Kamakura Garden

This week has been a little crazy for me so I’d like to share a photo from my first trip to Japan back in 2008.

A Garden in Kamakura, circa 2008
A Garden in Kamakura, Summer circa 2008

I’m neither a “country boy” nor a “city boy” but a nice mixture of both. I love images that reflect this.

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Wish on a Daruma, not a star…

New (Blind/Unenlightened) Traditional Daruma Dolls
New (Blind/Unenlightened) Traditional Daruma Dolls

During my first winter trip to Japan (years ago), we visited Asakusa, Tokyo. One of my favorite places in Tokyo, btw… It was very close to the New Year so the holiday vibe (not so much Christmas, but New Years) was very abundant. One thing I couldn’t help but notice were these small shops that had thousands of strange looking balls for sale. This was when I learned of the Daruma Doll (pronounced Da-lew-mah).

“The Daruma doll (達磨 ), also known as a Dharma doll, is a hollow, round, Japanese traditional dollmodeled after Bodhidharma, the founder of the Zen sect of Buddhism. These dolls, though typically red and depicting a bearded man (Dharma), vary greatly in color and design depending on region and artist. Though considered an omocha, meaning toy, Daruma has a design that is rich in symbolism and is regarded more as a talisman of good luck to the Japanese. Daruma dolls are seen as a symbol of perseverance and good luck, making them a popular gift of encouragement. The doll has also been commercialized by many Buddhist temples to use alongside goal setting.” – Wikipedia

Japanese Traditional Daruma Doll
Japanese Traditional Daruma Doll

For Americans, when we want to make a wish or set a goal we think of Disney’s Pinnocchio and wish upon a star. The Japanese are little more practical and economical with their wish bringing. How so? In Japan, if you want to make a wish, you buy a Daruma Doll.

Bodhidharma, woodblock print by Yoshitoshi, 1887

Bodhidharma was a Buddhist monk who lived during the 5th/6th century CE. He is traditionally credited as the transmitter of Ch’an (Zen) to China. Little contemporary biographical information on Bodhidharma is extant, and subsequent accounts became layered with legend. According to one tradition Bodhidharma gained a reputation for, among other things, his practice of wall-gazing. Legend claims that he sat facing a wall inmeditation for a period of nine years without moving, which caused his legs to fall off from atrophy. Another popular legend is that after falling asleep during his nine-year meditation, he became angry with himself and cut off his eyelids to avoid ever falling asleep again.” – Wikipedia

Daruma Doll with one eye painted in.
Daruma Doll with one eye painted in.

After purchasing a Daruma Doll (superstition can be great for some economies), you make a wish/set a goal and paint in one of it’s eyes. You place it somewhere you will see it everyday (as a reminder of that wish/goal – very practical) until you accomplish that wish/goal. Once you do, you paint in the other eye. Want to make another wish? Do it all over again.

I don’t own any Daruma Dolls but have been tempted on several occasions to visit the local Japanese Market and try it out. However, I don’t think my wife would appreciate an apartment filled with one-eyed Daruma Dolls staring her down on a daily basis.

Hmm… could be an interesting practical joke…

"Enlightened" Daruma. (Enlightened because they have both eyes and now can see...)
“Enlightened” Daruma. (Enlightened because they have both eyes and now can see…)

Check out this video on how they are made:

And this one I just thought was cute but awesome if you have kids or students:

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Asian, not Oriental! My wife is not a rug…

Oriental rugs...
Oriental rugs…

So last Saturday morning when my wife (who is Japanese) returned from grocery shopping to our apartment building , she passed a few people on their way out. A few moments later, I hear an older greying blonde haired woman yelling about how someone’s white truck was blocking her in. I opened my door to help but before I could open my mouth she blurted out, “Have you seen an Oriental woman walk past here? I think her white truck has blocked me in and I’m late for work!”

My first thought was, “What century are you from? Oriental?!” My second thought was to insult her but my parents raised me better than that and since she was also older I figured maybe she didn’t know that people no longer used Oriental to describe Asians.

Instead, I informed her that first, “She’s my wife and she drives a black car,” and second, “that white truck belongs to the landlord so you should probably find him.” Upon hearing the “Oriental woman” was my wife this lady’s tone completely changed and further hearing it was the landlord’s truck blocking her in, she did a complete one-eighty in her attitude.

Upon returning inside, my wife couldn’t help but notice I was slightly annoyed. I looked at her an said, “Oriental? You are not a rug.” And she laughed. Then she asked, “Is that bad? I’ve never heard anyone call Asians Oriental. Where does that come from?” And without skipping a beat I replied, “I don’t know but guess what my next blog will be about!”

Asian woman in Oriental costume and makeup.
Asian woman in Oriental inspired costume and makeup.

To me, calling someone Oriental could be as insulting as the n-word. That word referred to enslaved Africans as objects/property and not human beings. Oriental refers to products from Asia or Asian culture, not people.

Let’s look at some definitions:

The Orient means the East. It is a traditional designation for anything that belongs to the Eastern world or the Near East or Far East, in relation to Europe. In English it is largely a metonym for, and coterminous with, the continent of Asia.
…Some in the United States consider “Oriental” an antiquated, pejorative, and disparaging term. John Kuo Wei Tchen, director of the Asian/Pacific/American Studies Program and Institute at New York University, said the basic critique of the term developed in the 1970s. Tchen has said, “With the anti-war movement in the ’60s and early ’70s, many Asian Americans identified the term ‘’Oriental’’ with a Western process of racializing Asians as forever opposite ‘others’.” In a press release related to legislation aimed at removing the term “oriental” from official documents of the State of New York, Governor David Paterson said, “The word ‘oriental’ does not describe ethnic origin, background or even race; in fact, it has deep and demeaning historical roots”. – Wikipedia
Politically incorrect term used in place of “Asian.” Correct usage should be an adjective for things like inanimate objects, not humans.
Correct usage: There’s an Oriental rug store on Derbe Drive. 
Are you going to the Oriental market? 
Incorrect usage: Is that dude oriental? 
Orientals are known to be bad drivers.
       – Urban Dictionary

Do you see what I mean?

Do I believe this older woman is a bigot? No, I have little to no proof of that. Ignorant? Yes, possibly. Should I correct her the next time I see her? Judging from her reaction to my reaction, I think she knows what she said was inappropriate so once this post is done, I’m also  done with the whole encounter.

In researching this subject on the net, I came across this Yahoo post and it truly is the best answer I could find.

Screen Shot 2013-09-08 at 6.19.06 PM

Screen Shot 2013-09-08 at 6.19.27 PM

At the end of it all, my wife thought it was just strange. Why? Because she didn’t grow up with American racism or prejudice, so she didn’t know she’s “supposed to be offended.” Is that okay? For her, yes. Why? Because for the most part, she doesn’t care and life is too short to care.

I agree with that type of thinking but still hope certain waves of ignorance and disrespect disperse into our collective ocean of history, never to return.

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Chopsticks!! Not by Euphemia Allen…

An assortment of Chopsticks
An assortment of Chopsticks

Anyone who has ever been to an asian restaurant (ever) has encountered chopsticks (or in Japanese はし- pronounced hashi – ha-shee). I’m not referring the piano music composed by Euphemia Allen but the actual food utensils used in Asian culture. You know like from The Karate Kid.

Famous scene from The Karate Kid.
Chopstick scene from The Karate Kid.

Only I’m not referring to catching flies. In fact, I’d like to go over some chopstick etiquette.

Maybe that wasn’t the best example but I love finding videos where people are having fun with formal topics.

The proper usage of chopsticks (hashi) is the most important table etiquette in Japan. Chopsticks are never left sticking vertically into rice, as this resembles incense sticks (which are usually placed vertically in sand) during offerings to the dead. This may easily offend some Japanese people. Using chopsticks to spear food or to point is also frowned upon and it is considered very bad manners to bite chopsticks. Other important chopsticks rules to remember include the following:

  • Hold your chopsticks towards their end, and not in the middle or the front third.
  • When you are not using your chopsticks and when you are finished eating, lay them down in front of you with the tip to left.
  • Do not pass food with your chopsticks directly to somebody else’s chopsticks. Only at funerals are the bones of the cremated body given in that way from person to person.
  • Do not move your chopsticks around in the air too much, nor play with them.
  • Do not move around plates or bowls with chopsticks.
  • To separate a piece of food into two pieces, exert controlled pressure on the chopsticks while moving them apart from each other. – Wikipedia

Howcast might be a little more straight forward with their explanation from their series on sushi lessons.

Okay if you really want hear Chopsticks, check out this classic clip from Sesame Street:

Enjoy your day, thanks for reading!

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Japanese High Fashion: School Uniforms?

In writing about Japanese culture, I knew one day I’d have to address this subject.

Girl’s Japanese School Winter Uniform (Photo Credit: Robert Huffstutter)

With that said, I am merely just scratching the surface of this topic. The trends and fashion go way beyond my understanding (and comprehension  in it’s appeal to any men over 20) so bear with me if I get something wrong.

Girl’s Japanese School Summer Uniform (Photo Credit: Robert Huffstutter)

Moving from a South Carolina Air Force base to Baltimore city, we found that elementary public school children were recently mandated to wear school uniforms. In the early 80’s through the 90’s, Inner city Baltimore was a very dangerous place to live. Children (mainly teen gang members) were killing each other for clothes, jewelry, and/or shoes and the adults had no idea how to curb the violence. That is, until they took a look at private schools and Japanese schools.

Museum exhibit of the uniforms of the Ichikawa...

After the Mayor’s office did a few social studies on children wearing uniforms versus children who didn’t, they decided public city school children should wear school uniforms as well. This way, they’d know who actually went to a particular school and who didn’t on top of everyone having the potential to focus more on their studies. (What they really should have done was higher more well trained teachers, reduce class sizes, and increased the education budget but that’s a whole other topic…)

Baltimore Elementary Uniforms – Boys also wore a black pullover sweater.

Of course, being a nine year old kid who’d never worn an uniform, we all bitched and complained about how it’s not fair and blah blah blah but we all wound up in a uniform anyway. Once we got to middle school, everything was back to normal again… whatever that was supposed to be but I digress…

This was the first time I’d ever heard of the Japanese School Uniform but it would not be the last.

The first time I remember noticing Japanese School Uniforms.
Project A-ko: The first time I remember noticing Japanese school uniforms were sailor uniforms.

I’ve always been a fan of anime and in my teen years I discovered an anime called Project A-ko. The animation is amazing and the story is a wacky tribute to all the contemporary anime of the era but the first thing I noticed was everyone was wearing school uniforms.

Mind you this was also right before the anime explosion happened in America (when only a handful of people knew about Akira or Ghost in the Shell or even Miyazaki’s Nausicaa) so I also learned very slowly about the school girl fetish and everything that comes with it. (Again, a separate blog topic…)

I do understand it BUT once I graduated high school, I was into college women and older. It’s a maturity preference. Thats my two cents, just for the record.

Fetishes and fashion aside, what is the sailor thing about? Japan is an island country that had a very powerful (if not dominant) Navy back during World War II. (Check your history, America didn’t drop the bomb because we were winning the Pacific war. We did it because Japan was kicking out butts!) So, were the uniforms a tribute their navy?

“The Japanese school uniform is modeled on European-style naval uniforms and was first used in Japan in the late 19th century. Today, school uniforms are common in many of the Japanese public and private school systems. The Japanese word for this type of uniform is seifuku (制服?)”. – Wikipedia

If you go to Sailorsuit for Dummies, you’ll get some insight on the Otaku (obsessive or sometimes perverted) side of things. Pay attention to uniform age ranges and you’ll see why lusting after a girl in sailor uniform would be frowned on if you’re a grown-ass man.

An official from Tombow Co., a manufacturer of the sailor fuku, said that the Japanese took the idea from scaled down sailor suits worn by children of royal European families. The official said “In Japan, they were probably seen as adorable Western-style children’s outfits, rather than navy gear.” Sailor suits were adopted in Japan for girls because the uniforms were easy to sew. The sides of the uniform had similarity to existing styles of Japanese dressmaking, and the collar had straight lines. Many home economics classes in Japan up until the 1950s gave sewing sailor fuku as assignments. Girls sewed sailor fuku for younger children in their communities.

In the 1980s sukeban gangs began modifying uniforms by making skirts longer and shortening the tops, and so schools began switching to blazer style uniforms to try to combat the effect. As of 2012, 50% of Japanese junior high schools and 20% of senior high schools use sailor suit uniforms.

The Asahi Shimbun stated in 2012 that “The sailor suit is changing from adorable and cute, a look that ‘appeals to the boys,’ to a uniform that ‘girls like to wear for themselves.'”[1] As of that year, contemporary sailor suits have front closures with zippers or snaps and more constructed bodices. The Asahi Shimbun stated that “[t]he form is snug to enhance the figure—the small collar helps the head look smaller, for better balance”. -Wikipedia

Girls wear Sailor fuku (few-kew) or a skirt and blouse while boys wear Gakuran (ga-kew-lan).

Check out this fun video for a better idea on real uniforms and rules:

And this one on the ever changing fashion trends:

As far as cultural significance goes:

Various schools are known for their particular uniforms. Uniforms can have a nostalgic characteristic for former students, and is often associated with relatively carefree youth. Uniforms are sometimes modified by students as a means of exhibiting individualism, including lengthening or shortening the skirt, removing the ribbon, hiding patches or badges under the collar, etc. In past decades, brightly coloured variants of the sailor fuku were also adopted by Japanese yankee andBōsōzoku biker gangs.

Because school uniforms are a popular fetish item, second-hand sailor fuku and other items of school wear are brokered through underground establishments known as burusera, although changes to Japanese law have made such practices difficult. The pop group Onyanko Club had a provocative song called “Don’t Strip Off the Sailor Suit!”. – Wikipedia

Once again, I’m not an expert and would never claim to be but I hope this post gives you more of an idea. Thanks for reading!

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