Category Archives: FEATURED

A Trip to Niigata’s Phallic Shoki Festival

Source: Gaijin Pot

Along the Agano river, deep within Niigata Prefecture are several small villages. Each one supposedly participates in maintaining a long religious folk tradition, found dating back to the late Edo period involving deities named Shoki-sama. During the annual Shoki Festival, each village fashions it’s own life-sized deity out of straw giving special attention to its (male) genitalia.

Originally a Chinese deity, Shoki-sama is a so-called ‘demon-queller,’ who guards against illness and evil.

Upon learning about this, I had several questions. Were these local customs still upheld? And what was the significance of the phallus involved? With a brisk chill still in the air from a lingering winter, I headed out with a certain Dr. T to explore these remote areas of the Japanese countryside and investigate further.

Off to Niigata

Going off a clue from a very ratty looking book Dr. T had procured, we set out in our rental car aiming for the old road.

“It shouldn’t be too far from central Niigata”. Dr. T advised me as we came off the motorway.” But I am just a little concerned that our shrine will be buried in a mound of snow. That’s why I brought you along.”

Wonderful. Dr. T got me to catch the first train from Tokyo on a Saturday morning to go and dig out a shrine lost somewhere in the vast countryside of Niigata. I keep my thoughts to myself and take a sip of my morning Blendy coffee, sinking deeper into the passenger seat.

“I hope our map is accurate. There’s a lot of snow-covered shrines out there.” I sulk, already missing my warm bed back home.

Our snow-covered shrine.

Incidentally, Dr. T is the affectionate nickname for the idiosyncratic Dr. Stephen Turnbull. British historian and academic, he’s a specialist in Japanese military …continue reading


In Japan, One Size Does Not Fit All Women

A typical attire when it comes to job hunting for women in Japan

A few months ago, I entered the lecture hall at the women’s university in Tokyo where I teach part-time. My ‘Modern Japanese Culture’ elective is one of my favorite classes, being an eclectic mix of students ranging from first-years to seniors.

I scanned the room as I was greeting the class and could not help but notice that several of the third years were dressed quite differently from normal: white blouses, conservative dark suits, hair carefully smoothed into modest low ponytails and understated makeup. One young woman, who had been sporting auburn hair just the week before, had reverted back to jet black locks.

Typical attire when it comes to job hunting for women in Japan

It was that time of year again—when the students get their first taste of preparing for entry into the workforce down the line.

Job interviews?” I asked them.

No, it’s for our career guidance class,” one replied. “But our teacher makes us dress up as if we were going to an actual interview—for practice.

My students were wearing ‘recruit suits’, the standard ‘uniform’ for job seekers in Japan. In a culture that prizes uniformity, it is essential to show one’s commitment by wearing the correct attire.

The Subtle Art Of Blending In

According to my students, you can get away with a more individual look if applying for a job in the fashion business or with an international firm, but for those seeking employment with a typical corporation, trendy clothing, flashy jewelry, and colorful makeup are strictly out of the question.

If I were to dress differently from everyone, I’d worry that companies wouldn’t take me seriously

This is just one example of Japanese society’s expectations and pressure on women to conform to a ‘one-size-fits-all’ standard of appearance. I took the opportunity to use the recruit suits as a topic for discussion. The …continue reading


Kanji Cheat Sheet: Finding Vegan and Halal Products at the Supermarket in Japan

Source: Gaijin Pot

In the last 10 years, and increasingly so in the last three, the booming numbers of visitors to Japan have spurred a greater understanding of different eating habits, including vegan and halal diets. In major cities across Japan, the number of vegan-friendly and halal-observant restaurants has blossomed, a huge improvement over the situation when I first moved to Japan all those years ago.

…even if the label doesn’t show any animal products, there may be traces of things like fish broth…

That being said, food labeling in supermarkets and convenience stores is trailing behind many other countries. Part of this is definitely a language issue. We certainly can’t blame Japanese companies for labeling their products in Japanese, or for covering imported food labels with Japanese ones so locals can read them.

However, there is also a nasty little secret behind food labels in Japan. When extracts and additives fall below a certain percentage, food companies are not required by law to include them on the label.

This means, even if the label doesn’t show any animal products, there may be traces of things like fish broth, milk powder or weird animal-based amino acids lurking in your food. Buyer beware.

How to Shop in Japan as a Vegan

Of course, you can stick to fresh veggies, but for packaged food, there are some kanji to look out for.

My recommendation for everyone living in Japan is actually to avoid supermarkets as much as possible and shop at independent stores. A local grocer is likely to have fresher, tastier fruit and veggies—also less plastic waste. A neighborhood tofu maker will actually be able to tell you what goes into their product since they make it.

However, I recognize that this is not always …continue reading


Internationalising Japan’s higher education sector

A Japanese school teacher teaching a class at a junior high school in Tochigi, north of Tokyo, 14 April 2005 (Photo: Reuters/Yuriko Nakao).

Author: Sae Shimauchi, Tokyo Metropolitan University

January and February decides the fate of Japanese students preparing for university entrance exams. This year’s high schoolers have been through a particularly stressful period because of policy changes concerning English in the entrance exam. In 2013, the Prime Minister’s Office published a policy document titled ‘Japan is Back‘. The strategy included the introduction of private English exams (like IELTS and TOEFL) aimed at revitalising Japanese society by nurturing ‘global human resources’.

Rates of English competency in Japan are generally low. Many people believe this stems from the education system (which concentrates on teaching grammar and reading) and the university entrance exam (which ignores students’ speaking and writing skills). The introduction of private English exams was justified as a means of assessing students’ English skills comprehensively.

The idealistic policy was based on the assumption that comprehension skills will improve if university entrance exam focus on assessing students’ listening and writing skills. Yet there has been no evidence-based discussion to support this assumption. Changing the entrance exam will not directly lead to educational innovation or skill development — more fundamental changes, such as class-size reduction and teacher training, are required.

The use of private English exams has also been widely criticised as problematic in terms of access to testing locations and higher examination fees. Public concerns concentrate on equal access to education — many fear that the exams could widen economic and geographic disparity.

The private English exams had originally been scheduled to be introduced in the 2020 academic year, with second-year high school students suffering the greatest impact from the government’s abrupt decision. But on 24 October 2019 Koichi Hagiuda, the Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, appeared on television and said that students should compete for university spots …continue reading


Starbucks Japan’s New Sakura Milk Latte is Sweetness Overload

Source: Gaijin Pot
Starbucks Japan seasonal Sakura Milk Latte Drink 2020

Like clockwork, and ahead of the sakura (cherry blossom) season by nearly a month, Starbucks Japan has released this year’s sakura flavored latte to the cherry blossom craving masses. Not one above the sakura madness, I went out and tried these new pink concoctions and left with a budding feeling to make an appointment with my dentist.

Photo: Aaron Baggett
This year’s offering are a “Sakura Milk Latte” and “Sakura Milk Pudding Frappuccino.”

The sakura latte is Japan’s answer to the USA’s famous pumpkin spice latte, which is essentially melted ice cream in a cup that basic people say is their “favorite” when you ask them if they drink coffee. For 2020 Starbucks rolled out a new “Sakura Milk Latte” and a “Sakura Milk Pudding Frappuccino.”

What do cherry blossoms taste like?

If I had to describe the flavor of sakura, it would be cherries dipped in condensed milk and sprayed with floral fabric softener. It isn’t half bad, really. Starbucks’ sakura drinks, however, use strawberry juice. The flavor doesn’t really taste like sakura but go ahead and call me #basic because I like it. I also like all the overpriced, Japan-only, pink, sakura-themed tumblers and merch because I am a consumer zombie.

Photo: Aaron Baggett
Sakura tumblers and coffee for my fellow consumer zombies.
Photo: Aaron Baggett

The latte is rather good if you’re really into sweet drinks, and the cute pink flower petals—actually crunchy cereal—are a nice touch. It’s perfect for other basic people who enjoy watching The Office and list eating, drinking, and traveling as hobbies on their Tinder profile. While I wouldn’t call it coffee—its ingredients are listed as sakura flower powder and strawberry juice topped …continue reading