Commodore Perry and the Opening of Japan

Commodore Matthew C. Perry.

Commodore Matthew C. Perry.

Japan and the United States share a unique relationship on the global stage. This site has covered some historical aspects of that relationship, from the post war reconstruction of Japan that bred a work culture resulting in the phenomenon of karoshi to the infamous kamikazes of World War II and how they came to be named after the “divine wind” that destroyed the Mongol invaders in the 13th century.

Other aspects of the give and take between the United States and Japan have radiated out from the two countries clashing in World War II and Japan’s destruction and revival in the wake of that massive conflict, some stranger than others.  But the interactions between the United States and Japan go back far further than the Second World War. To begin to understand how the two nations have become intertwined, we must travel back to the mid-19th century, when the American West was still being settled and Japan was still an isolated, feudalistic country. These two wildly disparate cultures would collide in Tokyo Bay on July 8, 1853, when Commodore Mathew Perry, carrying a letter from the President of the United States addressed to the Emperor himself,  led four heavily armed ships into the harbor.


Limited isolation

Commodore Perry’s 1853 expedition was not the first time a western power made overtures toward the Japanese.  The Portuguese and the Dutch began trading with the Japanese in the 16th century, bringing matchlock muskets and Catholicism to the island nation. Gunpowder weapons proved decisive on Japanese battlefields, while Christianity was a subversive force that undermined the authority of the Shogunate and Emperor both.

Ieyasu Tokugawa, the first Shogun of the Tokugawa Era. It was he who unified Japan under one ruler.

Ieyasu Tokugawa, the first Shogun of the Tokugawa Era. It was he who unified Japan under one ruler.

After securing absolute power in the wake of the Battle of Sekigahara, the Shogunate carried out harsh reprisals against the growing Christian movement in Japan, largely stomping out the religion. The Shogun also quarantined foreigners to certain select ports, notably the island of Dejima in Nagasaki, where they could engage in trade but were prohibited from spreading their religion or traveling around the country without special permission. The Portuguese then were largely excluded from Japan, as their trade was strongly tied to missionary work. The Dutch, with no such religious scruples, continued to trade. The Chinese were also allowed to trade in certain select ports.

While these tight restrictions did greatly impede the flow of Western ideas into Japan, it is overstating things to say Japan was completely “isolated.” Japanese scholars were allowed to study certain Western ideas, so long as they did not undermine the power of the Shogunate. This is an important point to remember–Japan was a top-down society. The isolation was imposed by elites to protect their power and to maintain order in a country that, for a large part of its history, was torn apart by internecine wars. And for 250 years, the system was largely successful.

Meanwhile, the rest of the world engaged in the Industrial Revolution, producing technological wonders that Japanese could not conceive of until they found themselves staring down the barrel of American cannons in 1853.


America and the Pacific

America, the upstart on the global scene, had vast expanses of land at its disposal. By the early to mid 19th century, the US had annexed California, opening up the Pacific to American merchants and missionaries.

American settlers heading West.

American settlers heading West.

Many Americans were inspired by the idea of Manifest Destiny, the idea that Americans were exceptional people and that it was their mission to tame the wilds of North America. Upon reaching the West Coast, this idea grew to encompass the Far East. Now, it was the work of American merchants, missionaries, and other US citizens to spread the light of American civilization to those they saw as backwards and isolated, particularly China and Japan.

Of course, these high ideals likely only inspired a select few. Most looked toward the Far East with economic and political interests in mind. The Far East was an area of competition among the colonial powers due to its rich resources and vast untapped markets, both of which America wanted its slice of. In addition, America’s appetite for whale oil meant an increase in whaling in the Pacific. Japan in particular could be a port of call for whaling vessels, and later a coaling port when more steam ships took to the Pacific.

The Japanese, in keeping with their policy of isolation, denied American requests in the 1830s to establish ports for American whalers and to repatriate those who had been shipwrecked on Japanese shores. It was clear by that point that more persuasive arguments would need to be made in order to convince the Japanese to open their ports to American shipping.


A show of force

Commodore Perry would make those arguments quite eloquently in 1853. His small squadron must have been quite a sight to the Japanese, as at least one of the ships was a modern steam ship, belching black smoke as it steamed into the harbor. Perry demanded his letter be given to the Japanese Emperor (he was ignorant of the fact that the Shogun held the real power, and that the Emperor was merely a figurehead.) He threatened to unleash his firepower against the Japanese if they balked, and demonstrated by shelling a small village near Tokyo.

Commodore Perry's fleet making its second visit to Japan.

Commodore Perry’s fleet making its second visit to Japan.

The Japanese, awed by the display and knowing they had nothing that could answer the American’s firepower, sought an audience with Perry, who further demonstrated American technological superiority by demonstrating such wonders as a a telegraph and a miniature steam powered locomotive.  After the show of force, Perry left, telling the Shogun’s representatives that he would return the following spring for an answer.

Return he did, with twice the number of ships. Seeing no choice, the Shogunate gave in to the demands outlined in President Milliard Filmore’s letter. Namely, shipwrecked Americans would be protected and repatriated and two ports would be opened for use by American ships. Located in Shimoda and Hakodate, these ports would have their own consuls to govern American affairs. While there was no trade clause in the treaty, it did contain a “most favored nation” clause that would automatically grant any concessions given to other powers to America.


From medieval to modern

If Commodore Perry cracked the door, it was the Japanese themselves that threw it wide open. Townsend Harris, the first consul of a Japanese port, pushed for further negotiations with the Japanese, arguing for a more extensive trade contact. Seeing how the British used force to open China to the outside world, Japan decided to open itself willingly, if reluctantly, to trade with foreign powers.

Image expressing the sentiment "Expel the foreigner." Opening Japan was a controversial move, one many in Japan did not support.

Image expressing the sentiment “Expel the foreigner.” Opening Japan was a controversial move, one many in Japan did not support.

The opening of Japan was, of course, a more complex and painful process than has been outlined here. Not everyone was on board, and wars would need to be fought to finally decide the issue. The take away point is that the process taught Japan some important lessons about its place in the world.

First, the Japanese realized they were far, far behind the rest of the world both technologically and militarily. If they could not catch up, they would surely be manipulated or even taken over by their foreign rivals, Indeed, once the Americans cracked the door, other nations tripped over themselves to try and secure treaties with Japan, many of them very lopsided in favor of the colonial powers, leading to resentment among the Japanese and the roots of a Japanese identity that would flower into fanatical nationalism in World War II.

The first realization fed into the next–they would have to open themselves to the outside world in a way that they hadn’t for over two hundred years if they wanted to remain independent. The Japanese actively recruited experts from abroad to help it modernize its infrastructure, military and political system.

The results were nothing short of extraordinary. In less than fifty years, Japan had raised itself up from a feudal backwater to a power on par with the strongest Western nations. The modernization of Japan, spurred by American intervention, set the two nations on the course that would eventually lead to World War II and beyond to Japan’s current state as an economic super power.




Hickman, Kennedy. “Opening of Japan: Commodore Matthew C. Perry.” January 24. 2015.

“Milestones: 1830-1860.” US Department of State: Office of the Historian. January 24, 2015.

Munson, Todd S. “The Opening, Closing, and Re-Opening of Japan? Japanese Foreign Relations Before, During, and After the Tokugawa Shogunate (1600-1868): An Essay with Lesson Plan Notes.” Randolph-Macon College.

The White Hare of Inaba

The Japanese hare's brown fur changes to white during the winter of some regions of Japan.

The Japanese hare’s brown fur changes to white during the winter of some regions of Japan.

Long, long ago, when all the animals could talk, there lived in the province of Inaba in Japan, a little white hare. His home was on the island of Oki, and just across the sea was the mainland of Inaba.

Now the hare wanted very much to cross over to Inaba. Day after day he would go out and sit on the shore and look longingly over the water in the direction of Inaba, and day after day he hoped to find some way of getting across.

One day as usual, the hare was standing on the beach, looking towards the mainland across the water, when he saw a great crocodile swimming near the island.

“This is very lucky!” thought the hare. “Now I shall be able to get my wish. I will ask the crocodile to carry me across the sea!”

But he was doubtful whether the crocodile would consent to do what wanted. So he thought instead of asking a favor he would try to get what he wanted by a trick.

So with a loud voice he called to the crocodile, and said:

“Oh, Mr. Crocodile, isn’t it a lovely day?”

The crocodile, who had come out all by itself that day to enjoy the bright sunshine, was just beginning to feel a bit lonely when the hare’s cheerful greeting broke the silence. The crocodile swam nearer the shore, very pleased to hear some one speak.

“I wonder who it was that spoke to me just now! Was it you, Mr. Hare? You must be very lonely all by yourself!”

Crocodile being hunted“Oh, no, I am not at all lonely,” said the hare, “but as it was such a fine day I came out here to enjoy myself. Won’t you stop and play with me a little while?”

The crocodile came out of the sea and sat on the shore, and the two played together for some time. Then the hare said:

“Mr. Crocodile, you live in the sea and I live on this island, and we do not often meet, so I know very little about you. Tell me, do you think the number of your company is greater than mine?”

“Of course, there are more crocodiles than hares,” answered the crocodile. “Can you not see that for yourself? You live on this small island, while I live in the sea, which spreads through all parts of the world, so if I call together all the crocodiles who dwell in the sea you hares will be as nothing compared to us!” The crocodile was very conceited.

The hare, who meant to play a trick on the crocodile, said:

“Do you think it possible for you to call up enough crocodiles to form a line from this island across the sea to Inaba?”

The crocodile thought for a moment and then answered:

“Of course, it is possible.”

“Then do try,” said the artful hare, “and I will count the number from here!”

The crocodile, who was very simple-minded, and who hadn’t the least idea that the hare intended to play a trick on him, agreed to do what the hare asked, and said:

“Wait a little while I go back into the sea and call my company together!”

The crocodile plunged into the sea and was gone for some time. The hare, meanwhile, waited patiently on the shore. At last the crocodile appeared, bringing with him a large number of other crocodiles.

“Look, Mr. Hare!” said the crocodile, “it is nothing for my friends to form a line between here and Inaba. There are enough crocodiles to stretch from here even as far as China or India. Did you ever see so many crocodiles?”

Then the whole company of crocodiles arranged themselves in the water so as to form a bridge between the Island of Oki and the mainland of Inaba. When the hare saw the bridge of crocodiles, he said:

“How splendid! I did not believe this was possible. Now let me count you all! To do this, however, with your permission, I must walk over on your backs to the other side, so please be so good as not to move, or else I shall fall into the sea and be drowned!”

So the hare hopped off the island on to the strange bridge of crocodiles, counting as he jumped from one crocodile’s back to the other:

“Please keep quite still, or I shall not be able to count. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine—”

Thus the cunning hare walked right across to the mainland of Inaba. Not content with getting his wish, he began to jeer at the crocodiles instead of thanking them, and said, as he leapt off the last one’s back:

“Oh! you stupid crocodiles, now I have done with you!”

And he was just about to run away as fast as he could. But he did not escape so easily, for so soon as the crocodiles understood that this was a trick played upon them by the hare so as to enable him to cross the sea, and that the hare was now laughing at them for their stupidity, they became furiously angry and made up their minds to take revenge. So some of them ran after the hare and caught him. Then they all surrounded the poop little animal and pulled out all his fur. He cried out loudly and entreated them to spare him, but with each tuft of fur they pulled out they said:

“Serve you right!”

When the crocodiles had pulled out the last bit of fur, they threw the poor hare on the beach, and all swam away laughing at what they had done.

The hare was now in a pitiful plight, all his beautiful white fur had been pulled out, and his bare little body was quivering with pain and bleeding all over. He could hardly move, and all he could do was to lie on the beach quite helpless and weep over the misfortune that had befallen him. Notwithstanding that it was his own fault that had brought all this misery and suffering upon the white hare of Inaba, any one seeing the poor little creature could not help feeling sorry for him in his sad condition, for the crocodiles had been very cruel in their revenge.

Just at this time a number of men, who looked like King’s sons, happened to pass by, and seeing the hare lying on the beach crying, stopped and asked what was the matter.

The hare lifted up his head from between his paws, and answered them, saying:

“I had a fight with some crocodiles, but I was beaten, and they pulled out all my fur and left me to suffer here—that is why I am crying.”

Now one of these young men had a bad and spiteful disposition. But he feigned kindness, and said to the hare:

“I feel very sorry for you. If you will only try it, I know of a remedy which will cure your sore body. Go and bathe yourself in the sea, and then come and sit in the wind. This will make your fur grow again, and you will be just as you were before.”

Then all the young men passed on. The hare was very pleased, thinking that he had found a cure. He went and bathed in the sea and then came out and sat where the wind could blow upon him.

But as the wind blew and dried him, his skin became drawn and hardened, and the salt increased the pain so much that he rolled on the sand in his agony and cried aloud.

Just then another King’s son passed by, carrying a great bag on his back. He saw the hare, and stopped and asked why he was crying so loudly.okuninushi no mikoto

But the poor hare, remembering that he had been deceived by one very like the man who now spoke to him, did not answer, but continued to cry.

But this man had a kind heart, and looked at the hare very pityingly, and said:

“You poor thing! I see that your fur is all pulled out and that your skin is quite bare. Who can have treated you so cruelly?”

When the hare heard these kind words he felt very grateful to the man, and encouraged by his gentle manner the hare told him all that had befallen him. The little animal hid nothing from his friend, but told him frankly how he had played a trick on the crocodiles and how he had come across the bridge they had made, thinking that he wished to count their number: how he had jeered at them for their stupidity, and then how the crocodiles had revenged themselves on him. Then he went on to say how he had been deceived by a party of men who looked very like his kind friend: and the hare ended his long tale of woe by begging the man to give him some medicine that would cure him and make his fur grow again.

When the hare had finished his story, the man was full of pity towards him, and said:

“I am very sorry for all you have suffered, but remember, it was only the consequence of the deceit you practiced on the crocodiles.”

“I know,” answered the sorrowful hare, “but I have repented and made up my mind never to use deceit again, so I beg you to show me how I may cure my sore body and make the fur grow again.”

“Then I will tell you of a good remedy,” said the man. “First go and bathe well in that pond over there and try to wash all the salt from your body. Then pick some of those kaba flowers that are growing near the edge of the water, spread them on the ground and roll yourself on them. If you do this the pollen will cause your fur to grow again, and you will be quite well in a little while.”

Kaba flowers can translate to birch or bulrushes. Because this story speaks of kaba being by the edge of the water, it is most likely referring to bulrushes, cattails. Also, our hare could not pluck flowers from a birch tree even if he jumped.

Kaba flowers can translate to birch or bulrushes. Because this story speaks of kaba being by the edge of the water, it is most likely referring to bulrushes, cattails. Also, our hare could not pluck flowers from a birch tree even if he jumped.

The hare was very glad to be told what to do, so kindly. He crawled to the pond pointed out to him, bathed well in it, and then picked the kaba flowers growing near the water, and rolled himself on them.

To his amazement, even while he was doing this, he saw his nice white fur growing again, the pain ceased, and he felt just as he had done before all his misfortunes.

The hare was overjoyed at his quick recovery, and went hopping joyfully towards the young man who had so helped him, and kneeling down at his feet, said:

“I cannot express my thanks for all you have done for me! It is my earnest wish to do something for you in return. Please tell me who you are?”

“I am no King’s son as you think me. I am a fairy, and my name is Okuni-nushi-no-Mikoto,” answered the man, “and those beings who passed here before me are my brothers. They have heard of a beautiful Princess called Yakami who lives in this province of Inaba, and they are on their way to find her and to ask her to marry one of them. But on this expedition I am only an attendant, so I am walking behind them with this great big bag on my back.”

The hare humbled himself before this great fairy Okuni-nushi-no-Mikoto, whom many in that part of the land worshiped as a god.

“Oh, I did not know that you were Okuni-nushi-no-Mikoto. How kind you have been to me! It is impossible to believe that that unkind fellow who sent me to bathe in the sea is one of your brothers. I am quite sure that the Princess, whom your brothers have gone to seek, will refuse to be the bride of any of them, and will prefer you for your goodness of heart. I am quite sure that you will win her heart without intending to do so, and she will ask to be your bride.”

Okuni-nushi-no-Mikoto took no notice of what the hare said, but bidding the little animal goodby, went on his way quickly and soon overtook his brothers. He found them just entering the Princess’s gate.

Just as the hare had said, the Princess could not be persuaded to become the bride of any of the brothers, but when she looked at the kind brother’s face she went straight up to him and said:

“To you I give myself,” and so they were married.

This is the end of the story. Okuni-nushi-no-Mikoto is worshiped by the people in some parts of Japan, as a god, and the hare has become famous as “The White Hare of Inaba.” But what became of the crocodiles nobody knows.

This story teaches us about justice. The hapless rabbit was wrong to play a trick on the crocodiles, but the revenge the crocodiles played was far more than the rabbit deserved. Plucking out all the rabbit’s fur is stiff punishment for name calling and trickery.

Then, a cruel man played a trick on the bleeding rabbit, telling the rabbit to jump into the sea with those open wounds. Desperate, the rabbit listened and worsened his situation. The salt from the sea and wind ruin his skin.

Luckily, a kind soul (the fairy, Okuninushi-no-Mikoto) helped the rabbit heal and regrow his fur. Okuninushi is a Shinto divinity. The name translates to “Great Land Master” and he was the ruler of Izumo Province before being replaced by Ninigi, the grandson of Amaterasu. Grateful, the rabbit makes a divine prediction: Okuninushi will marry the princess his brothers seek to wed.

Okuninushi marries Princess Yakami. The marriage leads to Okuninushi’s brothers to seek to kill him, but those are other tales.

The rabbit’s plight was more than what he deserved. Karma is supposed to be proportional to one’s actions. Okuninushi sets the aright by helping the rabbit heal itself. Notice that the rabbit had to take action. The hare also repented of his name calling and trickster ways. In both cases, the rabbit had to work to relieve his suffering. This lesson extends to us today. Repentance of mistakes and wrongs we commit against people is only a step. We also must take action to heal ourselves. We need to make amends to those we did wrong. Of course, in this story, the hare was unable to do that. However, the hare learned not to repeat his mishap. Japanese mythology is laced with moral tales.

Ozaki, Yei Theodora. (1908).  Japanese Fairy Tales. New York: Grosset & Dunlap Publishers.

Yasumaro, O no. (c. 711 CE.). Kojiki.

Japanese Cults–Koji Takahashi and the Life Space Movement

Japan, like any other country, has its share of odd religious movements. Better known as cults, these groups live on the fringes of society, preying on people who find themselves in a vulnerable position in life.

In the last twenty or thirty years, Japan has become a fertile breeding ground for cults and fringe religions of all sorts. Some of this is due to the rigors of modern life; when people become more affluent, they no longer find themselves preoccupied with surviving, and so find themselves longing for purpose. Cults are more than happy to fill that gap. Japan is unique though because its culture–specifically its work and school culture–is very rigid and stressful, far more so than most Westernized countries. This grind pushes some people to drop out of society altogether, or pushes them to the fringe where cults wait with open arms.

Ise Grand Shrine, an important Shinto shrine. The traditional Shintoism and Buddhism no longer fulfills the spiritual needs of many Japanese, who turn increasingly to so-called New Religions, many of which are cults.

Ise Grand Shrine, an important Shinto shrine. The traditional Shintoism and Buddhism no longer fulfills the spiritual needs of many Japanese, who turn increasingly to so-called New Religions, many of which are cults.

This will be a series devoted to the wide variety of cults Japan is now home to. The best known cult is Aum Shinrikyo, which was responsible for nerve gas attacks in the Tokyo subway system in 1995. However, there are a wide variety of groups, both violent and not, that have sprang up in the last thirty years.  Today’s focus will be on the Life Space Movement. Secretive, as cults tend to be, Life Space sprang into the public consciousness in 1999, when police raided a Tokyo hotel room after management called them complaining about odd, reclusive guests who refused to vacate their room. What they found inside was horrifying: a decomposing corpse attended by cult devotees, with the stench of death in the air.


Koji Takahashi and the origins of the Live Space Movement

The story of how a mummified body ended up in a Tokyo hotel room began with Koji Takahashi. Born in 1938, the future guru seemed to lead a mundane life. He lost vision in his right eye at 14 due to an air gun accident. He went on to become an accountant as an adult. Evidently during that time, he began to accumulate an eccentric set of beliefs, based on Buddhism and Hinduism, that he would coalesce into the Life Space Movement, which he founded in 1983. The cult began innocuously enough as a series of self-enlightenment seminars. Costing upwards of $5,000 per course, the seminars involved elaborate role plays where participants would act like they were blind or beggars in order to learn to new perspectives on life.

These expensive courses attracted thousands of people–Life Space reportedly counted upwards of 10,000 people among its ranks at its height–and raked in a great deal of cash for Takahashi. Of these followers, some 200 became the core of the group. These devotees believed in their guru’s powers, and would follow his teachings with blind devotion.

For his own part, Takahashi clearly began to believe himself to be something extraordinary. He claimed to have followed an Indian guru and healer named Sai Baba through 6,000 years of reincarnation. During those many lifetimes, Takahashi believed he perfected the guru’s healing technique, the shakty pat. The technique involves the guru lightly tapping his palms on a patient’s forehead and body, thus transferring his energy into a patient’s body.

Sai Baba, the man who Takahashi believed he followed through 6,000 years of reincarnation.

Sai Baba (seated), the man who Takahashi believed he followed through 6,000 years of reincarnation.

Wanting to prove his powers to the wider world, and no doubt wanting to cement his iron grip over the minds of his followers, Takahashi sought to demonstrate his abilities. He saw the perfect chance to do so when one of his followers, Shinichi Kobayashi, slipped in the bathroom of his home in Osaka, where he hit his head and slipped into unconsciousness. Doctors at the local hospital diagnosed the 66 year old man with a cerebral hemorrhage.


Horror at the hotel

Doctors at the local hospital diagnosed the 66 year old man with a cerebral hemorrhage. Eight days later, Takahashi convinced Kobayashi’s son, Kenji, to remove his ailing father from the Osaka hospital against doctor’s orders. Kenji and two other cult members took the injured man to the hotel where his body would later be found. There, Takahashi began to administer his shakty pat healing method.

What followed over the next four months before Kobayashi’s body was discovered was downright horrific and a testament to the power that cult leaders can hold over their followers. Takahashi demanded this his followers record his treatment of Kobayashi over the course of those long months. The document, called “Father and Son’s Bonds Are Connected at Once When the Son Nurses the Father,” was later found by police and used to implicate Takahashi in Kobayashi’s death.

The account ran for five-volumes and covered 2,000 pages. It covered the “healing” process in detail. Kobayashi was clearly dead soon after the cult leader administered his first shakty pat session. Kenji Kobayashi himself remarked that his father wasn’t breathing, had no pulse, and that his face was green. Despite these obvious signs of death and decomposition, the guru continued to assert that his patient still lived.  All signs to the contrary were ignored or explained away. Maggots were called “ascetic tics,” and were seen as a sign of holiness as they supposedly swarmed Hindu holy men practicing along the Ganges River. When followers pointed out that Kobayashi lacked a pulse, the guru dismissed them saying “it is something an amateur can’t recognize.”  Adding to the horror is the fact that the group took color photographs of Kobayashi’s rotting corpse which they included in the book.



After the hotel raid, Takahashi continued to maintain that Kobayashi had been alive the whole time, up until police whisked the body away at any rate. According to the cult leader, it was the authorities who killed Kobayashi when they opened him up on the autopsy table.  He ordered his followers to write up another book describing the cult’s account of events following the raid and the autopsy. Takahashi himself did a three hour interview with Newsweek to defend himself and his cult.

Police, for their part, weren’t buying it. Takahashi would be charged for the murder of Kobayshi and handed a 15 year prison sentence. In 2003, the sentence was commuted to 7 years when a higher court determined that the killing was not intentional.

Rather than vindicate the cult as Takahashi hoped, the bizarre incident and the publicity that followed led to its near collapse. Its following fell from nearly 10,000 at its peak to an estimated 150 today. After its day in the spotlight, the Life Space Movement continued as it began, on the very fringe of society.



Chryssides, George D. “The A to Z of New Religious Movements.” Scarecrow Press. January 1, 2006. pg 204. Retrieved from:

“Life Space cult leader gets lighter sentence for murder.” Kyodo News. June 27, 2003. Retrieved from:

Wehrfritz, George. “The Corpse and The Cult.” December 15, 1999. Newsweek. January 1, 2015.



Sword Art Online II – Thoughts on Social Technology

SAO-2-ALO-YuiNot since Ghost in the Shell has an anime series stirred my inner technologist. Sword Art Online plays with some of the same ideas as Ghost but in the opposite direction. Instead of only pulling people into the digital realm SAO plays with the idea of pulling the virtual world into ours. At first, I was hesitant about the second series. I mean, what else could be done now that the threat of dying for real in a game was gone? I was pleased to see the series focus on the after effects of the original SAO series and the implications of the technology. The second seasons looks at Asuna in particular.

Now I know the series has problems. It has drawn a fair level of hate from many as well. However, I enjoyed it for what it was. I won’t really focus on the anime itself in this article. There are enough reviews floating around the net like that. Rather, I will take a look at SAO’s view of technology and our relationships with it. Much of the commentary buried in SAO is relevant for the Internet Generation.

The Virtual Influences the Real

As Kirito says in the first season, the virtual world changes how a person behaves and thinks in reality.

Gun-Gale-Online-SAO-2-SinonThis is a profound idea that even gamers without full dive technology need to consider. We all know that the Internet and online gaming is often a cesspool of backbiting, immaturity, trolling, abuse, and general disregard for others. These behaviors impact who we are in reality as well. After all, these things have to come from somewhere. Although there is a screen between you and the other person, there is still another person on the other side of that screen.

Whatever a monk keeps pursuing with his thinking and pondering, that becomes the inclination of his awareness. If a monk keeps pursuing thinking imbued with sensuality, abandoning thinking imbued with renunciation, his mind is bent by that thinking imbued with sensuality. If a monk keeps pursuing thinking imbued with ill will, abandoning thinking imbued with non-ill will, his mind is bent by that thinking imbued with ill will. If a monk keeps pursuing thinking imbued with harmfulness, abandoning thinking imbued with harmlessness, his mind is bent by that thinking imbued with harmfulness.

-Dvedhavitakka Sutta: Two Sorts of Thinking

As the Buddhist quote points out, how we think over time influences how the mind develops. Regardless of where that thinking happens, it bends the mind in that direction. As Kirito in SAO points out, virtual reality is still a reality.

This idea extends into the second season with the introductions of Sinon and Yuuki. Both characters are changed by their interactions with Kirito and Asuna.

The Technology of SAO

As I mentioned, SAO has interesting ideas about technology. Full dive virtual reality allows people to work toward overcoming traumatic events (Sinon) or overcome limitations of illness (Yuuki). Kirito is also trying to develop technology that pulls Yui, Kirito and Asuna’s virtual daughter, into the physical world. We see this blurring of digital and analog in our world. Increasingly, the digital world interacts with our physical reality. We control our houses using phones, for example. What we post on social media has real world consequences. Abuse on social media coupled with offline abuse has driven people into suicide. Poor social media behavior can cost you a job.

sao2-kirito-asunaSAO portrays virtual reality technology as overwhelming positive despite some of the horrors that happens in the series. It allows the characters to have a life that is often more real than what they experience in the physical world.  Such as the scene with Asuna and her mother in SAO II. I particularly liked the scene of everyone working on homework in the virtual world. It illustrates how there are few real boundaries between virtual and physical. Again, we see this today with how pervasive the Internet is in every aspect of life.

SAO notes that technology does not change people. The interactions the technology provides changes people. Technology also brings out ways of thinking that already exist. Think Suguo in the later half of the first season. The core message of Sword Art Online is about humanity more than technology. Kirito sees zero differences between an AI like Yui and a real person. Asuna interacts with people in the virtual world as she does in the real world. That is because those interactions are real even if the environments are artificial. This too is something we need to consider.

But the things that proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and those defile the man. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, slanders.

-Matthew 15:18-19

Each comment, tweet, and post reflects upon us. It is an interaction with other person.  They come from our hearts. We carry our hearts with us everywhere, online and offline. Technology is only a vehicle of interaction. Of itself, it will not change a heart that is corrupted or pure. Those interactions with other people are what change us. Asuna and Kirito’s interactions with Yui changed them. That interaction drives Kirito to figure out a way to bring Yui into the physical world. She is his daughter, after all. Asuna’s desire to help Yuuki is the same: to share the physical world just as they shared the virtual.  Technology is only a facilitator. It brings out what already resides within our hearts.

Ghost in the Shell wrestles with what it means to be human in a world where the body does not matter. Sword Art Online wrestles with questions of the human heart.

asuna-kiritoSAO resonates with me as a gamer.  The series itself has its problems, like poorly timed Sinon fan service, plot holes, and other issues. Despite the storytelling issues that are common to anime and manga, SAO gives us ideas worth considering.

I am not a competitive person (I dislike first person shooters with only a few exceptions), nor do I seek to harm or exploit other players. I play exclusively as a healer in MMORPGs and tend to give away most of my  wealth to new players. I am me both online and offline just as Kirito and Asuna are. I seek to help others (JP is also part of this) and don’t seek my own gain. Just because I don’t see a person does not mean I can take advantage of them or act less toward them even if I will never see them again.

SAO suggests a message that everyone who interacts digitally with others needs to keep in mind. There is no difference between an online interaction and an offline interaction. There is still another person behind the text or avatar.

Another Revolution around the Sun

Our little blue rock has revolved around the sun successfully yet again. It’s been an eventful year for me personally and for JP. On a personal note, I managed to finish my first masters degree in Library and Information Science. Now I just need to find a professional level library job.

JP has come a long way since its start as a support blog for my local library’s manga club. This year JP saw 150,000 views.  I really appreciate the support!

According to Google Analytics, you spend an average of 4 minute 19 seconds reading my articles. Now either you find my posts interesting or you are dozing off on your keyboard!

This year I started a Tumblr blog for JP.  In just a few short months 139 people started following JP.  Not bad for a guy who dislikes social media, eh? Actually Tumblr is pretty neat. Twitter, on the other hand….well, let’s say I tried three times to get into it and quit three times.

Geisha-Hawaryu-meiji-periodJP’s most popular article this year was A Look at Gender Expectations in Japanese Society. Honestly, I am surprised at how well you received my rather dry and academic articles. I decided to try to use the skills I learned in my degree and bring in some cool and solid information to the aniblogging sphere. Judging by your interest, I must be doing okay.

Now this post isn’t to toot my own horn. I thought you might want to know how we are doing. JP is doing far better than I expected. We don’t have much in the way of comments or discussion, but the views and analytics I see tells me you find the information useful and maybe even a little interesting.


Click the photo to watch my animation effort.

So what does this year have in store? I am starting to look into American otaku culture. You may have already seen some of my articles about waifuism and sexism. I have more articles in the works. I am thinking about animating some of the Japanese folk tales we’ve already posted. As you can see from the frog gif, my animation skills are rather crude. I haven’t done any traditional animation is about 8 years now. Would you like to see animated shorts of some of Japan’s fairy tales?

We will continue to bring you a fairly academic outlook on anime, manga, and Japanese culture. If you have any ideas, questions, or anything else you want to know about Japan, email me ( webmaster [at] or drop in a comment. As a librarian, my job and my passion is to help you find information and learn more about what interests you. JP is just one way I can teach.

I appreciate your interest and support. Many thanks!

See JP’s year in review.


Worked to Death–Karoshi and Japan’s Deadly Work Culture

"Rush hour Tokyo" by Chris 73 - Chris 73. Licensed under GFDL 1.3 via Wikimedia Commons -

Salarymen on their way to work in Tokyo. “Rush hour Tokyo” by Chris 73 – Chris 73. Licensed under GFDL 1.3 via Wikimedia Commons

The Japanese are infamous for their ability to take things to bizarre extremes. From festivals that look more like riots to pimped out long haul semi-trucks, their capacity for strangeness seems to know no bounds.

Reasons for this are hard to pin down, but they might in part be attributed to another well worn stereotype–that of the hard working Japanese salaryman, the samurai of the corporate world, who will work relentlessly to further the goals of his company. Perhaps the bizarre extremes of the Japanese culture can be attributed to its strict work culture and its highly regimented and polite society. But then even the salaryman stereotype has gone to extremes–deadly extremes.

Since 1969, when a 29 year old worker in the shipping department of what was then the largest newspaper in Japan dropped dead with a stroke, a phenomenon of sudden death has swept through Japan’s working world. Dubbed karoshi–literally “death from overwork”–it has been blamed for an estimated 10,000 deaths a year, a number that has been climbing in recent years as Japanese companies cut back on staffing and put an even heavier workload on those workers who remain.


Karoshi enters the public consciousness

Karoshi was only recognized as an issue after several years. The original case in 1969 (there were likely more before it but this was the first recognized) was dubbed “occupational sudden death.” Five years passed before the Workers Compensation Bureau and the Ministry of Labor recognized that increased workload, overwork, and ill health conspired to produce a stroke in a 29 year old man. Only then was his family paid compensation.

In the wake of his death and throughout the 1970’s, families and colleagues of karoshi victims pushed for more research into what was happening. About 100 deaths were compensated during that time, although it is hard to say how many actually died from overwork. Most of the dead were shift workers, drivers, salesman, and construction workers. So far, the epidemic had not reached the upper reaches of the Japanese corporate world.

By the time it did reach the executive class, the phenomenon of death by overwork was finally named. The term “karoshi” was coined in 1982 when three physicians published a book titled “Karoshi.” Their research strategy involved studying individual cases of workers stricken by suspected overwork, to prove that it was indeed the workload itself that caused their deaths. Their method revealed that karoshi deaths were linked with long hours, shift work, and irregular work schedules. The average work week for karoshi victims in their study was 60 hours a week. As we will see, this is the lower end of the spectrum for victims.

"Japanese worker changing vending machine beverages (9173452138)" by Leonardo Boiko - Japanese worker changing vending machine beverages. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

Karoshi was first noticed among blue collar workers. “Japanese worker changing vending machine beverages (9173452138)” by Leonardo Boiko – Japanese worker changing vending machine beverages. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

After the book was published, various agencies and groups began to take steps to combat karoshi. The concept came to the attention of Western countries when “Karoshi–When the Corporate Warrior Dies.” was published in English.

Today, Karoshi is a well recognized fact of working life in Japan. Workers and their families alike fear the specter of work death. But even with the heightened consciousness of karoshi today, some ambiguity remains. Death by karoshi usually comes in the form of a stroke or a heart attack, so it can be difficult to prove that the death was a result of overwork rather than an underlying health condition or simply natural causes. In fact, many cases of karoshi result from workers who simply didn’t have time to see a doctor to receive treatment for chronic ailments like asthma or heart disease.

To confuse matters further, the Ministry of Labor states that a death can only be considered to be resulting from overwork if the worker engaged in work continuously for 24 hours before death, or worked seven 16 hour days consecutively before dying. One day off in the week prior to death disqualifies a claim of death by overwork (It should be noted though that regulations might have changed since the study this information was sourced from was written in 1997.) Due to these difficulties in determining who actually died from overwork, it is possible that such deaths are under reported, as statistics are taken from cases where the government pays compensation to survivors.

The confusion around karoshi comes from the fact that it is not a conventional disease. It does not spread by the transmission of viral or bacterial particles. Indeed, it is not even an unconventional illness like mass hysteria. Instead, karoshi is a social disorder, rooted in how companies are structured and how Japanese workers are conditioned to approach work. To unravel this tangled web of causes, we must begin by looking at Japanese history. Specifically, Japan’s astonishing rise from a defeated nation to an economic powerhouse.


The Japanese Economic Miracle

After World War II, Japan lay in ruins. Two of her cities were irradiated wastelands, and many more were leveled by wholesale American bombing. Worse than the toll to the landscape was the price the war had exacted on the Japanese people themselves. They were a shell-shocked, weary, and broken people trying to reconcile a view of themselves indoctrinated by decades of militaristic rhetoric with the reality of their position as a people laid low.

Douglas MacArthur, leader of the American Occupation, and Emperor Hirohito.

Douglas MacArthur, leader of the American Occupation, and Emperor Hirohito.

For its part, the victorious America had to try and figure out how to rebuild a shattered nation and people. While this may seem an odd thing to do, especially given the extreme animosity between the two sides during the war, this served America’s global interests. The Cold War was already in its infancy. The Soviets had invaded Manchuria, formerly held by the Japanese Empire, and held onto the vast lands of Eastern Europe it had conquered during the cataclysmic battle with Nazi Germany. It was obvious to the Americans that their former ally was hungry for land. A weak Japan would prove a fertile ground for Communist influence to take root, especially since it was situated so close to the Soviet Union and Communist China. So, it was imperative that the Americans restored Japan to economic stability in order both to prevent the spread of Communism and to give itself a powerful ally in the region.

Tokyo, 1945. Like its capital, most of Japan lay in ruins after the war.

Tokyo, 1945. Like its capital, most of Japan lay in ruins after the war.

What resulted from this state of affairs was the import of many American ideas into Japanese society. Of particular interest when it comes to the matter of karoshi were the teachings of William Edward Deming and others who brought scientific management to Japan.

Scientific management, in a nutshell, seeks to bring the rigorous scientific method into the workplace. This involved finding the most efficient way to do work. Focusing mainly on manufacturing, scientific management sought to squeeze out as much productivity and to eliminate as much waste out of the manufacturing process as possible. These techniques worked well in Japan, which had an abundance of cheap labor drawn from desperate people looking for work.

From these roots grew what is today known as the Japanese Production Management system (JPM.) The heart of the system is the concept of kaizen, which used in this context means “continuous improvement.” As applied in a work environment–again, mostly manufacturing but it has since spread to other areas of the economy–kaizen has a two-fold approach. As with scientific management in general, kaizen seeks to increase productivity and reduce waste. This means that businesses should constantly find ways to do work faster and better, while using the minimum amount of waste as possible. Kaizen, as practiced in Japan, believes any downtime is waste, whether it be a few seconds where a worker is idle, break time, or even time off from work. Waste might also refer to costs, encouraging companies to engage in cost-cutting measures such as cutting workers or reducing pay and benefits for existing employees.

A version of the Deming Cycle, which is a cornerstone of the Japanese Production Management system.  "PDCA-Cycle-Kaizen" by Tagimaguitar - {eigene Darstellung (in Anlehnung an die Arbeiten von Strohm und Ulich, 1997)}. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

A version of the Deming Cycle, which is a cornerstone of the Japanese Production Management system.
“PDCA-Cycle-Kaizen” by Tagimaguitar – {eigene Darstellung (in Anlehnung an die Arbeiten von Strohm und Ulich, 1997)}. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

These cost-cutting measures have become a key part of how kaizen is practiced. The insidious part is that the system encourages employees to accept such measures, even if it is to their own detriment. This is because the concept of continuous improvement is not a top down affair; rather, employees through all parts of the business are encouraged to participate. There are several methods by which employees may participate, from suggestion programs to dividing workers into small teams geared toward solving a particular problem. This encourages competition among workers, causing them to see one another not as coworkers but as competitors and even customers.

What results from the JPM system is a culture where long hours and insane work loads are the norm. Workers are expected to be continually busy, constantly working without break or downtime. Not only that, they are expected to constantly find ways to improve. In order to fulfill these impossible demands, workers are often asked to work overtime, much of it unpaid. It is not uncommon to read accounts of karoshi victims who regularly put in 16 hour days, day after day, for months at a time. Add to this the pressures of a post recession world where companies shed employees to cut costs, then expect those who remain behind to continually increase output, and it makes a recipe for illness and death.

Therein lay another way that JPM and kaizen contribute to karoshi. It is not only the long hours, but the emotional toll of the constant pressure to improve that leads to death even during the Lost Decade of the 1990s, when the Japanese economy stagnated, and the post recession years after 2008, Japanese workers were expected to continually increase output, sales, and profits. However, it is obvious that in a market where people have little money to buy, sales are going to stagnate or decline. Met with the reality of the economy versus the pressures imposed by employers, many employees suffered from frustration, anxiety, and depression, all of which can contribute to cardiovascular disease, the main causes of death from karoshi.


Moving toward a solution

Since karoshi has been identified as a legitimate issue, movements have been made by companies and the government both to combat the issue. For its part, the government is more willing now to pay compensation for cases of karoshi. Companies are encouraging workers to take time off, offering work-free days to care for children and elderly relatives along with “no overtime days” where workers are encouraged to leave on time.

However, despite these and other official moves, karoshi deaths have continued to increase as economic pressures mount. Lay offs and job insecurity  make many workers unwilling to leave early, fearing they will be seen as slackers and put themselves next on the chopping block. Meanwhile, more and more work is being piled on the workers who remain. Companies have little economic incentive to change. After all, the hours and hours of overtime the Japanese work both cut costs and increase profits. If one worker dies, well, there are plenty more willing to take their place.

Attitudes among workers have been slow to change as well. Surveys of workers are quite telling. Of men surveyed, 90% had no concept of a work/life balance. Four out of five would cancel a date or other plans if a boss asked them to work overtime (which, remember, is often unpaid.) Despite the fact that the risks of overwork are well known, 2 out of 3 men surveyed by the Japanese Trade Union Confederation put in 20 hours of overtime monthly, while 1 out of 25 admitted to working 80 hours of overtime a month, putting them at a very high risk of dying on the job.

Not everything is doom and gloom. Despite the entrenched ideas, some workers are beginning to rebel against the system that is killing them. Salarymen have begun to turn to the courts to fight for their rights. Companies such as McDonalds have been forced to pay back overtime to employees, and to offer overtime compensation for management positions as well as hourly. Workers are fighting for a more American style workplace where there is more flexibility  in hours and unpaid overtime is not an unwritten rule.

But change is slow, and workers are only taking their companies to court reluctantly. Used to putting the corporation before themselves, acting in their own self interest is foreign to many Japanese. This is less of an issue among the younger generation, who have bucked the system by simply not participating in it. With the guaranteed lifetime employment of their fathers and grandfathers becoming less and less of an economic reality, many young people are turning to part time and contract work through employment agencies. While these jobs pay less and offer less benefits, they offer more flexibility in hours and thus more free time, appealing to a generation who saw their parents work endless hours with little or no time for family and friends. Put short, many in the younger generations want to work to live rather than live to work.

Again, change is slow. The Japanese economy is still troubled, if improving, which only reinforces the old practices that propelled Japan into prosperity for so many years. Perhaps the growing movement among salarymen towards a more sane work schedule will help to change cultural norms. That, or the influence of a younger generation who is more concerned with quality of life rather than income and status. Or perhaps some combination of the two will eventually move the corrosive attitudes of the JPM toward a system that embraces more healthy and sustainable methods. Until that happens, many Japanese will continue to work themselves to death.



“Death by Overwork in Japan: Jobs for Life.” December 19, 2007. The Economist. December 23, 2014.

Fackler, Martin. “Japanese Salarymen Fight Back.” June 11, 2008. The New York Times. December 25, 2014.

“Japan Working Itself Into an early Grave.” May 17, 2007. ioL Scitech. December 23, 2014.

Nishiyama, Katsuo and Johnson, Jeffery V. “Karoshi–Death from Overwork: Occupational Health Consequences of the Japanese Production Managment.” February 4, 1997. Job Stress Network. December 23, 2014.

“Recession puts More Pressure on Japanese Workers.” January 5, 2009. Bloomberg Businessweek. December 25, 2014.


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