Women of the World, Unite!

Today is the International Women’s Day, one of the last remnants of socialist ideology in today’s (western) societies, so let’s take a brief look at the situation of women in Japan.

Google's doodle on International Women's Day 2015

Google celebrates the International Women’s Day 2015 with a doodle.

In theory, i.e. by law, men and women are equal in Japan pretty much the same way they are equal in every other industrialized society. But numbers often speak a clearer language than ideology. According to the Global Gender Gap Report 2014 Japan ranks 104th of 142 countries, behind Armenia and way behind its big neighbour China (ranked 87th). Why is that? Japan appears to be one of the most advanced countries in the world, but still over half of its population is left behind? Well, not everything is bad for women in Japan. They are very well educated, girls’ grades in school are at least as good as boys’ grades. Many women graduate from Universities, although disproportionally many women visit 2-year universities, while 4-year universities are still dominated by men. Still, not bad. In terms of life expectancy women are even far superior to men with an average life expectancy of 77 compared to men’s 72.

The reason why Japan’s rank is that low is the lack of female participation in the economy and in politics, a problem most western countries are also still struggling with, but which is especially grave in Japan. One of the most astonishing inequalities between men and women is the huge wage gap. On average women get for similar work only 68% of their male counterparts’ wages. This, understandably, discourages women from pursuing careers at all, which also partly explains why only 12% of legislators, senior officials and managers are women. Even though Prime Minister Abe tried to install more female ministers in his recent cabinet, still only 9.1% of lower house MPs and 16.1% of upper house MPs are women. To install a female Prime Minister is unimaginable in Japan. But Mr Abe is at least trying to mend the situation. Besides his economic reform program dubbed famously “Abenomics” he also started a campaign to promote women to 30% of positions of authority until 2020, which accordingly came to be called “Womenomics”. Unfortunately I don’t know what concrete measures Mr Abe is going to implement in order to achieve this goal. A fixed quota for women in managerial positions, as the one that was recently established in Germany, seems not to stand up for discussion yet.

The root of the problem though lies buried deeply in the mindset of society. The ideal women is still the “good wife, wise mother” (良妻賢母 ryôsai kenbo) from the Meiji period. While the male breadwinner is at work or drinking with his colleagues, which is still obligatory in many Japanese companies, she stays at home, rears the children and keeps the house tidy. Until very recently it was (and to a certain extent still is) expected from women to leave their jobs for good as soon as they get married or at the latest when they get children. This is the reason why women never were even considered for promotions and were automatically stuck in lower positions. After their children started going to school, many women returned to the work-force as part-timers, but still were barred from career advancement. And almost every woman was pressured to marry in her early twenties. Unmarried women at the age of 26 came to be called “Christmas cakes”, since nobody still wants to eat Christmas cake after the 25th of December. And yes, Christmas cake is a real thing in Japan.

The trend nowadays is slightly changing. Even though society is still extremely patriarchal, an increasing number of young women decide to break out of the system by simply not marrying at all. They realize that their chances of career advancement is much higher if they stay unmarried and that they can make a decent living for themselves and even are able to enjoy the money they earned as long as they don’t have a family to take care of. This unfortunately further aggravates Japan’s ageing society and extremely low birth rates, because children born out of wedlock also are socially unwelcome.

Now, there is obviously no quick-fix for this whole mess, but I think a fixed quota for women in parliament and managerial positions would be a first step to show the society that it won’t break apart if women fill positions of authority. Also a more liberal approach in early education, one that encourages girls to pursue careers instead of preparing them to serve their husbands, would help a great lot, but since the Ministry of Education is in a tight grip of conservative bureaucracy, this probably won’t happen in the near future. I am very curious to see if Mr Abe’s Womenomics will make a difference. I really hope so. Until then brace yourselves for yet another set of International Men’s Days lasting from Mar 9th until Mar 7th.


The Quest for Pizza

If you have been to Japan already you might have realized that finding proper pizza, the kind you’re used to in Europe, can be a frustrating task.

Of course, when you come to Japan your primary goal will be to stuff as much Japanese food into your mouth as humanly possible, a noble goal since Japanese food is delicious, mostly healthy and easy to get accustomed to.

But sometimes you might find yourself wishing for a pizza for a change only to realize that the Japanese have successfully japonized their pizza. It doesn’t really taste like pizza, the crust is flabby and if you order one from, let’s say, Domino’s you easily pay ¥2000 for a size that they claim is perfect for one person but let’s be honest, that’s only correct if that person has the stomach capacity of a three year old. For everyone else the pizza is ridiculously small.

Now, does that mean that its impossible to find good pizza in Japan? Despair not, for even though I can’t speak for the rest of the country, at least in Osaka there’s still hope, even though in a rather unexpected place.

They have Italian desserts, too. We have yet to try those.

They have Italian desserts, too. We have yet to try those.

That place is Yodobashi Camera, the giant electric appliances store you cannot fail to notice when coming out of any one of Umeda’s many stations. There are many good reasons why a visit to Yodobashi is worth it – their display of 4k TVs, high quality cameras and gaming equipment is pure eye candy – but what does a pizza place do in an electronics store? Basically only five floors of the giant building are dedicated to electronic gadgets (one of them underground) after that we have a lot of fashion and sports equipment shops and finally, on the 8th floor you have a floor dedicated entirely to restaurants. That’s quite common for other Japanese department stores as well. For some reason this is the place where you’ll find a number of places with high quality, reasonably priced western food. On our first visit we tried the burger place Blah and weren’t disappointed, this time we tried the Porchetta next door.

They make the pizza fresh from scratch and use an actual wood-fired oven where the pizza is burned right next to the open flames, which is simply the best way to make a pizza. The crust is paper-thin and crunchy they way we like it, they’re generous with the toppings and you can get a properly sized pizza for less than ¥1500. Plus, the pizza was really good. I had one with mozzarella, onions and a peppery Italian ham while UlfdieFee had a pizza with a basil sauce instead of tomato sauce, that I can definitely recommend.

Mouth-watering pizza with UlfdieFee's hands for scale.

Mouth-watering pizza with UlfdieFee’s hands for scale.

Good pizza places do exist in Japan and as long as they do I will find them. For now, if you’re looking for some delicious pizza in Osaka, look no further than Yodobashi Camera.

Cooking Japanese Food: Tamagodon (卵丼)


Tamagodon are eggs on rice, a simple meal and easy to make. You should be able to get most ingredients everywhere, or at least be able to substitute them.

You will need (for one person):

some chopped spring onion

1/4 onion, sliced

2 eggs

100ml of dashi (or water)

a bowl of rice (cooked)

60ml mirin (sweet cooking sake)

30ml soy sauce

How to:

Boil the dashi, mirin and soy sauce in a frying pan, add the spring onions and the onions and let them simmer for a while. Beat the eggs until they are crowned with bubbles. Add the eggs under strong heat and let them cook for about three minutes. Then lay the whole thing on the rice. If done correctly (I’m really bad at this) the sauce will drain through the rice, giving it some delicious extra taste.

The making of Tamagodon

There is also a chicken-and-egg-on-rice version that the Japanese morbidly call oyakodon: “mother and child on rice”.

Okinawa’s Mythical Creatures

Let’s talk about the two most well known yôkai (spirits, demons, ghosts, basically anything supernatural) of Okinawa, the Shisa and the Kijimuna.

The moment you step onto one of the Ryukyu Islands with every step you make hence, you will come to notice grotesque lion-like statues standing in pairs. You will find them in front of almost every building entrance, be it private homes or public buildings, you will find drawings of them and of course tons of them in all forms, colors and sizes in the souvenir shops. These guys are called Shisa and they are the guardian spirits of Okinawa.

A collection of Shisa found around Okinawa: the guardians in front of the shurijô, a little guy with a huge mouth for lots of luck, a bright and colorful version and a funny little fellow (upper right hand) with a modern descendant by its side

A collection of Shisa found around Okinawa: the guardians in front of the shurijô, a little guy with a huge mouth for lots of luck, a bright and colorful version and a funny little fellow (upper right hand) with a modern descendant by its side

The form of the Shisa was clearly derived from the lion, which is also still visible in the name: shisa is a deviation of shishi, the Japanese word for lion, which supposedly comes from the Sanskrit simha, that we all know from Simba from The Lion King.

Wearable Shisa costume for festivals

Wearable Shisa costumes for festivals

Legend says that in the 17th century the Ryukyu people, desperate because of fires regularly burning down their houses, asked a Feng-shui master for help. The master told them to set up little Shisa statues in front of their houses facing a nearby mountain. As far as the legend goes, those houses protected by the Shisa were spared by further fire outbreaks. Even though they look fierce, Shisa are benevolent, protective spirits, that are still being employed everywhere today. Looking at a pair of Shisa you will notice that one has its mouth open, the other one closed. The one on the right is the male, with its mouth wide open to invite good fortune in. The one on the left is the female, mouth firmly closed to keep out all misfortune. Of course we had to get a pair of Shisa for ourselves. They‘re sitting on our shelf now, protecting us from evil spirits.

Our own little fierce protectors

Our own little fierce protectors

To find a Kijimuna you will have to look a little further. They are, among many other things, the mascots of the Ryukyu village that exhibits all kinds of traditional Okinawan manufactures like extracting black sugar from sugar cane. Kijimuna are said to be tree spirits in human-like form. They are often – with regional differences – described as „children with bright red skin“, „red-haired children“ or „children with red faces“. In some regions they have long fingers like twigs, are trees in the shape of old people or have huge, pitch black testicles (seriously, what is it with the Japanese and their fascination with testicles?).

The children-friendly version in the Ryukyu village

The children-friendly version in the Ryukyu village

Kijimuna usually get along well with humans, sometimes living with them and venturing out to sea with them in fishing boats. They love fish, especially the left eyeball, so if you see a fish missing an eye you know it was eaten by a Kijimuna. Being an overall friendly spirit, angering them can have disastrous consequences. They hate octopus, chicken, hot lids and farts. Pester them with any of those, burn down or otherwise hurt their trees and they will hunt you down. People who have angered the Kijimuna are said to have died within days.

In conclusion, to live a peaceful life in Okinawa, place two Shisa in front of your door and if a Kijimuna comes to visit, serve fish instead of beans.

Hina Matsuri 雛祭り

As yesterday’s doodle on Google Japan beautifully illustraes, was yesterday the Hina Matsuri or Doll Festival.

Google Hina Matsuri Doodle 2015

Google’s Hina Matsuri Doodle 2015

What the doodle actually shows are nagashi hina (流し雛 floating dolls), which are paper dolls who are set afloat on a river on this day. The origins of this ritual are not quite clear but they go at least as far back as to the Heian-Era (794 -1185 CE) and are mentioned in Murasaki Shikibu’s famous novel Genji Monogatari. On this day it is also custom to display elaborate ensambles of dolls and to pray for a healthy growing up of young girls. Here’s a picture of a doll arangement from Wikipedia:

Hina Matsuri Doll ensemble

From top to bottom: Emperor & Empress, Sake Ladies, Musicians, Ministers, Samurai.

It displays a miniature banquet at the Imperial Palace with all kinds of court officials. There is a special terminus for each of the dolls and everything in the ensemble is very strict and ritualized. Even the hairdos of the dolls have to be arranged in a special way. The black hair of the female dolls e.g. has to surround the face from above and from the sides in order to better bring out the paleness of their faces, since pale faces were regarded as a sign of beauty at court. Just like the dolls do, you usually eat sushi and a special kind of diamond-shaped mochi and drink white sweet sake on this day. Also everything is often decorated with peach blossoms, since it’s the time when they begin to blossom (except for northern Japan where it’s too cold in March and the festival thus is often moved to August).

Unvortunately we hopelessly overslept and weren’t really in the mood to go outside yesterday, so we reduced the whole festival to eating sushi and mochi and drinking sake from the konbini.


Shame on us, but we still had fun =)

Little Birdie

On our first full day in Okinawa we didn’t do much more than relax and explore the region.

Close to a shopping center but in a pretty deserted corner we found a little beach made mostly of corals and snail shells. On a small cliff above the beach, hidden within trees, there was an utaki, a sacred place, as I have mentioned in my post about the shurijô.

It was also home to a shy black cat

It was also home to a shy black cat

We decided to rest on the beach and UlfdieFee took a nap. I decorated him with shells. Some of his decorations crawled away.

Almost every single snail shell in Okinawa is home to a hermit crab. They come in all shapes and sizes and in huge quantities. If you want to collect shells there, watch them closely for a while, even when they seem deserted. Those crabs know how to hide.

Almost every single snail shell in Okinawa is home to a hermit crab. They come in all shapes and sizes and in huge quantities. If you want to collect shells there, watch them closely for a while, even when they seem deserted. Those crabs know how to hide.

While UlfdieFee was dozing off, I became bothered by a violent flapping sound that occurred every few minutes in the brush on the cliff. I could see the shadow of a bird moving there and then holding very still again, but not in a position that seemed normal for a bird sitting in a tree. Coming closer it seemed as if the bird was caught in something, unable to free itself.

I went back to the utaki and found a spot in the wall that separated it from rest of the cliff, where I could climb over and make my way to the bird. It was a beautiful little pigeon, hanging down from the tree with one foot tightly caught in a thin plastic string. It was impossible for me to free it from the string that refused to break when I reached for the branch. Naturally, the pigeon wasn’t too happy, either, and began fluttering and struggling desperately every time I came closer or moved.

So I went to the edge of the cliff from where I could see UlfdieFee and called him. Being already used to seeing me in weird circumstances insisting on some crazy stuff, when I asked him to buy me scissors in a nearby store, he simply went to buy them. It took him about 10 minutes, but 10 minutes seem much longer when you’re waiting on top of a cliff near a trapped pigeon that has been hanging in a tree for who knows how long and is obviously torn between complete panic and exhaustion. Also, I wasn’t too sure whether I wasn’t trespassing.

While I was waiting, since there was nothing else to do, I snapped a picture of the birdie.

Birdie caught in tree

It was a two-persons’ job to free it. UlfdieFee gently held it until it stopped fluttering and I cut the string. He put the birdie down and it hopped a few steps, but it was obviously too exhausted to fly away, so it just settled down near the edge of the cliff.

Birdie freed

Much Better

We watched it for a while and then decided to leave it alone to recover and check back on it later. We spent the next ten minutes scrubbing our hands with soap and disinfectant so don’t worry, neither of us caught the bird flu. When we returned in the evening it was high tide and the pigeon was nowhere to be found. Optimists that we are, we strongly belief that it recovered its strength and eventually flew away.

News Digest: What’s happening in Japan (Mar 02)

In a rare public statement on an ideological debate the Emperor’s son, crown prince Naruhito, admonished the Japanese people to remember the Second World War “correctly”. He urged never to forget those who died in the war to prevent a repeat of the horrors of war. His statement was widely regarded as a mild rebuke to Prime Minister Shinzô Abe who has openly said he wants a more sympathetic telling of the history of the first half of the 20th century. Mr Abe is to make a statement on the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII later this year. It is expected that he will not revoke previous apologies stated by Japanese governments, but there is speculation that he could try to downplay the “comfort women” issue.

On Thursday the panel, consisting of 10 academics, three business leaders, two journalists and an international aid worker, appointed by Prime Minister Abe to prepare his speech on the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII, met for the first time. Among the experts is also Masashi Nishihara who has expressed the view that reports of the Japanese military’s use of sex slaves during the war are “fabricated in South Korea.” On the other hand one member of the panel is a liberal-leaning journalist from the Mainichi Shinbun. Thus it remains open how far right the final speech will turn out in the end.

A 41 year old woman in Tokyo died after having been assaulted by her partner.

A 13-year old boy in Kawasaki was stabbed to death by his peers. The police arrested two 17-year and one 18-year old boys. The younger ones testified that the oldest was drunk and stabbed the 13-year old in the head. The police also confiscated their smartphones and is analyzing their LINE histories to get further insight.

Esther Ibanga, a Nigerian pastor, was awarded this year’s Niwano Peace Prize. The prize comes with ¥20 million ($170,000) prize money. Mrs Ibanga campaigned against the Islamist extremists of Boko Haram and committed herself to promote reconciliation between religious and tribal groups by setting up an organization that has all tribal women leaders on its membership.

Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, visited Tokyo to launch the Innovation is Great campaign by traditionally breaking the lids of sake barrels for good luck (鏡抜きkagami nuki). Innovation is Great is a year-long campaign designed to foster collaboration between Japan and the U.K. It is including the Innovation is Great Exhibition at Daikanyama Tsutaya Books which will feature a selection of innovative British products.

Japanese Proverbs: Akinasu wo Yome ni Kuwasu na (秋ナスを嫁にくわすな)

Akinasu wo Yome ni Kuwasu na

This is a funny proverb. It’s literally saying: “Don’t let the bride eat autumn aubergines.”

Why not? Actually, even the Japanese themselves couldn’t agree on one meaning, which is why there are several interpretations of this proverb. The most common are:

– autumn aubergines are said to be very sweet and delicious, so the mother-in-law (as drawn in the picture) doesn’t want to share them with the detested daughter-in-law

– since they are so delicious, the young wife will probably eat too many and become sick

– autumn aubergines are said to have no seeds, thus being a symbol of the bride conceiving no children

– aubergines are said to lower body temperature – which will, again, make it harder for the young wife to conceive children

While I like this proverb for its weirdness and drawing it was fun, it should not be seen as having relevant meaning nowadays. We should be far beyond believing in the stereotype that all mothers-in-law hate their daughters-in-law and that a wife is nothing more than a host for the children.

Maybe we can interpret it in a new, more relevant sense, though. Such as, even though something tastes really good, be careful not to eat too much and watch out for your loved ones as well.

The Old Castle in Shuri (首里)

We landed in Okinawa in the early afternoon and decided to pay a visit to the shurijô before taking the bus to our hotel.

Shicha-nu-Una map

The shurijô (or suigusuku in Ryukyu dialect) is the old castle of Shuri, the former capital of Okinawa and now a part of the new capital, Naha. Before the island became a Han in the Japanese empire it actually had its own monarchy for several centuries. During the 13th century, when Okinawa was divided into three kingdoms, or three mountains, as that era was called (三山時代), a castle was built there for the first time. It is assumed that the castle received its present shape during the following centuries, after the island had become unified into one monarchy. It was considered a national treasure until 1945, when it was destroyed by the war. It has since been rebuilt and become a UNESCO cultural heritage site.

View onto the outer wall Red Gate Red buildings

Apart from the large palace site it has several gates, a strong stone wall, two lakes, the ruins of a former temple and several sacred places. The Ryukyu people called their sacred places utaki and within the castle they were usually tiny groves. It seems as if the Ryukyu people, like the Japanese, based their original beliefs on spirits of nature.

The smaller one of the lakes with a little island

The smaller one of the lakes with a little island

There seems to be this universal rule in Japan that every old person is followed by a trail of animals they feed, be it cats or geese

There seems to be this universal rule in Japan that every old person is followed by a trail of animals they feed, be it cats or in this case geese

The central utaki in front of the palace. We couldn't enter but it looks intriguing

The central utaki in front of the palace. We couldn’t enter but it looks intriguing

Most of the gates and the palace itself were in their architectural structure closer to contemporary Chinese buildings than Japanese. They were entirely painted in red lacquer with red tiled roofs. The most famous and probably the most beautiful gate is the shureimon, that is also featured on the 2000Yen bill in Japan. Good luck getting one of those, though, they are incredibly rare. We have been in Japan for half a year now and haven’t been able to obtain a single one of them.

The real Shureimon

The real Shureimon…

2000Yen Bill of Japan

… and the one on the 2000Yen bill

If you’re going to Okinawa, the shurijô is definitely worth a trip. Don’t let the Habu bite you, though.

The Habu is a pit viper that exists almost exclusively in Okinawa. While rarely lethal it nevertheless has a strong venom that will cause severe bleeding and swelling when bit.

The Habu is a pit viper that exists almost exclusively in Okinawa. While rarely lethal it nevertheless has a strong venom that will cause severe bleeding and swelling when bit.

Transgender in Japan, pt.1

Before I begin, I would like to make clear that this topic is vastly complex and I still have to conduct a lot of research and reading myself before being able to contribute a substantial statement (hence this article is only pt.1), so for today I will just try to scratch the surface a little bit and see what comes up. For now I will simply throw some popular appearances of transsexuality and cross-dressing in Japan at you.

Recently I had time and opportunity to watch quite a bit Japanese TV and it seems that no matter where I switched there was one character always hunting me: Matsuko Deluxe (マツコ・デラックス). Matsuko is a cross-dressing journalist and writer who had his (I think he still percieves himself as a man, even though he uses the feminine pronoun atashi for himself) breakthrough on TV around 2010. You can get a glimpse of him on youtube:

Unfortunately I couldn’t find any suitable videos with English subtitles, but you get the gist. The video was recorded in a talk show which aired about four years ago, so at that time Matsuko was still a novelty on the Japanese TV landscape, which is why the hosts’ questions are primarily directed at his person and cross-dressing. As far as I understand it, this stage persona is not only a statement to raise awareness on transsexuality and homosexuality (Matsuko himself is gay), but he sees his corpulent figure at the same time as a criticism of the general appearance of female show hosts on Japanese TV, who are reduced to cute looks while their character or wit is completely uncared-for. However, the entertaining thing about Matsuko is his straight-forwardness and directness which seems even more comical since he doesn’t even try to make his voice sound feminine while otherwise maintaining the appearance of a woman. He pretty much ignores all Japanese customs of reservation and therefore the audience loves him.

Another famous transsexual figure, who also was mentioned shortly in the video because she, like Matsuko, was born in 1973, is Haruna Ai (はるな愛)

Japanese Idol Haruna Ai

Haruna Ai
She uses this photo also as her profile picture for her Ameba blog, but to get better resolution I followed the link to Keiji’s blog, where you can read more about Haruna (in Japanese)

Haruna underwent sex change surgery in 1996 and since the end of the last century had increasing appearances in public media. Today she is a well known enterntainer and idol in Japan. She had appearances in several TV Dramas, movies, had fairly successful singles, most notably I・U・YO・NE~, appeared in commercials, on radio, etc. She was the first Japanese to win the “Miss International Queen” transsexual beauty pageant in 2009 and she also actively maintains an Ameba blog placatively titled “AI am a girl”.

A last example I would like to mention is the movie Girl’s Blood (Jap. title: 赤×ピンク aka x pinku). [Minimal amount of spoilers] I actually didn’t know anything about that movie when I first watched it and it started out with a lot of eye candy for a presumably heterosexual male viewership, serving the most popular Japanese male fantasies like Lolita and S&M Queen in combination with girl-fights (including mud-fights). But eventually the movie developed a surprisingly deep plot about female friendship and a woman trying to escape the grip of her violently abusive husband and falling in love with the main character who is strongly confused about his gender identity, being a man in a woman’s body. I was really surprised of the quick understanding and acceptance all the other characters in the film showed the main character. For a movie that at first sight seemed closer to soft-porn than to drama, this was actually a better handling of the topic than I have seen in most Hollywood productions.

Now, experimenting with transgender in performing arts is not a new phenomenon in Japan. Most notably there is Kabuki (歌舞伎) theatre where every single role is performed by men and on the other hand Takarazuka (宝塚) where every single role is performed by women, thus making cross-dressing unavoidable. This affinity to transgender on-stage is especially curious, since the division of gender seems to be extremely sharp in Japanese society and, as Jan mentioned earlier, is even deep-rooted in the Japanese language itself. But it is a completly different matter being confronted with it in everyday life. In my next article on this topic I will try to cover some more the perception of and attitude towards transgender in Japan in other areas than performing arts.