One of the yearly highlights on New Year’s Eve in Japan is the annual song contest on TV between two opposing teams, the red team and the white team (the colors of the Japanese ‘hinomaru’ national flag). It is titled the ‘Kohaku Uta Gassen’ and can be translated as Year-end Song Festival, and it usually features all the most popular singers and musicians for that particular year. This year, Piko Taro (aka Kosaka Kazuhito), the man who became famous for singing ‘PPAP’ – Pen Pineapple Apple Pen, will feature in the song contest.
One group who will not be participating this year, despite being a regular feature on the show for many years, is the popular boy band, SMAP. After 25 years of performing together as a band, they are breaking up their quintet (there were originally six members) and going their separate ways. There doesn’t seem to be any controversy or conflict regarding their decision, simply an agreement to split up so that individual members can focus on their own solo careers and television commitments. Why is this such a big deal? SMAP has been one of the most televised and publicized bands in Japan over the last two decades, working in many genres including radio, music, film, theater, and television. Many fans are shocked.
The band, started by music producer Johnny Kitagawa, is comprised of members Shingo Katori, Masahiro Nakai, Tsuyoshi Kusanagi, Goro Inagaki, and Takuya Kimura. As a band, they have released 22 studio albums, 14 of which became number one albums and all their albums at least reaching the top 10. From those albums were released 55 hit singles, all reaching the top 10, and 22 of which made it to number one. One of their hits, “The One and Only Flower in the World” remains to this date the bestselling single in the 21st century (and fifth overall in Japanese recording history). The band can be proud of this, as well as having sold 35 million records (just in Japan) over the course of their musical career.
Do you remember the headlines about crowds of people gathering in parks and public spaces around the world chasing Pokémon on their phones? Sometimes the throngs of people blocked traffic, or created dangerous situations, such as people wandering out onto the road in front of cars. There were stories about others who had walked into posts or who had fallen into a pond or river. Ah, the glory days of the popular fad known as Pokémon Go. There was a humorous video which made fun of the whole craze called Pokemon Revenge.
Pokémon Go burst onto the scene at the beginning of summer, 2016, but was actually created as an April Fool’s idea back in 2014 by Satoru Iwata from Nintendo and Tsunekazu Ishihara from the Pokemon company in conjunction with Google (using Google maps). As soon as it was re-released (2016), it rapidly gained traction and a new summer craze began. It quickly ‘went viral’ as they say, and the rest is history. Surprisingly, the whole thing is mostly history these days. The novelty wore off for many people by the end of summer, and the cool winds of fall blew the rest of the stragglers away like so many autumn leaves.
But what are Pokémon and what is the story behind them? Pokemon are fictional, very colorful, alien-like ‘anime’ creatures developed for Pokemon computer games, started by Nintendo back in the 1990’s. There are hundreds of them (765 to be precise). Probably the most well-known of these are the Pikachu characters. So what do you do with these Pokémon? Players are referred to as ‘trainers’, and they capture and train the Pokemon characters to fight in a digital game arena.
This concept was then applied to the Pokémon Go game developed for smartphones (using iOS and Android) and Apple Watches. People simply used the GPS software in their devices to locate Pokémon in the local area, giving the illusion that they existed in the real world. This was what made it so intriguing, and why the trend caught on so suddenly. Of course, the use of social networks on the internet also helped share the idea around very quickly.
Very soon, almost everyone with a smartphone and an internet connection knew about it, and downloaded the free application onto their devices. Having done that, most people couldn’t wait to rush outside and try it out. And the Pokémon were waiting…
Asia has been a hotspot for pop culture recently. Who can forget the Korean singer Psy (Park Jae-sang) singing Gangnam Style back in 2012? This year, another craze burst onto the world scene in the form of Pokemon Go. A free game on digital and electronic devices (using iOS and Android), it is loosely based on the original Pokeman computer game characters created in the 1990’s for Nintendo.
More recently, there is a strange man dressed in gold animal print clothing, singing about a pen, pineapple and an apple. PPAP is one of those ‘viral’ videos on the internet that has everyone talking. It’s funny, strange, catchy, completely fake, and totally meaningless. It’s hard to explain, so if you are one of the few people who haven’t seen it yet, please check out this video:
There are countless spin-offs of this, and a few creative parodies. The original PPAP video by the character Piko Taro is a parody in itself of English as a second language in Japan. Many of my Japanese students (especially those who struggle with language-learning) see the study of English as a useless pursuit. This video, in a way, makes fun of the whole idea of learning basic English. Ironically, the video has so easily achieved what so many Japanese teachers of English have not been able to do – have students willingly speak in English and repeat the relatively simple sentence structure,
“I have a pen.” (Or I have a pineapple / I have an apple, as the case may be.)
So who is Piko Taro, and how did he achieve this amazing feat? Piko Taro is a fictional character created by 43-year-old Japanese comedian Kazuhito Kosaka (aka Kosaka Daimaou). Kosaka hails from Aomori Prefecture in northern Honshu. As a stand-up comedian, he first introduced the character Piko Taro to audiences in one of his live performances. The response was positive and ‘a star was born’ as they say.
These days many Japanese children can take a ‘ninja course’ there, where instructors provide various challenges for them such as ‘walking on water’ (using rope and a floating platform for the feet), crossing over an area on an elevated rope (without falling hopefully), ninja-star training (throwing stars) and a variety of other fun activities. When I took Mandy (my wife) up on a hike in summer vacation, we saw children in ninja costumes attempting to cross the river as part of the course. The ninja instructors demonstrated the technique and then let the children try, saving them from falling in the river when necessary. It looked like a lot of fun, and while in the care of the instructors, the parents could do a bit of souvenir shopping or enjoy a cup of coffee in one of the nearby cafes overlooking the river. There is also a small museum with a few species of the local 'giant salamander'.
The Akame-Aoyama rainforest itself is a beautiful place in which to hike, and provides much spectacular scenery along the way. The walking paths are excellent, although naturally care is needed in numerous spots here and there. Of course, whether from perspiration or from the natural moisture of the rain forest, your clothes will become damp after returning from your hike, and it’s wise to take a change of clothes in a backpack. It might be a good idea to take a bottle of drinking water and some lunch as well, as the hike itself takes about four hours (probably three hours non-stop), and there are many times you need to climb stairs and cross bridges along the 3.2 kilometer (one way) course.
Japan’s creation myths talk about Gods and how they created the Land of the Rising Sun. The Gods dipped a spear or sword into the ocean, and the drops that fell from it created the islands of Japan. The descendants of these Gods became the ancestors of the people who lived in these lands. But if we were to, for a moment, dismiss these myths and wonder how the people of Japan physically arrived on the islands, what would be our answer?
Perhaps the ancient burial mounds in Matsusaka city can lend a clue. There is a park in Takarazuka-cho, near where my wife, Mandy, and I live. The park is called Takarazkua-kofun Park. The word ‘kofun’ refers to two large burial mounds, found on a hill within the park grounds, just three kilometers from the city center. These mounds were originally discovered and excavated in 1928. There were over 80 burial mounds found, but only 26 of those were still intact. In 1932, the area was designated a national historical site.
However, over the decades since their discovery, time has taken its toll. The main culprit was urban development, as the city of Matsusaka grew and modernized. Housing and roads followed as the area expanded. By the 1980s, there were only two mounds left considered salvageable, and still in excellent condition, but a road was built right between the two to a new estate. The local government came to the rescue and created a park to protect the mounds from further damage, although the access road still separates the two mounds.
The main burial mound sits atop of the park, looking down over Matsusaka, the summit providing a 360-degree view. Over two years spanning 1999 and 2000, the Mie Prefectural Board of Education oversaw the re-excavation of the main burial mound and its smaller twin across the road. The larger mound is a keyhole-shaped tomb, and the largest of its kind in the entire Ise provincial area, at over 100 meters in length. It has since been attributed to one of the early leaders of the Iitaka clan (the rural highlands to the west of Matsusaka, where Mandy and I lived for ten years before moving to Matsusaka city) dating back to the 5th century. Many funerary objects were uncovered, along with Haniwa (terracotta clay objects and figurines, created for use in rituals, and often buried in tombs with the deceased), and all of these were put together with similar artifacts discovered in the original 1928 excavation. These items can now be seen at the Matsusaka City Cultural Center.
Before I even came to Japan, I was building metaphorical bridges between Australia and the ‘Land of the Rising Sun’. It started with studying Japanese language and culture at Griffith University on the Gold Coast, in Queensland. I was fascinated from day one.
At the end of my first year of an education degree, I joined a ‘tour of Japan’ headed by one of the university’s lecturers, and had a wonderful time sightseeing in Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, Kyoto, Gifu, Hiroshima, Nikko and Hakone. I enjoyed a weeklong home stay in Takayama (in the mountains of Gifu Prefecture). Viewing Fuji-san from the window of the Shinkansen (bullet train) while traveling at 300 km/hr was a huge thrill, as was being immersed in the sights and sounds of the metropolis which is Tokyo.
During the tour, I was amazed to see such sites as the ‘floating shrine and torii (Shinto archway)’ of Miyajima, the ‘white heron’ castle otherwise known as Himeji castle, the ‘golden pavilion’ called Kinkakuji, the famous temple of Kiyomizu-dera, both in Kyoto, and Nikko’s ‘toushougu’ - the resting place of the famous Shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu, located north of Tokyo.
Returning home to Australia, some college friends and I started the Japan Society of Griffith University. It was at the inaugural meeting that I met the love of my life and future wife, Mandy. We have since been married twenty years (this December). Mandy took off for Japan one year before I did, and lived in both Kyoto and Osaka. After I graduated, and before I could join her in Osaka, I won a scholarship and became an international exchange student for one year at Seikei University in Kichijoji, Tokyo. There I had many cultural exchanges with Japanese students, and told them as much as I could about Australia. Upon graduation, I moved to Osaka and lived there for a year with Mandy. Osaka is Japan's 'party-town'!
Hello Kitty! No, I’m not talking to my cat. I’m referring to the fictional character produced by the Japanese company, Sanrio, and an international superstar of Japanese popular culture. People all around the world buy Hello Kitty goods, to the tune of $5 billion dollars a year. But Hello Kitty is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Japan’s fixation with cats.
Anyone who knows me knows that my wife, Mandy, and I love cats. We have a pet cat called Yuki, a five-year-old Scottish Fold with mostly white fur and an adorable personality. He lives with us (on his cat tower) in our Matsusaka apartment, and allows us to dote on him. So many of our Japanese friends fawn over Yuki when they visit, and my students at school exclaim, “Kawaii!” (So cute!)
Cats fascinate Japanese people. Another good example of this is Doraemon, also a Japanese animation character, first created in a Japanese manga (comic) series in 1969. Doraemon is a robotic cat (from the 22nd century), and also the star of a TV show and related media franchise. In fact, Doraemon has been chosen as the official mascot for the 2020 Olympic games to be held in Tokyo.
But Japan’s fixation on cats is not limited to these two fictional characters. These days, you can visit a Cat Café (there are over 50 cat cafés in Tokyo alone!), and enjoy a cup of coffee surrounded by cats or while interacting with some of the feline creatures personally. Of course there are cat cafés all around the world, but Japan seems to have the largest number of outlets for this particular interest, with over 150 nationwide. Many apartment buildings don’t allow pets, and this may be one reason why cat cafés have flourished in city areas in Japan.
On May the 26th, the world leaders will be flying into our little neck of the woods (Mie Prefecture, Japan) for the Ise-Shima G7 Summit. They will be here to discuss world economics, the environment, politics, global security issues and so forth. The 42nd G7 Summit will see leaders from the U.S.A., the U.K., France, Germany, Italy and Canada, as well as the presidents of the European Council and the European Commission, gather together on the island of Kashikojima, in Ise-Shima, located south of Matsusaka.
Japan’s Prime Minister Abe said,
“The rich sea of Shima in front of your eyes is connected to the Indian Ocean via the Pacific Ocean. As the host, with the thoughts of many countries in Asia and Africa, Japan would like to exchange opinions frankly with the leaders of the world to realize a peaceful and prosperous world.” He added,
“The Japanese landscape is full of nature, with islands of various sizes and beautiful inlets, so the leaders of the world will be able to experience our rich traditions and culture firsthand.”
Certainly, the Ise-Shima area is a stunning jewel amongst the natural beauty of southern Mie prefecture. It is home to one of Japan’s most sacred Shinto shrines, Ise Jingu, and is thus considered to be Japan’s historical and cultural birthplace. Ise-Shima also boasts the famous Mikimoto Pearl Island, and the 400-year-old traditional puppet theater in Anori, not to mention a stunning coastline with pristine beaches and the Ise-Shima National Park.
However, it surprised me that Ise-Shima was chosen as the venue for this summit, despite it having the number one economic growth rate in Japan, for it is a rural, coastal area with just 130,000 residents. Mie Prefecture has a total population of only 1.8 million, barely one seventh the size of Tokyo with its population of over 13 million people. The logistics alone will be mind boggling.
Japan has many local varieties of alcohol. Everyone knows the traditional ‘sake’ of course, otherwise known as Nihon-shu, which can further be categorised as either reishu (cold sake on the rocks) or atsukan (hot sake in a ceramic cup). Then there is the ever popular shou-chu. Shou-chu is made from grains and vegetables creating a hard, clear liquor. The most common ingredients of shou-chu are sweet potatoes, barley, rice, buckwheat and sugar cane.
Awamori is an Okinawan variety of shou-chu made from Thai rice (Thailand) rather than Japanese rice, giving it a smoother blend. Then there is Umeshu. Umeshu is made from apricot plums, white liquor and (white) rock sugar. It creates a white liqueur which has both a sweet and sour taste and an alcohol content of between 10 to 15 percent. Its sweet taste and aroma makes it an appealing choice even for those who don’t usually enjoy drinking alcohol.
My wife and I recently made Umeshu using plums, vodka and rock sugar. First, Mandy chose green unripened plums and removed the stalks with a toothpick, so as not to damage the fruit. The plums were then gently washed and dried by hand. We placed the plums in an 8 litre jar, then poured in the crystal sugar on top of the plums, and then added the white liquor, in this case vodka.
For an 8 litre jar, 2 kilograms of plums are required, along with 3.6 litres of white liquor (35% proof or more) and 1 kilogram of rock sugar. Sugar helps draw the juice from the plums which is then mixed with the vodka. Over time, during the fermentation process, the sugar dissolves and also becomes part of the surrounding liquid.
The jar was sealed and placed in a cool, dark place. We chose our apartment’s pantry for this purpose. Every few days, Mandy would pick up the jar and gently swirl it around for a few minutes so as to mix the contents evenly together. This process continued for three months. However, after several weeks, swirling the contents was only necessary once a week. Over several months the plums shrink and shrivel within the liquid in which they float.
After ten years in our traditional mountain village of Mori (Mie Prefecture, Japan), my wife Mandy and I have just relocated down to the city of Matsusaka. Luckily we didn’t need to hire a moving company as our good friend, Naoki, had use of a two ton truck. So we loaded up all our heavy things, including the sofa, queen-size bed, large fridge, study desk, computer desk, entertainment set-up (DVD player, flat screen, speakers) and a bunch of boxes, and hauled it down the mountain to our new apartment in Matsusaka city. Mandy’s schools will change from April, and I am starting a new job at Takada High School. But this all-too-typical scenario is being played out all over Japan this month.
March in Japan is a time of upheaval, a time of change, and a time of renewal. Naturally it is spring season, and nature is just coming back to life after the winter. But amidst this beauty is also chaos. Lessons at school come to an end, replaced by tests, games and various fun activities, all in turn replaced by spring vacation.
The biggest upheaval is seen in the workplace, as people find out if they are being transferred or even possibly promoted, or both. Just like the school year, which starts in April and finishes in March, yearly employment contracts also finish in March. Even those employees who have tenure or permanent employment status may still be transferred to another position or location from April.
March is thus peak season for moving companies, and the demand for their relocation services and trucks pushes their price up to premium levels at this busy time. Due to the large number of job transfers at this time of the year, wedding halls experience a drop in the number of ceremonies. As weddings have to be booked months beforehand, nobody knows that far in advance if they will be transferred or not and hence don’t take the risk on booking a wedding that may have to be postponed or canceled.
Japan’s Traditional Sport
Sumo is Japan’s traditional national sport and is one of the most popular spectator sports in the country. Sumo has its roots in ancient Shinto religious rites to ensure good harvests. It is believed to be at least 1500 years old. For me it is the traditional aspects and rituals of this ancient sport that really appeal. I will briefly explain about some of the more common traditions and rituals in this post.
See More by John Asano
John Asano is a web developer and freelance writer living in Gifu, Japan. Originally from Melbourne Australia, he writes for Japan Australia, a blog dedicated to Japan travel, culture, traditions and modern life in Japan as well as Japan Travel Advice, a website dedicated to travel in Japan.