The Japanese National Railways Incidents–Enduring Mysteries from Post-War Japan

Shimoyama's remains being removed from the Joban Line. Shimoyama's death was the first of three mysterious incidents on Japan's rails in 1949.

Shimoyama’s remains being removed from the Joban Line. Shimoyama’s death was the first of three mysterious incidents on Japan’s rails in 1949.

Modern Japan is known the world over for her rail system. The famous bullet trains allow commuters to cross the main island at lightning speeds. Trains played a large role in Japan’s transition from a medieval nation to a modern nation in the late 19th and early 20th century, knitting the country together and allowing for the fast and economical transport of products and people all over the island nation.

After World War II, the Japanese were under American occupation and in the process of rebuilding after the devastating war years. Only four years after the end of hostilities, three mysterious incidents occurred on Japan’s railways that remain unsolved to this day.


The Shimoyama Incident

Investigators inspecting the train that killed Shimoyama.

Investigators inspecting the train that killed Shimoyama.

On the morning of July 6, 1949, Sadanori Shimoyama was found dead on the tracks of the Joban Line between Ayase and Kitasenju stations in Northern Tokyo. Shimoyama, the first president of the Japanese National Railways (JNR), appeared to have been run over by a train during the night. He had been missing since the day before. He’d stopped at the Mitsoukoshi department store in Nihonbashi on his way to the office.

The death immediately caused speculation. His death came as the JNR was in the process of job cuts. Some believed he committed suicide due to the stress of his position, while others believed he was killed by leftist radicals. Still others pointed the finger at the Occupation authorities. JNR security headquarters and the Tokyo District Public Prosecutor’s Office conducted its investigation assuming that Shimoyama had been murdered. The investigation focused on three areas: patrons of a restaurant Shimoyama frequented, JNR employees at the deport from which the train suspected of running down Shimoyama departed, and chemical analysis of oil spots on his clothing.

Of 15 JNR workers questioned at the depot, none were suspected of any involvement in the death. A worker claimed to have overheard someone implicating himself in the killing, but this lead led nowhere. A person seen in the restaurant was briefly under suspicion, until they were revealed as an investigator from the Metropolitan Police Department.Finally, the oil spots eventually led nowhere.

A theory, unsubstantiated, was put forward by prosecutors that Shimoyama visited an acquaintance at the Misukoshi store, only to be later taken somewhere by a car owned by the Soviet Union. However, there was no evidence to substantiate this theory. The crime, if there was one, remains unsolved.


The Mitaka Incident

Derailed train after the incident.

Derailed train after the incident.

Only nine days after Shimiyomo’s death, disaster struck Mitaka station in western Tokyo. An unmanned train started moving, breaking through a track end bumper and plowing into the station and nearby structures. Six people died, and another 20 were injured. Station workers and onlookers worked quickly to rescue victims, but soon US military police took control of the accident site and barred the public from the site.

Not long after the incident, 10 members of Japanese National Railways, a rail worker union, were arrested and charged in the crash. Nine of them were members of the Japanese Communist Party. Prosecutors alleged that the group conspired to cause the runaway train in order to get revenge against the JNR for its plan to dismiss workers in large numbers. The union ranks were made up of disgruntled workers, Communists, and Communist sympathizers, many of whom resented the government and the Allied Occupation.

Of the accused, only one man, Keisuke Takeuchi, who wasn’t a member of the union, was convicted. He confessed to his role in the crash, but eventually recounted and claimed innocence. He was initially sentenced to live in prison by the Tokyo District Court, while  the Tokyo High Court overruled the lower court verdict and sentenced Takeuchi to death by hanging. The Supreme Court upheld this verdict. In 1956, he filed for a retrial. He eventually died of a brain tumor in January 1967 at the age of 45. The case against Takeuchi was closed soon after.


Matsukawa_IncidentThe Matsukawa Incident

The third incident to occur in 1949 occurred only a month after the Mitaka incident. On the rail tracks between Matsukawa and Kanayagwa stations, train cars derailed, killing three railroad men and injuring eight passengers. As in the Mitaka incident, police and prosecutors immediately looked at rail workers who were members of unions, and  by extension the Japanese Communist Party.

Workers were convicted in both district and high court, and 5 of the 20 were sentenced to hanging. However, as the trials wore on, shady doings on the part of the police and prosecutors were soon revealed, including forced confessions, mishandling of evidence, and coercion. The defendants claimed innocence, and the revelations of police misconduct put public opinion on their side. Writer Hirotsu Kazuo formed a national council on the incident, which looked into the evidence of the case and showed beyond any doubt that the rail workers were not to blame. In 1963, all workers were found not guilty by the Supreme Court. The actual culprits were never apprehended.


An enduring mystery

These three incidents–all of them occurring in one year and all involving railways–remain an enduring mystery in Japanese crime history. Most seem to believe that the Occupation and the government worked together in an attempt to discredit both the labor unions and the Japanese Communist Party. This is very possible. It is also good to bear in mind that the incidents took place against a backdrop of political turmoil and a labor dispute, a recipe for bad feelings and rash actions. So, it is possible the acts were perpetrated by disgruntled union workers, or lone wolfs bitter about losing their livelihood to job cuts.

Whatever the case, it is unlikely that the true culprits of the tragedies will ever be caught. The Japanese Railway Incidents will remain a mystery for decades to come.



Hirano, Keiji. “’49 Mitaka Incident retrial sought.” December 24, 2010. The Japan Times. May 17, 2015.

Kaplan, David E. and Dubro, Alec. Yakuza: Japan’s Criminal Underworld. University of California Press. 2012. pgs 46-47

“National rally marking Matsukawa Incident’s 60th anniversary.” October 18, 2008. Japan Press Weekly. May 17, 2015.

“‘Shimoyama Incident’ memos uncovered.” July 4, 2002. The Japan Times. May 17, 2015.

What are Maid Cafes?

“Gokitaku hajimete desu ka?”

She wears white stockings and lace, a fantasy in the flesh. You nod and say something vaguely affirmative.

The server bows. Her petticoat and frilly pinafore are immaculate. You see just a hint of her garter. The other servers stop what they are doing and bow toward you.

“Okaerinasai-mase goshujin-sama!”

You have just entered a maid cafe.

Maid cafes are an example of a new type of business, called “affective economics.” Affective economics centers on inviting a customer into a brand community. This allows customers to become emotionally engaged with a brand or product and feel protective of that brand (Jenkins, 2006). Think about one of your favorite fictional characters and how emotionally attached you feel toward that character and story. That is affective economics at work.

Are you a sports fan? Does that loyalty drive you to buy stuff with the team logo? Does that loyalty make you want to watch every game? That is affective economics. It is rooted in a deep emotional attachment toward a brand that is supported by social networks. In other words, you like the stuff because people around you think it’s cool too.

Affective economics often involves payment for social ties. For example, you need to have a certain level of memorabilia to be considered a true fan in some social circles, someone who’s “in.” NFL fan communities and some anime fan communities share this.  Maid cafes are all about this.

Maid cafes are built upon customer’s affective attachments toward the fictional characters the servers create. While the cafes sell food, photographs, and other products, customers mainly pay for the ability to interact with the maids. After all, that is why you are there right?  This business model appeared in Akihabara in the late 1990s and early 2000s with the rise of otaku culture. The cafes simulated dating, uh, simulation games (they are a simulation of a simulation
). Each maid creates a fictional character she performs when interacting with customers. Customers also develop their own role playing identities (Hochiman, 2008; Galbraith, 2013).

maid_cafeCustomers pay 500¥ cover charges and a variable amount for a required drink in order to have one hour of interaction with the maids. There also also several rules that are unbreakable (Galbraith, 2013; Mounteer, 2014):

  1. You cannot ask for a maids real name or personal information.
  2. No physical contact is permitted.
  3. No personal cameras.
  4. No sexual advances.
  5. You must order one drink.

Food offered a maid cafes are expensive. You don’t go to cafes to eat. You go to talk with the maids. Maids provide various services that center on the master-servant relationship maid cafes build.  One common service is drawing a cute word or image on an order in ketchup. The maid will then ask the master, when she presents his order, to join her in an incantation to make the food taste better. The chants vary, but sources say the most common is “moe moe kyun.” Kyun is the Japanese onomatopoeia for a heart beat. Both maid and master make a heart shape with their hands over their hearts and moves their hands toward the food as if shooting a beam of heart energy. The idea is to infuse the food with love. It all contributes to the fantasy (D’Anastasio, 2013; Galbraith, 2013; Mounteer, 2014).

maid-cafe-cebu-cityMaid cafes also offer entertainment such as photographs (hence the rule about no personal cameras), table top games, card games, and other activities with the maid.  Not those type of activities! Look at those rules again. No physical contact!

Each interaction costs extra. Cheki (or instant photographs of the customer with a maid (not touching, of course) are common at 500¥ each (Galbraith, 2013).

Maid Cafe Customers

Maid cafes rely on regulars (joren じょれん) to keep the cafe going. Otaku of various flavors compose these regulars. The customers develop relationships with the maids. Well, they develop relationships with the maid’s fictional character rather than the maid herself. Maid cafes are considered 2.5 dimensional spaces (Gailbraith, 2013).  They are places where socially awkward, withdrawn, or uninterested people can interact with a fictional character who is physically real. Waifuism deals with people marrying a 2D fictional character. Then you have the typical real world relationships of the 3D world. Maid cafes and similar venues sit between these two worlds. The maids are 3D, but they are fictional at the same time. This allows a person to interact with a fiction that is more palatable than the complex and stressful 3D world.

Maid cafe servers act cute and servile. She exists to please her master. She also adopts a completely different way of speaking and tone of voice in order to appear subservient and cute (Kawahara, n.d.). It is her job to create memorable, comforting, and fun experiences for customers. However, customers cannot be lewd or sexual in any way. Erections, lewd behavior, and other sexual or degrading behavior can cause the customer to be banned permanently from the cafe. Masters are expected to be masters of themselves (Galbraith, 2013).

Regulars only have one hour intervals like everyone else. Many will leave to only line up again. Japanese society often considers maid cafe regulars and other otaku as unmanly because they avoid fulfilling expected social roles and responsibilities, including having relationships with women (Galbraith, 2013).  Men do not go to maid cafes in order to feel like a man. Rather, they go to relate with fictional characters in a cute, safe environment.

Maid Cafe Maids

Servers cannot help but develop some personal relationship with regular customers. After all, a server is still herself under the character. Regulars will celebrate their birthdays and other special events at the cafe. Many regulars visit for years. In such cases, it is impossible not to build some sort of relationship. After all, relations is the main product of a maid cafe.  However, for her own safety she cannot give out personal or contact information (Galbraith, 2013; Levenstein, n.d.).  Some customers will struggle to draw a line between fiction and reality.

Maid characters are inspired by manga and anime, but these characters are not specific renditions of popular characters. Rather, they are developed by the maid themselves (Galbraith, 2013). This gives the women a means of self-expression.

Maids are paid about  850 yen an hour at the time of Galbraith’s study (2013). This is close to Japan’s national minimum wage. Women are drawn to the work because of their interests and not the money.

Upon graduation, when she quits or is fired, a maid has a special event that includes a small circle of regular customers. Graduation marks the last time she will be seen in costume and character. Customers buy tickets to take part in the event, which varies by maid (Galbraith, 2013). The event is often emotional. It is a turning point and marks the end of the relationship between the maid’s character and customers. Basically, the event marks the death of that maid’s character.

Considering Sexism

At first glance, maid cafes look to be quite sexist. Men are masters (although women are considered mistresses and see the same attention as men) and the maids are servants. Maids act to attract men and meet their needs. That interaction is what the cafes sell. However, this does not necessarily mean there is sexism in the fantasy that is being sold.

First, most maid cafes have strict rules that seek to avoid sexual advances, lewd behavior, and other problems. Although, this suggests such behavior was a problem in the past.  The outfits seem tailored for men’s fantasies. However, the maid outfits in most maid cafes are closely related to Lolita fashion. Lolita came out of a backlash against women feeling forced to dress in ways men favored. Female sexuality was expected to be accessible and match the taste of men. Lolita takes these expectations and embraces femininity to the extreme: lace and bows and other things considered feminine. Maid dress in the same way.  Lolitas dress the way they do because they enjoy it. It is not done to please men (Steward, 2008). While maid costumes are designed to please the mostly male clientele of the cafes, the outfits are less demeaning than those of American establishments like Hooters. The outfits embrace and express femininity with lace, ruffles, and bows in ways similar to that of Lolita fashion.

Many customers are interested in playing around the boundary of fiction and reality. They go to maid cafes in order to relate to a character and enjoy an hour of escapism. Not all customers visit these cafes in order to feel like a master. There are other outlets for such needs, after all.

Links with History

Maid cafes are related to the famous Japanese tea houses and their geisha. Both the cafes and tea houses sell fantasy and relationships. Geisha and maids both converse with customers and provide a social link a customer may not have otherwise. Granted, maid cafes turned these interactions into commodities more than tea houses. Both geisha and maids are paid to provide social interaction, conversation, and other social needs. Affective economics focuses on how social and emotional ties are developed between people and products. Both geisha and maids sell a branded version of themselves that packages their time and interactions into a product. This seems a bit crass, but social realities are changing.  Some people are attracted to fictional contexts, to use a technical term. In other words, people are drawn to fiction more than social reality. This context is related to, but different from reality. That is the attraction of both the Japanese tea house and the maid cafe.


D’Anastasio, C. (2013). Parfaits not perverts: inside NYC’s first ‘maid cafe’. Gothamist.

Galbraith,P. (2013): Maid cafés: The affect of fictional characters in Akihabara, Japan, Asian Anthropology, DOI: 10.1080/1683478X.2013.854882.

Hochiman, D. (2008) Service with a wink to a Japanase Fad. The New York Times.

Jenkins, H. (2006). Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York University Press.

Kawahara, S. (n.d.) The phonetics of Japaense maid voice I: a preliminary study. Rutgers University.

Levenstein, S. (n.d.) Maid cafe code of conduct chastises creepy clients.

Mounteer, J (2014). What it’s like inside a Japanese maid cafe. Matador Network.

Steward, D (2008). In her Own Words. Jezebel.

Urashima Taro, the Fisher Lad

fisher-boy-urashimaLong, long ago in the province of Tango there lived on the shore of Japan in the little fishing village of Mizu-no-ye a young fisherman named Urashima Taro. His father had been a fisherman before him, and his skill had more than doubly descended to his son, for Urashima was the most skillful fisher in all that country side, and could catch more Bonito and Tai in a day than his comrades could in a week.

But in the little fishing village, more than for being a clever fisher of the sea was he known for his kind heart. In his whole life he had never hurt anything, either great or small, and when a boy, his companions had always laughed at him, for he would never join with them in teasing animals, but always tried to keep them from this cruel sport.

One soft summer twilight he was going home at the end of a day’s fishing when he came upon a group of children. They were all screaming and talking at the tops of their voices, and seemed to be in a state of great excitement about something, and on his going up to them to see what was the matter he saw that they were tormenting a tortoise. First one boy pulled it this way, then another boy pulled it that way, while a third child beat it with a stick, and the fourth hammered its shell with a stone.

urashima-saves-tortoiseNow Urashima felt very sorry for the poor tortoise and made up his mind to rescue it. He spoke to the boys:

“Look here, boys, you are treating that poor tortoise so badly that it will soon die!”

The boys, who were all of an age when children seem to delight in being cruel to animals, took no notice of Urashima’s gentle reproof, but went on teasing it as before. One of the older boys answered:

“Who cares whether it lives or dies? We do not. Here, boys, go on, go on!”

And they began to treat the poor tortoise more cruelly than ever. Urashima waited a moment, turning over in his mind what would be the best way to deal with the boys. He would try to persuade them to give the tortoise up to him, so he smiled at them and said:

“I am sure you are all good, kind boys! Now won’t you give me the tortoise? I should like to have it so much!”

“No, we won’t give you the tortoise,” said one of the boys. “Why should we? We caught it ourselves.”

“What you say is true,” said Urashima, “but I do not ask you to give it to me for nothing. I will give you some money for it—in other words, the Ojisan (Uncle) will buy it of you. Won’t that do for you, my boys?” He held up the money to them, strung on a piece of string through a hole in the center of each coin. “Look, boys, you can buy anything you like with this money. You can do much more with this money than you can with that poor tortoise. See what good boys you are to listen to me.”

The boys were not bad boys at all, they were only mischievous, and as Urashima spoke they were won by his kind smile and gentle words and began “to be of his spirit,” as they say in Japan. Gradually they all came up to him, the ringleader of the little band holding out the tortoise to him.

“Very well, Ojisan, we will give you the tortoise if you will give us the money!” And Urashima took the tortoise and gave the money to the boys, who, calling to each other, scampered away and were soon out of sight.

Then Urashima stroked the tortoise’s back, saying as he did so:

“Oh, you poor thing! Poor thing!—there, there! you are safe now! They say that a stork lives for a thousand years, but the tortoise for ten thousand years. You have the longest life of any creature in this world, and you were in great danger of having that precious life cut short by those cruel boys. Luckily I was passing by and saved you, and so life is still yours. Now I am going to take you back to your home, the sea, at once. Do not let yourself be caught again, for there might be no one to save you next time!”

All the time that the kind fisherman was speaking he was walking quickly to the shore and out upon the rocks; then putting the tortoise into the water he watched the animal disappear, and turned homewards himself, for he was tired and the sun had set.

urashima-fisherThe next morning Urashima went out as usual in his boat. The weather was fine and the sea and sky were both blue and soft in the tender haze of the summer morning. Urashima got into his boat and dreamily pushed out to sea, throwing his line as he did so. He soon passed the other fishing boats and left them behind him till they were lost to sight in the distance, and his boat drifted further and further out upon the blue waters. Somehow, he knew not why, he felt unusually happy that morning; and he could not help wishing that, like the tortoise he set free the day before, he had thousands of years to live instead of his own short span of human life.

He was suddenly startled from his reverie by hearing his own name called:

“Urashima, Urashima!”

Clear as a bell and soft as the summer wind the name floated over the sea.

He stood up and looked in every direction, thinking that one of the other boats had overtaken him, but gaze as he might over the wide expanse of water, near or far there was no sign of a boat, so the voice could not have come from any human being.

Startled, and wondering who or what it was that had called him so clearly, he looked in all directions round about him and saw that without his knowing it a tortoise had come to the side of the boat. Urashima saw with surprise that it was the very tortoise he had rescued the day before.

“Well, Mr. Tortoise,” said Urashima, “was it you who called my name just now?”

The tortoise nodded its head several times and said:

“Yes, it was I. Yesterday in your honorable shadow (o kage sama de) my life was saved, and I have come to offer you my thanks and to tell you how grateful I am for your kindness to me.”

“Indeed,” said Urashima, “that is very polite of you. Come up into the boat. I would offer you a smoke, but as you are a tortoise doubtless you do not smoke,” and the fisherman laughed at the joke.

fisher-lad-sea-king-palace“He-he-he-he!” laughed the tortoise; “sake (rice wine) is my favorite refreshment, but I do not care for tobacco.”

“Indeed,” said Urashima, “I regret very much that I have no “sake” in my boat to offer you, but come up and dry your back in the sun—tortoises always love to do that.”

So the tortoise climbed into the boat, the fisherman helping him, and after an exchange of complimentary speeches the tortoise said:

“Have you ever seen Rin Gin, the Palace of the Dragon King of the Sea, Urashima?”

The fisherman shook his head and replied; “No; year after year the sea has been my home, but though I have often heard of the Dragon King’s realm under the sea I have never yet set eyes on that wonderful place. It must be very far away, if it exists at all!”

“Is that really so? You have never seen the Sea King’s Palace? Then you have missed seeing one of the most wonderful sights in the whole universe. It is far away at the bottom of the sea, but if I take you there we shall soon reach the place. If you would like to see the Sea King’s land I will be your guide.”

“I should like to go there, certainly, and you are very kind to think of taking me, but you must remember that I am only a poor mortal and have not the power of swimming like a sea creature such as you are—”

Before the fisherman could say more the tortoise stopped him, saying:

“What? You need not swim yourself. If you will ride on my back I will take you without any trouble on your part.”

“But,” said Urashima, “how is it possible for me to ride on your small back?”

“It may seem absurd to you, but I assure you that you can do so. Try at once! Just come and get on my back, and see if it is as impossible as you think!”

As the tortoise finished speaking, Urashima looked at its shell, and strange to say he saw that the creature had suddenly grown so big that a man could easily sit on its back.

“This is strange indeed!” said Urashima; “then. Mr. Tortoise, with your kind permission I will get on your back. Dokoisho!” he exclaimed as he jumped on.

The tortoise, with an unmoved face, as if this strange proceeding were quite an ordinary event, said:

“Now we will set out at our leisure,” and with these words he leapt into the sea with Urashima on his back. Down through the water the tortoise dived. For a long time these two strange companions rode through the sea. Urashima never grew tired, nor his clothes moist with the water. At last, far away in the distance a magnificent gate appeared, and behind the gate, the long, sloping roofs of a palace on the horizon.

“Ya,” exclaimed Urashima. “That looks like the gate of some large palace just appearing! Mr. Tortoise, can you tell what that place is we can now see?”

urashima-fairy-land“That is the great gate of the Rin Gin Palace, the large roof that you see behind the gate is the Sea King’s Palace itself.”

“Then we have at last come to the realm of the Sea King and to his Palace,” said Urashima.

“Yes, indeed,” answered the tortoise, “and don’t you think we have come very quickly?” And while he was speaking the tortoise reached the side of the gate. “And here we are, and you must please walk from here.”

The tortoise now went in front, and speaking to the gatekeeper, said:

“This is Urashima Taro, from the country of Japan. I have had the honor of bringing him as a visitor to this kingdom. Please show him the way.”

Then the gatekeeper, who was a fish, at once led the way through the gate before them.

The red bream, the flounder, the sole, the cuttlefish, and all the chief vassals of the Dragon King of the Sea now came out with courtly bows to welcome the stranger.

“Urashima Sama, Urashima Sama! welcome to the Sea Palace, the home of the Dragon King of the Sea. Thrice welcome are you, having come from such a distant country. And you, Mr. Tortoise, we are greatly indebted to you for all your trouble in bringing Urashima here.” Then, turning again to Urashima, they said, “Please follow us this way,” and from here the whole band of fishes became his guides.

urashima-sea-king-palaceUrashima, being only a poor fisher lad, did not know how to behave in a palace; but, strange though it was all to him, he did not feel ashamed or embarrassed, but followed his kind guides quite calmly where they led to the inner palace. When he reached the portals a beautiful Princess with her attendant maidens came out to welcome him. She was more beautiful than any human being, and was robed in flowing garments of red and soft green like the under side of a wave, and golden threads glimmered through the folds of her gown. Her lovely black hair streamed over her shoulders in the fashion of a king’s daughter many hundreds of years ago, and when she spoke her voice sounded like music over the water. Urashima was lost in wonder while he looked upon her, and he could not speak. Then he remembered that he ought to bow, but before he could make a low obeisance the Princess took him by the hand and led him to a beautiful hall, and to the seat of honor at the upper end, and bade him be seated.

“Urashima Taro, it gives me the highest pleasure to welcome you to my father’s kingdom,” said the Princess. “Yesterday you set free a tortoise, and I have sent for you to thank you for saving my life, for I was that tortoise. Now if you like you shall live here forever in the land of eternal youth, where summer never dies and where sorrow never comes, and I will be your bride if you will, and we will live together happily forever afterwards!”

And as Urashima listened to her sweet words and gazed upon her lovely face his heart was filled with a great wonder and joy, and he answered her, wondering if it was not all a dream:

“Thank you a thousand times for your kind speech. There is nothing I could wish for more than to be permitted to stay here with you in this beautiful land, of which I have often heard, but have never seen to this day. Beyond all words, this is the most wonderful place I have ever seen.”

While he was speaking a train of fishes appeared, all dressed in ceremonial, trailing garments. One by one, silently and with stately steps, they entered the hall, bearing on coral trays delicacies of fish and seaweed, such as no one can dream of, and this wondrous feast was set before the bride and bridegroom. The bridal was celebrated with dazzling splendor, and in the Sea King’s realm there was great rejoicing. As soon as the young pair had pledged themselves in the wedding cup of wine, three times three, music was played, and songs were sung, and fishes with silver scales and golden tails stepped in from the waves and danced. Urashima enjoyed himself with all his heart. Never in his whole life had he sat down to such a marvelous feast.

urashima-servantsWhen the feast was over the Princes asked the bridegroom if he would like to walk through the palace and see all there was to be seen. Then the happy fisherman, following his bride, the Sea King’s daughter, was shown all the wonders of that enchanted land where youth and joy go hand in hand and neither time nor age can touch them. The palace was built of coral and adorned with pearls, and the beauties and wonders of the place were so great that the tongue fails to describe them.

But, to Urashima, more wonderful than the palace was the garden that surrounded it. Here was to be seen at one time the scenery of the four different seasons; the beauties of summer and winter, spring and autumn, were displayed to the wondering visitor at once.

First, when he looked to the east, the plum and cherry trees were seen in full bloom, the nightingales sang in the pink avenues, and butterflies flitted from flower to flower.

Looking to the south all the trees were green in the fullness of summer, and the day cicala and the night cricket chirruped loudly.

Looking to the west the autumn maples were ablaze like a sunset sky, and the chrysanthemums were in perfection.

Looking to the north the change made Urashima start, for the ground was silver white with snow, and trees and bamboos were also covered with snow and the pond was thick with ice.

And each day there were new joys and new wonders for Urashima, and so great was his happiness that he forgot everything, even the home he had left behind and his parents and his own country, and three days passed without his even thinking of all he had left behind. Then his mind came back to him and he remembered who he was, and that he did not belong to this wonderful land or the Sea King’s palace, and he said to himself:

“O dear! I must not stay on here, for I have an old father and mother at home. What can have happened to them all this time? How anxious they must have been these days when I did not return as usual. I must go back at once without letting one more day pass.” And he began to prepare for the journey in great haste.

Then he went to his beautiful wife, the Princess, and bowing low before her he said:

“Indeed, I have been very happy with you for a long time, Otohime Sama” (for that was her name), “and you have been kinder to me than any words can tell. But now I must say good-by. I must go back to my old parents.”

Then Otohime Sama began to weep, and said softly and sadly:

“Is it not well with you here, Urashima, that you wish to leave me so soon? Where is the haste? Stay with me yet another day only!”

But Urashima had remembered his old parents, and in Japan the duty to parents is stronger than everything else, stronger even than pleasure or love, and he would not be persuaded, but answered:

“Indeed, I must go. Do not think that I wish to leave you. It is not that. I must go and see my old parents. Let me go for one day and I will come back to you.”

“Then,” said the Princess sorrowfully, “there is nothing to be done. I will send you back to-day to your father and mother, and instead of trying to keep you with me one more day, I shall give you this as a token of our love—please take it back with you;” and she brought him a beautiful lacquer box tied about with a silken cord and tassels of red silk.

Urashima had received so much from the Princess already that he felt some compunction in taking the gift, and said:

“It does not seem right for me to take yet another gift from you after all the many favors I have received at your hands, but because it is your wish I will do so,” and then he added:

“Tell me what is this box?”

“That,” answered the Princess “is the tamate-bako (Box of the Jewel Hand), and it contains something very precious. You must not open this box, whatever happens! If you open it something dreadful will happen to you! Now promise me that you will never open this box!”

And Urashima promised that he would never, never open the box whatever happened.

Then bidding good-by to Otohime Sama he went down to the seashore, the Princess and her attendants following him, and there he found a large tortoise waiting for him.

He quickly mounted the creature’s back and was carried away over the shining sea into the East. He looked back to wave his hand to Otohime Sama till at last he could see her no more, and the land of the Sea King and the roofs of the wonderful palace were lost in the far, far distance. Then, with his face turned eagerly towards his own land, he looked for the rising of the blue hills on the horizon before him.

At last the tortoise carried him into the bay he knew so well, and to the shore from whence he had set out. He stepped on to the shore and looked about him while the tortoise rode away back to the Sea King’s realm.

But what is the strange fear that seizes Urashima as he stands and looks about him? Why does he gaze so fixedly at the people that pass him by, and why do they in turn stand and look at him? The shore is the same and the hills are the same, but the people that he sees walking past him have very different faces to those he had known so well before.

Wondering what it can mean he walks quickly towards his old home. Even that looks different, but a house stands on the spot, and he calls out:

“Father, I have just returned!” and he was about to enter, when he saw a strange man coming out.

“Perhaps my parents have moved while I have been away, and have gone somewhere else,” was the fisherman’s thought. Somehow he began to feel strangely anxious, he could not tell why.

“Excuse me,” said he to the man who was staring at him, “but till within the last few days I have lived in this house. My name is Urashima Taro. Where have my parents gone whom I left here?”

A very bewildered expression came over the face of the man, and, still gazing intently on Urashima’s face, he said:

“What? Are you Urashima Taro?”

“Yes,” said the fisherman, “I am Urashima Taro!”

“Ha, ha!” laughed the man, “you must not make such jokes. It is true that once upon a time a man called Urashima Taro did live in this village, but that is a story three hundred years old. He could not possibly be alive now!”

When Urashima heard these strange words he was frightened, and said:

“Please, please, you must not joke with me, I am greatly perplexed. I am really Urashima Taro, and I certainly have not lived three hundred years. Till four or five days ago I lived on this spot. Tell me what I want to know without more joking, please.”

But the man’s face grew more and more grave, and he answered:

“You may or may not be Urashima Taro, I don’t know. But the Urashima Taro of whom I have heard is a man who lived three hundred years ago. Perhaps you are his spirit come to revisit your old home?”

“Why do you mock me?” said Urashima. “I am no spirit! I am a living man—do you not see my feet;” and “don-don,” he stamped on the ground, first with one foot and then with the other to show the man. (Japanese ghosts have no feet.)

“But Urashima Taro lived three hundred years ago, that is all I know; it is written in the village chronicles,” persisted the man, who could not believe what the fisherman said.

urashima-boxUrashima was lost in bewilderment and trouble. He stood looking all around him, terribly puzzled, and, indeed, something in the appearance of everything was different to what he remembered before he went away, and the awful feeling came over him that what the man said was perhaps true. He seemed to be in a strange dream. The few days he had spent in the Sea King’s palace beyond the sea had not been days at all: they had been hundreds of years, and in that time his parents had died and all the people he had ever known, and the village had written down his story. There was no use in staying here any longer. He must get back to his beautiful wife beyond the sea.

He made his way back to the beach, carrying in his hand the box which the Princess had given him. But which was the way? He could not find it alone! Suddenly he remembered the box, the tamate-bako.

“The Princess told me when she gave me the box never to open it—that it contained a very precious thing. But now that I have no home, now that I have lost everything that was dear to me here, and my heart grows thin with sadness, at such a time, if I open the box, surely I shall find something that will help me, something that will show me the way back to my beautiful Princess over the sea. There is nothing else for me to do now. Yes, yes, I will open the box and look in!”

And so his heart consented to this act of disobedience, and he tried to persuade himself that he was doing the right thing in breaking his promise.

Slowly, very slowly, he untied the red silk cord, slowly and wonderingly he lifted the lid of the precious box. And what did he find? Strange to say only a beautiful little purple cloud rose out of the box in three soft wisps. For an instant it covered his face and wavered over him as if loath to go, and then it floated away like vapor over the sea.

Urashima, who had been till that moment like a strong and handsome youth of twenty-four, suddenly became very, very old. His back doubled up with age, his hair turned snowy white, his face wrinkled and he fell down dead on the beach.

Poor Urashima! because of his disobedience he could never return to the Sea King’s realm or the lovely Princess beyond the sea.

Little children, never be disobedient to those who are wiser than you for disobedience was the beginning of all the miseries and sorrows of life.

In this interesting tale, the hero Urashima fails. His kind heart grants him a reward, entry into a heaven-like place where he can marry a beautiful princess. Such a thing would be impossible for a common fisherman. Yet, being a good man, he remembers his parents and wants to go back. Only, he finds 300 years had passed. In desperation he opens the box he promised he would not and dies. Urashima seems to be a good man, but there is a little deeper lessen than the last motto of the story suggests. Urashima’s mistake was accepting the offer to travel to the heavenly realm. First, it is a realm he was not supposed to enter. Once there, he must stay. He turns his back on his elderly parents. Remembering them and wanting to return is too late to correct the mistake. He then breaks his promise and opens his personal Pandora’s Box. Two sins that cost him everything. Now, if he stayed in the heavenly realm, he would have been rewarded for his good deeds. He could also possibly arrange for his parents to join him.

Urashima is an interesting folktale about the need to be obedient and see decisions through to the end.


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

Chamberlain, Basil Hall (2009). The Fisher Boy Urashima.

The Battle of the Books Memoirs of a Geisha vs Geisha, A Life

I am a bit behind the times with this article. Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha came out in 1997, with a movie of the same name back in 2005. I recently read the autobiography of the woman Memoirs was based upon, Mineko Iwasaki. In her book, Geisha, a Life, Iwasaki  paints a very different picture from what Golden write in his fiction. Yes, Memoirs of a Geisha is fiction, so the author can have license to change things. However, some of the author’s changes created misconceptions that Iwasaki specifically addresses in her autobiography.

I enjoyed both books and the Memoirs movie. Memoirs of a Geisha has some flat characters, particularly the villains, but it is an enjoyable novel nonetheless.

In the Right Corner, we have Sayuri! In the left Corner we have Mineko!

geishaGolden and Iwasaki’s conflict dealt with his violation of her privacy. Iwasaki spoke with Golden with the stipulation that he didn’t reveal her identity (Tegler, 2001). However,  Golden dedicates the book to her, and Golden mentions her in interviews. He stated Iwasaki was sold to a geisha house and had her virginity auctioned off. Iwasaki said this was blatantly false (Tegler, 2002). Her book, Geisha, a Life, also denies this. My own research also found that geisha did not experience this after they became separate from their origins as high class courtesans.

Golden’s book struck a nerve with Iwasaki when its Japanese translation released (Tegler, 2001):

“Everything is wrong,” she said. “In the book, a geisha was beaten with a hanger and crippled. There is a very strict rule that ‘maiko’ (apprentice geisha) and geisha should never be beaten. We are precious goods and the livelihood of the ‘okiya’ (geisha houses) depends on us.”

Iwasaki’s book is an interesting (but dry) read about her day to day life as a young girl who is given the choice to become a geisha. It was the best way for Iwasaki and her sisters to receive more education. Her family was fairly high class, if lacking in affluence. Iwasaki makes it clear that she wasn’t sold.

Geisha, a Life takes you into a closed world few people see. Iwasaki writes extensively about how the strict rules and regulations frustrated her, and how those rules strangle the profession.

The sections of her childhood have so many details that I wonder if she took some artistic license.  My childhood memories are vague at best, but a profession that focuses on detail in a culture that tends to focus on detail, would create a better memory.

The photos from Iwasaki’s past are poignant. These were real people from her past, and almost all of them are gone now. Under the dry text  there is a wistfulness, a sadness. Iwasaki, for all the long hours of practice, study, and work, is fond of the flower and willow world of the geisha.

There is some criticism that Iwasaki sides steps the sexual elements of geisha too much, but that can also be a Western bias. The very idea of a geisha – a women hired to spend time entertaining a man – automatically makes us think of sex. Golden’s book only underlines that biased thinking. Iwasaki’s book isn’t sexless, but sex is limited to only two of the closest men in her life. One happened to be a patron. Iwasaki writes about the backbiting and competition between maiko and geisha. She also expresses her disappointment and frustration with this. While Iwasaki has a fairly emotionless writing style, I found the book fascinating.

There isn’t a clear winner in a battle between the books. Golden writes fiction. Iwasaki writes an autobiography. Golden’s book has pulp elements. Iwasaki’s book is often dry. As long as Memoirs is read with the idea that it may be inaccurate here and there, it is a good read. As long as Geisha is read with the idea that some aspects of geisha life may be hedged around, it is a good read.

For anyone who read Memoirs of a Geisha, I suggest you read Geisha, A Life.  Reading both books immediately after the other makes for the best experience. They compliment each other well.


Golden, A. (1999). Memoirs of a Geisha. Random House.

Iwasaki, M. (2002). Geisha, A Life.  New York: Atria Books.

Tegler, G. (2001).  ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ muse vents sleep at author. The Japan Times.



Retired Husband Syndrome

It afflicts women in their 50s and 60s. It moves into their homes and makes demands on time, autonomy, and every aspect of daily life.

The retired husband.

Retired husbandJapanese women of the baby boomer generation struggle with Retired Husband Syndrome  (shujin zaitaku sutoresu skokogun). This syndrome is characterized by common symptoms caused by the added stress of taking care of a retired salaryman (Oda, n.d.).  It is thought 60% of married older Japanese women suffer from this issue (Kenyon, 2006).  Women from affluent background and are highly educated (often called professional housewives in Japan) are particularly vulnerable (Oda, n.d.) Symptoms include (Kenyon, 2006):

  1. Rashes
  2. Body Aches
  3. Ulcers
  4. High Blood Pressure
  5. Asthma
  6. Depression
  7. Feelings of Physical illness when near her husband.

RHS is linked to the nature of dynamics between work and family in Japan. Although it does appear in the West as well (Johnson, 1984).  Men are expected to be breadwinners. Women are expected to run the household. If you want to learn more about gender dynamics you can read my articles on the gender expectations and the roles of women in modern Japan. Any way, when men retire, they often treat their family members as workers. Also because he was always at work, he is often a stranger to both the wife and children. The Japanese working male also loses his sense of identity when he retires. As such, he tries to discover a new identity through his household and wife. This leads to him basically being under foot and being clingy (Oda, n.d; Faiola, 2005).

Now, consider the woman’s point of view. She was the head of the household and often well educated. She was able to have time for friends and hobbies in addition to her wifely responsibilities. Suddenly, the husband is home all day, every day. He is making demands on her time and even making commands. Remember, the generation we are considering are patriarchal. That means he demands strict obedience (Oda, n.d; Faiola, 2005).

Possible Solutions to RHS

When you consider the causes of this problem, you can see the solutions. The syndrome can be helped by the husband making an effort to understand his wife’s needs. He needs to also not demand strict obedience. She carved out an identity independent of him. That identity needs to be respected. He needs to establish a new social network and identity independent of his family and wife. At the same time, the couple needs to get to know each other again.

Now, some of you may be wondering why not divorce? If it is bad enough to make the wife sick, why doesn’t she just walk?

Among the baby boomer generation, divorce is not culturally acceptable. Divorce used to mean she would also lose all financial support. However, this law changed in 2007. Divorce also strikes fear in the husbands who are often unable to care for themselves (Harden, 2007). This is added incentive to be nice to the wife, don’t you think?

Ishin Denshin

Some of the issues surrounding RHS involves an idea in Japan called ishin denshin. Ishin denshin is an idea that long-married couples have a deep spiritual affinity that allows them to understand each other without words (Oda, n.d.). While this can be sometimes true, the expectations of this idea adds more stress to the wife who suffers from RHS. She may feel out of sync with her husband. Ishin denshin also prevents the couple from discussing their mutual needs. They both assume they know what these needs are. As you can guess, they both get them wrong pretty often.  Healthy relationships require communication, particularly when one spouse worked his life away and became a stranger to his own family. Without a foundation of communication, a couple can’t hope to understand each other. Ishin denshin is possible with a firm foundation of understand built over years of closeness and good communication, but the fact many women in both Japan and the West suffer from RHS shows the ideal is rarely attained.

Lessons for Us Younger Folk

Those of us who are dating or newly married can take away several lessons from RHS.

Autonomy is important. People need to have a sense of self that is separate from his/her significant other.  Besides, who wants to be around someone who doesn’t have interests of her own?

Have an identity outside of work. Guys in particular have problems with identifying who they are with the work they do.  Allowing a profession or job identify you sets you up for problems when you eventually retire or quit. A person’s sense of self is defined by who they are: their personality, ethics, interests, hobbies, and other factors beyond the work he does.

Communication is vital. Relationships are a daily effort that requires good communication by both parties. Assumptions cause no end of trouble. Communication is essential to understanding and relating to another person.

People change. The person you married or date will change with time. As we learn and age, we change how we think about things. Those changes can lead to us changing our sense of who we are. Constant communication is needed to keep a loved one from becoming a stranger.

Don’t demand obedience. A spouse is her own person with feelings, experiences, intelligence, and ideas of her own. Demanding strict obedience disregards the benefits she has to offer. It shuts down conversation before it starts.

Do not place work above relationships. Doing this will only strain and kill those relationships.

Retired Husband Syndrome is an unfortunate problem that can be prevented by grounding a relationship in mutual understanding and not allowing culture and work to override one of the most important relationships we can develop with another human being.


Faiola, A (2005). Sick of Their Husbands in Graying Japan. Stress Disorder Diagnosed in Many Women After Spouses Retire. The Washington Post. A01.

Harden, B (2007) Learn to be Nie to your Wife, or Pay the Price. The Washington Post.

Johnson, C (1984). The retired husband syndrome. The Western Journal of Medicine. 141.

Kenyon, P (2005) Retired Husband Syndrome. BBC News.

Oda, A (n.d.). Autonomy, Reciprocity, and Communication in Older Spouse Relationships.

Yokai Attack! The Japanese Monster Survival Guide by Hiroko Yoda and Matt Alt

9784805312193_p0_v2_s260x420There are a lot of ghouls, ghosts, and other nasty critters spooking around Japan. From bathrooms to cemeteries to the deep woods and everywhere in between, a traveler can find themselves running afoul of the worst beasties Japan has to offer at any time.

What’s a tourist to do?  Well, they could do far worst than pick up a copy of Yokai Attack! The Japanese Monster Survival Guide by Hiroko Yoda and Matt Alt. The guide is a compendium of the wildest, weirdest, and nastiest creatures that Japan has to offer. The book is divided into five chapters that separate Yokai–Japanese monsters and spirits, not to be confused with Yurei, which are ghosts–by theme.  These range from the merely gross to the outright dangerous and everywhere in between.

Each entry focuses on a specific Yokai (although some lump creatures who are closely related together for the sake of convenience), laying out their general appearance, habits, strength, weakness, and how to avoid or escape their attention. It also delves into the probably origins of each creature, many of which are simply explanations for natural events or even puns based on turns of phrase, a literal case of language coming to life.

Written in lively and accessible prose, Yokai Attack! is an easy read. This is no scholarly treatise on Yokai folklore, nor does it try to be. Beautiful illustrations based on the sometimes highly variable folkloric descriptions grace every entry, along with photos of various Yokai paraphernalia including toys, and copies of images from 18th century Japanese folkloric texts.

Overall, Yokai Attack! is an entertaining and informative read. While it is certainly not an in depth work on the history of Yokai, it also does not gloss over the topic. It is respectful of its subject matter, while maintaining a playfulness that makes it a fun book. While it seems that the book is aimed toward kids, anyone with an interest in Japanese folklore should find it an entertaining read. Besides, you never know when knowing how to thwart a Tanuki or outwit the Slit-Mouthed Woman may come in handy!

Yokai Attack! The Japanese Monster Survival Guide is available on Amazon and Tuttle Publishing.


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