigrants to work in coffee plantations of the São Paulo state. This is the result of a treaty between Japan and Brazil meant to bolster Brazil’s agricultural industry. Here’s why…

Which country outside of Japan has the highest population of those with Japanese Ancestry?

The countries with the highest population of people with Japanese ancestry living outside of Japan is Brazil with a current population of roughly 1.8 million. Following are the United States (1.5 million), the Philippines (200,000), China (127,000) and Canada (109,000).

So…why Brazil?

It’s important to consider the background of the Brazilian economy at the time.

It’s complicated. Back in the early 20th century, coffee was Brazil’s primary export. A need for labor that vastly outnumbered the available population of the Brazilian population suddenly presented itself. In an effort to bolster economic production and increase coffee yield, the Brazilian government began encouraging immigration primarily from European countries. This was also seen as a means to solidify Brazil’s roots in European culture.

Italian immigrants arriving in São Paulo, Brazil (circa 1890)

The Brazilian government at this time really…really liked white people. Yeah…

While this was a decision rooted in a lot of historical racist elitism, Brazil didn’t compensate it’s newfound ultra-elite European workforce very well, or very kindly for that matter. Immigrants from all over Europe, especially Italy, Immigrated by the boatful to the lush and wonderful tropical paradise that awaited them!

Wow, Fun in the sun!…right?

Wrong! Whoops!!!

Actually these European immigrant workers were barely paid, and typically ended up in debt after being forced to sign unfair contracts that forced them into perpetual cycles of labor with virtually no work-standards or representation. Often they were even forced to spend their earnings at the owner’s store! The…company store, if you will. It really brings to mind a song…

You load 16 tons, and what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt…

St. Peter don’t you call me cause I don’t go. I owe my soul to the company store…

Why Japanese families decided to immigrate to Brazil

In 1902, Italy enacted Decree Prinetti, prohibiting subsidized emigration to Brazil. The lack of a European workforce had threatened to cripple Brazil’s thriving coffee industry. In regards to Japanese immigration, in the early 20th century many countries including the United States and Canada had put restrictions in place so Japanese immigrants would be limited in their numbers. At the same time the Japanese government was not quick to encourage citizens of Japan to immigrate to other countries. In 1907 the government of Japan and the government of Brazil signed a treaty that would encourage Japanese families to emigrate to Brazil to support the then struggling agricultural economy. This move would serve to aid in bolstering the workforce of Brazil’s agricultural industries throughout the mid 1900’s. From 1907 to 1914 , over 3,000 Japanese families would emigrate to Brazil and become a part of the agricultural economy.

So why did Japanese families want to emigrate to Brazil? Probably the most prominent reason is that the Meiji Restoration in the late 1800’s would serve to restructure the Japanese socio-economic system in a way that hadn’t been seen in the country since the beginning of the Tokugawa Shogunate.

For those unfamiliar, the Meiji restoration was a shift from the feudalist society of Japan to a more western style of government . It was a time where Japan would first discover the many cultures of the world. So what triggered the Meiji Restoration? In the late 1800’s European powers would push to open up Japan to international trade. Japan, who had previously been an isolated country for hundreds of years, was given an ultimatem; Open up the country, or be guinea pigs to test out some fancy new gunboats just outside of Tokyo harbor. This was known as the ‘arrival of the black ships.’

Japanese depiction of the ‘arrival of the black ships’

Knock Knock…It’s…The United States

They choose the former, but this humiliated the ruling class, and Japan as a nation. Afterwards, similar to China and the resulting Opium Wars, Japan was forced to sign a number of unfair treaties that would impose higher tariffs on Japan versus other nations, and much more. For better and ultimately worse this was the beginning of Japan’s obsession with imitating Western imperialism.

The effect this had imposed on economic balance of the country was to thrown out balance that had been established for over 250 years. Samurai, who were once the most revered social class in Japan had no place in the new Japanese society. Furthermore, farmers that were once second-in-line in the socio-economic order of power in Japan, became less valuable with the introduction of new technological advancements. Now the merchants held all of the power, and the country had a LOT more merchants.

Less honor…more money!

Historically speaking, the most lowly of classes had slowly risen to become one of the most prominent in a span of a few decades. By upsetting this balance, the shift away from feudalism would have both positive and negative impact on the Japanese socio-economic situation, and encouraged many Japanese families to look to life abroad.

How Japanese families adjusted to life in Brazil

Many Japanese families had intended to emigrate to Brazil for just a few years as a means to save money, but were quickly confronted with a number of economic and societal barriers of Brazil’s early 20th century society.

The Japanese immigrants would learn just as the European immigrants that came before them had, the person in Brazil that held all of the power was the land owner.  Landowners could limit where workers were allowed to spend their money and most of the time workers were forced to spend their money the cross that the landowner produced just as the European immigrants that came before them. This is technically known as the truck system as a system where wages are paid as a form of credit that can only be redeemed through the employer. Furthermore contractual stipulations often presented Japanese citizens from returning home to their home country.  even if someone was to  fulfill the needs of their contract their meager earnings often made it impossible for them to consider the option of returning home.  Put simply,  many Japanese families were indirectly forced into staying in Brazil far longer than they had originally intended. 

A Japanese immigrant family in Brazil working the fields, 1930’s

Being one of the few Asian immigrant groups in Brazil the  Japanese Community faced a lot of discrimination.  There was a hope by the Brazilian government at the time in an effort to maintain Portuguese Heritage in the country to continue to whitewash the Brazilian population.  This can be thought of as one of the main reasons why Brazil tried to incentivize European immigrants before Japan or other Asian countries.  as a result of this there was a lot of animosity between the Japanese Society in Brazil and the overall society of the country.  Japanese communities remain primarily Japanese speaking and it was difficult for Japanese people to penetrate the  strong social barriers and racism of the time. At the time because of the strong social tension,  it was rare for interracial marriage to occur in these communities.  On 22 October 1923, representative Fidélis Reis produced a bill regarding to the acceptance of Asian immigrants, whose fifth article was as follows: “The entry of settlers from the black race into Brazil is prohibited. For Asian immigrants there will be allowed each year a number equal to 5% of those residing in the country.” 

Wow…what a…great guy…

Imposing these kinds of limitations on immigration would result in a spinning wheel of prejudice and long-held grudges in the country, with isolationism particularly in the Japanese community becoming increasingly extreme over time, reaching a breaking point at the beginning of World War II, when Japanese communities would become virtually shunned nation-wide.

The 1980’s; Why Many families returned to Japan from Brazil

The booming Japanese economy in the 1980’s would draw many of those with Japanese-Brazilian descent back to Japan. This would continue until the economic peak and bursting of the housing market in Japan in 1991.

As the Brazilian economy continued to grow and Japanese families in Brazil were able to improve their economic position, many were affluent enough to take advantage of the surging Japanese economy in the late 70’s and 80’s. This newfound immigration highlighted, however, a number of issues that were becoming more and more apparent as Japan was grappling with one of the first issues regarding diversity in the country.

Japan famously lacks a dual-citizenship system, meaning that citizens are only allowed to have Japanese citizen. This means that any children of parents who hold citizenship from two different countries are forced to choose which citizenship they will hold on to, and which one they will relinquish by the time they are 22 years old.

Many people choose to not do this and are holding onto citizenship from both countries, which is a story for another day...

This became more complicated when many Japanese families choose to leave Brazil for Japan during this timeframe. Because of the unfair economic conditions imposed upon those with Japanese descent, many Japanese families in Brazil choose to relinquish their citizenship to achieve fairer treatment both socially and economically. Essentially, it would have been very difficult for most families of Japanese descent in Brazil to be able to afford to return to Japan in the first place, had they not renounced their citizenship. However, the government refused to acknowledge many of these cases and their circumstances with the rise of return-immigrants, and this became a big issue, and still remains an issue to this day.

Japan, Coffee, Brazil…Coffee?

If you enjoyed this and are looking to hear more of my perspective on how history, infrastructure, and culture has affected a large part of Japanese culture,

you can read my article here on how canned coffee became so big in Japan…

I think you will enjoy it! Hot boss coffee promoted by Hollywood actor Tommy Lee Jones is…truly to die for. “I don’t care!!!” he says, but YOU should! Its fun, trust me.

Do People in Japan Drink Coffee? All About the ‘Third Wave’

In 2019, over 7.5 million 60 kg bags of coffee were consumed in Japan. Japan is one of the biggest coffee-consuming nations in the world, despite the fact that the amount of home-consumption barely creeps into the global top 50 rankings.

Why people drink coffee in Japan, and the reason why canned coffee is so popular

While drinking coffee at home is a relatively new cultural phenomenon in Japan, coffee permeates the countries culture with both the abundance of cafe’s and the popularity of canned coffee sold in vending machine’s on nearly every street corner. In addition, the introduction of the ‘third wave’ coffee culture and a newfound interest in specialty coffee beans is creating a whole new ‘café-hopping’ culture in a country with the perfect infrastructure to support the industry. There is a linguistic pattern you will notice in Japan. People really like to say ‘ganbarimasu'(頑張ります), and people also really like to say ‘otsukare’ (お疲れ.) ‘Ganbarimasu’ is an extremely nuanced word with multiple meanings depending on the exact situation, but could probably be best translated into English as ‘I will work hard to do my best.’ Otsukare’ on the other hand, is something that you say to other people to encourage them to work hard. While this is also extremely nuanced (it can also mean ‘goodbye’ in certain situations. That’s a whole another can of worms for another time), ‘Otsukare’ can probably be best translated to ‘You look tired. Good job for all of the hard work that you do.’ This linguistic call-and-response is one of the most important communicative relationships in both the Japanese language and Japanese culture. You will hear it EVERYWHERE. Here is an example;

Takeshi: Yuki-san, here is your assignment. Good luck.

Yuki: ‘Ganbarimasu’ (I will work hard to do my best)

After some time, Takeshi walks into the room, where Yuki is currently working.

Yuki: Oh, Takeshi! ‘Otsukare!’. How did the project go?

Takeshi: Oh, its going okay, but I think I need to work harder next time. Next time I will ‘Ganbarimasu’ even harder…

Translation: we can ‘ganbarimasu.’

I made this us up, but I may as well have just recounted any conversation I’ve had here in the last 7 years. My point with this story being that there are a number of times somebody may have bought either a coffee for themselves, or a coffee for somebody else in this context. I believe that this is one of the reasons why canned coffee, and vending machines in general have such a huge presence in Japan.

Takeshi may have bought a coffee for himself before starting the new project as a way to boost his productivity.

Yuki may have bought a coffee for Takeshi after he saw how hard he worked.

Takeshi may have bought himself a coffee after finishing the project as a way to recover.

What’s more likely is that Yuki would buy both Takeshi and himself a coffee, because Yuki is the superior or ‘Jyoshi’ (上司) to Takeshi, and little gestures like this are a common expectation in the vertical structure of Japanese society.

This focus on effort, maintaining effort, summoning effort, encouraging effort from others, and acknowledging other members of the communities’ effort is an integral part of Japanese culture, and is one of the reason why canned coffee has become a cultural cue in many aspects of Japanese society. This is one of many reasons why coffee consumption is increasing steadily year-by-year.

Translation: ‘Otsukare’, to us.

Coffee is slowly replacing smoking as the staple break time excuse

As other nations continue to roll out more anti-smoking regulations, Japan has become somewhat infamous in recent years for it’s high-rate of public smoking, especially when considering that Japan is known for having some of the longest-living citizens in the world, and highest general life expectancy.

So why is smoking popular?

Well, just like the rest of the world, the idea of smoking being a danger to public health has only recently been able to penetrate the wall of advertisements and persistent marketing campaigns of the 20th century. As of 2021, around 35% of Japan’s citizens are over the age of 65. It is safe to say that 35% of society grew up in a different world where smoking was seen as this cool elusive image of masculinity and adulthood. It was simply a way of their life. This is slowly changing, but, just like my explanation above, smokers have an incentive even in Japan’s modern work culture to practice their habit at work. Why? Because it gives them a visible and non-verbal excuse to take frequent breaks throughout the day, in a country where the average citizen works a 12-hour work day. This is true in other countries as well, but Japan’s work culture that values effort (I.E, time spent at the office) over concrete results pushes this to an extreme. Recently, instead of getting up for a smoking break, people have begun stopping for a coffee break. Georgia and Suntory with their brand Boss Coffee, have gone to great lengths to encourage people to use coffee as an excuse to take that ‘well deserved break’. After all, you did ‘ganbarimasu’ so hard! Wow!

Now go buy our coffee…

Oh yeah!I didn’t mention, but Tommy Lee Jones has been the star of (hundreds? It seems like it…) hundreds (yeah, let’s go with hundreds) of Boss Coffee ad’s, where he plays the titular role of “Alien Jones.” I’ll just leave this here for you to enjoy…

The new ‘third-wave’ coffee phenomenon of Japan

So…what is this mysterious ‘third wave’ I have been hinting at? Well, all this really means is that the coffee culture in Japan has entered it’s ‘third wave’, where the current emphasis is placed on the careful selection of beans, and a more purist style of preparation. The ‘first wave’ of Japanese coffee was the era of instant coffee (gross) which ran through the 1960s. This was followed by the second wave from the 1960s to around the year 2000 when Seattle-based coffee chains like Starbucks and Japanese brands like Komeda Coffee and Doutor began to explode in popularity. The ‘McDonaldization’ of coffee was here, with emphasis on convenience, location, and trendy new flavors (gross.) The current third wave is characterized by the careful selection of bean by origin, roasting in-store, and the use of the pour-over method for precision brewing. Coffee enthusiasts in Japan nowadays care a lot more about what is going into their cup, and less about fancy brewing techniques. Essentially, coffee brewers in Japan began to treat coffee the same way they would treat the preparation of any other Japanese dish or beverage; It is to prepared pure, simply, and to bring out the best flavor from the best bean. It’s like a purist tuna nigiri sushi, but inside your cup. Wow! Yum? It’s yum, despite my manner of explanation.

One of the key aspects of the 3rd wave experience in Japan is not only drinking good coffee, but also watching the process of how brewers make good coffee. Observe the minimalism of the décor in the picture below;

One observation you may have made is that the country-of-origin is written on each jar of coffee. This is a pretty regular practice at 3rd wave coffee shops, and is an integral part of the experience. Just like much of the general infrastructure of Japan, at-home coffee consumption is less common because the full experience you can get from heading off to a specialty shop is just so much better. Only time will tell if we will every hit a ‘4th wave.’ If you’re ever in Japan, I recommend heading into one of these shops for a break. It’s a pretty relaxing experience.

Why Japanese Books are Written From Right-to-Left.

Japanese texts were historically written to be read from the top of the page down, and right to left. This was originally due to China’s influence on Japan’s writing system, since Japan imported Chinese characters or ‘kanji’ in Japanese in the 5th century via routes through Korea. Since then, recently it isn’t uncommon to see books written in the horizontal left-to-right style used in the west, although it is still most common to see the vertical right-to-left format.

Why is Japanese written in these two different directions?

Well, actually there was a time prior to world war 2 where Japan had written horizontal texts that were read right-to-left, so technically there were three different formats. That being said, I will be focusing on the two main formats that you can see in modern Japanese, that being tategaki and yokogaki. As I had written above, there are two primary ways Japanese texts are formatted today. Traditional Japanese texts were written with a vertical formatting known in Japanese as tategaki (縦書き), which you can see in the picture below.

Tategaki is written starting from the top-right corner of the page, and is meant to be read down and from right-to-left across the page.

The other primary style Japanese writing is formatted in is a horizontal style or yokogaki (横書き), which is how texts are formatted in the west with words being written from the top-left corner of a page and are read down to the right across the page.

This is exactly the way you would read in English. So why would people write in two different formats? Wouldn’t that just complicate things for no reason? Hmm… yes and no…

Let me explain.

So why write in Tategaki?

Despite the historical precedent, There is a sort of subconscious air of authenticity that formatting in tategaki can give your writing. This is because typically more ‘official’ or ‘trusted’ sources are written in the vertical right-to-left style , as it is the most traditional style of writing in Japan. You can expect hand-written letters, newspapers, and many notices to be written in this style, and is the way that these traditional documents have been written for centuries. This is sort of a ‘chicken or the egg?’ situation. Writing in tategaki makes whatever you’re writing seem more ‘official’ or ‘traditonal’, because more ‘official’ or ‘traditional’ documents are typically written in tategaki, so people choose to format in tategaki because… you get the point.

Interestingly enough, most novels and academic text is still written in this vertical style, although I have noticed that many books concerning business, philosophy, or psychology are written in the horizontal style (known in Japanese as yokogaki 横書き) . For some reason, as I had previously written, there seems to be some sort of subconscious correlation between the subject-material and the books formatting. Biographies and textbooks are almost always written in the horizontal style, while mystery novels and fiction is written in vertical style. While exploring the books in my apartment and remembering my experience reading hundreds of books in Japan (I went to university here, after all), I can’t seem to find any kind of concrete reasoning why some texts choose to use certain formats. Perhaps it truly is just the author’s personal preference, or perhaps a bias being pushed onto the printing industry as a whole through publisher standard practices.

Naturally, as print media and other forms of communication have become commonplace in the modern technical landscape, Japan has had to adjust to the standard formatting of the internet and other social devices, and the horizontal style has become more and more common especially in the digital space. Japanese blog posts, websites, and articles are always written in the horizontal style. At least, I have never seen a post or article on the internet that was written to be read from right-to-left, unless it was an image of a physical form of media.

These formats affect the nuance of the text

Like most things in Japanese society, people adjust to the needs of the text. Are you sending a ‘nengajo’

(年賀状)or a year-end-letter to Grandma? It would be a little inappropriate, and perhaps a little tacky to write in horizontal style. Are you writing a card for your girlfriend on her birthday? Well, maybe writing in vertical style would come off as a bit ‘stale’ or ‘dry. The horizontal format makes readers feel one way, and the vertical format another. In this way, just as with the variability and sheer amount of characters in Japanese, having much more information to work with, means that you have that many more options to work with when attempting to convey a certain feeling to your reader. Now, I will say that it is pretty strange to mix these two formats in the same body of work, and so you will need to commit to one style from the onset…right?

Okay, I lied. There are some times when writers will choose to include both formats on a single page.

Newspapers are often written in both styles…on the same page

Madness. It’s madness! Well actually, after 7 years of living in Japan I don’t even notice anymore. You can see what I mean below. The areas I have surrounded in blue are written in yokogaki and are meant to be read like English (from left to right.)

So as you can see, Japanese newspapers incorporate both styles rather seamlessly and, dare I say…Illogically? Essentially, newspaper mix both styles for the sake of formatting and to save space, but there typically you will also see eye-catching material and article headlines written in yokogaki (horizontally.) This is not always the case however. The top article I attached uses tategaki to display the main headline, and yokogaki in the center to include a key point. It really is just dependent on the medium. You may think that this it will be difficult to read when text is flowing in all different directions like this, but the natural spacing between Japanese characters is enough to tip-off your eye immediately to what direction each piece of content is meant to be read in.

C

a

n

y

o

u

…read this? It may have taken you a second but i’m sure you can. I suppose I may be one of the first websites to successfully incorporate English tategaki into my writing. Wowee! Look at me…

I know ask the question that any person who has ever even muttered the words ‘Japan’ in their life has on their mind. “So what about anime!?!” Well, I’m not going to talk about anime. Sorry…But I will write a bit about manga.

Manga are written from right-to-left… right?

Yes! Pretty much always. While I wouldn’t call myself a manga enthusiast, I’ve probably read about… let’s say 10 different series, and as far as I can recall every manga I have read has been exclusively written from the tategaki right-to-left and top-down style. That being said, manga is stylistically much more flexible than other mediums. Take this scene the Death Note as an example.

You can see in this page that while the text is written in tategaki, this scene is showing what Light is writing in the death note. Because he is writing his own personal notes, typically notebooks are written using yokogaki, so the background is displayed in the appropriate yokogaki. The point is, despite the main texts being typically written in tategaki, the scene or chapter of each manga can often break theses rules in some pretty interesting ways. Plus, there are a lot of interesting formatting tricks that manga artists or ‘Mangaka’ (漫画家) use to make the absolute most out of every centimeter, every millimeter of the page. Generally speaking, these choices to mix the two format’s come down to a decision to stylize, make the most out of given space, or to invoke a certain feeling in the reader. Just as I was explaining in a separate article I wrote about why Japan uses 3 alphabets (You can read that article here if you are interested), each format of writing gives the writer a whole different form of expression to work with, and gives your text a certain nuance. While it can be intimidating at first working all of this out, like most things related to Japanese, the more time you spend practicing them, the easier you will be able to pick up their subtle nuances subconsciously.

Which Japanese Alphabet Should You Learn First? A Beginner’s Guide

While there are 3 major alphabets in Japanese, Hiragana is the most standard and widely used alphabet that binds the grammar of Japanese together. If you are just starting to learn Japanese characters and are wondering where to begin, you should learn Hiragana first.

How to get started learning Hiragana

The first thing I would recommend you do right now is purchase a beginner Japanese textbook called Genki 1. Trust me, its worth your time and money.

GENKI I: An Integrated Course in Elementary Japanese (English and Japanese Edition)

This is the Japanese textbook I started with myself, and there are a number of specific reasons why I always recommend this to beginners, and why I would especially recommend Genki to people who want to learn how to read and write in Japanese. First of all, you have both Hiragana and Katakana alphabets laid out for you on pages 1 and 2.

These charts are easy to access, simple to understand, and more importantly, will save you time, which is a very precious commodity when you’re trying to learn a language with 1000’s of characters. Second, this textbook begins by offering you Japanese texts in English characters (Romaji in Japanese), and then gradually slips in extra Hiragana, Katakana, and eventually some simple Kanji into the texts. I think that the slow increase in difficulty this textbook offers helps to ween you off of using English characters as a crutch at a rate that I found challenging, but not discouraging.

Should I learn Hiragana and Katakana at the same time?

I believe that you should first learn hiragana, then speed-memorize katakana (because they possess a lot of similarities), and then slowly build up your knowledge of Kanji characters. This book also contains a really helpful section in the back that outlines around 100 of the most basic Kanji characters, their meanings, and the order in which to write them, so it supports that pace really well. At least it did for me.

Finally, the book is pretty funny in an unintentional way, and can provide you with a slice of Japanese culture that I haven’t seen portrayed as well in too many other textbooks.

You will learn a LOT from genki 1…

The book feels fundamentally Japanese, so I think its a great introduction to the language, culture, and overall experience of being in that kind of Japanese-influenced atmosphere.

I made another post about Japanese textbooks that I enjoyed using, if you are interested in learning more.

How many Hiragana characters are there?

There are 3 main alphabets in Japanese, those being Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji. Hiragana and Katakana each contain 46 basic characters, or 71 including diacritics. They are the more simple ‘bread and butter’ texts that hold Japanese together. You can think of Hiragana and Katakana as brother and sister alphabets. In fact, historically speaking, the elegant and smooth curves of Hiragana were originally designed as a ‘female’ script, meaning that Hiragana at one time was literally an alphabet that was used primarily by women and was known as ‘women’s hand’ (女手) , while the rough and jagged edges of Katakana was used primarily by men. I say this because, in many ways, Hiragana and Katakana are pretty similar, so I recommend memorizing hiragana to an extent, and diving into Katakana immediately thereafter. Hiragana and Katakana are like two slightly different chiral versions of each other, so while you do technically need to memorize 142 separate characters, it’s more like memorizing slightly altered versions of the core 46 basic characters which some marks to denote variability in pronunciation. Essentially, it’s not quite as complicated as it initially looks. Let me walk you through it.

How to memorize the Hiragana and Katakana alphabets

While there is some merit to methods like using flashcard or organizational apps and software such as Anki, my advice is to write. Write, write, write. Write like your life depends on it. Did you see a new word or phrase in your handy new Genki 1 textbook that you happen to love and cherish so much? Great! Write it down. Write. Write until your hand is cramped. Write until people in Japanese stop saying ‘sugoi!’ every 5 seconds on Japanese TV, write until those pigs fly right over your little house that you, the reader, are snug-up inside of writing kanji.

Seriously, there’s scientific basis to back this, and the best way to really learn hiragana and katakana (or anything for that matter) is to be an active learner, rather than a passive learner. The best way you ensure that you are becoming that ideal active learner is to just get out a piece of paper, turn to page 1 and 2 of your shiny Genki textbook, and go practice writing some characters. This may just be me, but I actually found it pretty therapeutic doing this kind of rudimentary practice over music or even over a podcast. It gives you something to do at all times, and keeps your mind connected to the language.

Maybe it isn’t a glamorous answer, but I think this is the reality of what you need to do. This will become especially important once you start learning kanji, because there’s… a lot more of them.

How many Kanji are there?

There are over 50,000 Kanji. I know, I know, but don’t panic. Actually, in modern Japanese, the average person nowadays knows roughly around 3000 kanji, with the ultra-elite knowing perhaps up to 5000.

See! You only need to know 3000 kanji characters. No reason to worry! Ha…hahaha…haha. 

Well, the thing is, I’m not going to lie to you. It is a LOT of work to memorize enough kanji to even be able to read at the level of junior high student. But…you won’t need to memorize 3000 new Kanji from scratch. Learning Kanji is really a process of first memorizing a much smaller number of root Kanji from scratch, and then combining these roots in specific ways to achieve more complex meaning.  Here are some examples:

this means ‘man’ in Japanese and is made up of two characters

田  (rice field) + 力 (power)  = 男

So you can see the very basics of how radicals may form to create more complex words. At some point however, this becomes less about memorizing the meaning of individual radicals, and more about solidifying these shapes into your mind. You may be able to pick apart a character like 男, but what about when you get to some more complicated concepts. For example…

無意識 (unconscious mind)

At this point it would be better to just memorize the common pairing of radicals, instead of each individual peace. 無 means none, empty, 意 means intent, attention, 識 means awareness, knowledge. Combined they create “Muishiki” 無意識 meaning unconsciousness. By the way, if you remove the 無 it becomes 意識 “ishiki” which means just consciousness. Once you get to a certain point in your Japanese ability, you will be able to start forming more complex groups of out smaller kanji, and then more complex phrases out of those more complex groups. It becomes exponentially easier and more complicated as you progress in your ability.

So why do you even need 3 alphabets?

The 3 alphabets in Japanese each serve a different grammatical and linguistic function, but they also feel fundamentally different from each other.

There is a great video by Japanese YouTuber That Japanese Man Yuta where he gets into the specific different nuances between Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji. The main topic of the video is about why Kanji is necessary to Japanese, but he also talks about the different nuances Hiragana and Katakana have as well.

To simplify things, here is a really simplified guide on how the different alphabets feel to a Japanese speaker.

If you were to write a text only in Hiragana, it would look childish or innocent.

If you were to write a text only in Katakana, it would look more robotic or ‘calculated’

If you were to write a text only in Kanji, it would look more official or academic.

Things get really interesting when you start messing with this balance

It can be tempting to think things like ‘well, English only uses 26 characters. Why didn’t they just design Japanese like that? English is a more efficient language! But just like how English can achieve a unique nuance through different fonts (something comparatively lacking in Japanese because of the number of characters), or even through a writing style like cursive, The complexity of the Japanese language gives way to unique styles of communication that can’t be achieved in English. By mastering the nuances of these alphabets, you can open up your mind to new ways of thinking, and new perspectives on communication that you had never considered before. Another extremely valuable function of Kanji is to distinguish between the meaning of two different words on paper that have the same pronunciation. For example imagine I gave the following sentence fragment out of context…

“He is going to run again next month”

I could be talking about a marathon, or I could be talking about an election. Since “run” has the same spelling in regard to both of these meanings, there is no way to distinguish the overall meaning of this sentence without more context. If I were to write these two meanings in natural Japanese using Kanji, however, it would look like this.

彼は来月また選挙に出馬する = He will run again for office next month.

彼は来月また走る = He will run (as in participating in a marthon, etc.) again next month.

I have put the Kanji for ‘run’ in both situations in bold. So, you can see how Kanji not only changes the nuance of the sentence, it also serves this function.

As far as Hiragana and Katakana’s functions, for the sake of simplicity you can think of Hiragana as the ‘glue’ that holds the grammar of Japanese sentences together, and Katakana as a alphabet that is used primarily for foreign words, loan words from other languages, or new trends in Japan. I think Katakana is used somewhat similarly to English italics. Katakana can be used to draw attention to something, or to make it seem more novel or mysterious.

Now that you have some context, hopefully that all serves as some motivation. Let’s look at some more examples…

In the above CM (everyone in Japan calls commercials or ads “CM’s”), we have Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji. The Katakana in this marketing slogan is being used in a pretty interesting way. I wrote the below.

飲んでカラダをバリアする。

It means something like “drink this and create a healthy barrier for your body.” They included an explanation at the bottom, so I think even the person who made this CM knew that it made little sense (lol).

They choose to write the word “Karada” カラダ (body) which would normally be written in Kanji, in Katakana to emphasize the word. It’s unusual to see it written in Katakana, so it really draws the reader’s eye in. They also used the English loan-word “barrier”, and since Katakana s used to write foreign concepts and loan words, it was written in Katakana.

You can see in this SONY CM as well that the word for music “ongaku” (オンガク) was written in Katakana to emphasize the word, even though it would typically be written using Kanji as 音楽。As you can see, this is a common marketing technique. I actually worked in marketing for a year in Japan, and once of the things I enjoyed about the job was observing the kind of linguistic strategies people would incorporate into their copy.

There are many cases where words commonly written in Hiragana will be written in Kanji, and vice-versa as well. These changes all influence the nuance of the sentence slightly, and give you so many new possibilities to change the way you write each sentence. It’s really cool! So you should definitely go study Japanese so you can understand more of what I’m talking about.

So here’s my plug; If you’re interested in learning more about the unique nuances in Japanese words, I suggest you check out my YouTube series below. I think you will enjoy it.

Also, for another article I wrote about the complexity of Japanese linguistics and culture, you can check out this related article at the link below.

Kirikaeru, The Switch, And Identity Within The Context Of Japan.

Studying At a Japanese Language School; My Experience

In my experience, attending a Japanese language schools provided me with the perfect environment to immerse myself in a strict ‘Japanese only’ environment. The intensity and long study-hours, as well as the fact that you are studying in a group, helps to keep language learners accountable in their goals, and helped me personally kick-off my life in Japan.

Choosing to study at a Japanese language school means choosing to dive head-first into life in Japan.

The initial move to Japan can be pretty intimidating journey because, unfortunately, the time when you have the least amount of experience (when you get off the plane) is also the time in every expat’s life where they will need to go through the most amount of setup, frustration , and confusion. Most people who make their way out to Japan start off as English teachers, typically through the Jet program. I have from a lot of friends who did this that they tend to end up in a bit of an English-speaking bubble. After all, it is their job to spend 8 hours a day speaking English is front of non-eager Japanese students. I think in contrast to this, starting at a language school was the perfect way to kickoff my life in Japan, because it enabled me to dive into not just life in Japan, but life in Japanese from the get-go.

How much is tuition?

Most of these schools are based in Tokyo or Osaka, but I thought I would compile a table of information so dutiful readers can get a general idea of how much a year of tuition at a Japanese language school costs.

Language schoolFirst year total tuition (can vary by location) *2021 data
International Study Institute (ISI)¥849,000 (around $8,500 US)
KCP International *Tokyo based$9,000 (prices were only listed in US currency…strange)
Human Academy (Where I attended) *Multiple locations¥987,250 (around $9,870 US) *For 1 year 3 months course
Kai Japanese Language School¥942,000 (around $9,420 US)
Akamonkai Japanese Language School¥778,000 (around $7,780 US)
Arc Academy¥820,000 JPY (around $ 8,200 US)

My experience.

I arrived in Japan and entered my language school in early January, 2015. The first thing I noticed was that the website’s marketing had lied to me! How could they do that? As I stumbled my way through Osaka’s subway system to find the venue that my school booked for the new student entrance ceremony, I had a realization when I stepped through the doors; I might be the only English speaker here. The truth of Japanese language schools (and what they don’t show you on their websites) is that probably 90-95% of the students studying Japanese in Japan are from neighboring Asian countries. My school had a strict Japanese-only rule at the school, but walking around the subways and outside of the ceremony building, everything was fair game. As the ceremony starts, I stumbled over to my seat ignoring the fact that everyone was staring at my shiny white face. If you don’t move they can’t see you. Its like that thing in that one movie!…anyways…

“REI!”

Everyone in the room in unison bows 90 degrees, and then looks up for further instruction.

“CHAKUSEKI!”

Everyone returns to their seats, and the speech from our school president begins. With that speech and my adherence to 2 simple commands, my slow transition into some semblance of routine began.

Of the roughly 1000 students attending my school, I was maybe the only native English speaker.

And I think that was for the best. While it was a pretty lonely experience for the first few months at that school, it did do a great job of motivating me to learn Japanese. I didn’t have the option to switch to English when there was just that one word that I didn’t know in Japanese. If I didn’t know how to say something in Japanese, I couldn’t say it. Period. I think that this is the best possible environment one could ask for when learning another language. Speaking another language can be pretty brutal sometimes. You don’t get points for effort when you’re trying to tell a funny story but you butcher the punchline. People don’t give you the benefit of the doubt when you lack confidence in an interview. If you don’t know how to explain something in Japanese, people tend to assume that you just don’t know it.

As a way to mentally prepare myself for the long journey that is Japanese language learning, entering a language school was a great decision.

It hardened me, and it was also a lot of fun too. Having the opportunity to come in contact with so many different cultures and languages was a much more enriching experience than I ever could have gotten from seeing a private tutor or self-studying. That being said, the demographic of these schools is something to keep in mind, because things can get pretty intense when you initially lack that safety net. Plus, the lessons are often catered to their biggest demographic, that being Chinese students. So you can expect to spend a lot less time studying kanji (which are often similar to their parent Chinese), and a lot more time going over Japanese-English loan words than you may need. You do need to become somewhat of a loan wolf if you are going to enter one of these schools as an English speaker, because the things that will be difficult to you about Japanese as a language will be entirely different than everyone else.

What classes were like.

My school had classes that would run for about 8 hours per day. These classes would be split up into 90- minute chunks. We would study for 90 minutes, get a 15 minute break, rinse and repeat. This would typically involve a lecture-style lesson, but there were plenty where we would participate in conversations and exercises. The fact that the class is composed of multiple nationalities and multiple native-languages meant that any conversations we had as a class would be in Japanese. Also, our school issued out their own specific textbook, so our lessons would typically conform around the layout of this book. Typically, we take turns reading sentences from an assigned passage out loud, and then pick-apart every word, grammar point, and bit of Japanese cultural nuance from the passage. I think it was a good method that mimicked the kind of practical linguistic analysis you will need to do in the real world, and what I would eventually have to train myself to master at university in Japan.

The Quest for the ‘Examination for Japanese University Admission’ (日本留学試験)

I had mentioned earlier that most students at language schools in Japan are from neighboring Asian countries. Most students are enrolled in language school in Japan so they can get a qualification that allows them to enter a university in Japan, or enroll in a university back home that requires a Japanese language qualification. This means that most students in these schools are cramming day and night to achieve a good school on one of the following exams:


The Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT): Link to JLPT website https://www.jlpt.jp/e/

Examination for Japanese University Admission (EJU) Link to EJU website https://www.jasso.go.jp/en/eju/index.html


It’s worth mentioning that I had never heard of the English name for the EJU (日本留学試験) before this. It’s a much lesser known test than the JLPT, and does not have nearly as much international presence. That being said, the material covered on the EJU is much more practical, and more difficult in an academic sense. For this reason, university admission offices often favor the EJU over the JLPT in application processes.

I was unsure of my future plans when I first enrolled in language school in Japan, but seeing the drive that other students had to study for the EJU gave me the motivation to try to place on it myself. Before I knew it, I was one of them, sitting in the tiny school library until 11PM every night with my face shoved into a textbook. I liked it though. It was that same kind of masochistic satisfaction you can get from running a marathon, or downing 5 whole 500 ml cans of strong zero (I’ll get to talking about strong zero another time.)

About my language school and the surrounding area

For anyone interesting in attending the same language school as me, which I can recommend, I thought I would post some links to the school website, and show off some photos of the surrounding area. It was a great experience leaving the school every night and exploring the surrounding area, so if you end up entering my school you can enjoy walking around these areas every day as well.

Link to my Japanese language school website

It was located just a 10-minute walk away from Osaka’s famous dotonbori area.

Is Ramen Chinese or Japanese? A Historic Overview and Guide

Although the dish can be traced back to China, “shina soba” is thought to have been brought to Japan sometime in the 18th or 19th century. Eventually, through many evolutions of the dish, “shina soba” would come to be known as “ramen.”, and would eventually be accepted as a staple Japanese dish. The word ramen is a Japanese transcription of the Chinese lamian (拉麵). Nowadays, most people accept “ramen” as a Japanese dish, despite being inspired by “lamian” dishes.

Why ramen was originally called “shina soba”

Ironically enough, because ramen was originally imported into Japan and established in the country via Chinese immigrants, the original name for ramen, “shina soba” actually directly translates to “Chinese noodles.” I know, I know…I claim that ramen is commonly accepted (even by native Chinese) as a Japanese staple, but the original name for the dish was… “Chinese noodles.” (Actually, they were also called Chuka noodles, which is just another way to say Chinese noodles. ‘Chuka’ is a more modern way of saying Chinese in Japan, with ‘Chinese food’ being called ‘Chuka Ryori (中華料理))…as hilarious as all of that is, Ramen is seen as being Japanese because ramen has seen a strong evolution away from the original Chinese lamian dishes over time, particularly once ramen made its way to Fukuoka and the Hakata region of Japan. Hakata, and in particular Fukuoka, is the region most famous for ramen in all of Japan.

How Ramen and ‘Lamian” are prepared differently

Ramen and lamian are very different types of food, even though lamian was the basis for the creation of ramen. In Chinese, “la” means “to pull” and “mian” is a food product made from wheat dough including noodles. So, what this means is lamian is literally translated into hand-pulled noodles. To assist in this process of hand-pulling noodles, lamian noodles are coated in oil, which makes lamian noodles softer in texture, and considerably changes the overall taste of the dish . In contrast, ramen noodles are cut , which gives then a tougher, chewier, and harder texture. This texture is particularly important to ramen as a dish.

The importance of choosing ‘hardness’ in Japanese ramen shops

One of the first things I notice (and am somewhat disappointed by) when dining at American ramen shops back home, is that they don’t understand the importance of giving the customer the ability to customize the ‘hardness’ of their noodles.

Imagine going to a steakhouse where you can only order your steak well-done…

In Japan when you enter a proper ramen shop (especially in Hakata), the first thing they will ask you is to “choose the level of hardness of your noodles”, or I guess it would be more natural to say “How would you like your noodles done?” In Japanese, the key word they are checking for is ‘Katasa’ (硬さ) which can be literally translated to “The level of hardness.” (What?…) Here is an example of a list of standard options…

Ultra hard “harigane” (ハリガネ)Barely cooked. Choose to destroy stomach.
Comfortably hard “barikata” (バリカタ)Perhaps the most popular choice. Hard, but will leave stomach intact
Regularly hard “katamen” (固めん)Cooked with just a hint of firmness remaining. A safe choice for newcomers.
Normal “Futsu” (普通)Utterly orthodox. More normal than normal.
Soft “Yawa” (やわ)Boiled, and then some. I think most American ramen shops cook to this level.
Ultra soft “Bariyawa” (バリ柔)Boiled until all texture is taken out of the noodle. Slimy, oozy, gooey.

I recommend going with ‘Barikata’ if you think you can handle it. (Although shops often alter this scale or go with their completely own methodology.) Besides, In Japan ramen soup is THICK. You want thick and firm noodles that can handle the THICKNESS of that tasty and succulent broth.

Actually…

This is a very dated thing in Japan (Japanese comedians and fads in general have a really fast turn-over rate) so most younger people would have no idea what you are talking about if you brought this up but… there was a famous sketch by Japanese comedian Masaki Sumitani, also known as “Hard Gay”. I know…I know. “BUT WHAT IS THIS HARD GAY???” you may be asking…well I think its probably easier for me to show you the hard gay, than to try to explain the hard gay. In this video, Mr. Hard Gay has this response when he is asked about his preference for hardness in regards to his…ramen noodles *cough*…

How shin soba evolved into ramen

So now that I have covered some of the differences between lamian and modern ramen, how did shin soba become known as ramen in modern Japan? Over time shin soba drifted farther from it’s roots, and began to evolve. Put simply (despite my vast ramen consumption experience I am still no expert), Japanese chefs began to emphasis the soup over the noodle itself. In fact, most ramen dishes nowadays get their names from the type of soup the ramen is made of. For example, the perhaps most famous ‘tonkotsu’ ramen is made from a pork bone stock. As I had mentioned earlier, this is a staple of Fukuoka ramen. As ramen has spread throughout the country, evolutions such as the importance of the ‘dashi’ or soup stock such as Shoyu, shio, tonkotsu, miso, and so on became the most essential part of the dish, and is how you decide which type of ramen to each in Japan. Over time, as the flavors and ingredients incorporated into ramen dishes strayed farther from their origins, Japanese chefs began calling the dish ‘ramen’ (transcription of the Chinese lamian (拉麵), after the original Chinese noodles the dish evolved from, instead of the on-the-nose “Chinese noodles” linguistic equivalency with ‘shin soba.’ As a general rule, when comparing Japanese noodles dishes to Chinese noodle dishes, there is a difference in priority that has evolved over the generations.

In Japan, usually, the priority of elements of a ramen dish goes like this…

Soup > Noodles > Toppings

However, for Chinese noodles, priority goes like this…

Toppings > Noodles > Soup

A proper bowl for a proper soup

So now that you know that the most important part of the ramen is the soup, you need a proper bowl and ladle to truly commemorate the experience. I mailed some proper ramen tableware to my sister for her birthday last year, and it went over pretty well! Here is the link below to the set I purchased if you are interested. It’s minimalist and should make a classy addition to your dungeon, or where you choose to eat ramen. You can find them at the link below.

Unbreakable Japanese Style Ramen Bowl Set of 2, Vivimee 37oz Black Large Ramen Bowls and Spoons Set with Chopsticks & Saucers for Pho Thai Miso Udon Soup Noodles or Asian Food, Matte Melamine Bowls

What Do People Do For Fun in Japan? The Concept of “Nijikai”

In a 2019 study by Statistica, when questioned about their hobbies, 54 million Japanese participants responded that in their free time they enjoy domestic travel. 43.5 million participants responded that they enjoy eating out at unique restaurants.

This was not a surprising answer for me, as it not only reflects the infrastructure of Japan as a whole, but also reflects the philosophy of the Japanese concept of ‘Nijikia’ (二次会) that I have seen so often over my 7 years living in Japan. Walk down any street in Tokyo and you may find an armada of neon lights, an acoustically isolated ancient temple, A ‘robot restaurant, a tea shop in a traditional garden, a VR game arcade and a chain of game bars, DVD rental shops pulled straight out of the late 2000’s… These are all things that can be found within walking distance of each other not just in Tokyo, but in most Japanese cities.

Imagine going from here to here…

Within just a short 5-minute walk

Needless to say, Tokyo is a city where people do things on-the-go.

And the funny thing is, I could keep going. Indiscriminate to both human relationships and city infrastructure, Japan is a country of both balance and contradiction. One can be pulled onto the precipice of cutting-edge, only to be pulled back into the realm of nostalgia. This is especially true in Tokyo, which is the city with the highest population in the world.

The double-edged sword of Japan’s entertainment industry

Game-bars, arcades, owl cafe’s, cat cafe’s, maid cafe’s, shooting bars, every kind of themed bar or restaurant you could imagine, all-night karaoke booths, every kind of specialty shop. Anything that you can possibly think of, there is more than likely a place where you can enjoy that out-in-public in Tokyo, or any of Japans major cities.

The reason for these establishment’s existence is somewhat of a double-edged sword. Small living quarters and paper thin walls ensure that it isn’t only inconvenient for most people to host social gatherings in Japan, it’s downright rude in most cases. While I never formally met my neighbors when I was living in my university-owned apartment complex (this is normal in Japan), I was able to pick up on the fact that someone’s favorite character to play in super smash bros. was kirby. “, HIII” * and other various kirby noises aside, lucky for that person I like smash too, so I was willing to let it slide. Besides, the vacuum-like sound effects made for some great white noise.

All night long…

The entertainment industry plays a huge role as an outlet

Japan’s infrastucture (and culture) creates a situation where people can only let-loose in certain situations. An essential part of Japanese culture is the idea of ‘Enryo'(遠慮), which can most closely be translated into English as ‘restraint’. Restraint so that you may show your willingness to maintain your proper position in society. Restraint, so you may put other people’s needs above your own. Restraint, so that you can show humility and the proper respect. While this could (and likely will be) an entire topic I cover in and of itself, these expectations form the backbone of Japanese culture, and this cultural expectations coupled with the population density and living conditions in Japan create a high-stress and highly context-sensitive environment. Most establishments in Japan attempt to provide customers with an atmosphere where their customers can let loose. In this way, it is easy to understand why two forms of escapism: travel and eating out (which is really code for drinking, in my opinion) are what social life and leisure time is centered around in Japan.

The concept of a ‘bureiko’ and ‘nijikai’

As a form of this release, drinking parties, or ‘nomikai’ (飲み会) have become a cultural icon of Japan. In my 7 years of living here, I have probably been to hundreds of these. When I was in university we would go out and get drinks as a class almost every week. ‘Nomikai’ perform an important role in the lateral social structure of Japan, because they give everyone an opportunity to talk to each other as equals. This concept is known as ‘bureiko’ (無礼講), which basically means that ‘anything goes’. While the expectations to conform to societal standard in everyday life is comparatively strict by western standards, you can get away with almost anything at these drinking parties. In fact, people are often encouraged to go completely and utterly ham. Almost every ‘nomikai’ will be followed by a ‘nijikai’ (二次会) which can be literally translated as ‘The second party”, perhaps ‘The after party.’ This is when people typically go out to do some of the more crazy things the night-life in Japan has to offer. A ‘nomikai’ and an all-night karaoke session goes together like dinner and a movie. Basically, a meal or nomikai is the standard thing to do, and what you do for the ‘nijikai’ is decided after-the-fact. This order is very important.

It would be pretty strange in Japan if you invited a group of people to go do karaoke. You invite people to the dinner. Then you can read the room, and suggest something fun for the nijikai when you’re standing outside the restaurant. This is a key bit of timing that new-expats in Japan often don’t pick up on, and it can make play with people’s expectations for the night and frustrate some people. A good way to think about it is; Everybody likes food, so start from there! Simple travel generally works for this too, although you have to factor in a lot more variables. Start with something that everyone can enjoy, and secretly plan your nijikai proposal.

When in doubt, go find the nearest izakaya.

japanese cafes on empty narrow street in evening

The majority of pictures from my life that I included at this post were taken at an izakaya. An izakaya is often translated as ‘japanese pub’, although I would say the atmosphere of a pub and an izakaya are pretty different, despite the heavy drinking that takes place in both establishments. Essentially, an izakaya is a restaurant that caters to the need for the aforementioned ‘bureiko’ and ‘nijikai’ by offering a restaurant that supports the need for 2-3 hour-long drinking sessions. ‘Nomihoudai’ (飲み放題) or all you can drink is a staple of Japanese izakaya. You can expect to pay 3000 yen, or around $30 US for 2-3 hours of all-you-can-drink beers, chuahai’s, high-balls, etc. (I plan to write about all of the major kinds of Japanese drinks as well). At most nomikai’s, a whole group will agree to pay for ‘Tabenomihoudai’ (食べ飲み放題), which is all you can eat and drink. Every restaurant has different courses, but you can expect this to run you around 5000 yen, or $50 US. Nomihoudai is pretty standard, and you can know what to expect, but there are restauarants where 5000 yen for tabenomihoudai is a steal, and there are places where its a total ripoff. It can be a bit of a gamble, but checking for reviews on apps like Hot Pepper can save you a lot of trouble. Of course, most of these reviews are in Japanese (all of them?), but I know it has saved me a lot of trouble. You can find the link to their website below.

Link to Hot Pepper (there is a language option on the top of the website)

Generally speaking, you can’t go wrong with an izakaya. So if you are inviting people out, this would be recommendation for people looking for a safe bet that are relatively new to Japan. I will be covering more about izakaya’s and the types of food and drinks you can order in a later article, so please look forward to that. Until then, happy izakaya-hunting.

Kirikaeru, The Switch, And Identity Within The Context Of Japan.

Behold, the first word of many I will introduce on this site that carries a lot of cultural weight in Japan; Kirikaeru, Which can be directly translated to “To switch on or off”. This “switch” isn’t a mere linguistic nuance. It is an unspoken truth of Japanese social dynamics. There is this expectation to align yourself with others. To adjust your personality to the needs of the room. In contrast to this, in the west, it is generally an optimal strategy to put on a face at work or with someone you’re trying to give a good impression. The cultural norm in the west may even be to almost trick those around you into believing in this cherry-picked persona. The western concept of identity is one of consistency, and authenticity. The the origin of the English word “identity” is “identitatem”, lit. “Sameness.”

In Japan, People seemingly instantaneously adjust their demeanor and mannerisms, all in an attempt to fit the needs of the room. It’s not just normal, it’s a cultural expectation. In Japan, all parties involved know that this process takes place dozens of times in each encounter, and it isn’t offensive or off-putting in the slightest. But how can this be? How can you come across as authentically kind when you change your entire demeanor right in front of your eyes? Won’t you come off as ‘fake?” It isn’t strange to adjust your demeanor, posture, voice, and entire personality right in front of someone’s eyes with the slightest shift in social balance. This is a piece of Japan’s culture of ‘enryo’, but I would like to delve into that more in a seperate post. It’s a can of worms I definitely intend to open.

The explanation for this phenomenon often gets explained by expats as a result of ‘Honne’ and ‘Tatemae’, Which can be roughly translated as one’s true thoughts (being Honne), and the face you choose to present to the world (being Tatemae). It’s a topic that has practically become an icebreaker for expats in Japan. ‘How are you holding up with the Honne and Tatemae? Or perhaps something along those lines.  Once you reach Honne and Tatemae, you are starting to get somewhere in understanding the workings of Japanese culture from ‘the inside’. However, in my opinion, after living in Japan for the better half of a decade,explaining away the complexities behind this personality shift as simply being ‘tatemae’ (public face) is a bit of an oversimplification. 

Here the priority lies less in coming off as genuine. Instead, It is more important to show that your intention is to maintain harmony with your surroundings. This is seen as a form of restraint in Japan (遠慮:’Enryo’). By choosing to refrain from one’s true self (that being the general concept of honne), you are showing your intentions to withhold harmony within the group. To show your intentions to maintain harmony, this contributes to the overall ‘air’ of the group (空気:’Kuuki’), whereas you ‘read the air’ (空気を読む ‘Kuuki wo Yomu’) to adjust yourself to the group appropriately. The key here is intention. Acting from a place of tatemae (the public face) is acceptable, however, it is more pertinent to show your intentions to adopt tatemae. Put simply, it is more polite to demonstrate your shift in demeanor in front of others in Japan. By showing this intention , you are demonstrating a wish to achieve harmony. From a western emphasis this may be seen as the most extreme form of conformity, but in Japan, it is rather seen as demonstration of will or perseverance (specifically, 我慢:’Gaman’, which is another can of worms waiting to be opened). After all, how can we truly conform in a western way when our identity is so fluidly adaptable based on our environments. Identity is a game of perspectives, especially in Japan.

What’s more, distinguishing between ‘Honne’ and ‘Tatemae’, or this ‘Public’ and ‘True’ version of oneself isn’t a simple task. I’m sure you’ve had an experience similar that you can relate to. Think back to your first day of school, or perhaps a 1st date. Were you being the most quote-on-quote ‘real’ version of yourself? Were you acting ‘fake’? I think you’ll find that the answer lies somewhere in the middle. By attempting to put your best foot forward and show off your best ‘self’, you subconsciously fill those shoes. If not just a bit more, if only for an instant. It’s a debate as old as philosophy itself, but the obsession with personal identity seems to be a predominately western pursuit. While I don’t wish to diminish the value of that discussion, Eastern cultures have invariably tied the image ‘self’ as being an entity inseparable from the greater universe. In the east you are a part of your environment, not divorced from it.

By showing this intention , you are demonstrating a wish to achieve harmony.

Perhaps we can draw conclusions on our self identity by averaging out our demeanor in a number of situations. Say, for example, you have an enjoyable week, but just one truly dreadful day. Does that make me a ⅔ times optimist with a pinch of dreadful nihilist? Perhaps you’re a debbie-downer when it rains but love when it snows. Perhaps you have noticed, all of these examples encompass a period of time involving the past and possible future. The labor of the past determines the fruits of our future. This is the way we judge identity in the west. In the west, identity is seen as the concrete culmination of past, present, and future aspirations. We end with a sum-of-the-total evaluation. In the East, identity is relevant ONLY in the context of the present, and even so it’s importance is downplayed.

Lets look at another culture with similar spiritual roots to Japan; Spirituality in India. For example, the ‘Dharma’ found in Hindu beliefs (in my admittedly blunt interpretation), is an ultimate duty one must take on their shoulders based on present circumstance. These present circumstances manifest a ‘dharma’, which is based on one’s ‘kharma’, which are the consequences of seeds sown in the present, that may or may not reap rewards in the future. It is a fundamental belief in Hinduism that to achieve a result, a seed must be sown with no hope for its growth. The only matter is the present, which is to take action to fulfill one’s ‘Dharma’. This perspective on time and presence exists across many cultures across Asia.

In Japanese, there are several different versions of the English word ‘I’. Each person speaking Japanese chooses which version if I they wish to use based on a variety of environmental factors. The most commonly used words (typically by men) are 私’watashi’, 僕’boku’, and 俺’ore’, which the speaker picks and chooses depending on their company, what they may be doing at the time, and what kind of impression the speaker wants to give of themselves. Observing this fact alone, it becomes much easier to imagine the fluidity of personal identity that exists in this country. Imagine yourself face-to-face with a new colleague or potential acquaintance, ready to choose a personal pronoun like a starter pokemon. While most people start with ‘watashi’ and adjust to a new word over time, with a large enough age gap the older person may (somewhat rarely) adopt a separate pronoun. The key takeaway from this is that the way one refers to themselves in Japanese is dependent on who they are talking to, how long they have known them for, and what image they want those around them to receive. When observing from this angle, it also becomes strange to imagine a static identity divorced from outside influence. How you feel about this all depends entirely on your perspective, meaning that the integrity of this article is dependent on outside forces as well. I may not be able to change my words, but the feeling the passages convey, the sound of the words in your head, these are all things that are out of my control.

Can Americans Travel To Japan? An Outline of the Current Covid-19 Situation

tori, japanese, shrine

I remember when my parents were scheduled to arrive in Tokyo Haneda Airport in early October of last year. There WAS a time when, at the first signs of the pandemic, the idea of being able to travel again within a year didn’t seem like nearly as far-fetched of an idea. Oh, how jaded I have become. The humanity! Anyways, Now here I sit, mid-April 2021, and, unfortunately, the short answer is…

As of right now, Travel for tourism and most other short-term purposes is still not permitted, and there is no indication that this will change in the short term. Visa-free travel is suspended. You still cannot travel to Japan from the US, barring some urgent circumstance.

So how is the current covid-19 situation in Japan, and when is this likely to change?

Unfortunately, confirming the tentative plan-of-rollout for vaccines in Japan doesn’t exactly invite feelings of optimism. Two months since beginning vaccination, less than 1% of the total population of the country has been vaccinated. On April 12th the government began vaccinations for elderly citizens over 65 years old. Long story short, the future prospects for the remainder of the year could be better, to say the least… As a 25-year-old foreign resident with no pre-existing medical conditions, my hope of getting the vaccine in next 3 months, even, is looking more and more dim as the months roll by.

The covid-19 situation in Japan never got quite as serious as in most others countries. The flip side of this, however, is that the government doesn’t seem to be handling the situation (conjecture) with the same level of urgency as other countries. As a result, the vaccine rollout is taking a very , very , long time.

So when will Japan likely open up to American tourists?

Below is the tentative schedule for vaccine rollout in Japan.

May: Japan is set to receive 100 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine between May and June.

June: Prime Minister Suga is aiming to secure enough vaccines to treat all senior residents by the end of June. In addition, while vaccination from participants will not be required, preparations for the Tokyo ‘2020’ Olympics are likely to ramp up around this time (Tokyo Olympics will be held from Fri, Jul 23, 2021 – Sun, Aug 8, 2021)

July: Treatment for the general public begins. All residents age 16 and older, including foreign residents, are eligible for the free vaccine. This will likely be the beginning of any really change as far as policy is concerned, with the end of the Tokyo Olympics possibly serving as the symbolic reopening of Japan to the world. This is all own personal conjecture, fueled by years and years off green tea-doused dreams and life in Japan. This just seems like something the government here would do based off of their track record.

So, there you go. Heaps and mounds galore of my own personal biased opinion, based on some empirical facts from a ‘tentative’ schedule that I wish was much less ‘tentative’, and much more ‘Here’s a vaccine and a free subsidized massage straight from the Japanese government.’

To answer the question you may or may not have, things are unlikely to change before July when the vaccine is available to the general public. I will be sure to make another post if there are any major changes.

Which Japanese Textbook Should You Use?

As someone who has studied Japanese for over 8 years, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say I’ve gone through around 30 textbooks. While finding intermediate level textbooks is comparatively easy, useful beginner and advanced level textbooks, in my experience, were a bit of a hit and miss situation. Let me give you my recommendation for what I believe is the best textbook for each skill level, based on my own personal 8 years studying Japanese. 
 
 
I did say I went through around 30 textbooks, after all… 
 
 
These are the textbooks I discuss in this article:
 

The Best Textbook for beginners

 

It can be overwhelming starting the long journey that is Japanese language learning.

Native English speakers fluent in Japanese tend to have a healthy sense of pride attached to their Japanese language abilities. Japanese, after all, is one of the most difficult and strenuous languages to learn as a native English speaker. On top of this, the nature of social media has encouraged people to produce copious amounts of clickbait with YouTube titles and thumbnails containing quotes like the following;
“Japanese has three alphabets!”
 
“You need to memorize over 3000 Kanji to be able to read Japanese.
 
“Here are the top 20 Japanese mistakes you SHOULDN’T MAKE! 
 
Etc, etc. While I can’t willingly ignore these points as a fluent speaker myself, but i can remember a time when I felt like learning Japanese, or any other language for that matter was “impossible.”
 
Well, it’s not impossible. Here is where you can start. 

Genki 1: The crème de la crème, the divine, and your new friend.

Since I started studying Japanese, my unconditional love and admiration for the magic that is Genki 1 has become somewhat of an inside joke in my circle of friends, and fellow Japanese language-learning friends. There aren’t enough words in the English language (or Japanese language for that matter) to convey the perfection and warm feelings the mere sight of a Genki 1 textbook can muster.

Genki 1 is love, Genki 1 is life.

And here’s why…

The biggest danger when embarking on your Japanese-linguistics studies are intial feelings of hopelessness. This is true for any new skill really, but it is especially dangerous when starting out with Japanese. The reality, is that learning Japanese is a lifetime endeavor. Your journey on this train truly never ends, and there are no designated stops. Genki 1 eases you into Japanese’s main 3 alphabets (4 if you count romaji) over a spaced-out interval of time. Simply speaking, it gently nudges you into the necessary level of proficiency without discouraging you from moving forward. Before you know it, with a little effort you will be progressing through the increasingly complex texts in Genki 1, as the texts slowly progress in both their demand and complexity through forcing you to use more and more Japanese characters form each alphabet. While you certainly won’t be even close to fluent when you finish this textbook, it will teach you the mindset you will need to master to continue teaching yourself Japanese now and in the future. Also, it has this really adorable story about Tanaka-san and Mary-san’s love romance story that is just soooo *smooching sound* mmm tasty and engrossing!

The Best Textbook for Intermediate Learners

You may be wondering, “What about Genki 2?” Well, I must be honest, Genki 2 is a pretty reasonable textbook to use as a continuation of Genki 1, but in my personal experience, compared to it’s predecessor it’s chock full of impractical grammar and a comparatively strange order in which it introduces new vocabulary words. My recommendation for making the transition from beginner to intermediate Japanese is to master the contents of Genki 1 (seriously, just spend a whole year mastering Genki 1), and then move onto ‘Chuukyuu he ikou” (Lit. means “let’s move onto the intermediate level.”) The passages included inside are slightly more difficult than the Genki series, offering texts that contain more dense clusters of Kanji characters, and more natural-sounding grammar. This textbook is short-on-content when compared to the Genki series, but presents a very natural and clear passage to mastery from the upper-beginner level of Japanese learning, and a mid-intermediate level of Japanese.

The Best Textbook for Advanced Learners

At this point as an advanced Japanese speaker, you will mostly be searching for ways to supplement self-study, rather than textbooks that will guide you through each individual step. Thus, my recommendation is the Shinkanzen Master series as a whole. These textbooks are divided into several categories such as Kanji (shown above), vocabulary, grammar, listening, and writing. The think that I truly appreciate about this series is how streamlined and barebones the content is. Far too many mid-advanced level Japanese textbooks are filled to the brim with useless exercises, tacky illustrations, and entire chapters for grammar that I have still yet to use in everyday life. When I was at the height of my Japanese-study career as a university student here in Japan, on top of my textbooks, I would carry a Japanese textbook with me everywhere I went.

Essentially, weight and portability became a factor for me.

I recall loving the contents of another advanced-level textbook, but that particular book was filled with so much useless filler information and general fluff that the book ended up being over 500 pages long! When I was going through the contents of that book, in order to realistically carry it with me everyday, I actually cut out (as in actually cut out, with scissors) all of the unnecessary pages. Suddenly, a 500 page book that I would have to always flip through to find what I was looking for, suddenly became a 350 page book that was much more streamlined, and much easier on my shoulders when I was lugging it around.

The point i’m making is, the Shinkanzen Master series is the ‘meal prep service’ equivalent for a Japanese textbook. It has everything you need, and is easy to cater to your individual needs. Of course, you will have to end up buying several textbooks, and all in all end up spending close to ¥10,000 (around $100 US), but I think they’re worth it. The Shinkanzen Master series textbooks aren’t really that remarkable, but what they will enable you to do is become more efficient and consistent in the way that you study everyday.