Japanese Dispatches

Take a quick look at some of the stranger things that happen in a country of phenomenal culture, most of which has contributed to the country’s overpowering hold on modern popular culture.

This week, we continue the story of ‘A Horse’s Legs’, picking up where we left off last week. Henry chose to translate a fun short story from Japanese to English. The story can be found here, but for those who need a translation…

A Horse’s Legs

Ryunosuke Akutagawa

 

Light shone gently through the office curtains, which fluttered slightly in the breeze, though nothing could be seen through the window. Behind a large desk in the centre of the room, there sat two Chinese men wearing traditional robes of a brilliant white, with a pair of ledgers set in front of them. One of the men looked to be twenty or so; the other yellowing slightly with age, and with a long white moustache. The younger of the two, who was writing at speed in the ledger, spoke without looking up.

“Nǐ shì Henry Barrett xiānshēng ba?” Hanzaburo was caught off guard. However, he replied as calmly as he could, and in his best Mandarin: “I am Mr. Hanzaburo Oshino of the Mitsubishi Corporation of Japan.”

“What? You’re Japanese?” the young Chinese man cried in surprise, finally looking up. His older colleague also stopped writing in his ledger and stared dumbfounded at Hanzaburo. “What ought we to do? We got the wrong person.”

“This is bad. This is very bad. This has not happened since the first Revolution.” The older man said, a furious look upon his face, his trembling hand making his pen shake viciously. “We must rectify this as soon as is possible.”

“You were, erm… Mr. Oshino, wasn’t it? Please wait one moment.” The twenty-something opened another thick ledger, and began to read at great speed. However, he soon closed the ledger as his older colleague, looking even more surprised than before, began to speak. “It’s no use, I’m afraid. Mr. Hanzaburo Oshino died three days ago.”

“Three days ago?” “And moreover, his legs have rotted. Both legs completely decomposed from the thighs down.” Again, Hanzaburo was caught off guard. From what these two men were saying: first, he was dead; second, three days had passed since he died; third, his legs had rotted. Surely, such absurd things were not happening. Really, his legs were just… He quickly tried to take a step, and gave an involuntary yell. This was to be expected, as the legs of his white trousers were fluttering in the breeze from the window! When he saw this spectacle, he could hardly believe his eyes. But when he tried to grab his legs, it was as though everything from the thighs down were thin air.

Hanzaburo collapsed backwards onto his rear. His legs – or, more accurately, his trousers – fluttered helplessly to the floor like a pair of deflated balloons. “It’s fine, it’s fine,” said the older of the two Chinese men, “We’ll sort this out somehow.” He turned to his young subordinate, his anger apparently not yet abated: “This is your responsibility, wouldn’t you agree? Yours! I want a written incident report as soon as possible. Now then, where do you suppose Mr. Henry Barrett is at present?”

“I’ve just looked it up, and it seems he seems to have left for Hankou in a hurry.” “Then send a telegram to Hankou asking for Barrett’s legs!”

“Sorry, Sir, we can’t do that. By the time the legs arrive from Hankou, Mr. Oshino will be rotten up to the torso.”

“This is bad. This is very bad,” the older man sighed. Somehow, even his moustache seemed to be drooping languidly. “This is your responsibility. I want a written incident report as soon as possible. Is there no other possibility?”

“I’m afraid so, what with the delay. Although, we do have a horse.” “From where?” “A horse market just outside the Desheng gate – It’s only just died.”

“Well then, those legs will do. Horse legs are better than nothing. Bring them here!”
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This week, something totally different! Henry chose to translate a fun short story from Japanese to English. The story can be found here, but for those who need a translation…

A Horse’s Legs

Ryunosuke Akutagawa

 

The main character of this story is a man by the name of Hanzaburo Oshino. I am sorry to say that he was not a man who really amounted to much. He was a man of about thirty, working in the Beijing office of the Mitsubishi Corporation. Hanzaburo came to Beijing in the second month after he had graduated from university with honours in Commerce. He did not have a fantastic reputation amongst his co-workers or his superiors, but neither did he have a bad reputation. Hanzaburo was first and foremost a wholly unremarkable man for his appearance, just as for his home life.

Hanzaburo married a young woman by the name of Tsuneko two years ago. I am also sorry to say that they did not marry out of love. An elderly relative of one of them had arranged their marriage for them. Tsuneko was not a beauty, but neither was she hideous. There was always a sweet smile across her plump cheeks, barring the point on the journey to Beijing from Liaoning where she was bitten by bedbugs in a sleeper car. Even so, she now no longer worries about being bitten again, for she keeps the living room of their company-owned house on XX Street well decorated with two vases of chrysanthemums.

I said earlier that Hanzaburo’s home life was wholly unremarkable. In truth, this is not quite correct. He would eat meals together with Tsuneko, listen to the gramophone with her, take her to see the moving pictures – his life was not unlike that of any other salaried minion in Beijing. However, their lives could not escape the control that fate has. And as fate would have it, one early afternoon, the monotony of that wholly unremarkable family life was shattered in a single stroke. That day, Hanzaburo Oshino of the Mitsubishi Corporation died suddenly of cerebral apoplexy.

Even that afternoon, Hanzaburo had been diligently checking documents at his desk at the office on Dongdan Avenue. His colleague, who had been sitting across from him, hadn’t even noticed anything especially wrong with him. As calmly as ever, Hanzaburo had, with cigarette in mouth, struck a match and in that moment keeled over and died. Indeed, one might say he died too quickly, but the world does not criticise those who die happily. No, we only criticise the manner of their lives, and Hanzaburo got by without inviting such criticism. Indeed, there wasn’t much to criticise. His colleagues and superiors all expressed their deepest sympathies to his widow, Tsuneko.

Dr. Yamai, the kindly head of the local hospital, made his diagnosis and concluded that the cause of death was cerebral apoplexy. Sadly, Hanzaburo himself did not realise he was cerebrally apoplectic. He did not even realise that he was dead. He was simply surprised to find himself standing in an office he had never seen before.

 

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Kappa Sign

The Kappa – Likes long walks on the beach, candlelit dinners, and drowning disrespectful children.

All civilisations throughout history have had folkloric creatures – demons, monsters, what-have-you – whose main purpose has been to encourage a specific value in kids who then become terrified of not obeying the value in question. I think this is the reason the kappa exists in Japan – encourage children to be polite, give appropriate gifts and not play near water.

The kappa, according to the stories, is a scaly green humanoid creature about the size of a child, usually with a beak and webbed feet. It is said to have a bit of a mean streak, leading it to pranks ranging from farting loudly where you can hear and smell it, to drowning children in the shallows – as scholars agree, it’s the next logical step. All in all, understood to be pretty foul creatures, and it’s little wonder that warning signs exist near lakes, ponds and rivers in smaller Japanese communities warning children to beware of the kappa.

Of course, no mythical creature is invincible – there are ways of avoiding falling victim to a kappa other than simply avoiding water. One big physiological feature of the kappa is the indentation in the top of the head, which is filled with water which keeps the kappa standing. Reports vary on whether emptying this indentation will kill the kappa or simply incapacitate it, but emptying the bowl gets rid of the kappa. And how do you empty the bowl quickly and effectively? You bow. Nice, deep and polite. Despite its mean streak, the kappa is a very respectful creature, and will bow back with equal respect when it is bowed to. Of course, gravity being what it is, this will tip the water out of the dish on its head.

The other method of avoiding a kappa is to give it a gift of food inscribed with your name. The cucumber is the favourite food of the kappa (which is why rolled sushi containing only cucumber is called kappa-maki) and is possibly the only thing you can give to a kappa that will lead it to see you as a friend and thus grant you immunity from future pranks. Some places in Japan will tell you that eating cucumber before you swim will also help prevent an attack, but other places claim that this is a sure-fire way to guarantee that you get yourself murdered by a scaly water-demon.

Of course, if you are attacked by a kappa, make sure you are well versed in either shogi (a board game similar to chess) or sumo. That same sense of duty that leads a kappa to kill itself just to return a bow also prevents it from backing down from a test of skill – and, you might encourage it to tip the water out of its head-bowl mid-bout whilst you’re at it.

If and when you get the kappa to empty its head, some stories say that you can get a lifelong servant out of the deal. Just refill its head with water from the body it lives in, and it will serve you until one of you dies.

So, that’s the kappa. But in all probability, it’s just a story.
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The Dream of the Fisherman's Wife

“I’ve seen enough hentai to know where… oh, it’s already there…”

One thing Japan is very well-known for is its interest in sexuality – especially the very eclectic stuff. All it takes is one mention of tentacles, and some smart-arse has definitely “seen enough hentai to know where this is going”.

Surprisingly that particular shit is not a recent phenomenon – an 1814 woodblock print by Hokusai (yes, the same Hokusai behind The Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji) depicts a young shell diver getting rather frisky with a pair of octopus. The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife was published in Kinoe no Komatsu (a sort of collection of artistic works) of the late Edo period, and was a work of a type of erotic Ukiyo-e art called shunga. Whilst shunga have gone out of fashion somewhat, erotic depictions of tentacled beings remain scarily popular – the going theory for the reason behind this is the law that genitalia must be censored in all Japanese pornographic material, and the fact that tentacles aren’t genitalia.

But, that’s enough about the contents of porn.

As I mentioned last time, bookshops are happy to let you browse the books under normal circumstances, but there’s always one section tucked away at the back which you are not allowed to open books in, in any shop – and this porn section may be a single shelf or an entire back room.

Outside of this, the Japanese seem quite lax as far as access to porn goes – rather than being on the top shelf, lewd magazines are sold quite brazenly on the shelf furthest away from the door in most standard convenience stores.

Of course, animated and cartoon porn is brazenly popular. It is very easy to buy merchandise with scantily-clad anime girls – I base this knowledge on a course-mate who had folders for some of his subjects decorated with less scantily-clad but still kind of scanty anime girls, and a teacher (yes) who pulled a towel out of seemingly nowhere to offer as a prize in an in-class game of kanji bingo.

Obviously, we in the west seem VERY conservative when it comes to our porn – we just have the occasional woman baring her chest for advertising purposes. But, suffice it to say, there are reasons that “oh, Japan” is such a common phrase.

And a couple of these are probably the porn.
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The inside of Book Off

“This isn’t a library! Why don’t you just Book Off!”

The literacy rate in Japan amongst those over the age of 15 is, according to their most recent census, 99%. For a country with such a high ability to read, it’s no surprise that reading remains a popular pastime. And, of course, from short stories to novels to manga, you’ve a wide selection.

As I mentioned in my article about wasting time in the cities, bookshops remain a popular haunt and reading amongst the shelves is tolerated, if not encouraged. Most bookshops will be a bit stricter about you reading certain things – manga tend to be cellophane wrapped to prevent them from being opened before purchase – but most books are fair game to anyone with an interest.

The type of book you’re most likely to see is the Tankōbon – a catch-all term for a book that can stand alone as opposed to being a part of a series. Any bookshop worth its salt will have a very sizeable number of them. Of course, within this term, there are a number of different types, and everything from sappy romance to hard sci-fi, as well as big name Japanese authors like Ryunosuke Akutagawa and Haruki Murakami, but most will be small volumes of around A6 size, which are often thin enough to stuff into a pocket without risking too much wear-and-tear.

A bookshop, when it sells you a book will almost always put a paper cover over the book to protect it whilst you get it home. Of course, given the habits of the average Japanese person, the books can still be opened and read with the cover on – many Japanese have very long commutes by train for work and the like, and a very high number read on the train, and even whilst walking – miraculously, I’ve seen no pedestrian collisions yet. Even so, there’s a certain mystery to seeing somebody’s nose buried in a book whose title you don’t know, and whose cover you can’t even see.

There’s another bonus to the covers as well – advertising for the shop that sold the book. The covers all have the name of the shop printed on them, usually in large, friendly letters, as well as phone numbers and branch locations. It’s almost cheeky of them to use the habits of the people to their advantage like this, but you can’t deny that there’s a certain level of brilliance to it if this was indeed the original intention.
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Work Haiku

I understand what
She is talking about so
Very much, don’t you?

Japanese haiku
Were very important to
Japan’s history

Even now we see
An influence that they have
On Japan’s culture

These days, most people are at least vaguely familiar with Japan’s famous 5-7-5 syllable poem, but not many seem to realise that there’s more to it than that – I know I didn’t until someone told me.

For most of Japanese history, poetry was the language, so to speak, of the upper classes – high-ranking courtiers, for one, would communicate with each other by writing letters in the form of haiku. Although, perhaps the best evidence of poetry having been a noble art is the sheer volume of poems written by nobility for a variety of reasons – samurai about to commit seppuku (A.K.A.: hara-kiri) for whatever reason would pen a poem, usually haiku, before going through with the suicide; and the three “great unifiers” of Japan (Tokugawa Ieyasu, Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi) each wrote a haiku using the same opening and closing lines which revealed their respective preferences in battle strategy using what they would do if their cuckoo wouldn’t sing as a parallel.

Poetry writing is not as popular nowadays as it was, but it still retains a place in the hearts and minds of the Japanese, with many local municipalities and the like hosting annual poetry competitions. In general, the format is to announce a theme, or even an opening line, and let contestants get on with their submissions.

What makes a haiku a haiku is as much theme as format – haiku will always have a theme relating to nature in some way. Very commonly, they will be linked very deliberately to a season – in fact, it is completely possible to buy notebooks specifically for writing haiku, many of which will have a list of words which tie to a particular season or, in the case of more expansive (and probably expensive) ones, even to a specific month of the year.

Additionally, a separate type of 5-7-5 poem called a senryū exists. Senryū derive their theme from, as opposed to the natural world, humankind and their relations with each other. As such, they are easier to make humorous. A favourite of mine, which placed 3rd in dai-ichi-life’s 26th “Businessman” senryū competition, is actually quite easy to translate and have it retain image and rhythm:

“I’m going to quit!”
I posted on my Facebook,
And my boss clicked “like”.
by: ‘Former Head of Department”, total votes: 3966
(『「辞めてやる!」 会社にいいね!と 返される』元課長、得票総数 3,966票)

In conclusion, then,
This may well be just a bit
Shorter than normal

But there isn’t much
That I can say from this point
Without waffling

So I will leave you
On these haiku final words
Or, are they senryū?
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Japanese Skyline

It’s like being a tiny, tiny ant.

You step off the train and, staggering out of the station you find yourself surrounded by bright lights, neon signs and tall buildings as far as the eye can see. You might well be in any major city district in Japan: Akihabara, Sannomiya, Umeda…

The question now is, you’ve got way too much time on your hands. So, not counting location-specific tourist attractions, what do you do now?

Well, as with any major city, there’s guaranteed to be shops galore where you can stop by and pass an hour or so. A real favourite of mine is to waste thirty minutes or so in a bookshop – one thing that sets Japanese bookshops apart from their English counterparts is their apparent tolerance for in-store reading. Go to any decent book shop and marvel at how hard it can be to manoeuvre the aisles for people standing around with their nose buried in a Murakami short story or, in perhaps more lenient shops, the latest volume of One Piece.

Cafes, as well, are a wide and varied experience in Japan – on top of the standard fare of coffee shops and small eateries, you might also find a café with a particular theme where you can pay a set rate to hang around for x amount of time with that theme. All manner of these exist: owl cafes, cat cafes, manga cafes… The list goes on, though perhaps the best known sort is the maid café. Here, serving staff are dressed in maid outfits, and customers can pay a little extra for a conversation with one of the ever-energetic maids; have them draw smiling faces and such on your food in ketchup; or even for the privilege of having a maid yell angrily at you for five minutes, which my friend John was very keen to tell me he had had a hard time not laughing at when he saw it at the table across from his. A lot of these charges, though, may be hidden until you see the bill, so best to exercise caution.

Another attraction that pulls in many people daily is the game centre – better known as an arcade. The average game centre will have a wide variety of games: light gun games, racing games and rhythm games being the most common, and not usually for more than 200 yen per go. My personal favourite at the time of writing is Taiko no Tatsujin – essentially, Traditional Japanese Drumming Hero. As well as the video games, crane games and purikura (a sort of photo-booth affair where groups of (generally) girls take a number of photos as a group which will then be airbrushed slightly to give them a cuter, wider-eyed appearance) are enduringly popular.

Of course, if you’re out in a group, you may well end up doing karaoke. Unlike the machine in the pub setup that we the English are used to, most karaoke establishments in Japan consist of private booths which are rented out by the hour. Most places will also have at least one all-you-can-drink option.

Many places, especially places like karaoke establishments where you rent a room, will be open until the small hours of the morning, and will allow you to sleep in one of the rooms – which is just as well because, if you did everything I talked about here in one evening, chances are you’ve missed the last train home.

Onsen

Now THAT looks like a damn good bath…

To the English-speaking ear, “bath” brings to mind one of two methods of cleaning the body – debatably the more relaxing of the two, and the one that some would say amounts to wallowing in ones own filth. The Japanese bath, by contrast, is a place to boil oneself alive in the name of relaxation. And it’s glorious.

All Japanese houses, and most apartments, will have a bathroom with separate shower and bath, and most Japanese families will bathe at least once per day, but here’s the first big difference: Japanese baths are of a different shape than ones you might find in western countries. In general, they tend to be shorter and deeper. Extra features are likely to include a temperature control and a reheating element.

Which leads me to the second difference between the two bathing cultures: the bath water tends to be shared. Part of this stems from the time after the Second World War, at which point Japan was a lot less well-off than it is today, so adapted a number of water- and power-saving customs which are still followed today as matters of principle. Because of this, with no exceptions, one must shower thoroughly before bathing. I’m serious. Not doing so is a very impressive faux pas – especially if you’re the first one in the water.

The last difference I want to bring up about bath time in Japan: the bath is a place, as I mentioned, purely for relaxation. You clean yourself before you enter the water, then sit and soak for a few minutes. The water is invariably very hot, usually around 40 degrees Celsius, and this is one of their ways of dealing with their climate – Japanese winters can be incredibly cold, and a hot bath is the obvious choice to raise your core temperature and not notice the cold as much, whilst during the summer, the air is incredibly hot and humid, and raising your core temperature by bathing makes the weather easier to tolerate.

Of course, bathing is not limited to a bath within the home – public baths, existing as two distinct types, are enduringly popular across Japan. Although they have many similarities, the first type, sento, are simple public bathhouses, whilst the second, onsen, is the better known type, perhaps principally because it is the type one would most expect from a country with as much volcanic activity as Japan: naturally-occurring hot springs.

The process remains largely the same: scrub up, get in water, relax – but the public experience is not for the shy or those unfortunate enough to be ashamed of their bodies. This is because public baths enforce a policy of nudity. Granted, you are allowed to take a small towel in with you, and you might hold it at crotch area whilst walking towards the bath, but you aren’t really supposed to submerge it in the bathwater.

Different bathhouses across the country offer different experiences, and some become, understandably, more popular than others. Close to where I’m living this year, for instance, there exists the Takara no Yu (a largely indoor onsen boasting as one major selling point a bath saturated with iron) and the renowned Arima Onsen (a large complex containing a number of baths with a minor walk between each of them), which is one of the top-rated public bath resorts in the country.

The enduring popularity of onsen and sento, and of regular bathing in the home, tells us all that this is one custom that is not going to go away.

And why should it?

Thickly-Sliced Jason

Thickly-Sliced Jason provides accurate representation of the average kanji-learning experience

Many people assume that the Japanese language is very difficult to learn – on the one hand, it’s no more difficult than any other language I’ve tried so far, but on the other: the writing system. Holy fuck, the writing system.

Japanese grammar can be a bit confusing, having one or two elements that don’t happen in English. For example, the particles – little syllables that essentially mark the grammatical case of the word before. It’s not that they’re difficult to use, it’s just that there are so goddamn many to get the head around, and so many that are similar but different. Wa (は), for instance, marks the topic of the sentence, or the subject where there is a contrast to the previous subject, whilst ga (が) marks the subject otherwise.

Verbs, at least, are easy to wrap the head around in the first instance. They may inflect differently for affirmative and negative in a way that English speakers won’t be used to, but they don’t inflect differently based on person, so there’s one less thing to worry about. I/you/s/he/it/we/they eat(s), for instance, are all “tabemasu” (食べます), whilst I/you/s/he/it/we/they do(es) not eat are all “tabemasen” (食べません). There are, of course, other forms for other purposes, but they all follow a similar pattern to each other and, let’s not forget, Japanese only really has two irregular verbs. Admittedly, do and come are very frequently-used verbs, and go is irregular in one of its forms, but even then, the pattern is similar enough between the two main ones that this isn’t that big an issue, and the te-form of “iku” is the only irregularity there, so it doesn’t tend to cause too many problems.

Written Japanese, on the other hand, does indeed cause problems. Japanese uses 3 main writing systems in conjunction – hiragana, a series of forty six more flowing symbols used for writing native words; katakana, a more rigid-looking series of the same for writing words of foreign origin; and kanji, symbols of Chinese origin which have their own meanings attached. Of course, once you’ve committed the two sets of “kana” to memory, they’re fine – they always read the same way no matter where they appear (except when “ha” is “wa” and “he” is “e”, but those are specific particles only). Kanji, on the other hand, have different ways of being read depending on how they appear: 車, for instance, is “kuruma” when it appears alone, but in compound with another kanji, is pronounced “sha”. The meaning doesn’t change.

For anyone learning Japanese whose native language does not use kanji or any similar symbols, these are bound to be confusing. In late 2014, a Japanese speaking American stand-up comic under the stage name “Atsugiri Jason” (“Atsugiri” meaning “thickly-sliced” with the kanji Mr. Atsugiri uses) gave some examples which I personally enjoy citing in terms of this: 犬 meaning “dog”, despite the breeds popular in Japan not, in fact, being big (大); “four” (四) breaking the pattern set up by “one”, “two” and “three” (一, 二, 三); no sane person wanting to “touch” (触) an “insect” (虫) with “horns” (角); the fact that what “starts” (始) when a “woman” (女) gets on “stage” (台) is unclear from context; and that learning the obnoxiously high number of strokes required to write “depression” (憂鬱) will probably leave you with just that.

Kanji, when taken literally, can do wonders to proper nouns – whether that’s to be taken sarcastically or not depends on the noun in question. For instance, this year I have been living with a family in the city of ‘Treasure-Mound’ (宝塚; Takarazuka) in the ‘Army-Warehouse’ (兵庫; Hyougo) Prefecture, whilst attending university in the ‘East-Open ocean’ (東灘; Higashinada) ward of the neighbouring city of ‘God-Door’ (神戸; Koube). On top of this, I’ve made a great number of friends since I’ve been here, including the ‘New-Castle’ (新城; Shinjou) family, and my classmates ‘Rice field-Village’ (田村; Tamura) and ‘Walking’ (歩; Ayumi). The Japanese, of course, do not think much about the individual meanings of kanji in proper nouns.

Overall, I still don’t think Japanese is all that difficult to learn, but mastery, as with anything, requires a hell of a lot of dedication.

A Shinto shrine and Buddhist temple

A festival event lined up at the torii of the Asakusa shrine (Shinto). Behind them, the main hall of Sensoji temple (Buddhist)

Every Japanese man, as the saying goes, is Shinto when he is born, Christian when he marries, and Buddhist when he dies. Such is religion in Japan.

Japan’s native religion, Shinto (literally meaning something to the effect “the way of gods”) is not really a religion in the strictest sense – more accurate would be to describe it as a set of rituals as, unlike the modern interpretation of religion, there is no holy text or moral code associated with the practice. Instead, Shinto more entails a number of small ritual practices and a reserved respect for nature and all the spirits associated with it. So widespread was this system of faith that, even today, Shinto shrines, large and small, can be found all over the country. I recall walking through a small shopping district in Kobe’s Motomachi area, taking a left and ending up at a shrine within about 10 paces.

Buddhism was introduced to Japan by an embassy from Paekche (a kingdom in what is now southern Korea) in exchange for military help in 552AD, and was, after a rocky start to say the least, officially adopted as a state religion of Japan in 587AD.

It is difficult to properly determine which elements of Japanese religious tradition are their own and which are – for lack of a more appropriate word – imported, not least due to the blending of Buddhism and Shinto that occurred throughout the introduction of the former, especially during the Heian period. It’s unusually common to see a torii (the big red gate structure that marks the entrance to Shinto shrines that looks like it might be a rugby post) at the entrance to Buddhist temples because of this. This is not taking into account the “Honji Suijaku” theory – this was put forward by Kūkai, the founder of the Shingon school of Buddhism, suggesting that Japan’s native Shinto kami are in fact manifestations of Buddhist deities.

In modern Japan, whilst Buddhism is the most prevalent religious tradition, only a minority of the population actually identify themselves as followers of any religious practice, with many simply attending the appropriate religiously-derived services for the point in time. At midnight on New Year’s Eve, for instance, the majority of the Japanese population will go to their nearest Buddhist temple and listen to the one hundred and eight strikes of the bell (representing the 108 earthly desires which keep souls from attaining Nirvana), whilst in the days following this, many will go to Shinto shrines and make their prayers for the new year. In many cases, the two religions have become so thoroughly intertwined that it is possible to participate in both of these traditions at the same site.

Obviously, religion in Japan is not limited to these two of Asian origin. The mid 16th century saw Jesuit missions from Portugal bringing Catholicism to the country, following the merchants from the same country who had previously been welcomed at Kyushu (the southernmost of the four main islands). Christianity spread rapidly through Japan, with converts amongst everyone from peasants to daimyo, and the religion was incredibly popular, until Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Japan’s “second great unifier”, put out a serious edict banning the faith in 1597AD. This, coupled with the twenty-six Franciscans martyred in Nagasaki, and the additional edicts by Tokugawa Ieyasu (and other subsequent members of the Tokugawa Shogunate as part of their policy of national isolationism), meant that Christianity was practiced only in secret until freedom of religion was restored in 1873AD. Today, Christianity remains more popular in western Japan, where the 16th century missionaries were most active.

Religion, it’s safe to say, is a big part of Japan’s cultural identity, even if it isn’t a huge part of people’s everyday lives in the 21st century.