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Musings IV: Japanese Idioms, and why it is a good idea to know some.

Perhaps you’ve been so lucky never to have prayed into a horse’s ear (uma no mimi ni nenbutsu), but I bet someone has once looked at you with white eyes (shiroi me de miru) until you felt like your stomach was boiling (hara ga nie-kurikaeru yō).

Yes, those are Japanese Idioms. I’ve had a class about them last semester, so I thought I‘ll share my acquired wisdom with you ;). As with everything Japanese, they come in a couple of different categories. And like in any language, mostly you can’t quite guess what they’re supposed to mean. So, I’ll first talk about the different types and then I’ll tell you why I think, all in all, they are worth the bother of learning them. In the process I’ll introduce you to some interesting ones, anime examples included.

What are Japanese idioms?

The most commonplace word for idioms is kotowaza, which I like because it sounds like ‘word-skill’, and that is exactly what the person listening to you will think you have if you can use some idioms appropriately. The more technical term would be kanyōku (phraseme), but for non-university contexts, I guess that’s a ‘snake-leg’ (dasoku) type of fact – pretty much superfluous. An idiom can be a whole sentence, making it essentially a quotation, though in many cases the source is lost,[i] or it can be a compound of words which functions as a part of speech, and that’s how most of them work.

So, you can have idiomatic compounds to use as nouns, adjectives and adverbs or verbs. What makes them idiomatic is that fascinating/annoying ability they have, as

I mentioned above, to mean something else or something more than what the individual words mean. Sometimes you can guess at the meaning based on the images used (that would be idioms based on a simile) but often enough you can’t (when the idiom metaphorical, or when refers to a historic or fictional context unknown to you).

So, read the first paragraph again. The last one might be easiest to guess, but perhaps I just feel like that because there is a very

similar idiom in my first language. If your stomach is boiling over, that means you’re seething with fury. And you might have seen a depiction of ‘looking at someone with white eyes’ in an anime – it means looking at someone as if you didn’t know them, mostly out of disdain.

The first one, a prayer in a horse’s ear, is one of my favourite Japanese idioms. It’s just such a funny image and it perfectly conveys that sense of futility which grabs you when you try to persuade someone, knowing it won’t work.[iii] This one also has some cultural flavour; a nenbutsu is an invocation of Amida Buddha. According to the Jōdo Shinshū sect of Japanese Buddhism, trusting in that invocation alone can assure your salvation by Amida Buddha after your death. So as I see it, the nenbutsu is kind of the cup-ramen of religious practices. The horse still won’t benefit from it though, making it the prime example of good intentions wasted.

The heavy stuff: 4-character-idioms

Back to the types of idioms: There is one pretty tricky category call yoji-jukugo, idioms consisting of 4 kanji characters, which are usually quotations (often titles) of ancient Chinese fables and moral tales. For example, there’s koketsu-koji, ‘Tiger’s den, tiger cub”: if you don’t enter the tiger’s den, you won’t get its cub. The story goes that a Chinese diplomat was sent as an envoy to the court of another king. He was treated favourably, but only for a short time, since that king was also offered an alliance with the Huns. As a reaction to the slight, the Chinese diplomat called his men, said these words, and they went to murder the entire Hun delegation, resulting in the king accepting the alliance – most probably because he was worried about his own head. So koketsu-koji means you need to undergo risks to achieve something, particularly in order to best your competitors.

Something you might hear student say during revision time is shiku haku, ‘4 sufferings, 8 sufferings’, an allusion to the Buddhist concept of ku. Such suffering is: being apart from loved ones, being among people you hate, not getting what you want, and physical illness – sounds like a day in the overcrowded library a week before exams/essay deadlines, doesn’t it? Not all yoji-jukugo are based on Chinese culture, however. Isseki, nichō is a literal translation of ‘[killing] two birds with one stone’, and it means the exact same thing.

Idiomatic wildlife

Let’s stick with the animals for a moment. As in Europe, animals have been given certain character trains in their folkloristic appearances. Horses feature as typical gregarious animals, since sheep did not play much of a role in old Japan. Thus, ‘if one horse goes crazy, a thousand horses go crazy’ (ippiki no uma ga kurueba senhiki no uma mo kuruu). As in a sudden stampede, crowds of people tend to follow the rest. Cats are greedy – ‘giving gold to a cat’ (neko ni koban) is the Japanese version of ‘pearls before swine’ – and foxes are tricksters, capable of transforming into humans and bewitching people. ‘Being pinched by a fox’ (kitsune ni tsumareru) means being disbelieving one’s eyes, because the situation feels like surreal, like a fox had put a spell on you. Speaking of foxes, the Japanese term for sunshower is kitsune no yomeiri, ‘the foxes’ bridal procession’, because it is said that foxes enjoy this kind of weather. And who wouldn’t like to see a bridal procession of magic foxes?

The kirin (not the beer, and not a giraffe either, but a mystical creature best described as a dragon unicorn) represents grace, so if ‘even a unicorn stumbles’ (kirin no tsumazuki) that means we all make mistakes. Monkeys are clever (at least in some of the stories) and try to solve problems, whereas dogs tend to attempt a violent solution, therefore they are mortal enemies; consequently, if two people absolutely cannot stand one another, they have ‘a relationship like dogs and monkeys’ (ken’en no naka).

Usage and adaptation

Two more examples, both with anime references, rejoice! Once, the idiom chimimōryō ga habikōru came up in a text on Japanese companies’ troubles in India. I could not only suggest ‘all hell Nura Rikuo, 'master of pandemonium'broke loose’ as a viable English equivalent; I also knew the term chimimōryō referred to ‘the evil spirits of rivers and mountains’, a form of (to borrow Michael Dylan Foster’s term) pandemonium. And not just because I have read his splendid Pandemonium and Parade with much more fun that you’d expect from a scholarly work. No, whenever I hear chimimōryō, I think of one of my favourite anime, Nurarihyon no mago, which features the grandson (and eventual successor) of the supreme commander of the Night Parade of a Hundred Demons, who also counts ‘master of Pandemonium’ as one of his titles.

Also, if you’ve watched or read Rurōni Kenshin, you’ll probably know another 4-kanji-idiom (yoji-jukugo). Remember Sōjiro, the cute boy assassin who managed to break Kenshin’s first Reverse-Bladed Sword, and how he never shut up about ‘If you’re strong, you live, if you’re weak, you die’? That’s basically jakuniku kyōshoku, ‘the weak are the meat the strong devour’. I’ve seen that translated as ‘survival of the fittest’, but first, ‘fit’ doesn’t mean strong and second, the idiom has this sense of the strong preying on the weak, and remaining strong because of this injustice, which seems lacking in the Darwinian phrase.

Anime also lends itself to visual puns and depictions of idioms (or people misunderstanding them). Unfortunately, I cannot think of even a single example of this, possibly because I hardly ever watch slice-of-life and High School comedy anime, which I assume are the most fertile ground for such visual puns. If anyone reading this knows of an example, feel free to share it in the comments!

Translation issues

Anime Blogging Stress

As with all cultural references, idioms are notoriously difficult to translate. Do you take the closest English equivalent, if there is one, and loose the ‘Japanese/Chinese flavour’ in the process? Do you keep it literal and hope that the reader can guess at the meaning from context? Do you provide a footnote (or headnote in case of anime subtitles)? My own preference is a mixture of the first and second approach. I would try to find a similar English idiom and tweak it a little, so that a bit of the original wording and context is transmitted as well. For example, there is the yoji-jukugo ‘the fox borrows the tiger’s authority’ (koka-ko’i or kitsune, tora no i wo karu). According to the Chinese story this is based on, the tiger was devouring all kinds of animals, until he one day caught the fox, who said to him: “Don’t you dare eat me, for the Heavenly Father has made me master of all animals. If you don’t believe me, just follow behind me and observe. The animals will see me and flee.” The tiger believed him and did as he was told, walking behind the fox. The animals saw the two of them and fled. But tiger, not knowing they were running away from him, thought they feared the fox. (From the sengoku-saku/Zhan Guo Ce, written in the second century BC and detailing the history of the Chinese Warring States Period (5-3rd century BC).) So, the idiom refers to people who borrow the power or authority of others in order to boss people around.[ii] Now, as a translation I would suggest ‚a fox in a tiger’s skin‘, because like the ‚wolf in a sheep’s skin‘, the fox assumes the airs of a different type of folkloristic animal in order to deceive others. A reader, I think, will be able to infer that, since a tiger is much grander and more dangerous than a fox, the fox is doing this to appear greater than he is, and voila – the story has been brought across.

To sum up: idioms are examples of a ‘living’ language. They are transmitted over the centuries but still applied in modern contexts, even anime, and sometimes they change: the phrase kamonegi is an abbreviated version of kamo ga negi wo seotte kuru, ‘the duck arrives already carrying spring onions’ (to season it with), which is a way of saying you received something good without working for it. However, Japanese exchange students stressed that they knew the abbreviated version much better. In this way, idioms are one of the aspects which make a language vivid and interesting; but you wouldn’t want to misuse them. So, my recommendation to language learners is to pick up a choice few you find interesting, for future use. And if you come across one in the future, try to find out what it means: there might be a nice story behind it.

I close this edition of my Musings with many thanks and to my Japanese grammar teacher and my classmates!

Notes and references:

English-Japanese idiom lists:: http://matadornetwork.com/abroad/30-awesome-japanese-idioms-start-using-english/http://www.linguanaut.com/japanese_sayings.htm

[i] If there is a source, you would call it an aphorism. English has a lot of ‚idioms‘ which are actually quotations from Shakespeare, for example.

[ii] http://sanabo.com/words/archives/2002/09/post_2904.html

Geisha: Kimono

Old-Japan-Photo-GeishaKimono is one of the defining characteristics of a geisha. Geisha wear kimono with a neckline that dips low on the back to show off the nap of the neck. That part of the neck is as sensual for Japanese men as the breast is to Western men. Geisha have a formal kimono (called de) that shows off the nap of her neck. This is the kimono that demands the elaborate hair styles and the white makeup. The kimono worn the rest of the time is similar to the traditional Japanese kimono. It may even be more subdued. Her underkimono shows at the collar, sleeves, and hem.

Kimono is the largest expense of being a geisha. They are made from the best silk.

For those who are wondering what is under the layers of kimono, nothing at all. Geisha, apparently, don’t wear underwear. It disrupts the lines of the kimono. The most intimate layers for the geisha are called hada-juban and the naga-juban. Apprentice geisha have the most elaborate kimono with long sleeves.

Geisha in her Kimono. Kyoto, June 1927

Geisha in her Kimono. Kyoto, June 1927

Geisha dress with asymmetry. Geisha show slightly more of her neck. The righthand side of the underkimono collar shows a little more in the front. The geisha kimono requires a different way of walking, according to Liza Dalby. Dalby is one of the few Westerners who have become geisha. She says that over time, geisha bodies become adapted to the kimono. Many told her that western skirts and belts were uncomfortable.

Geisha Entertaining. c. 1955

Geisha Entertaining. c. 1955

The kimono is prone to wear. Kneeling wears the front of the skirts, makeup mars the collar, and the hem is prone to catching dirt and fraying. Not to mention the sleeves (especially the apprentice kimono) can find themselves in food. This adds to the expense of owning kimono.

geisha-kimonoOf course, the geisha’s kimono is not complete with the obi. The obi is a long piece of silk tied around a geisha’s waist. It is worn lower than obi worn by other traditional Japanese women. The obi helps hold the kimono closed and provides further elegance to a geisha’s lines. The obi also lends support for the back. Sitting on the floor, straight backed can be hard on the muscles without this stiff garment’s help. Obi can be as expensive as kimono and just as elaborate. The apprentice obi is longer than a full geisha. It has a large back knot. The apprentice obi is richly decorated and can be longer than 16.4 feet. A full geisha obi measures 13.14 feet long and is tied into the simpler box knot. The obi knot is always tied in the back by a professional dresser or another geisha. Front knots were a sign of prostitution. A prostitute couldn’t be bothered to tie elaborate, padded knots behind her back after every client.

Young Geisha. November 1937

Young Geisha. November 1937

The women behind the kimono is what makes a geisha kimono special. The dance training and other movement training geisha undergo allows her to wear the kimono elegantly, gracefully, and professionally. The geisha’s kimono is no different from a business suit. It is a visual signal of her professionalism.

If you are interested in learning more about kimono, I briefly touch on the history and cultural importance of kimono in another post.

Geisha are living embodiments of the Japanese arts. They help keep traditional dance, tea, music, and dress alive in our modern world. As time moves forward, we need to keep touch with the roots of our respective cultures. Geisha are one means for the Japanese to keep in touch with their cultural roots. Cultural roots are important to help us remember where we came from and provide direction as to where we are going.


Assmann, S. (2008). Between Tradition and Innovation: The Reinvention of the Kimono in Japanese Consumer Culture. Fashion Theory. 12[3] p. 359-376.

Dalby, L. (1992). Kimono and Geisha. The Threepenny Review. 51. p. 30-31.

Goldstein-Gidoni, O. (2001). Kimono and the Construction of Gendered and Cultural Identities. Ethnology. 38[4]. p. 351-370.

Lockard, L. (2009). Geisha: Behind the Painted Smile.

Anime and Manga Blogging Primer

Anime and Manga blogging is a common hobby for those of us who are interested in sharing our thoughts with the rest of the online community. However, the Net is littered with the debris of good intentions and burned out writers. This article seeks to provide a little advice on how to create a successful and long lasting anime/manga blog.

1) Decide your limits

Anime Blogging StressWhen writing a blog it is easy to write about too many topics or settle into a very specific niche.Variety keeps a writer going, but too much variety waters down a blog. Blogs, like any other medium, need a specific focus. Yet, that focus needs to be broad enough to give you wiggle room when you get tired of reviewing the latest anime you’ve watched. A blog about figurines may be great, but can you only write about figurines? If you can, go ahead! Most of us need a little more variety. Here at JP we cover anime, Japanese folklore, and some other aspects of Japanese pop culture and fandom. This gives us a wide variety of topics to write about. I, for one, don’t like to write nothing but anime reviews. I have a wider interest in Japanese culture than that! I am a librarian; so I tend to write in ways that try to educate people or interest them in the content I am reviewing. I try to keep you, the reader, in mind.  A writer has to consider their audience. Which is our next point.

2) Consider the Audience

Anime Blogging AudienceWhat is the purpose of your blog? Why would people want to read it? What do they want to read? There is a point where your interests and those of your readers overlap. Finding that point is where they overlap is the best place for you to write. You will see people visit and visits will encourage you to write more. Also, how you write needs to consider the audience. JP focuses on teens and young adults; we try to keep our content appropriate to these age groups. Sometimes we will discuss content that is a little toward the adult side like yaoi, yuri, horror films, and similar content. But, we will write it in such a way to keep it fairly tame. We tend to use academic journals for our editorial research, but we will not write like those stuffy journal writers. We will pepper our posts with some large words and Japanese time to time. Our main goals is to educate in an entertaining way, after all!

A blogger also has to consider the audience’s comments. People will disagree with you and even get angry. It doesn’t reflect well on you if readers see you enter a flame war with a commenter.  A blogger needs to have a thick skin and stay objective. We are human; we are wrong sometimes. Admit it when it is true. Hold your ground (nicely!) when it is not.

Readers like regular post schedules. It can be hard to keep on schedule sometimes. However, regular post schedules become more important as your readership grows. Decide on a reasonable schedule and stick to it! We post each Sunday. Well, sometimes I forget and have to post on Monday. No one is perfect. The best way to keep on schedule is to write ahead. We usually have around 15 draft articles waiting to be posted. I am still in graduate school and often don’t have time to write anything. Fifteen articles is enough that I can avoid writing for an entire semester and remain on schedule. Although, I make sure not to do that! Keeping a buffer helps keep the pressure off and keeps the blog fun.

3) Don’t stare at your hit counter

Anime hit counter stareIt takes time to build a successful blog. High readership involves networking with other bloggers: reading their posts regularly and commenting is the best method. A successful blog is one that has a regular readership and a positive impact. It doesn’t matter if you only have 10 readers. What matters is they like what you write and are positively influenced by it.  JP doesn’t see a huge readership by any means, but I am satisfied to see regular readers and a positive impact on them. One of the best compliments you can have from a reader is a correction. It means they care enough to read your writing and want to help you be as correct as you can be.

4) Research your articles

Anime Research EvangelionYeah, I know blogging is supposed to be fun. What’s fun about research? A well researched article is a point of pride for a writer. It shows readers that the author cares enough to spend time to educate themselves about a topic before writing. A researched article also goes a long way toward that positive impact we want to leave. It also helps the writer learn ideas they may not encounter otherwise.

Now by research I don’t mean Wikipedia. Unlike many librarians, I don’t have anything against Wikipedia. It is, however, just a starting point. It is easy to research anime/manga topics online. Your local library will have databases and books about both anime and manga. You can also use Google’s “site:edu” command to narrow your search to colleges. Google Books and Google Scholar are also good choices.

There is an amazing amount of research out there about the mediums and other aspects of Japanese pop culture. In fact, in librarian circles we recognize manga as superior to standard books for teaching certain literacy skills (If you want to read more about this, look up the reference article below at your local library). There is even extensive research on yaoi’s benefits for teen girls.

5) Consider Copyright

All bloggers need to consider copyright laws. It is easy to unknowingly violate them. While it is unlikely you will get into trouble, observing copyright laws gives your blog more professionalism. Your blog represents you. You never know, a future employer may even see your blog some day.

I wrote an overview of US Copyright law if you want to learn more.


Schwartz, Adam & Rubinstein-Avila, Eliane (2006). Understanding the manga hype: Uncovering the multimodality of comic-book literacies. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 50[1].  40–49. doi:10.1598/JAAL.50.1.5.


On a whim, I started reading the manga Drifters from Kouta Hirano (author/artist of Hellsing). I rather enjoyed reading Hellsing, and I liked the anime version of it as well. So, I figured I would enjoy Drifters as well. As of now, there are 35 chapters released, and after all these chapters I am still on the fence about the series.


You can really tell it’s a manga from Hirano

Drifters is based around a world where two characters, an old man named Murasaki and a black haired woman named Easy, bring historical soldiers to an alternate world in order to fight a war against each other. The reasoning behind why Murasaki and Easy are at odds with each other has not been discussed in the series yet. The alternate world the soldiers are transported is heavily influenced by western fantasy as the world is inhabited by humans, and fantasy creatures such as dwarves, elves and hobbits. Even the hatred/rivalry between the elves and dwarves is present. Murasaki seemingly brings historical figures and soldiers alive, these characters are called the Drifters, while Easy seemingly brings figures and soldiers from throughout history that died tragic deaths, called Ends.


Oda Nobunaga

Examples of soldiers from throughout history include Joan of Arc, who is an End as she was executed tragically, and Oda Nobunaga, who is a drifter. Some liberties are taken with the Drifters’ backstories however. For example, Nobunaga, who in our history was killed in 1582, was actually transported to this alternate world by Murasaki and was only thought to be killed. What I find interesting about the characters is how the Drifters are normal humans while the Ends seem to have supernatural powers based on their lives and deaths (Joan of Arc seems to have powers of flames based on her execution by burning).

Other characters in the series are historical figures who are noted for their violence such as Butch Cassidy, The Sundance Kid, and Adolf Hitler.  There are also other organizations involved such as the Octobrists, who are people tasked with gathering and protecting the Drifters, and the Orte Empire, a tyrannical human empire who enslave the fantasy races.


Joan of Arc

As of Chapter 35, the Drifters and the Ends have not fought each other, but the battle lines are starting to be drawn and armies created. The soldier Shimazu Toyohisa is so far leading the Drifters and fantasy creatures as a budding army with Nobunaga as an advisor, while the Ends are being led by a character named The Black King whose true identity isn’t known yet. All that’s known about the Black King is that he once tried to save humans but they rejected him, causing him to decide to form an army with “evil” fantasy creatures like ogres and dragons, and to eradicate all humans. This has led some fans and readers of the series to speculate that The Black King is actually a religious icon such as Jesus Christ.

The Black King

King looks like the Reaper hmm?

While the series is supposed to be serious, there are times where I find it very hard to take it that way. Some parts are blatant comic relief. Then you have the scenes where events are intense, and in the middle of a serious conversation Oda Nobunaga is making jokes about a female character’s breasts. It gets really old, even for a pervert fan like me.

There are also a few historical inaccuracies like Nobunaga making gunpowder from corpses and salt, even though this method of making gunpowder wasn’t introduced to Japan until after his death. The story is a little confusing with people from different time periods being transported into a single location together. At one point the reader finds out that Adolf Hitler was transported to this world as Drifter 50 years prior to the series start, and yet we have Japanese samurai from the 1500s and before being transported.

All in all, the series is enjoyable so far. The art is solid and any fans of Hellsing or other pieces of Hirano’s work will recognize his style instantly. As I said before, so far only 35 chapters are out online, and 3 volumes released in English. The publisher is slow releasing volumes and I’m not quite sure why. However, it is definitely something to look into reading.

Japan’s “Missing Million” — The Hikikomori


A hikikomori in his room, taken during a 2004 documentary on the topic. Photo Credit: Francesco Jodice

Most of us here in the US have probably come across people we would classify as “hermits”. That is to say, they barely leave the house, tend to be introverted, have few friends, and generally pass through life trying to be noticed as little as possible (weirdly enough, this might give them a kind of notoriety, like the “crazy old witch lady” that television tells us lives in every small town).

Now, there is nothing wrong with liking your solitude. However, as with anything, it can be taken to an unhealthy extreme. The Japanese word for such people is “hikikomori” which can translate literally as “pulling inward, being confined”, and it refers both to individual people and the phenomenon in general. While definitions vary, to be considered hikikomori, a person must have completely withdrawn from  society for six months or more (three months in Korea, which goes to show that a hard and fast definition has proven elusive). It occurs in the absence of any other psychiatric disorder such as schizophrenia or agoraphobia. Disorders might develop later, but it is often unclear whether they developed prior to or because of hikikomori

Hikikomori completely withdraw from society, giving up work, school, friendships, and all other social ties. They go into a self imposed exile, locking themselves in their bedrooms for the better part of the day. Not all are completely housebound; some will venture out to buy food from 24-hour convenience stores, doing so at night when they are unlikely to run into other people, while others occasionally mount expeditions to obtain CDs and DVDs (although with the advent of piracy, Spotify, and Netflix these small forays into the wider world are probably greatly reduced for many). Mostly, they spend their days on the internet, playing video games, or watching television. Some do nothing at all, passing the hours lost in their own head.

The vast bulk of those afflicted (80% by some estimates) are males. Numbers vary, but hokikomori may afflict up to 1% of Japan’s population, putting the number of sufferers at 1 million people. More conservative estimates put the number at between 200,000 and 700, 000. The age of onset for the disorder is variable, but it usually strikes in those under the age of 30. It might be brought on by some sort of social or educational failure, a traumatic event of some sort that causes the hikikomori to withdraw to hide in shame. It could be bullying, or failing an university entrance exam, or perhaps failure to secure a good paying job after university. One early symptom of hikikomori is futoko, or school refusals. The hikikomori may also become unhappy, lose friends, become depressed, and start to become less talkative before they begin their exile.

As crazy as it sounds, this behavior can go on for years. There are some hikikomori who are now in their 40’s, the so called “First Generation”, who have been in exile for twenty or more years. This has lead to what has been called the “2030 problem”; basically, when these people’s parents, who are in their 60’s now, start to die in the next twenty years, what is society going to do with an influx of people who haven’t left their house in forty years, who haven’t interacted with anyone, formed any real relationships, nor moved about the modern world in all that time?

That’s right — these people are in their 40s and dependent on their parents. The majority of hikikomori are completely dependent on their parents for their survival during their self-imposed exile. Such a thing might be baffling to Westerners, where it is considered normal for a child to leave home at 18 to strike out on their own (although such a thing is less common now than it used to be, it is still a force in the culture). The typical American response when confronted with the phenomena of parents supporting their children well into their 40s (I’ll freely confess it was mine as well): “Why don’t they just kick them out?”

We’d call it “tough love”. And it happens a lot; that’s considered a normal part of parenting in the West, to a greater or lesser degree. But the Japanese response to that would be to blink in confusion and say “Why? Don’t you love your children anymore?”

And here, for many researchers anyway, is the heart of the matter. You may have noticed by now that Japanese culture is different than ours here in the West. It is Japanese culture itself, in the opinion of many folks who research hikikomori, is responsible for the epidemic of shut-ins.

Economics and Culture: the Origins of Hokikomori


Woodcut of Bodhidharma, Yoshitoshi 1887

Asian countries in general and Japan in particular have a long history of extolling the virtues of solitude. Religious figures such as Buddha, Bodhidharma, and other heroes and prophets of Eastern traditions spent significant amounts of time alone, contemplating the nature of the universe (Bodhidharma, a figure in Chinese Buddhism, once reportedly spent seven years staring at a cave wall, by way of example). The Japanese Zen tradition, and Shinto before it, also celebrated the nobility of solitude, and there are many poems and literary works that illustrate this cultural habit.

You can see the emphasis on solitude in the history of Japan itself, who only opened itself to the rest of the world in the 19th century, and then only under the threat of American naval guns. It seems that being set apart, alone, is part of the Japanese psyche in a very fundamental way, and that tendency manifests in the withdraw of the hikikomori from the modern world.

That is admittedly esoteric, and perhaps a little romantic; I don’t mean to romanticize this disorder at all, which has crippling consequences for both families and individuals, and might in the future cause huge difficulties for a country that already has its fair share of demographic and economic woes. The point is that these cultural tendencies might well contribute to the phenomena.

Attitudes toward academics and success probably have more a more immediate impact though. If America’s “high stakes” testing is ridiculous, then Japan’s is downright torturous. Advancement to each level in the Japanese education system is determined by tests. How a student scores on said tests determines which educational track they fall into. Ideally, a student would pursue the track that would propel them toward an elite university, such as the University of Tokyo. The most important test of all comes after high school; the university entrance exams,  the mother of all tests. Aspiring university students get one shot, that’s it. Literally their whole future hinges on that ONE test.

Then, if they pass that monster of a test (many students will take time off to study between one and three years for entrance exams, to give you an idea of how bad it is), students get the distinct sadomasochistic pleasure of working through an elite university. And then, if a person has the misfortune of having graduated in the last five years since the global economy tanked, they graduate into the worst job market in modern history.

In Japan it used to be that you graduated and took a job with a multinational corporation, where you would work the rest of your life. Employment for the fathers of many hokikomori was secure; indeed, the careers they started in their youth are what support their sons in exile. Their sons, however, are graduate now into an unsteady job market, where the old “salaryman” jobs are fewer and farther between, and many college graduates (like their American counterparts) wind up taking jobs that they are vastly overqualified for.

The difference is that in America, there is room to move up. In Japan, it’s highly unlikely. Failure to secure a good corporate job after university puts a stigma on a person they aren’t likely to shake off. To say that the academic/economic environment of Japan is competitive is like saying that rugby is a rough game or the Second World War was a minor scuffle. You win or you lose. Their isn’t an in-between.

To many who come out of that system, only to open the final door of achievement and find nothing behind it, is there any wonder that they withdraw? The pressure to succeed, and not to just succeed but to excel, is too much for some. It leaves them feeling ashamed, like they are utter and complete failures. And it might happen early; some of the youngest hikikomori are 13 or 14 when they first lock their bedroom doors.

That might be the heart of the issue: shame. Many Asian cultures are big on the notion of saving face. In Japan, conformity is demanded; “the nail that sticks up is hammered down,” as the saying goes. The hammer is shame. In the case of hikikomori, they hide the vast shame they feel at their failures, real or perceived, by literally hiding themselves from the larger society.

Hikikomori: the Family Dynamic

Japanese Family sharing a meal in the 1950's.

Japanese Family sharing a meal in the 1950’s.

However the broader economic and cultural strains might contribute to hikikomori, the maintenance of the disorder for months, years, and even decades comes down squarely to the family dynamic. Japan has always pressured its youth to succeed, and it comes down to parents to be the enforcers of that cultural imperative. It might seem strange then that parents who are, in the Western mind, exceedingly strict would allow their children to lock themselves in their rooms for decades at a time without saying much of anything about it.

It is difficult to pin down the exact causes to some extent, because of course each family has its own dynamics, but generally speaking Japanese parents of hikikomori take a soft approach at the onset of symptoms, thinking that it is just a phase, that their son (or in some cases daughter) will grow out of it and return to normal soon enough. But as the months pass with no change, a sense of shame sets in. Many parents take it that they have failed in parenting, that if they had done something different with junior, he might have turned out differently. Fear also sets in, a fear of their shame being discovered. No one talks about it, because the subject is too painful to approach. So they quietly support their son, hoping that in time the phase will pass, or because it is too painful to take the rather more brusque approach that Westerners might take.

Not that a more brusque approach would always work. Now, I don’t want to paint hikikomori as violent sociopaths or anything like that. The vast majority are simply apathetic and depressed. But anger at their condition can be part of the disorder, and it isn’t uncommon to go into a hikikomori’s room and find holes punched in the walls out of frustration. There are some accounts of hikikomori attacking or threatening parents who attempt to confront them about their problem.

Of course those are the extreme cases, where parents are rightly afraid of their children. In most cases, a kind of inertia takes over, and what started as a “phase” becomes a new normal, for both parent and child.

Culture Bound Syndrome, or Emerging Global Epidemic?

It might seem that hikikomori is a peculiarly Japanese phenomena, a culture bound syndrome that is limited to this particular time and place in history. While it is true that unique cultural pressures seem to make Japan particularly vulnerable to this disorder, there is growing evidence that people in other parts of the world, particularly in Western countries, are withdrawing from the world in the same way, if not in vast numbers like in Japan. This is a link to an article from The Japan Times where French researchers discuss the potential that hikikomori exist in their own country, although obviously by a different name and perhaps to this point unidentified. This article discusses a 30 year old  man from Michigan who hadn’t stepped out of his apartment for three years. There have been reports from other European countries such as Spain, England, and Italy.

So what is going on here? Could it be that this is a social disease that is “spreading” globally, brought on by tough economic times and other cultural strains? Or is it something that has been around since the start, only we are just now beginning to identify it? Perhaps, it could be that hikikomori is truly a culture bound syndrome, and the cases in other countries are isolated incidents. Or perhaps the answer is some combination of the above; perhaps hikikomori is an emerging social disease, and Japan’s unique cultural factors have made it the proverbial “canary in the coal mine”.

The jury is still out among the experts. Right now there isn’t enough data, and with the nebulous nature of the term and the differences in cultural mores between East and West, not to mention among individual countries, further muddies the waters. While experts argue and do research, millions of Japanese families try to grapple with the problem of sons and daughters who just gave up, deciding that isolation was better than the harsh realities of the world outside their bedroom door.


Wikipedia: Hikikomori

BBC News: Japan: the Missing Million

Mind the Science Gap: Can Culture Create Mental Disease? The Rise of “Hikikomori” in the Wake of Economic Downturn in Japan

The New York Times Magazine: Shutting Themselves In

The Yale Globalist: Hikikomori

The Japan Times: French researchers seek raison d’etre of hikikomori


The Way of the Gods: Shinto and its Impact on Japan’s Strange Folklore

Credit: Wikipedia

Izanagi and Izanami in the act of creating Japan.

Delving into the world of folklore as much as I have, I’ve come across a lot of very strange beliefs. While weird beliefs aren’t limited to Japan, not by a long shot, the Japanese certainly don’t disappoint when it comes to bizarre critters. I’ve often found myself wondering why and how so much weirdness came to be concentrated on a relatively small chain of islands on the rim of the Pacific. Now, I am far from a scholar when it comes to Japanese studies, but it isn’t much of a stretch to say that Japanese religious traditions probably have something to do with it.

Nowadays, Japan is a mostly secular country. The bulk of Japanese tell poll-takers that they don’t consider themselves part of any religion. Certainly, many people observe various Shinto and Buddhist festivals, but the vast majority seem to do so more out of cultural habit than actual belief. Religion has little impact on daily life in Japan in the 21st century.

This was not the case in Japan’s early days. Japan’s indigenous religion is called Shinto, meaning “the Way of the Gods”. No one knows when exactly it developed, and it lacked any sort of coherent structure as is often seen in religious systems. Shinto is essentially an animistic religion, which is to say that its adherents imbue everything in nature–mountains, trees, streams, rocks, etc–with a spirit.

In Japan, these spirits were known as kami. They were generally considered friendly to humans, but they could be angered by human actions, particularly if humans polluted holy places with uncleanliness. When angered, kami could bring about natural disasters and other mischief. In order to keep the kami happy, early Shinto practitioners practiced various cleanliness rituals.

The Shinto belief system grew into a complex network of deities, spirits, and demons. It’s pretty easy to see how a huge variety of mythological creatures can develop from a religion that claims everything has a spirit!

There were some unifying features of Shintoism though, namely the myth of Japan’s creation. Izanagi and Izanami created Japan when droplets of water dripped off the tip of Izanagi’s spear. The pair of deities descended to the newly formed islands and proceeded to have a huge family, most notably the sun goddess Amaterasu, who would go on to become the most important goddess in the Shinto pantheon and the legendary progenitor of the Imperial line.

Shintoism today is pretty well mixed with Buddhism. Buddhism came into Japan from Korea at around the 6th century AD, bringing its own complex mythology to the islands. The two systems merged fairly well together, with Buddhism emphasizing ethical conduct and Shintoism emphasizing respect for nature. Buddhism brought the concepts of demons like Mara, not to mention its own vast cache of demons, monster,s saints, and spirits.

In later years, as Japan approached the 20th and later the 21st century, other influences came into the country. Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Jainism, and a plethora of home grown sects all call Japan home. With such a vast melting pot of philosophies and myth systems, is it any wonder some strange stories pop out now and then?