Tag Archives: Japanese history

The Life and Influence of Matsuo Bashō

Each day is a journey, and the journey itself home

Matsuo Bashō was born in 1644 in the town of Ueno to a minor samurai family. While he is best known for his haiku in the West, his travel journals broke ground in Japanese literature. In his teen years, Bashō entered the service of Todo Yoshikiyo, who was also a poet. According to traditional accounts of his life, Bashō worked as part of the kitchen’s staff before being introduced to Kitamura Kigin (1624-1705), one of the best poets of Kyoto at the time. Through Kigin, Bashō was able to become a professional poet and move to Edo (Carter, 1997). He began as a haikai poet. A haikai is a type of poem made of linked verses (Norman, 2008).  Bashō went by many names before settling on the one we know: Kiginsaku, Toshichiro, Tadaemon, Jinshichiro, and Munefusa. His first haiku was published under the name of Tosei, which translates to “green peach.” The name pays homage to Bashō’s favorite Chinese poet Li Po (or “white plum”) (Norman, 2008). Bashō wrote over 1,000 haikus in his lifetime. Unlike other poets of his time, Bashō focused on the everyday moments. He tried to capture the moment a bird took wing or a frog jumped (Biallas, 2002). He never claimed there was a single way to write good haiku. Instead, he argued a good poem came from a flash of insight and jotting it down immediately (Heyd, 2003).

Let me digress a moment. Haiku is a 19th century contraction of hokku no haikai. A haiku is a 3 line poem that follows a specific pattern of ji-on, or symbol-sounds. Ji-on are made up of a single vowel or a consonant + vowel. Haiku lines follow this pattern: 5-7-5. Let’s look at an example from Bashō.

Autumn deepens—
The man next door, what
does he do for a living?
aki fukaki
tonari wa nani o
suru hito zo

I highlighted every symbol-sound to help you see how the 5-7-5 rule works. Haiku doesn’t try to rhyme. It focuses on the symbol-sound pattern and its imagery. Haiku often use  a word or expression (called a ki-go) to pin down the time of the year. This sets the mood of the poem. Autumn, for example, has a lonely feeling. Ki-go act as shorthand to convey feelings, ideas, or meaning in as few words as possible….if you understand what feelings, ideas, or meanings are associated with the ki-go. Weather conditions and animals can act as ki-go. Weather conditions and animals have strong associations with certain seasons. Such as rain showers and spring here in the United States. Before Bashō, haikai poetry fixed on the tastes of the courtly elite or funny topics that appealed to the merchant class. Bashō’s poetry focused on common, everyday experience. Basho defined what we know of as haiku.

In 1680, Bashō gave up his practice in a way that amounts of professional suicide. He gave up his professional status and moved outside of Edo. He wrote this poem the same year:

On a bare branch
A crow has settled down to roost.
In autumn dusk.

His students followed him and built him a home. They also gave him basho trees (a type of banana). He began writing under that name, and it stuck with him: Basho. During this time, he studied Zen but struggled with spiritual beliefs. In 1682, his house was caught in the fire that burned most of Edo (Norman, 2008). He mourned the event:

Tired of cherry,
Tired of this whole world,
I sit facing muddy sake
And black rice.

Part of the reason he moved was to avoid his fame, but people still followed and pestered him. He had to resort to locking his gate to escape. Of course, he wrote about it:

Only for morning glories I open my door—During the daytime I keep it tightly barred.

One of the trails Basho may have walked. Photo by Michael Yamashita. National Geographic Magazine.

Despite people calling him a master poet, Basho felt dissatisfied with his writing. Many times he wanted to give it up altogether. He called his writing “mere drunken chatter, the incoherent babbling of a dreamer” (Biallas, 2002). His discontent seemed to be one reason why he decided to take to the road starting in 1684. His first journal, Journal of a Weather-Beaten Skeleton, captures the difficulty of travel at the time. That hardship becomes a reoccurring theme in his later journals. He traveled several times between 1687-1688 and wrote about the experiences in Kashima Journal and Manuscript in a Knapsack. The journals combined prose and haiku, a combination called haibun (Heyd, 2003; Norman, 2008). He often focused on little things he observed while on the road:

Piercing the rock
The cicada’s song.

It is hard to us to imagine the difficulty of travel at the time. People traveled on foot with few rest stops and exposure to wind, rain and lice. Bashō even wrote about the trouble lice caused him: “Shed of everything else, I still have some lice I picked up on the road—Crawling on my summer robes.” He wrote about how rice-planting songs were a part of poetic tradition and wrote about the refinement of people found in rural villages. At the time, only those who lived in cities and belonged to the upper classes were thought of as refined. Equating country farm songs with samurai class poetry was also a break in the thinking of that time.

In his mid-40s, Basho grew tired of his fame. Despite his frail health, he decided on taking a pilgrimage to locations important to Japanese religious, literary, and military history.  In May 1689, he set out with his friend Sora, a backpack, writing materials, and a few changes of clothes. We walked for 5 months, during which he penned his masterpiece, Narrow Road to a Far Province. The book spoke of a spiritual journey while Basho made his living on the road as a teacher (Carter, 1997). The entire journey involved walking 1,200 miles through some of the roughest terrain of Japan. Some of the roads were little more than trails.

The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. (189). Mogi Road Retrieved from New York Public Library Digital Collection.

Here are excerpts from Narrow Road:

The months and days are the travelers of eternity. The years that come and go are also voyagers. Those who float away their lives on ships or who grow old leading horses are forever journeying, and their homes are wherever their travels take them. Many of the men of old died on the road, and I too for years past have been stirred by the sight of a solitary cloud drifting with the wind to ceaseless thoughts of roaming.
Last year I spent wandering along the coast. In autumn I returned to my cottage on the river and swept away the cobwebs. Gradually the year drew to its close. When spring came and there was mist in the air, I thought of crossing the Barrier of Shirakawa into Oku. I seemed to be possessed by the spirits of wanderlust, and they all deprived me of my senses. The guardian spirits of the road beckoned, and I could not settle down to work.
I patched my torn trousers and changed the cord on my bamboo hat. To strengthen my legs for the journey I had moxa burned on my shins. By then I could think of nothing but the moon at Matsushima. When I sold my cottage and moved to Sampû’s villa, to stay until I started on my journey, I hung this poem on a post in my hut:

kusa no to mo
sumikawaru yo zo
hina no ie

Even a thatched hut
May change with a new owner
Into a doll’s house.

This is the introduction to Narrow Road (Keene, 1996). Moxa was a medical treatment of ground mugwort used to treat or prevent various diseases. Notice how he combines prose with haiku. The next excerpt has Bashō visiting a castle.

The three generations of glory of the Fujiwara of Hiraizumi vanished in the space of a dream.  The ruins of their Great Gate are two miles this side of the castle; where once Hidehira’s mansion stood are now fields, and only the golden cockerel Mountain remains as in former days.
We first climbed up to Castle-on-the-Heights, from where we could see the Kitagami, a large river that flows down from the north.  Here Yoshitsune once fortified himself with some picked retainers, but his great glory turned in a moment into this wilderness of grass.  “Countries may fall, but their rivers and mountains remain.  When spring comes to the ruined castle, the grass is green again.”  These lines went through my head as I sat on the ground, my bamboo hat spread under me.  There I sat weeping, unaware of the passage of time.

His travel journals read a little like modern day travel guides. Bashō visited major military, literary, and religious landmarks. The bits of history help give a context.

Bashō died in 1694. He remains one of the most important poets in Japanese history, and his work are the first school children learn. His travel journals inspire pilgrimages in an effort to reconnect with a literary tradition. Many anime like Samurai Champloo pull inspiration from a travel tradition Bashō made famous. He wasn’t the first traveling poet, but he stands as one of the best loved. The calligrapher Soryu wrote this epilogue in the Narrow Road:

Once had my raincoat on, eager to go on a like journey, and then again content to sit imagining those rare sights. What a hoard of feelings, Kojin jewels, has his brush depicted! Such a journey! Such a man!


Biallas, L (2002) Merton and Basho: The Narrow Road Home. Merton Annual. 15 77.

Carter, S. (1997) On a Bare Branch: Basho and the Haikai Profession. American Oriental Society. 117 (1). 57-69.

Heyd, T. (2003) Basho and the Aesthetics of Wandering: Recuperating Space, Recognizing Place, and Following the Ways of the Universe. Philosophy East and West. 53 (3) 291-307.

Keene, D. (1996) The Narrow Road to Oku.

Norman, H. (2008) On the Poet’s Path. National Geographic. http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2008/02/bashos-trail/howard-norman-text

Japanese Public Baths – Anime’s Staple for Awkward Humor

pokemon-team-rock-hot-springThe hot spring scene, a staple for any romantic-comedy anime. So predictable and so traditional.  Baths are an important part of Japanese cultural identity.  Until the mid-1960s, 60% of Japanese homes had bathtubs. Everyone else went to communal bathhouses.  Japan’s oldest text, the Kojiki — written in the 8th century–mentions public baths (Wynn, 2014). Anime’s public bath scenes pull from a long history. In the 1580s, Luis Frois, a Jesuit who lived in Japan for over 30 years, wrote (Loureiro, 2000):

“We bathe at home to completely avoid the eyes of others; In Japan, man, woman or monks alike bathe in public baths or, by night, in front of their homes.”

History of Public Bathing

When Buddhism arrived in Japan in the 6th century, bathing was already established with the elites of Japan. Buddhism brought the idea of purity to the custom. At first, bathhouses were enjoyed only by monks and the elites who could afford to build them. In Zen monasteries, the bath became a place to meditate and attain enlightenment. Over time, temple baths opened to the poor, and rich elite would sponsor these bathhouses. The best known was Empress Komyo (701-760), the consort of Emperor Shomu (701-756) who vowed to personally wash 1,000 beggars and did so at the Hokkeji bathhouse in 747.

Eventually, these developed into the social gathering places of the Edo period. These commercial baths allowed people to rent the space for special occasions and business meetings. Women also rented these spaces. A record from 1405 mentions court ladies renting a bath far enough away that it required them to travel by cart to reach it (Butler, 2005).

Now you’d think with all this public nudity shenanigans would break out at some point. After all, as anime suggests, mistakes happen! These “mistakes” were just part of attending bathhouses for a time. During the Edo period, male bathers enjoyed the attentions of yuna, or bath girl. These young ladies would help men bathe and take care of…other needs for added cost. But this didn’t happen as much as you may suspect. Bathhouses were important social centers, not brothels. In 1657, the Shogunate banned yuna (Wynn, 2014).

Types of Bathhouses

sakura bath scene

Much like the Greek and Roman baths, Japanese sento were places to conduct business and make alliances. Clans and families would meet to conduct negotiations. Bathhouses were one of the few places in feudal Japan where social status wasn’t as much of a factor.

There are three types of baths:

  • sento – the public bath we discussed
  • onsen – the hot springs anime rom-coms love
  • ofuro – the private bath

Hot springs have certain requirements before they can be called onsen. They have to have 19 different types of minerals, meet certain levels of hydrogen and flourine ions, and meet certain temperature requirements (Wynn, 2014). Ofuro also appear in anime. These are private baths common to Japanese households now. In the past, only the rich could afford them.

Japanese people typically wash in the evening after dinner. Baths are associated with nighttime and relaxing instead of getting ready for the day like here in the United States. Some households follow old ofuro rules. The head of the household gets first dibs, while the water is at its hottest and cleanest. Then male members take their turn by descending age. Finally, females take their turn also by descending age. Just as many households bathe in order of convenience: who has to go to bed early and the like (Wynn, 2014).  It’s not unusual to spend as much as 45 minutes washing and soaking.

Unlike Greeks and Romans, Japanese custom is to wash before getting into the bath. That is why in anime you see people sitting on little stools washing before soaking. Baths are meant for relaxing not for washing off dirt. A study in 2000 looked into how a hot relaxing bath benefits sleep: it induces quite a good sleep actually (Kagamimori, 2000).

Bathing Etiquette

anime bathLike every aspect of Japanese culture, there are rules to follow when you visit onsen or bathhouses. Understanding these rules will help you better understand some of the more subtle jokes anime likes during their onsen scenes. These notes are from an American military dispatch I found (Targeted News Service, 2013). First and foremost, onsen are for soaking only, not for washing.

Next is the small towel rule. You are given 2 towels at onsen. People use the full-size towel for drying off, and you take the small hand-sized towel with you into the hot springs, but it cannot touch the water. It is used to wipe sweat from your head and face. When you aren’t using it, it is folded on top of your head or, for ladies, wrapped around your head to keep your hair out of the water. Rising and wringing the towel in the water is taboo.

While onsen are gender segregated, children can attend opposite-gender baths with their parent or guardian.

Most bathhouses have pools with different temperatures. The main pool is hot, while other pools have lower temperatures. Custom recommends people move to lower temperature pools to prevent dehydration from the heat or heat-stroke. You see many anime characters stay in the hot pool until they pass out because they are too embarrassed to move to another pool.

You need to be comfortable being in the buff, seeing others in the buff, and seeing naked children of both genders. Japanese customs have a different view of nudity than us in the West, at least when it comes to communal baths.

Finally, don’t be surprised if you are barred from public bathing areas  if you have tattoos. Tattoos are not mainstream in Japanese culture, and they have long association with crime, delinquency, and the yakuza. More then half of Japanese hotels (56%) do not allow people with tattoos into their bathing facilities (Demetriou, 2015).

Body Image and Public Nudity

persona-4-body-imageSpeaking of public nudity, Raimy Shin accounts of her experiences in mokyoktang, or Korean public baths. She writes that her first visit to a public bath opened her eyes. It was the first place where she saw a wide range of female body types: those with large breasts, those with small breasts, those with body hair, those without body hair. Before her experience, like most of us in the West, she mostly had exposure to ideal body types through media.

“Every single woman I saw out there was unblemished and thin. Thin thin thin, to the bone. The women in the magazines are, of course, still like that. Way too spotless to be real. When I look at them for too long I start to believe that women really look like that, and that I should also aspire to look like that.”

Anime scenes touch on this, particularly with female characters. Most of the time they will compare their breast sizes, but the comments still suggest a disconnect between reality and expectations. Flat-chested characters will feel inadequate next to their buxom friends. This is both commentary on modern body ideals and also serves to reinforce them. Public baths shed the clothing media places on our minds and reveals reality with all its lumps and droop. Men also struggle with media-forced body images, if to a lesser extent.

Understanding the long history of Japanese bathing customs helps us better understand the humor of onsen scenes in anime. Trips to hot springs and bathhouses connect the characters to the past, connects them with each other, and helps the characters relax. Of course, it provides the natural setting for fanservice and hijinks.


Butler, Lee (2005) “Washing Off the Dust”: Baths and Bathing in Late Medieval Japan. Monumenta Nipponica, 60 (1) 1-41.

Demetriou, Danielle (2015) Majority of Japan hotels ban tattooed tourists from public baths;
Most Japanese hotels refuse to allow visitors with tattoos from entering their public baths. The Telegraph. October, 2015.

Kagamimori, S., Sekine, M., Izumi, I., Ohmura, S., Liu, Z., Matsubara, I. and Sokejima, S. (2000), Effects of taking a Japanese-style bath on sleep. Focus on Alternative and Complementary Therapies, 5: 91. doi:10.1111/j.2042-7166.2000.tb02351.x

Loureiro, R.M. (2000) Turning Japanese? The Experiences and writings of a Portuguese Jesuit in 16th century Japan. ÉCOLE  FRANÇAISE  D’EXTRÊME-ORIENT

Shin, Raimy. I Learned to Love My Body in A Mokyoktang. Tufts: Jumbo Talk http://admissions.tufts.edu/blogs/jumbo-talk/post/i-learned-to-love-my-body-in-a-mokyoktang-aka-a-big-nude-public-bath/

Targeted News Service (January 25, 2013  ). Japan Travelers’ Onsen Etiquette Notes.

Wynn, L (2014) Self-Reflection in the Tub: Japanese Bathing Culture, Identity, and Cultural Nationalism. Asia Pacific: Perspectives, 12(2), 61-78.

Commodore Perry and the Opening of Japan

Commodore Matthew C. Perry.

Commodore Matthew C. Perry.

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

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


Limited isolation

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

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

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

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

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

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


America and the Pacific

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

American settlers heading West.

American settlers heading West.

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

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

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


A show of force

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

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

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

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

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


From medieval to modern

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Hickman, Kennedy. “Opening of Japan: Commodore Matthew C. Perry.” Militaryhistory.about.com. About.com. January 24. 2015. http://militaryhistory.about.com/od/naval/p/mcperry.htm

“Milestones: 1830-1860.” history.state.gov. US Department of State: Office of the Historian. January 24, 2015. https://history.state.gov/milestones/1830-1860/opening-to-japan

Munson, Todd S. “The Opening, Closing, and Re-Opening of Japan? Japanese Foreign Relations Before, During, and After the Tokugawa Shogunate (1600-1868): An Essay with Lesson Plan Notes.” Randolph-Macon College. http://www.rmc.edu/docs/default-source/asian-studies/the-opening-closing-and-re-opening-of-japan-japanese-foreign-relations-before-during-and-after-the-tokugawa-shogunate-%281600-1868%29-%28pdf%29.pdf?sfvrsn=0

The Kamikaze–Japan’s Three Divine Winds

Mongol fleet destroyed by the divine wind. By Kikuchi Yōsai, 1847.

Mongol fleet destroyed by the divine wind. By Kikuchi Yōsai, 1847.

Japan’s turbulent history was marked by a series of internal wars among various noble factions, vying for the title of Shogun. While most of its history was spent fighting itself, the greatest threat to Japan came from outside, in the guise of Kublai Khan. Grandson of the infamous Ghengis Khan, Kublai succeeded to the throne of the Mongol Empire in 1260. He focused the wrath of the Mongol hordes against the Sung dynasty in China, using a combination of Mongol warriors and Chinese defectors to turn the tide against Sung defenders.

Even as Kublai Khan was wreaking havoc across China, he turned his eyes to Japan. The Japanese had long been trade partners with the Sung dynasty, and this financial support was vital to continued resistance in China. Kublai Khan sent envoys to the Japanese in 1266 and 1268, demanding them to become part of the Mongol Empire and to cut all trade ties to the Sung. The Shogunate rebuffed the Mongol offer and summarily executed the Khan’s representatives.

Kublai Khan could not let this insult go unpunished. The fury of the Great Khan was aimed squarely at Japan.

The First Divine Wind

Kublai Khan

Kublai Khan

Kublai ordered his vassals in Korea to construct a great fleet to punish Japan for its insolence. Some 900 ships strong, the fleet would transport 23,000 Chinese and Mongol soldiers and 7,000 Korean sailors.

The force set sail on October 3, 1274, only 120 miles of the Korea Strait between them and the Japanese home islands. Their first target was the island of Tsushima, situated in the middle of the strait. Its tiny garrison was easily overwhelmed. The garrison at the island of Iki, closer to the main islands, was also soon overwhelmed. By October 14, the fleet attacked the port of Hirado, positioning itself to launch the invasion of the main island.

Spies among the Koreans had warned the Japanese that the attack would come at Hakata Bay. Samurai and their retainers rushed to the area, some 6,000 forming up in a hastily assembled army, ready to fend off the foreign invaders. It wasn’t long before the samurai and the Mongol invaders clashed on the battlefield, and their differing approaches to warfare soon became apparent. The samurai, motivated to seek honor, attempted to instigate individual duels, while the Mongol and Chinese forces fought as a unit.

Even so, the samurai fought well, despite being hugely outnumbered. Over the course of a week, the invaders pushed them back from the beaches of Hakata Bay. By the 20th, the Japanese were forced to abandon their position and retreat 10 miles to an abandoned fortress at Mizuki.

Samurai, facing Mongol arrows and bombs.

Samurai, facing Mongol arrows and bombs.

The wounded Japanese gathered their strength at the ancient castle, with reinforcements pouring in from the countryside. Meanwhile, the Khan’s army failed to press its advantage. Perhaps they feared a Japanese ambush if they pressed further inland. They certainly feared the weather, which was deteriorating quickly. Korean sailors, familiar with the fickle nature of weather on the Korean Strait, believed a typhoon was on the way. The Great Khan’s fleet would be helpless moored in the rocky waters of Hakata Bay.

Mongol leaders then decided to withdrawal, but they were too late. The storm struck, scattering the mighty fleet and grounding some 50 ships. Samurai promptly boarded the stricken ships and killed anyone they found on board.

Kublai Khan’s invasion was defeated, but barely. In fact, the aborted invasion was a success, as it succeeded in its objective to cut Japanese trade with the Sung.  For its part, the Shogunate was made painfully aware of how woefully unprepared it was to stand toe to toe with the world’s largest empire. Knowing that the Khan would not forgive or forget, Japan’s leaders prepared for a second invasion of the homeland. They ordered a 5-9 foot stone wall built along the 25 mile stretch of the bay, set back 150 feet from the beach. Locals were levied to serve on the wall, while fishing boats and their crews were forced into service as an ad hoc navy.

The Second Divine Wind

Meanwhile, the Khan consolidated his hold on China. He sent envoys to Japan again in 1275. The Shogunate had them executed. Four years later, as the Khan finished off the last of the Sung resistance, he sent still more representatives. These were summarily executed on the beach at Hakata Bay, before even meeting the Shogun.

Furious at the insult, Kublai Khan ordered two massive fleets assembled. The first consisted of 900 ships, manned by 40,000 Mongol and Korean warriors and 17,000 sailors. This was dubbed the Koryo Eastern Route Division. The second, the Chinese Chiang-Non Division, consisted of 3,500 ships and 100,000 Chinese soldiers. The world would never seen another sea borne invasion force this large again until World War II.

The Eastern Route Division struck out for Japan on May 3, 1281. They took Iki within a week. The original plan was for both divisions to meet at Iki and strike Hakata Bay as one. But Eastern Route commanders grew impatient, and by mid-June decided to attempt an assault on their own. However, the defensive wall did its work well, and the Japanese defenders shoved the Mongols back into the sea.

The bloodied invaders withdrew to Shika Island. Their pain did not end when they took to the sea. Japan’s re-purposed fishing and trade ships proved to be apt raiding vessels, and the samurai’s skill at close quarters combat proved deadly among the confines of a ship. So harassed, the Mongols were forced to withdraw back to Iki, with their Japanese pursuers not far behind.

Samurai boarding enemy ships.

Samurai boarding enemy ships.

When the Chinese Division finally arrived, they combined with the bloodied Eastern Route Division at Hirado. The combined force made for Imari Bay, 30 miles south of Hakata, hoping to bypass the formidable defenses at Hakata. The Japanese were waiting. The forces met on the beach, beginning a two-week long battle. While the land forces fought, the sailors chained their ships together to form a floating fortress. The Japanese coastal navy could do little against the massive armada. Meanwhile, both sides suffered mounting losses in the hard fighting ashore.

At this point, legend and history meet. The Mongols were preparing to launch their final offensive against the vastly outnumbered Japanese. The situation looked impossible. Emperor Kameyama, descendent of the goddess Amaterasu according to legend, pleaded with his divine ancestors to save his people from destruction.

On July 30, they answered. A typhoon struck the gathered Mongol ships with hellish fury. The invading armada, moored together as it was to defend against attack, was unable to maneuver in the gale force winds and massive waves. Ships slammed into each other as they tried to escape the narrow bay, sinking into the restless waters with their crews trapped aboard. Only the lightest, most maneuverable craft were able to escape the natural massacre. Japanese legend claims that some 4,000 ships sank that day, drowning approximately 100,000 men. Those who survived and washed ashore were executed. The bay entrance, it was said, was so clogged with debris that “a person could walk across from one point of land to another on a mass of wreckage.”

Even if the extent of the devastation was exaggerated by the Japanese, it was enough to drive back the invaders for good. The defeat was so stunning that Kublai Khan could not muster support for a third invasion.


The Third Divine Wind

The second kamikaze, and the first to be called a “divine wind,” marked a change in how the Japanese saw themselves. The storm could only have been the act of a divine hand reaching from the heavens to influence the affairs of man. The Japanese began to see their islands, and thus themselves, as favored by the gods. This belief in Japanese exceptionalism would later fuel Japanese isolationism and, in the 20th century, the extreme nationalism the characterized Japan during World War II.

Zeroes, being prepared for suicide attacks.

Zeroes, being prepared for suicide attacks.

This extreme nationalism depended on co-opting history and culture to serve the ends of a fascist regime. When Japan found itself on the defensive in World War II, the leadership hearkened back to the storms of the 13th century that saved the homeland from foreign invaders. But, as with everything touched by their nationalistic fervor, they took a formative event in the Japanese national identity and twisted it to their own ends. The “divine wind” that would save the Japanese from the Allied invaders would not come in the form of a well-timed typhoon, but as young men willing to die for their family and country.

The concept was advanced by Vice Admiral Onishi Takijiro, who recognized by the latter part of the war that the Japanese Air Force could no longer compete with the technologically and numerically superior Americans. So, he proposed using planes as manned missiles, the advantage being that the pilots of the suicide planes would be easy to train. They’d only need to learn how to take off, not land. The Vice Admiral believed that the suicide bombers would terrify the Allies and boost morale among the Japanese populace.

USS Louisville hit by a kamikaze.

USS Louisville hit by a kamikaze.

Oddly enough, the Japanese were not the originators of the term kamikaze as suicide pilots. The pilots were dubbed Shinpu. It was American translators who saw the characters forming the word as being an allusion to the nation-saving storms of the past. This slip in interpretation eventually got back to the Japanese, who adopted it as their own.

The third divine wind damaged or sunk 300 US ships and was responsible for some 15,000 US casualties. Thousands of Japanese died executing suicide attacks. Thousands more were ready to die, should Operation Downfall, the planned invasion of Japan, be executed.

In many ways, the third divine wind not only failed to drive away the American invaders, but it helped hasten the Japanese defeat. Qualified pilots died by the hundreds during the program, not to mention the destruction of precious planes. Also, the kamikaze attacks hardened American resolve to defeat the hated Japanese. Finally, the kamikaze attacks factored into Truman’s decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

On September 2, 1945, Japan formally surrendered. No divine wind, man-made or otherwise, could save Japan from bearing “the unbearable” burden of defeat.


Clements, Jonathan. “A Brief History of the Samurai: A New History of the Warrior Elite.” Constable & Robinson, Ltd. 2010. pgs 302-303.

Delgado, James P. “Kublai Khan vs. Kamikaze.” Military History. July 2011. Vol 28 Issue 2. p.58.

“The Kamikaze Threat.” pbs.org. 2003. Public Broadcasting System. October 25, 2014. http://www.pbs.org/perilousfight/psychology/the_kamikaze_threat/

Lannom, Gloria W. “Beware the Kamikaze.” Calliope. March 2012. Vol. 22. Issue 6. p.15-17.

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