Lesson 4: Japan

Japan is one of the world’s economic powerhouses, the home of such uber-successful multinational corporations that influence American life like Toyota, Honda, Sony, Toshiba, Hitachi, Mitsubishi and many more. Still, Americans are less likely to fear Japanese economic dominance (as was often the case in the ’80s) and embrace Japan as the land of outrageous video games, Akira Kurosowa films and toys that don’t do anything except get us to buy them.

What follows is a completely incomplete alphabetical listing of “Japanese-things-many-Americans-know-but-that-we-may-not-really-understand”:

Now a massive industry with worldwide appeal, anime–Japanese animation–became known in Japan before World World II as an alternative to local live-action films, Anime and increased in popularity in the 1960s after an animator named Osamu Tezuka adapted techniques used by Disney to reduce costs by limiting the number of drawn frames needed for each production. (Tezuka also pioneered the giant robot anime genre known outside of Japan as “Mecha.”) The most revered anime creator is Hayao Miyazaki, whose many full length feature masterworks like Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke and Howl’s Moving Castle routinely dominate lists of the top-rated anime movies of all time.

More information:
Wikipedia on anime | “Anime Fans Gather, Loudly and Proudly Obsessed” | Watch anime online

(Manga refers to the Japanese print cartoon and comic industry, which became popular during the American Occupation post World War II, fusing Western comic book forms with Japanese plots and styles. Though modern manga has become an object of criticism for being bawdy or violent, the more wholesome Osamu Tezuka’s Astro Boy and Machiko Hasegawa’s Sazae-san have been popular in Japan for over fifty years.)

geishas: (some grown-up only themes in this section)
Geishas represent an ancient and mysterious part of Japanese culture that perhaps looms larger in the Western imagination than it does in that of the Japanese. Geishas have their roots in the musical and dance traditions of male and female entertainers of ancient Japan. Over time female geishas began to provide artistic (and other) entertainment exclusively for men. Today, more traditionally-costumed geishas perform their art for tourists in public more so than in more private, personal settings. There are still women who play more contemporary geisha roles, training for up to six years studying music, dance, language, hostessing and how to conduct a tea ceremony.

Japan-zone’s history of geishas | more about geisha hang-outs like ochaya (tea houses) | “How Geisha Work”

— kamikaze:
Toward the end of World War II, some Japanese aviators, sensing the likely defeat of the Japanese Empire and taking the samurai-era sentiment “death before dishonor” to heart, crashed their planes into Allied warships hoping to inflict as much damage on the enemy as possible with their final living act. “Kamikaze” usually refers to an attack by air, but has also been used to refer to other potentially suicide-rather-than-surrender acts, such as the banzai charge, even though a kamikaze mission is different from a banzai charge in the fact that the latter is only potentially fatal.

More information:
Wikipedia on kamikazes | 2worldwar2.com’s overview of kamikazes | Kamikaze Images explores the different ways Americans and Japanese portray kamikazes

Karaoke (the word “karaoke” is a combination of “kara,” which means “empty,” and “oke,” which means “orchestra”) is less an active phenomenon in Japan than a ubiquitous element of Japanese culture. Karaoke began in Kobe in the ’70s when singer Daisuke Inoue
created a machine that played instrumental tracks of his songs so his fans could add their vocals at home. He realized the potential fun the masses could have by singing along to popular songs stripped of the vocal track and began leasing karaoke machines to hotels and restaurants. Today karaoke is a worldwide, multi-billion dollar industry, though Inoue made little money on it. “The only patent he owned, briefly,” reads an article about Daisuke Inoue marking him as one of  Time Magazine’s most influential Asians of the 20th century, “was for plastic-covered songbooks, and the only karaoke-related profits he earns today come from a potion he markets to repel the cockroaches and rats that are a karaoke box’s main enemy.”

More information:
Wikipedia on karaoke | A history of karaoke | Sing along to the Karaoke Channel online

Karate (“kara” meaning “empty” and “te” translating as “hand”) is a system of hand to hand (and foot to body) combat developed on the island of Okinawa. The best masters become adept at mental discipline as well as balance and physical speed. Karate has been a recognized martial art and accepted technique of self-defense for over 1,500 years, if not up to 2,500, but has only recently become a popular sport. Throughout its long history its five core principles have remained the same: Character, Sincerity, Effort, Etiquette and Self-Control.

More information:
A history of karate | “the empty hand way” | jujitsu (“the art of yielding”) is a samurai-era martial art and close-hand combat technique that consists of using an opponent’s force against himself rather than using one’s own  | judo (“gentle way”) is a modern martial art/combat sport (created in 1882) in which opponents try to throw each other on the ground.

kabuki theater:
Kubuki, meaning “the art of song and dance,” became popular Japan at the turn of the 17th century when theatrical productions by a female dancer named Okuni of Izomo became popular among “the common people” of Kyoto. According to TheaterHistory.com, originally both women and men performed kabuki dramas but eventually men took over all roles, as well as all the pretty kimonos and makeup. Today kabuki, though performed most often for tourists, still holds a special place in Japanese culture as a respected traditional art form.

More information:
Wikipedia on kabuki | Japan-zone on kabuki | Kabuki theater on YouTube | Going to a kabuki performance in Japan

Ninja, also known as shinobi, were highly trained covert agents in feudal Japan who carried out unorthodox and often shady secret missions for their clients, such as assassination, sabotage and espionage. The ninja operated in the shadows, using any means necessary to achieve their goals (an approach known as ninjutsu), while samurai, who operated in the same era, adhered to the strict bashido honor code. There are no accounts in history books of ninja being turtles, or vice versa.

More information:
About.com’s profile of ninjas | Ninjas and Ninjutsu | Cult of the Ninjas

Origami is the centuries-old Japanese art of paper-folding that became popular around the world in the mid-1800s. Wikipedia’s entry on origami details various styles of origami, such as “wet-folding,” which is “an origami technique for producing models with gentle curves rather than geometric straight folds and flat surfaces,” and “pureland origami,” which is “origami with the restriction that only one fold may be done at a time, more complex folds like reverse folds are not allowed, and all folds have straightforward locations.” If you want fold by fold diagrams aplenty visit Origami-club.com or OrigamiFun.com.

Based upon the Indian stupa, a structure where one kept sacred relics, a pagoda is a tiered tower with many eaves. Japan boasts thousands of pagodas, most of which are associated with Buddhist temples. Japan’s pagodas feature eaves that are exaggerated more than those in its Chinese pagoda counterparts.

More information:
What is a pagoda? | A guide to Japanese temples | The architecture elements of Buddhist temples

While many an American college student has subsisted entirely on a dorm-room hot-pot diet consisting of nothing but instant ramen noodles, in Japan, ramen noodles are not the low-effort, low-brow dinner substitute we in America know and love. Instead, ramen (which is way Japanese pronounce the Chinese characters for “lomein”) is a favorite Chinese-inspired noodle dish in the northern Japanese city of Sapporo that became ubiquitous in post-War Japan because of being both inexpensive and tasty. Ramen noodles became an international sensation starting in 1958 when the owner of Japanese company Nissin Foods, Momofuku Ando, started selling them as an instant, just-add-water meal. The rest, as might say an American college student who’s ditching his reading about the history of Japan to watch Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla, figuring that’s pretty much the same thing, is Ramenlicious.

More information:
The History of Ramen Noodles | Momofuko Ando: an Asian Hero

Samurai were skilled warriors in Japan’s feudal age who were close to and fought at the behest of the nobility. Samurai adhered to a strict ethical code based on Confucianism known as bashido that dictated they live loyally and honorably, and die the same. There were many eras of samurai and many well-known samurai, who themselves were known by many samurai names. There are also many more samurai terms you may have heard, such as:

xxx shogun: a Japanese feudal era military leader
xxx ronin: a masterless samurai
xxx (a link just for grown-ups, and not for the faint of heart) seppuku/hare kari: the ritual way a dishonored samurai might take his own life

sumo wrestling:
Sumo is the ritualized ancient sport of Japanese wrestling in which two opponents face off across an elevated ring and try to down or oust the other. The first wrestler to either touch the ground with anything other than the bottoms of his feet or leave the ring loses. There are six main sumo tournaments a year, each lasting fifteen days, with the best wrestlers being declared a yokozuna, a grand champion. There are no weight restrictions in sumo wrestling–any wrestler may face any other–the highly trained sumo athletes put on as much weight as possible, hoping to gain a force advantage in the ring. Want to know more about sumo wrestling and its Shinto ritual traditions? Watch this short YouTube video about sumo wrestling from National Geographic.

The first misconception to clear up….sushi is not raw fish! As MisconceptionJunction.com’s sushi page is eager to tell us, “sashimi” refers to raw fish, but “sushi” indicates “any food dish consisting of vinegared rice, usually served with some other toppings, but not always.” No matter. Westerners have developed a taste for sushi–some a bit too much–and eat many varieties, most with cooked seafood, like imitation crab (California roll) or smoked salmon (Seattle roll). Want to know all there is about sushi? Between Sushifaq.com and Eatsushi.com you won’t miss a single dab of wasabi.

Other Japanese arts of note:

ikebana: the Japanese art of flower arranging.
kaiju: the Japanese art of monster movies (Mothra, Godzilla, Mothra vs. Godzilla).
Hello Kitty: the Japanese art of kawaii, meaning “cuteness in culture” (Godzilla vs. Hello Kitty).
para para: the Japanese art of Europop line dancing.
Japanese game shows: the Japanese art of…something.

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