All posts by Mari Yamamoto & Jake Adelstein

Japan’s Secret Shame (The Story Behind The Story)

Shiori Ito is a brave journalist who has taken on Japan’s rape culture and has pursued justice in her own case. The BBC released a documentary “Japan’s Secret Shame” about Japan’s lack of ability to deal with sexual assault in the country and why her accused assailant was allowed to walk away, even after an arrest warrant on charges of rape were issued by the police. The documentary is hard to view outside of the UK, so if you’d like to know mere, here’s everything you should know until it’s released here. Many of these articles were written for The Daily Beast, which has been supportive of the investigative journalism behind these stories.
Also, it should be noted that weekly magazine, Shukan Shincho (週刊新潮), was the first periodical to write about this story and pulled no punches in accused the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of blocking a rape investigation.
Below is a list of articles that we’ve written on the case, some at a time, when no other major news media outlet would touch the story.
The stories are in chronological order here and the final entry is being updated when possible.
The cover-up (June 2017)
Shiori Ito came forward to talk about her rape and the lack of investigation of sexual assault in Japan.

Japan’s Board Game “The Hellish Game Of Life” Is Terrifyingly Realistic


Life in Japanese Hell.
Life in Japanese Hell.

So you’ve just arrived in Japan and you’re experiencing culture shock. Will you ever acclimate? If you want to understand Japanese life, try playing “The Game of Life.” It’s not the US version and if you really want to understand the game, play the SUPER PAINFUL GAME OF LIFE edition. It’s as close to as you may come to living in Japan’s dystopian society without being Japanese.

THE GAME OF LIFE known popularly here as “人生ゲーム” (jinsei game) was first released in 1968 amidst Japan’s period of rapid economic growth and has released 55 versions since, always staying relevant by reflecting the trends of the times. The basic scenario of the game has not changed which is to get a job, get married, have a family, buy a house and all the while aiming at becoming a millionaire. The winner is determined by the amount of money each player has at the end of the game, just like in real life (maybe?).

The “SUPER PAINFUL GAME OF LIFE (人生ゲーム極辛) was released in September 2014 again, reflecting the times in Japanese society where nothing seems to go right. Taxes are raised, evil corporations are everywhere, blogs are trolled and taking into consideration the lowest marriage rates in Japan, the game also has the record lowest marriage rates for the players. Many of the blocks are full of stressful events that hit hard on the wallet, and the board is peppered with “panic cards” where you only get half of your salary and also pitfalls where you must draw a “trouble card” which as you can imagine in one way or other blindsides you, forcing you to pay painful amounts as a result.

Here are some of the life troubles, you, the adventurous player will encounter:

-Busted for copy and pasting a letter of apology

-the new hire at your temp job quit in a nano second

-your parents read your secret poem

-you were walking with your head held high (上を向いて歩こう) to keep your tears at bay and you fell into the gutter

-you get hiring offers from all the infamous black companies (like 711, DENTSU)

-you get hired as a love letter ghost writer

-so lonely…coming home past midnight to dinner alone

-your SNS accounts get hacked and your blog is under fire from trolls

-you end up working for a dark corporation or “ブラック企業” (burakku kigyo)


The omnipresence of “the dark corporation” is an essential part of the new game of life in modern Japan. As with The Game of Life, SUPER PAINFUL GAME OF LIFE” portrays the realities of modern day Japan. Hence, the references to Japan’s exploitive and inhumane corporate behemoths and the notion of job insecurity and childlessness, all hits a little too close to home. For instance, dark corporations have become the symbol of all that is wrong in Japan today and in 2013, a year before the release of the SUPER PAINFUL GAME OF LIFE sure enough it was among the top trending words of the year. So what are dark corporations? They are defined as companies that “typically hire young employees and then force them to work large amounts of overtime without extra pay. While specifics may vary from company to company, conditions are generally poor and workers are subject to verbal abuse, sexual harassment and bullying” according to Haruki Konno head of Posse a group that helps young people with working environment problems. In a word, it’s a buffet of horrors with every kind of HR nightmare: sexual harassment? Pawahara(power harassment from your superiors)? Karoshi(death by overwork) for unpaid overtime? Take your pick!  One would hope that this was a punishment that only existed in board games but no, as the giggles subside it dawns on you that this is the reality of life in Japan.

The even darker reality is perhaps that even a job at a dark enterprise is better than no job at all in Japan these days. The game imitates life in the sense that if you do not land on a block that allows you to get a job, you will proceed as a “Fureetar”(a neo-English coined word for unemployed people) deprived of  the good salary and benefits your peers enjoy. Such is life in Japan, if you do not manage to obtain a job straight out of college, that is, if you had the advantage of going to college to begin with, you may as well consider your career over. Even more so nowadays that the number of regular employees is roughly 60 percent, a significant decline from the 85 percent in 1985. The easing of labor dispatch laws has caused this shift in job security and people are willing to put up with compromising conditions which is a breeding ground for the dark companies to flourish and a cause of the ever-growing working poor.

If you’re going to live in Japan, you might as well learn what’s up ahead, and learn to enjoy it. This game will certainly help. Good luck!

Samurai Fashion in New York City Until March 25th 2017

Samurais are usually known for their honor code, ever wonder what their fashion code was ?
It turns out, they had just as elaborate a fashion code when it comes to clothing too.



hpgrp GALLERY NEW YORK is currently holding an exhibition “Japanese Samurai Fashion”. It displays mixed media images by Japan based artist and cultural interpreter Everett Kennedy Brown. In conjunction with the March anniversary of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake the exhibition will be held from February 28th to March 25th, 2017. Using wet plate collodion photography and advanced digital techniques Brown presents a multilayered visual experience that offers uniquely fresh and powerful insight into the rich cultural tapestry of samurai fashion, as it continues to exist in the lives of the people living in Soma, Fukushima (the site of the recent nuclear disaster).

Highly recommended if you are in NYC!

About the artist: Mr. Brown is formerly the Tokyo Bureau Chief of European Pressphoto Agency, during his 25 years in Japan, Brown has been fortunate to travel extensively throughout the country and photograph many uniquely remarkable Japanese people. His work has appeared in National Geographic, GEO, The New York Times, The London Times, TIME magazine and other major media worldwide. His wet plate photographic images have been exhibited at museums and galleries worldwide and have been featured at the DAVOS summer and winter conferences.


434 Greenwich Street, New York, NY 10013 (Entrance is on Vestry street)
Hours: Tue–Sat 11 am–6 pm or by appointment

Zeppin(絶品) #2/The Eyeglass Frames Of Sabae. Looking ahead to a better Japan?

One small city in the heart of Japan produces 96% of all glass frames in Japan and 20% of the world’s eyeglass frames, including high-end brands you’d never think were made in Japan. Sabae, located in Fukui Prefecture is an anomaly in Japan but perhaps it could be a model for the future.

The Hollywood of Eyewear : The city boasts a sign likened to that of Hollywodd
The Hollywood of Eyewear : The city boasts a sign likened to that of mecca of film

The eyeglass frame industry, which has been the heartbeat of Fukui prefecture for a century along with textiles, started in 1905 in Shono, a poor farming village often buried in snow during the winter months. It was here that two brothers Gozaemon and Kohachi Masunaga searched in vain to “somehow improve the lives of the people of Shono”, leading them to the idea of producing glasses to secure more income during the snowy farming off-season. They brought over skilled craftsmen from Osaka to teach the villagers the methods of glasses production.

As the popularization of print literature happened the demand for reading glasses grew, and the eyeglass manufacturing began to boom all over Fukui. It began with the Masunaga factory and spread from Fukui City to Sabae City. In Sabae, the entire city became engaged in the production process, utilizing the farming methods and teamwork they had cultivated and eventually dividing the labor to specialized units, which became the basis of the city-run production model which still exists today.

Although the manufacturing took a pause during WW2, the demands and production grew steadily post war. Subsequently in 1981, the industry set out on a quest to research and develop the production of frames using titanium, a material that was only used for airplanes and rockets. Dedication and hard work overcame the obstacles of the machining difficulties and Sabae succeeded in developing the world’s first titanium frames, allergy free and also the lightest and sturdiest. This defined Sabae as the world leader of high tech and high quality eyewear, a title they hold proud to this day.

The city’s legacy is on display at the Sabae Megane Museum(Eyeglass Museum) where one can see the evolution of the designs and materials along with the machinery and artifacts.

Walking through the space, one cannot help but wonder why a seemingly innocuous small city in the “へそ(belly)”of Japan birthed such innovative ideas and the technology to support it.

IMG_4659Ryozo Takeuchi, Chairman of Takeuchi Optical Co.Ltd(founded in 1932) and the President of Fukui Optical Association, brings up several key points. “Since this was a small city, compared to larger cities, wages were lower so women were inclined to work for a double income. Before being the epicenter of the eyeglass industry, Fukui had a textile industry and it was the norm for everyone including women to work. Families often lived three generations under one roof which made it easier for mothers to work.” Remarkably, Takeuchi Optical also had their own in-house nursery for working mothers back in 1960, which is now closed down due to lack of demand. This, given the lack of day care and obstacles women face when working fulltime and childrearing today, seems like the perfect scenario in which Abe’s “Womenomics” would actually function.

Takeuchi is a charming man, who once interned for Asahi Television, and has a considerable amount of showmanship from the experience. The enthusiasm he has for his job is contagious and he manages to express the sense of community in Sabae eloquently.

Takeuchi explains,  “So when you have a small city where everyone is working in competing companies, if one company develops a new method or technique, it will be shared at the dinner table thus making it impossible to keep a trade secret. So for better or for worse, our city and industry is the product of a small community sharing knowledge and growing together.”

In terms of the city’s success with innovation, he proudly walks us through his factory pointing to all the Japan made machinery which upholds many of the 250 to 300 titanium frame making processes. “A lot of it has to do with Japanese work ethics and aesthetics. By dividing the labor, manufacturers of each part became extremely specialized and skilled which elevated the end product and also allowed them to constantly seek improvement with materials and techniques. We also have incredibly talented engineers. As a result, we have the precision and technology to make adjustments by the millimeter which cannot be said for other manufacturers.”

IMG_4671That being said, Sabae is not without its problems. Many retail chains stocked with China made cheap products have opened up in the recent years, threatening the very identity of world leading eyeglass makers. Domestic shipment value has shrunk to 60% of the golden era figures, 360 billion yen. This, however, did not hinder Fukui, from making the decision to commit to providing quality over low prices. Many local original brands that boast designs ranging from timeless to the newest trend, made with incredible attention to detail occupy most of the space in local eyewear stores. Made with titanium and newly developed material such as duralmin, make for glasses that are completely weightless yet stay snug on the nose which eliminates the annoyance of constantly sliding your specs up to its designated position. Furthermore, with the technology in titanium molding, they have taken on medical tool manufacturing which can be produced in the same production line as the eyewear.

In a world of automation, the delicate craftsmanship of gently coaxing titanium into desired intricate designs is here to stay. Takeuchi stresses “it is important that quality is maintained, we make high end products in low quantity so it is essential that titanium is treated with human hands with the utmost care, it will never be all automated. Japan is cutout for small businesses like this, that can be passed down for generations.”

His words hold weight, as when one looks at the numbers, they speak volumes. Fukui had the highest happiness level out of all prefectures in a 2016 survey. They rank highest for the percentage of double income families(56.8%) with 0 children awaiting a spot in day care. They rank number 1 in regular employment(67.3%,national average 61.8%) and second in job openings to applicant ratio(1.59, national average 1.20). Longevity rates come in top 5 for both men and women. Children have high scores in tests ranking 1st to 4th in different subjects. They have an across the board 1st place for sports. More people are homeowners (76.5%, national average 61.7%) of significantly larger houses.

It almost seems like a forgotten utopia that many in modern day Japan could only dream of. Perhaps, if Japan took a moment to see the world through Sabae’s eyeglasses, there maybe a lesson to be learned that would lead the once great nation back to prosperity again. After all, they are doing something right; they may have just the prescription.

Cheers to the innovative spirit of the Sabae people, thank you Mr. Takeuchi, we learned a lot
Cheers to the innovative spirit of the Sabae people, thank you Mr. Takeuchi, we learned a lot

Zeppin(絶品) #1/The Iron Men Of Iwate

At Japan Subculture Research Center, this year we are starting a series looking at the best services and products offered by Japan, our Zeppin (絶品)Series. In Japan, one of a kind objects or nearly perfect things are often called 絶品 (zeppin).It comes from two words 絶 which means to cut off, to end, and also to refuse. It can also mean “there is nothing better” and thus the best, when combined with other words, as in 絶景 (zekkei/lovely view). Pin (品) means “a thing” or “substance.”

The much-loved iron kettles of Iwachu
The much-loved iron kettles of Iwachu


In this series on Zeppin, we will focus not only what they are but how they are created and their history. For the first item of our series, while we were still enthusiastic, we decided to strike while the iron is hot and write about the much loved cast ironware of Iwate. In particular, we decided to look at the style known as Nambu Tekki (南部鉄器) which refers to all ironware made in the former Nambu region.

The history of cast iron pots also known as 鉄瓶 (tetsubin) in Japan is said to go back to the 17th century when Sencha (leaf green tea) was introduced to Japan from China. However, when we trace the roots of Nambu Tekki specifically in Morioka City Iwate Prefecture, it leads us back to the Nambu Clan leader Nobunao Nambu, who lived during the tumultuous Sengoku period(戦国時代) to Azuchi-Momoyama period(安土桃山時代) of Japan’s feudal system, and towards the end of his life, ruled the Iwate and Aomori regions which were called the Nambu Chiho. The Shogun is said to have loved tea ceremony and invited a Kamashi(釜師), teakettle craftsman from Kyoto, to produce kettles for them. The kettles were named Nambu Kama(南部釜) which became the roots of what Nambu Tekki has blossomed into today. Under the clan’s patronage, and also being blessed with the good fortune to have all the ingredients and materials to make the ironwares already available in the region, the cast iron industry bloomed. The traditional craftsmanship has been honed for over 400 years and is still being practiced today.

So why was this craft particularly successful in the remote north of Japan? We went to the Iwachu (岩鋳) factory, the largest and most renowned manufacturers of Nambu Tekki, in Morioka City to find out.

The company Iwachu was established in 1902, and has been producing Nambu Tekki for over 110 years. They manufacture over a million cast iron products in a year and are most known for their breathtakingly colorful teapots that have now become the face of the brand overseas.

It is an often-repeated fact that these colorful teapots were the key to Iwachu’s survival and continuous success as a company. Kiyomitsu Takahashi from Iwachu sales department recalls, in 1996, a tea specialty shop in Paris requested them to produce the colored teapots which were traditionally black or brown. After 3 years searching for the right pigment and technology, the pots became an instant hit in Europe. Currently their products are sold everywhere from Europe to USA to all over Asia including China.

Another reason for their popularity is the health benefits that come with using the ironware. When you boil water in these kettles, the iron seeps out into the water thus enhancing your intake of iron. When you make tea in these kettles, the tannin in the tea reacts with the iron resulting in browner coloring but a milder taste rid of the chlorine in the water.

We took a look in the studio where the pots are handmade one by one. One of the two certified Traditional Craftsman Akira Yaegashi at Iwachu, the third craftsman to receive the honorary title of Kiyoshige(清茂), took us through the process step by step.

First comes designing and shaping the mold, which is made by repeatedly coaxing different sized grains of sifted sand into the desired product shape by hand.  As Yaegashi puts it, “only my hands can tell just the right texture and firmness.”

Shaping the mold requires patience and experience
Shaping the mold requires patience and experience

Once the mold is shaped, the etchings of the patterns begin, perhaps, one of the most impressing things about the process. The work is painstakingly time consuming and requires extreme concentration and intricate technique for manually etching the signature dot patterns(known as the “Arare”(あられ)) with machinelike accuracy. Yaegashi has been making these molds for 23 years and yet he claims, he is never sure he has got it “right” but what he does know, is how he presses onto the patterns decides the outcome of the pots. “If I have a decisive touch, they come out proud looking and vice versa but there’s never a happy coincidence. For all the preparation that goes into this, if you don’t do a good job, it will show up in a split second.”  Our editor in chief, Jake Adelstein, at Yaegashi’s invitation, took a stab at etching the dot patterns. Patiently observing his struggle, Yaegashi, nodded and said, “If it had been for real, you would have already broken the mold. Haha.” It appears Adelstein will not be leaving leaving journalism to work as an artisan anytime soon.

"I zone out when I'm working on the patterns" Yaegashi says
“I zone out when I’m working on the patterns” Yaegashi says

When the patterned mold is completed and put together, the iron is melted in an electric oven at 1600 degrees. It is poured into the mold with great care by two craftsmen, and is lit on fire after the iron is poured to do away with the gas that is produced inside the burning mold.

It takes two craftsmen to pour the iron into the mold
It takes two craftsmen to pour the iron into the mold

Around the time the iron has settled, the mold is taken off and is left to cool.

Then comes the coloring. The pots are heated up again to about 250 degrees so that the lacquer can be applied to the surface. The lacquer is followed by a concoction of tea and rust on a 150 degrees pot which works as the anti-rust protection. As a finishing touch, the raised surfaces of the dotted pattern receive an extra lacquer towel rub, thus creating a shiny raised surface opposed to the matt texture of the tea and rust cover. This, according to the craftsmen, was supposed to express the “Wabi-Sabi(侘び/寂び)” nature of all things, which is a theme in tea ceremony, also known as a moving form of zen.

All in all it is a sixty step process necessary to complete the creation of a cast iron teapot.

It is clear to the eyes, that these are not skills that can easily be taken over by machines. Every step requires a human eye or hand to instinctively assess the progress. For instance, the handle of the teakettles are not one piece of iron but instead, a thin slab of iron rolled into a straw like state, in order to avoid the handle getting too overheated. Such attention to detail is the trademark of Japanese craftsmanship.  Indeed, to become a certified Nambu Tekki Traditional Craftsman, one must master the art of woodworking, iron casting, engraving, pottery and lacquering—essentially every Japanese craftwork.

This, in a time of automation may seem inefficient, however for Iwachu, it adds that special layer value and prestige. This is why some of the finer kettles can be sold for as much as 300,000 yen ($3000) and tea ceremony sets that go as high as 600,000 yen($6000). As they work to keep up with the high demand, the in-house design team are actively collaborating with foreign designers from other brands to keep the showrooms vibrant and chic. They have even collaborated with designers from Finland to make new iron ware that marries the best of traditional Japanese craftsmanship with modern Scandinavian aesthetics. The traditional methods being practiced at Iwachu are not in danger of being lost but at present they are only used in less than 10% of what the company makes.

The company does modernize a bit as well. When we visited, they were sold out of their hottest variation of the traditional tea making pot, known as a kyusu (急須) —an iron coffee pot and maker. It turns out that a cup of java made with 400 year old technology tastes wonderfully good and looks sharp on the table as well.


In Japan, the handicapped have to literally fight for their right to live and be treated with dignity. Some of them do.
On 27th July, 19 residents of a nursing home for the disabled in Sagamihara, just outside of Tokyo, were stabbed to death while 20 more were injured. The murderer Satoshi Uematsu (26) gave himself up to the police soon after the brutal killings. As the day wore on, reports revealed that Uematsu had been an employer of the facility until February this year and had been let go for his discriminatory behavior and actions against the disabled.
His murders were motivated by his belief that “the disabled are a burden on society”. This belief seemed to have been gradually solidified during his time as a caretaker at the facility and culminated in a submission of a letter to the leader of a speaker of the lower house of parliament, Tadamori Oshima, in which he stated that his goal was a world “where the severely disabled who cannot manage life at home or be an active member of the society can make the choice of being euthanized with the consent of their guardians. The disabled are only capable of creating unhappiness” whilst offering his ability to “kill 470 disabled people” and asking to be rewarded for his planned actions. The letter subsequently led to the termination of his job at the facility since he was taken into psychiatric assessment for two weeks. He claimed the termination was uncalled for. His Twitter account also details his thought process leading to the attacks. In his final post, right before the attacks, he tweeted “Beautiful Japan” along with a selfie of his eery smile.
As disturbing as that was, what caused more animosity was the way some people voiced their sympathy to the killer. While there was an outpouring of grief and anger in the aftermath of the crime, some on social media admitted the fear they felt for understanding his motives and others, the fear that it could very well be themselves, overworked with their many responsibilities of working and taking care of elderly parents.
This is perhaps not so surprising, since in Japan, even an outwardly discriminatory comment by a political figure goes unchecked.
Former Governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, known for his countless discriminatory comments on the disabled, sexual minorities, women, Chinese and Korean people along with his many scandals and misusage of taxpayers money, commented on the murders in an interview on literary magazine Bungakukai in their October issue.
“In a way, I understand the killer’s feelings.” As if that was not enough, he continued to add insult to injury introducing an episode from his past. “When I went to Germany a long time ago, a friend of mine introduced me to a middle aged doctor. His father, under Hitler’s reign, had led the hundreds of thousands of killings of the homosexual and disabled people. This man was so proud of this fact and said ‘My father did a good deed. Mr. Ishihara, for two hundred years going forward, we Germans won’t have any crazy people’.”
A lot can be said for the people of Tokyo who let a man known for making such despicable comments rule for ten years. Such was his influence and power that even the media often refrained from criticizing him too.
However, there are a few handicapped people in Japan who would now like to punch Ishihara in the mouth. And some of them could. And maybe they should.
This April, it would have been a delight to see Ishihara be in the ring.

At the Doglegs tournament this April
At the Doglegs tournament this April

Here was the scene at in the Town Hall Arena of Shimokitazwa, hipster central of Tokyo. In the middle of the dimly lit ring stands two fighters, although these are not your ordinary heavyweight combatants. One fighter’s ring name is “No Sympathy,” while the other, “Delivery Health Ranger” refers to a category of legal Japanese escort services, essentially people who provide sexual relief to the handicapped. Both fighters have severe disabilities, but that doesn’t stop “No Sympathy” from using his elbows and the edges of his hands to repeatedly pummel “Delivery Health” into the mat, soon resulting in a TKO. The crowd cheers intensely for “No Sympathy,” giving the fighter a type of accomplishment hard to come by for disabled people such as himself.
As you can imagine, this isn’t a traditional wrestling location, but rather “Doglegs,” a controversial handicapped pro-wrestling league that pits physically and mentally disabled, and sometimes able-bodied people, against each other, all while crushing stereotypes and promoting cross-barrier friendship. This year is the 25th anniversary of Doglegs, and on April 23rd, in Kitazawa Town Hall, the 90th match was held to a standing room-only crowd of 270 people. The crowd was made up of friends, family members, wrestling fans, other handicapped people, and many curious people who had seen the documentary about the league, Doglegs directed by Heath Cozens, released this year in Japan.
Doglegs aroused great controversy in the 90s when it first began as mocking the disabled but it has now had a cult following for decades. However, a documentary released this February in Japan re-energized the league, and brought it international attention and many who came to match this day wanted answers to what happened after the movie. These days it’s almost impossible to discuss Doglegs, the league, without discussing Doglegs, the film as well.
Director Heath Cozens, a New Zealand native and a long time expat of Japan, recalls being thrown off when he first heard of Doglegs from a friend circa 2009. “I had a strange range of reactions – amusement, shock, amazement. I couldn’t work out if it was exploitation or entertainment.”
But after seeing the actual fights, his doubts were turned around onto himself. In the ring, where the only rule is “the pride” of the wrestlers, he watched all levels of disabled and abled bodies clash, a scene that was brutal, shocking and brimming and narrated by the announcer with politically incorrect black humor.
“It was entertaining as hell, but my conscience was turning over – what does it mean? And how the hell was I supposed to feel about this? The more I tried to work it out, the more questions came. It felt momentous, like I was having some sort of corrective brain surgery or something. Which is exactly what it is. Doglegs like a hard-reset button for your hidden prejudices.” And so begun the five year process of making the film. It is now available online and as Video on Demand.
Doglegs is still going strong. They usually hold two matches a year. Each match has its own rules and time limits customized for the players. While the able-bodied do wrestle the disabled, handicaps are applied. For example, when Makoto Tsuruzono, who has an upper body like the Incredible Hulk but legs that don’t work, his opponent has their legs bound to compensate.

The wrestler “Alcoholism” pummels his opponent, "Worthless Goro",  who suffers from depression during the 25th anniversary Doglegs match.  April 15th 2016, photo taken by Jake Adelstein  *Alcoholism is the older man
The wrestler “Alcoholism” pummels his opponent, “Worthless Goro”, who suffers from depression during the 25th anniversary Doglegs match.
April 15th 2016, photo taken by Jake Adelstein
*Alcoholism is the older man

When a competitor gives up, the match is won. If there is no clear winner, the judges decide the victor, computing the handicaps of both parties in their decisions.
Yukinori Kitajima, the representative of the organization who also wrestles under the name “Antithesis Kitajima” told the Japan Subculture Research Center that the group originated from a fight between two members of a barrier free activity group, when the two disabled men fought over an abled volunteer female member of the group in 1990. This fight ended in a ground match full of wrestling moves that everyone watched with great interest and amusement.
The members decided that this impromptu wrestling match was something that would allow them to break out of the bubble created in the usual special needs communities. The members felt that whenever they would perform, the audience consisting of family members and teachers, would applaud regardless of their performances, because the parents and teachers felt they had to. On the other hand people on the street either look away, making them feel invisible or stare, alienating them. The members of Doglegs wanted to be really “seen” by an actual audience. In 1991, Japan was still in the middle of a pro-wrestling boom and pro-wrestling seemed like the answer.
The documentary follows the lives of five members of Doglegs, in and outside of the ring—and the 25-anniversary match was in a sense, supposed to be a live action sequel to the film.
One of the most memorable characters in the documentary is a wrestler who calls himself “L’Amant” (the lover). He is a cross-dressing man suffering from systemic paralysis who numbs his troubles with alcohol, hence “a heavyweight alcoholic”. He often declares that the ring will be his deathbed. Beside him is his abled-loving wife, Mrs.L’Amant, in a constant dilemma whether to take away the bottle or let him drink himself to death. She too, fights ruthlessly in the ring against her beloved husband. Sometimes body-slamming him, sometimes throwing him around the ring as if he was a beanbag.
The star of the film, Shintaro “Sambo” Yano, took part in the very first Doglegs match. He is a two decade Doglegs veteran and a janitor, who dreams of settling down with “a special lady and being happy” whilst literally grappling with the love and rivalry he feels for his mentor, Kitajima.
Shintaro’s challenges to Kitajima are part of how Doglegs took shape. After years of being told ‘you are the same as the abled’ in school, Shintaro had started working in 1990 and was just discovering that the world was not built in his favor. Even so, he just couldn’t win by simply getting a better job at a better company, but he still wanted a shot at winning somehow.
Kitajima reflects, “So fighting me was his answer, he may not win, but he could still try himself against an abled man and that might get him somewhere,” he explains. Kitajima says he fought back, with no reservations, because that’s what Shintaro wanted. But by doing this, he says that “our differences that words just couldn’t fill, somehow seemed to disappear when we faced each other stripped down to our underwear.” And although he never won against Kitajiama, Shintaro kept challenging Kitajima just as he kept fighting in his daily life. The movie ends in 2010, when Kitajima, fed up with Shintaro not practicing seriously proposed that their next match should have something on the line; the retirement of the winner.
But to say more would spoil the documentary.
The documentary left a lot of questions unanswered. What would happen to “The Lover”? Would he drink himself to death? Would Doglegs survive without Kitajima in the ring? Would Kitajima really retire?
And as if to answer all of these question, in the final bout of the 25th anniversary, all of the main characters came back for one giant tag team brawl—with even Kitajima fighting again for the first time in 5 years against his nemesis, Shintaro. Shintaro threw in in some good punches, and left Kitajima a standing offer to fight anytime.
The crowd loved it. There was massive cheering and applause after Kitajima thanked them for coming and supporting the group.
Aki Nakano, a bank employee from Saitama Prefecture, said, “I saw the movie in Tokyo and was intrigued. I love the way these people don’t give up. Their fighting spirit is so Japanese. They know they can’t win and yet they fight. It’s real wrestling.” He admits that some of the jokes made him uncomfortable but, “I think the laughter helps break down the barrier we have. Japanese people tend to treat the handicapped like gods to be feared or jinxes to be shunned. They’re neither; they’re just people.”
The wife of “L’amant” after the match told the Japan Subculture Research Center, “My husband has stopped drinking and his physical condition is good. We all wanted to be in the ring one more time for the fans,” she explained. Their son gained an interest in wrestling via Doglegs and excelled in the sport in high school to the extent that he got a wrestling scholarship to college. Kitajima continues to be the official face of Doglegs, while making a living as writer of books and comic books. Shintaro still continues to hold down blue-collar jobs and trains to wrestle in his spare time.
Makoto Tsuruzono, who uses a wheelchair to get around and works as an office administrator takes umbrage at those who call Doglegs “a freakshow” or “an oddity”. “It’s a great sport and I love doing it. And my fans love me and I love them.”
Kitajima is glad to see Doglegs continue.
“All humans are equal but not all lives are equal. The disabled in Japan aren’t treated as equals here. Let’s not deny it. But they have a right to fight for that equality and we gave it to them–no holds barred. Treating them with kid gloves would be a lack of respect.”