Category Archives: Japan Studies Blog

Japan Studies blog is a collection of random thoughts and encounters I have with all things related to Japan in my life.

Having good manners in Japan

A friend of mine is touring Japan, and he sent me a message asking about eating on the train. He didn’t see anyone around him doing it, and was wondering if it was bad manners to do so. In general, people don’t eat in shared public spaces because it’s just that shared public space. However, eating on express trains like the shinkansen is different. Interestingly, train station lunch boxes called ekiben are specialty items that can only be purchased at the train station before or after boarding the train. The express trains are associated with long trips that would include having a meal, and are therefore considered normal.

This question led me to think more about the practice and teaching of Japanese manners. In Japan, manners are often considered with how another person is affected by an action. Good manners make things easier for another, shows consideration, while bad manners disrupt others from their task or cause nuisance to others.

The other day in Japanese class a student handed me a pile of papers, mixed up in disarray. It doesn’t bother me personally, but part of my job as a Japanese language teacher is to also teach Japanese culture, including manners. The student didn’t think much of it, but that’s exactly the essence of expressing your manners in Japan. Thinking of how your actions are a part of others and what you can do to make things more cohesive. For her to pile the papers up together in the same direction would have been the norm. The next level up would be turning the papers around so that they are properly facing the person you are handing them to. The final step would be in using both hands, instead of one, to give them to the teacher. Doesn’t seem like much, but in Japan it’s those little gestures of thinking of others that express your manners. And in all honesty, people will think you are rude if you don’t do just that.

In the Netflix original Samurai Gourmet, the social conflict of proper Japanese manners and individual identity is explores. The protagonist Takeshi  (played by Naoto Takenaka) struggles with properly expressing his individual identity and conforming to proper customs of Japan. It’s a great recreation of the manga series and I highly recommend it to everyone to watch! Anyway, in one of the scenes, he is sitting in a quiet coffee shop and two noisy adults come barging in without regard to the others. Everyone takes notice, and he feels obligated to confront the two to tell them to be quiet and respect the quiet space. He doesn’t follow through with his convictions, and instead the waitress steps up to politely but directly ask the two noisy customers to turn down the volume of their conversation and be respectful of others.

Using Rakugo in the Japanese Language Class

This last weekend I had the opportunity to give a presentation at the 3rd Annual Interdisciplinary Conference in the Humanities at CSU Sacramento. The panels I attended included presentation by Dr. Kristina Vassil on the Tales of Okei, Dr. Kazue Masuyama on using Manga to Introduce Japanese literature,  Dr. Tatematsu on creating communicative language classrooms, Dr. Kogasawara on Samurai ceremonial tools, and Dr. Sato on Japanese notation by Soseki. Each presentation opened a flood of questions from on culture, history, psychology, and education. (Link to Conference program)

My presentation was on the use of Rakugo in the Japanese language classroom. Here is a rough draft of my presentation:

1: What is Rakugo?

Rakugo is a 400 yr old performance art that takes place on the world’s smallest stage. A zabuton, (japanese cushion) where one person performs the entire story. Rakugo according to Dr. Kimie Ooshima, is “comic acting and mimicry as well as the art of narration.”In Rakugo it is desired for the storyteller to disappear while becoming multiple characters, tapping into the audience’s imagination. I believe Rakugo has continued on as modern Japanese entertainment through the performer’s ability to engage with the audience and their imagination.

2: What do you need?

Japanese – Fan Sensu

Hand towel – Tenugui


Zabuton – pillow to sit on

Kimono / Yukata

Music – Narimono

Most Important:

Participation of the audience’s imagination & performers intent to tell a story

3: Rakugo in class

Most classroom material that makes use of Rakugo seeks to introduce the “art” as a cultural example of Japan or as a linguistic lesson in grammar. Failing to make use of Rakugo’s fundamental component as a performance art.

Dr. Hatasa from Purdue University has been making use of the performance of Rakugo along with the study of language and culture in the classroom. Here is a picture of the website, which I will mention later as a resouce.

As for me, I started using English Rakugo in Japanese high schools while I was an ALT (assistant language teacher) on JET. Upon returing to the United States, I translated the English rakugo into Japanese for 4th to 6th grade students at Sacramento’s language school Sakura Gakuen to perform at their annual speech contest.

4: Rakugo as a Teaching method

The best method of teaching rakugo is by following the traditional method of rakugo teaching, where the master works one on one with the student.

Interestingly, this method of practice is in line with James Asher’s Total Physical Response (storytelling) TPR (s). Where the language learner attaches a physical gesture to the phrase or statement they make. This method was “developed to reduce the stress people feel when studying foreign languages.” TPR allows the students to “enjoy their experiences in learning to communicate,” while preserving the traditional oral tradition of rakugo.

5: Getting started

There are three possibilities:  Kobanashi (which are shorter stories often told to preced the main rakugo story) An actual Rakugo story (wich vary in length from 5 minutes to 30 minutes) or English Rakugo (which are translations of Japanese Rakugo performances including kobanashi)

My recommendation is to start with the English Rakugo first to get students to enjoy the art. Followed by a short kobanashi, and if the level is appropriate a more extensive rakugo story.

There are techincal elements that need to be explained in the beginning as well.

1 – Performer to act out the story to engage the audiences imagination

2 – Maintaining consistency of the characters through their gaze

Chow Chow example (3 characters) Dog, person 1, person2

6: Discussion Topics

7: Rakugo in Popculture & Books

8: Resources

Finland and Japan: Some common grounds

I was in Helsinki and Espoo this last week competing in the ADCC World Championships and I got to take some time with the locals and see things in and out of the city. It was awesome! In the few days I was there I noticed a few things  had a strong connection with Japan.


When I was in Japan as a child, Moomin played on the television and I remember watching the series all the time. It was one of my favorite shows. The fictional animal-like creatures lived in beautiful nature, played and collaborated to learn from one another. The author, Tove Jansson, tackled the ideas of family, nature, good v evil, collaboration, community, and communication in her stories.

Here is a Japanese television show documenting some of the cultural elements of Finland through their program. The program talks about Finland having one of the best educational systems in the world, taking up bullying, sauna and cold for health and wellness, Moomins, Libraries, social welfare and common household practices. and a few other topics of discussion.


Like Japan, Finland had a very safe and welcoming feel. Once you were connected with people from Finland, there were very welcoming and accommodating. We had Juha, also known as Naota, famous for being the Finland Gladiator winner show us around Helsinki, take us on a hike and take us around town. His hospitality could be likened to the omotenashi mentality of Japan. The idea of thinking about others and allowing your actions to reflect that thought.

The streets were clean, a walking and biking culture with public transportation easily accessible and usable. Even with many people sharing public spaces, the streets and walkways were very clean. Community conscious neighborhoods always make it a practice to keep their area clean by posing public trash bins.

Another major part of the community was the sauna. People would share a sauna space (sometimes in the bare). This public bonding place is a place for conversation, interaction, and community exchanges to take place. The sauna, like the onsen or sento experience, is a place to rid all other things and fully engage with the person in your company.

Japan and Finland share some very basic things. In popular culture, they both enjoy Moomin. As a community, they embrace free high quality education, public transportation, and shed their clothes in the sauna or onsen, to connect with one another.

Japan and sleep

I came across this article by Dr Brigitte Steger the other day when I was looking for some information on Japanese studies. I always noticed that the work culture in Japan, specifically the big cities, were excessive and exhausting. I’ve also heard (by unchecked sources) that Japan has been a country dependent on amphetamines since WWII, and suffers from the consequential long term side effects of paranoia and psychosis.

It’s not a rare sight to see people in Japan falling asleep on public transportation, passing out in the street after a round of drinking , or hear of stories of people falling asleep in meetings.

The article explains that the idea of inemuri is different from sleeping or napping in that it is a state of unconscious presence. Similar to day dreaming, but probably while in a less conscious state of awareness. Dr Brigitte explains that inemuri is an acceptable thing because it’s an expression of hitting a wall of uncontrollable exhaustion while in the presence of others. It is interesting that the act is acceptable as long as it doesn’t interrupt or disturb the social harmony of the situation. I believe it’s also a reflection of the social tribe or bond that exists within Japan. In a tribe of coworkers where you share most of your life and personal space with, perhaps inemuri is easier to accept.

I once had a conversation with a Japanese school teacher, and he said the three luxuries (gluttons) of life were, food, sex, and sleep. If sleep where considered to be a luxury, then it would explain the consequential state of people falling asleep from constant sleep deprivation. I also find it interesting that in some cases people will say that their hobby is sleeping. Ya… Sleeping. Sleeping in Japan is such a commodity that even school aged children consider it an enjoyable activity as opposed to a necessity.

Lunch with Icho Kaori

I had the opportunity to talk with Icho Kaori this summer. For those that don’t know about her, she is a 4x Olympic Gold medalist. She was gold at 4 consecutive olympic events starting in 2004, 2008, 2012, and 2016. I believe it’s the first for any female to win gold in four consecutive olympic events.

I was lucky to work as a translator for her group visiting the bay area and we sat across from each other during lunch one day. In our conversation I asked her if she had any wrestling idol’s that she looked up to as a student of the sport. She didn’t mention any names but she did say she liked to watch film on different wrestlers, especially of those is felt aspired to imitate to learn from. I was intrigued because I had (and sometimes still do) study film to learn a new or different technique. This is a common practice for many that find entertainment in watching great technique in action or learning a technical position or movement. What was interesting was the conversation that followed.

Icho said in addition to studying the technique, she also like to watch the strategy involved in the match. “Who goes for the first point.” “How does someone comeback from losing.” “How do they shut the door on someone trying to comeback from behind.” I was intrigued. I had never thought to study match strategy. The psychological battle of the mind to score in the beginning or score in the end. The method of coming back from a deficit. This aspect of the game was just as important as having crisp technique. I realized then that to Icho wrestling was not just a study of positions but also the study of tactical strategy as well.

Tactics combined with technical understanding is her prowess. Wrestling often confines the battle into, technique, power, speed, stamina, and mental toughness, but I realized that there is one more significant area that isn’t talked about very much. That is the tactical strategy of a match. Not just scoring and defending, but a higher level of strategy of when to score, how to set up an attack on a defensive opponent, etc. It was such a simple thing, but I was in shock that I had never approached the game from that perspective. That’s some high level thinking worthy of 4 olympic gold medals.

Eliot Kelly

Think Strong

Particier Sugino

“What’s important is what’s obvious.” While learning about desserts in Peltiers’ in Paris, Sugino realized that “doing what’s obvious, many times over, is what makes things special.”

Sugino Eiji, a particier, is able to bring out new tastes based on the flavors he has experienced. Therefore, creativity is based on motivation and experience, according to modern scientific principles. “Never being satisfied. If everyday is a challenge, then you can deliver the best self.”


Rakugo performer Yanagiya Kosanji

Yanagiya Kosanji is an edo style rakugo performer who often performs in Ikebukuro. Rakugo performers live a lifestyle embedded in their art, and Kosanji is no exception. Even after being diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, he has continued to perform.

Kosanji often wears a black hakama to allow himself to disappear.  As a result, he hopes his storytelling will take center stage and allow the customers to see him as the character he is performing.

The idea of disappearing is not just in what he wears. When using his hand towel, with his insignia, he intentionally folds his hand towel so that it is somewhat ambiguous that it is his towel. He says that this is the “Edo style” of performing.

He was once told, “the best way to make people laugh is to not try to make them laugh” Instead, the important principle to follow is to tell the story as you are. Kosanji has pursued story telling as the study of himself as much as telling the story.

Being able to do Rakugo is the ability to see things from the very bottom. Therefore, you need to experience being at the lowest of the low. He credits his illness as giving him the ability to understand pain, gratitude, and being at the mercy of others. When asked why people need laughter in their life. “They just laugh.” “When we laugh we are all happy. We like ourselves when we are laughing.”

To Kosanjiro, laughter is not about getting people to laugh out loud. Instead, it is about delivering a genuine and heartfelt message to each person in the audience.

相撲道: The Way of Sumo 1

I’ve recently been pulled into the unique lifestyle of sumo wrestlers in Japan. There are many different topics to cover within sumo; living in a sumo house, working your way up the ranks, chores as a sumo wrestler, foreigners in sumo, life after sumo, do’s and don’ts of sumo culture, karaoke, language, technique, etc. As an introduction to the sumo lifestyle, I would like to point out some notable topics.

The sumo lifestyle is interesting in that it is a full time commitment that has a financial system built in for young wrestlers to have their needs taken care of as they train and progress into the upper rank professionals. Therefore, once you move into a sumo house, you are not under financial obligations to pay rent or monthly bills. During their time as an amateur wrestler they become assistants to the professional wrestlers and receive a small salary for their work, but room and board, training, transportation, are taken care of by the stable master.

While the stable master is the coach and CEO of the sumo stable, the master also assumes the characteristics of a father. young sumo wrestlers requesting to enroll in a sumo house when asked the reason for their enrollment will answer 「親孝行がしたいです。」(oya koukou ga shitai desu) a symbolic phrase to show filial piety and mutual devotion between parents and children. The young wrestlers at age 15 and 16, come to live at the stable with the intent to dedicate themselves the the lifestyle of sumo.

While the sumo wrestler offers their devotion to the stable master in the form of filial piety, the sumo wrestlers receive an opportunity to develop themselves and fully devote their energy to dedicating themselves to the 3 prongs of budo. 心技体 (shin gi tai) or spirit, technique, and body are the three prongs of the sumo lifestyle. The sumo lifestyle encompasses not only the technical and physical training of the body but the spirit and mind as well.

Sumo at it’s core has maintained the essence of budo or the martial way. Not only in it’s conceptual practice of spirit, technique, and body, but also in the application of living the sumo lifestyle. This lifestyle is possible because it thrives in a systematic approach of the amateur wrestlers being raised into professional wrestlers under the same roof. This systematic approach, I believe, is the reason sumo is able to maintain it’s deep cultural roots, diligent training, and functioning ranking system.


In Japan Thank a Person Twice

The other day someone thanked me for a character reference letter I wrote for them to be used in a misdemeanor charge in court. I am slightly jaded by that experience now…. I didn’t receive an email or text message saying “thank you” or acknowledging they received the letter. When we met, the person said, “thank you but I don’t know how much it actually helped.” I’m not sure why this interaction bothered me so much, but it did.

When I was living and working as an ALT (Assistant Language Teacher) in Japan, Kojima Sensei once shared some wisdom with me. He shared with me the phrase, 礼は二度する (rei wa nido suru) “say your thanks twice” It’s something I learned in my mid 20’s and I’ve taken into my life.

Here is how you would thank a person twice: Thank the person at after the event and thank them before your next encounter. For example, maybe someone buys you lunch on Friday and you thank them at that time. The next time you see each other maybe Monday, you should thank them again for buying lunch on Friday.

The idea is that you are not dismissing the “gift” after one encounter, but instead addressing it in your next encounter to express your sense of gratitude. Showing gratitude is not only an essential life skill, but also an integral part of human relationships and business interactions.

According to a blog article I read, there is a psychological effect that takes place when you thank someone after some time has passed. Thanking someone after some time has passed conveys a sense of appreciation to the “gift giver.” From my experience, having a blank set of “thank you” cards to write are a great way to convey your gratitude or sense of appreciation.

Gender and Japan: Koga Toshihiko’s Moments with Fukuda Keiko

This is a translation from a blog by Koga Toshihiko, published on February 28th, 2013. Click here to access the link to this translation.

Fukuda Keiko Sensei received instruction from the Grand Master Kano Jigoro.

Fukuda Keiko Sensei, at the age of 99, passed away from pneumonia on February 9th while living in the United States. She was sent abroad by Grand Master Kano for the purpose of furthering the practice of Judo overseas. Choosing to live a single, unmarried life, she devoted herself to the daily instruction on the path of Yawara❶.

Feeling a great sense of admiration and respect for Fukuda Keiko Sensei’s Judo lifestyle as a martial artist, I recently went to visit Fukuda Keiko Sensei’s dojo in the United States. While the dojo was small, the American Judo students had proper manners and understood the spirit of Yawara, a fading characteristic even in Japan. I could deeply sense Fukuda Sensei’s instruction through her students.  Though my visit was abrupt, I was giving a warm reception.

While there, I had the opportunity to have some fun on the mat and we sweat alongside the students of the dojo. Afterwards, I was invited to a fun meal with Fukuda Sensei and her students. There were so many different things I wanted to ask, but in the end I was unable to ask “anything.” I believe that’s because the grand existence of Fukuda Sensei and her aura told me,

“take a good look to reexamine the spirit of Yawara on your own,”

while I was in her presence. I could see the presence of Grand Master Kano on the back of Fukuda Sensei. Then and there, the lesson took place.

The instruction we receive from a master is not from their words or theories, but born from the aspirations we sense from the life the master lives. Even without saying anything, the master’s back will speak to us.

As a marital artist in Judo, I would like to be able to give something to someone through the way I live my life. Fukuda Sensei had that much of an impact in changing my view on life.

I would like to send Fukuda Keiko Sensei, a mentor on life, a message of gratitude.

I feel deeply blessed to have met the true martial artist of Judo, Fukuda Keiko Sensei. She has left a great impression on me as one single human who walks in the path of Yawara.

I’ve come to realize that those who have aspirations within Judo are spokespeople for Grand Master Kano Jigoro, and have the responsibility and duty to correctly convey the will of the Grand Master. Also, since we were born as humans, we should become useful to humanity.  Since my encounter with Fukuda Sensei, I’ve renewed my lifestyle as a martial artist in Judo.

The gift I received in writing, “Be Strong, Be Gentle, Be Beautiful.” Those words, I believe are a message from Sensei.

From this phrase came my own interpretation, “Stand for justice, Gentle to the weak, Pure of heart,” which I now live by and adhere to.

The number of pure Judo martial artists is gradually diminishing in the world of Judo. However, I’m certain the people who have come across Fukuda Sensei are people who will pass on the spirit of Yawara.  I will responsibly pass on the teachings of Fukuda Sensei to the young generation of Judo martial artists.

To me, Fukuda Sensei is a role model for the Judo lifestyle.

While I would like Fukuda Sensei to peacefully rest in heaven, I would also like her to keep an eye on us inexperienced Judo martial artists, who have a few moments left, while sending us words of encouragement. For us to influence the world to have many many more “Strong, Gentle, and Beautiful,” Judo martial artists.

To all,

Let us all carry on the spirit of Fukuda Keiko Sensei for eternity.

Fukuda Keiko Sensei, Thank you very very very much.

P.S. I wish we could have crunched into some crab legs just one more time at the Chinese restaurant.

Blogger: Toshihiko Koga

Translator: Eliot Kelly

❶ Yawara: The first kanji character is often refereed as yawara which means soft, gentle, smooth, or flexible.