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WEBLETTER - Features Archive
The e-Japan Journal includes regularly occurring features that invite reader interaction. The Last Month Quiz poses questions about news stories that relate to Japan. Ask the Monoshiri invites readers to submit questions about Japan and Japanese culture, and tries to answer them. Past entries for these features appear below.
Last Month in Japan
Month of Quiz Questions and Answers
October 2006
  1. Iva Toguri D'Aquino, who received a presidential pardon in 1977 for her coerced contributions to Japanese propaganda during WWII, passed away in Chicago last month. Although colloquially known as "Tokyo Rose," what was Toguri's actual broadcasting moniker? Orphan Ann (short for "Announcer")
  2. In September, The World Economic Forum released its Global Competitiveness Report, 2006-2007. Japan rose to 7th place worldwide. What was its rank in last year's report? 10th
  3. The Japanese Imperial Family saw the birth of its first male heir in more than 40 years when a son was born to Prince Akishino and Princess Kiko. The boy was named Hisahito and given the umbrella pine as his personal symbol in a formal naming ceremony. How many days after his birth was the ceremony held? Seven
September 2006
  1. Japanese quadriplegic Seiji Uchida came within 500 yards of reaching the summit of Briethorn mountain in Switzerland with the help of his friend, Takeshi Matsumoto, and a Hybrid Assistive Limb (HAL).
  2. Japan will scrap its current bar exam for lawyers in 2011 and replace it with an easier version expected to have about a 50% pass rate. The current bar exam has a pass rate of about 3%.
  3. During his recent visit to Kazakhstan, PM Koizumi signed a development agreement with Kazakh President Nazarbayev for Uranium.
August 2006
  1. Takeru Kobayashi captured the 2006 Nathan's Hot Dog-Eating Contest by eating 53.75 hot dogs and buns in 12 minutes. How many consecutive years has Kobayashi won the contest? 6
  2. Miss Japan, Kurara Chibana, was runner up in the 2006 Miss Universe contest held on July 23. How many languages does Chibana-san speak? 4 (Japanese, English, Spanish, and French)
  3. A Japanese cargo ship warded off a pirate attack in the Strait of Malacca using what make-shift deterrent? Firehoses
July 2006
  1. Which celebrity's home did Prime Minister Koizumi and President Bush visit during the former's recent visit to the United States? Elvis Presley 's
  2. Japanese experts in the latest “toilet technology” will travel to which country to train professional toilet cleaners in an effort to boost their wages? Singapore
  3. Which Japanese watch company partnered with Microsoft to develop a wristwatch capable of displaying news and stock quotes sent via FM radio waves? Citizen
June 2006
  1. Japanese 7-11 stores introduced canned oxygen to their product line-up. Initially, the gas will come in what two scents? Strong mint and Grapefruit
  2. Japanese restaurants are searching for replacements after China stated it would eventually eliminate exports of what ubiquitous restaurant item? Waribashi (disposable wooden chopsticks).
  3. According to a Save the Children report released in May, Japan ranks as the country with the lowest infant mortality in the world with a rate of just how many deaths per thousand? 1.8
May 2006
  1. As part of Dove's "Campaign for Real Beauty," the company covered which Japanese exhibition hall with huge photo panels of Japanese models? Pacifico Yokohama Exhibition Hall
  2. Which massive retailer opened its first store in Japan after pulling out of the country 20 years ago? Ikea
  3. Former Japanese soldier Ishinosuke Uwano was reunited with his family after more than 60 years. Where had Iwano been living? Zhitomyr, Ukraine
April 2006
  1. Trying to meet Kyoto Protocal obligations, Japan's Environment Ministry dictated that lights in the Ministry must be out by what time? 8 pm
  2. Japan defeated Cuba 10-6 in the World Baseball Classic. Which Japanese player was named MVP for the tournament? Daisuke Matsuzaka
  3. A recent report by an internet security company ranked countries in terms of spam as a percent of email received. Where did Japan rank on this list? This question was withdrawn due to numerous conflicting sources
March 2006
  1. A Tokyo court convicted a founder of what terrorist group for her role in a 1974 attack on the French Embassy in The Hague? Fusako Shigenobu was a founder of the Japanese Red Army
  2. What was the nickname of the satellite launched into orbit from the Uchinoura Space Centre in southern Japan? Akari
  3. It was reported that 4-year-old Japanese princess Aiko is particularly fond of which sport? sumo
February 2006
  1. What aspect of Japanese culture is Miami Heat coach Pat Riley hoping will improve Shaquille O'Neal's game? Sumo wrestling
  2. Kabuki actor Kotaro Hayashi recently adopted what prestigious kabuki stage name? Tojuro Sakata
  3. What was the theme of this year's Utakai Hajime (Imperial New Year's Poetry Reading)? Smile (Emi)
January 2006
  1. New software for managing data in cell phones will include characters from what long-running Japanese anime series? Mobile Suite Gundam
  2. Japan has lifted the 2-year ban on US beef, allowing cattle of what age to enter Japanese markets? 20 months or younger
  3. The Japanese Supreme Court recently ruled that expenditures by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government relating to a certain event in 1990 amounting to roughly 50 million yen were not unconstitutional. To what event were these expenditures linked? Emperor Akihito's coronation
December 2005
  1. Japanese company Koyo is expanding production in Hawaii to keep up with demand of what "nutritious beverage?"
    desalinated water pumped from the sea floor
  2. Japan narrowly lost its bid to host the 2011 world championships of which sport?
  3. What gift did President Bush present to PM Koizumi during his November visit to Japan?
    a Segway scooter
November 2005
  1. Japanese scientists Tsunemi Kubodera and Kyoichi Mori made news with their exclusive photos of what reclusive animal?
    giant squid
  2. What is the name of Nissan's concept car that features a body capable of rotating 360 degrees in order eliminate ever having to back up?
  3. What places did Japanese runners Masako Chiba and Eri Hayakawa take (among women) in the Chicago Marathon?
    3rd and 5th, respectively
October 2005
  1. Which Japanese manufacturer unveiled in September the first motorcycle equipped with an airbag?
  2. A Japanese baby returned home 9 months after undergoing a a six-organ transplant at a Miami hospital. The operation had to be done outside Japan because of a law that prohibits people under what age from being organ donors?
    15 years
  3. Which Japanese hockey player recently signed a 2-year deal with the Los Angeles Kings?
    Yutaka Fukufuji
Ask the Monoshiri
Question Monoshiri's Response
I would like to know more about carved, stone items found at most temples in Japan.  Usually there are many of them in single rows lining the sides of paths. They have tapered tops; have square holes cut through the top portion; sit on round cylinder bases; and are anywhere from 3' to 7' tall.  It is my general understanding that incense is burned inside of the top cut-out holes to honor ancestors. Please tell me more about these items.
- Richard Stump

The objects you describe (very accurately) are ishi-doro, or stone lanterns. As you say, they are used widely on the grounds of temples and shrines, commonly along footpaths. However, they are NOT generally used for burning incense, but for housing candles in order to light paths or grounds. Many are lit only on special occasions. Ishi-doro have also been adopted for use in secular contexts, notably in tea gardens.

The lanterns are usually made of granite or syenite (similar to granite, but with very little or no quartz) and come in many different shapes and sizes. The most prized examples appear quite weathered, with lichen or moss growing on them.

I will be traveling to Miyako Island in November and want to know how/if the daily life on the island is much different than on the mainland?
- Cynthia Helms

Miyako Island (Miyakojima) is among the largest of the roughly 160 islands - including Okinawa Island - that make up Okinawa Prefecture. On Miyako and throughout the prefecture, the fundamentals of life are essentially the same as life on the four main islands of Japan. They speak the same language, eat many of the same foods, live in basically similar houses, and wear quite similar clothes.

However, there are also many subtle distinctions. Although they speak the same language, there is a local Okinawan dialect. While rice and seafood are prominent in their diet, these can be prepared with different flavors, and supplemented with Okinawan vegetables. The houses are Japanese houses, adapted to a subtropical climate. And the clothes, well... Japanese usually wear very western-style clothing anyway; Okinawa is no different. In many ways, Okinawa Prefecture is to Japan as Hawaii is to the United States. Obviously, Hawaii has some unique features: "Aloha," pig roasts and taro root, lanai on which to enjoy the beautiful beaches and weather, and grass skirts and Hawaiian shirts. But they also speak English, cook burgers, watch TV, and wear shorts and t-shirts. There are distinct aspects to Okinawan culture, and I encourage you to learn more at the official Okinawa Prefecture website, but in terms of daily life, it's very similar to Japan.

However, there are some stereotypes about Miyakojimans that may be of interest. They are said to be very warm-hearted and hospitable people who enjoy taking care of others. This is often a trait associated with Japanese people in general, so when Japanese people apply it to Miyakojimans, it may be wise to prepare to be smothered in hospitality. Miyakojima is also famous (in Japan) for a sake-like fermented rice drink called Awamori. Originally from Thailand, many Japanese breweries still use Thai rice to make it. Related to this hallmark product, the people of the island are considered to be the strongest drinkers in Japan. In fact, there is a custom called otori, which seems rather like an entire evening of toasts. People in a group simply take turns making very brief remarks and then drinking shots of Awamori.

Of course, like all stereotypes, these should be regarded as gross generalizations with many exceptions. But it may provide an interesting starting point for your experience.

How does the cuisine of the Ainu differ from that of the rest of Japan?
- Anonymous
The Ainu - an ethnic minority indigenous to Hokkaido and other parts of northern Japan - have a cuisine distinct from that of the ethnic majority Japanese. Small game animals such as weasels, rabbits, and tanuki (raccoon-dog); larger animals including bear, deer, and seals; and fish such as salmon, feature in their diet. Common crops include deccan grass, millet, wheat, buckwheat, and beans, and they make use of a wild garlic grass known as kitopiro (gyouja ninniku to the ethnic Japanese). Inevitably, however, the customs - including cuisine - of the Ainu have been influenced by the native Japanese. Today, they do consume cuttlefish, kelp, sea urchin, and shellfish, as well as rice.
How many Japanese movies have won Academy Awards? What is the highest-grossing Japanese film in the United States?
- Anonymous

According to the Academy Awards website, five feature films of solely Japanese production have won Academy Awards.

  1. Rashomon (1951), for Best Foreign Language Film (Honorary)
  2. Gate of Hell (1954), for Best Foreign Language Film (Honorary) and Costume Design
  3. Samurai, the Legend of Musashi (1955), for Best Foreign Language Film (Honorary)
  4. Ran (1985), for Best Costume Design
  5. Spirited Away (2002), for Best Animated Feature Film

Regarding the highest-grossing Japanese film, it's difficult to say what qualifies as a "Japanese" movie. Many films are made "in association with" movie studios from different countries and include producers of various nationalities. But even discounting these joint productions, should we count films such as "Pokemon" as Japanese films? They may be based on Japanese characters, but the writers and directors are not Japanese? It's a difficult question, so rather than answer it outright, I will simply report the top 5 films (not counting joint productions) and let you, the readers, decide if they are really "Japanese" or not...

  1. Pokemon 2000: $43.7 million
  2. Pokemon 3: The Movie: $17 million
  3. Spirited Away: $10 million
  4. Shall We Dance?: $9.6 million
  5. Howl's Moving Castle: $4.7 million

Data comes from

Will you please give me a little background information about yokai? Yokai is one of the topics for research at the International Research Center for Japanese Studies in Kyoto and I was curious about it.
- Neal Siegellak
Yokai is a very broad word that refers to any kind of supernatural being. The constituent kanji are YO, which means "attractive, bewitching," and KAI, which means "mystery, apparition." Yokai can refer to both horrifying things, such as ghosts and demons, as well as more playful and innocuous creatures, such as the animate dust bunnies in My Neighbor Totoro. Often translated as "ghost" or "apparition," yokai are probably more accurately described by the broader phrase "supernatural phenomena." For a wonderful sampling of yokai, you can check out Takashi Miike's film The Great Yokai War.
How did the eating of raw fish come about in Japan?
- Anonymous

Raw fish is not unique to Japan, but appears in most all cuisines where supremely fresh fish is available. The practice of eating raw fish in Japan probably predates history. However, there are a couple of ways that eating raw fish resonates with other Japanese cultural values.

The idea of purity is prevalent in Japanese society and religion. Fish, in order to be eaten raw, must be pristinely clean and fresh, thus conforming to the notion of purity. Aesthetically, Japanese cuisine (and even art) places great importance on simplicity and revelation of true essences. Eating fish raw, then, allows one to experience the most natural tastes and textures of the food.

Is it possible for foreigners to become police officers in Japan with the right training?
- Enshea Daniel
Technically speaking, no, it is not possible for a foreigner to be a police officer. Police must be citizens of Japan. However, it is possible for a foreigner to naturalize as a Japanese citizen, and then become a police officer. I don't know of any examples of this, but there are similar stories of naturalized citizens being elected to public office.

Anthony Bianchi, a native Brooklynite, was elected to the city council of Inuyama in Aichi Prefecture. (See his Japanese website here: ). Another such story is that of Finnish-born Tsurunen Marutei (a Japanese version of Turunen Martti). Marutei-san is the first openly foreign-born member of the Japanese Diet (a Korean had served, but presented himself as Japanese).

Just viewed "Nobody Knows," a true story of four Japanese children abandoned by their young mother, and raised by their oldest brother.  Very tragic story, which was hard to believe would happen in Japan.  Whatever happened to them?
- Jean Inouye
The actual incident that inspired the film happened in 1988 and was known as "The Affair of the Four Abandoned Children in Nishi-Sugamo." Interestingly, searching for this phrase yielded only movie reviews of Nobody Knows (Dare mo shiranai) . It seems the movie has come to overshadow the original events that inspired it.

In fact, the true story is perhaps sadder than the movie. The second daughter was actually killed by two friends of the son, who was indicted for bodily injury resulting in death. The court found that the two friends were mainly responsible for the murder, so they were taken to a reformatory. The son was placed in a school for physically and mentally handicapped children, but it is unclear what has happened to him. The mother was sentenced to three years' imprisonment. The two girls were initially sent to the same school as the son, but after her release from prison, the mother regained custody of them. Beyond this, we're not sure what happened.

This being the year of the dog, are there any different foods, rituals, or colors of clothing that are not the same for the year of the rooster?
- Spring Disney
As far as I know, there are no specific foods, rituals, or colors associated with the different animal years in the Chinese zodiac (which the Japanese also observe). However, there is at least one ancient ritual associated with certain confluences in the zodiac. The zodiac is a little complicated, so this requires a bit of explanation...

As most people are aware, the Chinese zodiac consists of an endlessly repeating cycle of 12 years, each named for a certain animal. But, this can also be combined with a system of 5 elements (wood, fire, earth, metal, and water). Multiplying the 12 years by the 5 elements yields a 60-year rotation - or "sexagenary cycle." For example, 2006 is a Fire-Dog year, while the previous Dog year (1994) was associated with the element Wood.

Now, in addition to representing years, the zodiac can also represent a cycle of 12 days, and with the 5 elements, a cycle of 60 days. Certain of these days (combinations of animal and element) have been considered to be more or less lucky. In particular, days when the monkey and metal coincide - called koshin - are considered especially unfortunate. That's where the ritual comes in. In Taoist traditions based on the Zodiac calendar, on the eve of a Koshin Day, three worms believed to dwell in the human body escape from the body while the host sleeps and visit the Court of Heaven to report on the sleeping person's sins. Depending on this report, the court might decide to shorten that individual's life. To prevent this, people stayed awake all night on the eve of a koshin day so that the worms could not escape. This practice eventually became known as the koshin wake.

At one time, it was very common to try to divine the future based on the zodiac, and I can only assume that there have been many more such rituals in the centuries-long history of the zodiac. However, they are certainly not common in Japan today.

Why does Japan seem to have such a fascination with things "cute?" After watching a lot of anime and dramas, and living in Japan, I've seen many variations and permutations on this mentality. It reaches (what seems like) almost all facets of life in Japan.
- Richard White
It's true that a certain segment of Japanese fashions tends to run to the "cute" end of things: diminutive, cartoonish, garish colors, infantile body types, etc. And it's also true that in Japan, cute things appear more often in adult settings than they generally would in the United States. The mascots, for example, of the Olympic games and the recent Aichi Expo, were cute and cuddly cartoon... well, not animals, but creatures anyway. And similar childish figures grace advertisements for voting, banking and other adult, mature activities.

Perhaps the most obvious example of the cute phenomenon is Sanrio's Hello Kitty, which debuted in 1974 on stationery products. Today, Hello Kitty appears on everything from women's handbags to men's neckties, and from toasters to sub-compact automobiles. The appeal of this character seems to transcend gender, age, and class boundaries.

But the question is, why the fascination with things cute? The truth is, I'm not really sure. Sociologists have tried to find specific causes for this "cute" effect, including passive rebellion (regressing to cuteness as a way of rejecting adult social structures) and harnessing the sympathetic appeal of the weak and innocent. But none of these explanations encompasses the entirety of the trend. Perhaps there were specific reasons for the cute appeal during its flowering in the 1970s, but now it is simply trendy and popular and has taken on an intrinsic power of its own. To be sure, this is a topic that could accommodate much more investigation.

I read that the western cherry tree has been imported into Japan for fruit-growing purposes.  Do the Japanese ever eat the fruit of the native sakura?
- Gregory Lind
In simple terms, the answer is "No, people do not eat the fruit of the sakura." However, in your question you asked if they "ever" eat the fruit, and so I must add a bit of explanation and disclaimer.

The tree known as sakura is not just one tree, but several species of flowering cherry trees in the genus Prunus, including both natural and cultivated varieties and hybrids. In fact, the term sakura includes some 300 different kinds of trees. Among the most famous and widely planted varieties in Japan are the Yamazakura and the Somei Yoshino. Certainly some of these varieties have fruits that can be eaten, but for all practical purposes, sakura refers to ornamental flowering trees, the fruits of which are not very much fun to eat.

Interestingly, though the fruits are not eaten, the leaves and blossoms of certain varieties often are. Some leaves are pickled and salted and wrapped around mochi (rice cakes) to make... sakuramochi . And the blossoms can be salted and steeped in hot water to make an infusion called sakura-yu . However, care must be taken because many members of this genus produce poisonous cyanide compounds; so, please don't try to sample any part of a sakura tree yourself. Except, that is, by viewing it.

What is the difference between a kimono and tokasan?
- Tina
Literally, kimono simply means clothing (ki = wear, mono = thing). In common usage, however, the word refers to the traditional robe worn by Japanese people. There are various kinds of kimono, from very formal and heavily embroidered silk uchikake, to simple, informal, lightweight yukata.

The Toukasan on the other hand, is not an article of clothing, but an annual festival held in Hiroshima over three days - the first Friday, Saturday, and Sunday in June. The festival - also known as the Yukata Festival - is supposed to mark the time of year to begin wearing yukata, or lightweight summer kimono. It's sort of like the fashion guideline about wearing white only after Memorial Day. Except this is a huge festival - one of the 3 largest festivals held in Hiroshima each year. It is so big and famous, in fact, that it even has its own official website: (Scroll down the menu on the left of the site for a link to the English version).