Category Archives: Photo Essays

Japanese Tattoo Master: “The carving is one’s personal symbol..”

Horiyoshi the Third, aka Yoshihito Nakano, the world’s most famous Japanese tattoo master, 66, said that ten years ago, he had many more yakuza clients than he has now. “Nowadays I have 90 percent of non-yakuza clients and 10 percent of yakuza clients. Ten years ago it was much different. After the entry in force of the boutaihou, (anti organized crime laws), I have  fewer gangsters as clients. The landscape has changed and so have the customers.”

Horiyoshi III showing one of his work of art on a lady's back, at a show organized at the FCCJ
Horiyoshi III showing one of his work of art on a lady’s back, at a show organized at the FCCJ

Horiyoshi the Third’s interest in tattoo art began when he was 11 years old. He said he received a great shock when he saw a tattooed man at the public bath. Later, as a high school student he saw a book at the library, which was a collection of hundred poems and had many illustrations and engravings of tattooed men. He said that was the beginning of his passion for tattoos. It is much later that he began considering tattooing his own body. He said he used his body for many experiments before he found the most relevant technique. At high school, he wanted to do something that no one had done before. He cut his skin with a cutter and tried to insert ink inside his body. That was his first experience.

He got his first tattoo at age 22, by Horiyoshi the Second, on his entire back. At the time, while constantly thinking about inventing new techniques, he used to tattoo clients on his own. But because he wanted and needed to learn more about the art itself, he became the pupil of Horiyoshi the Second at age 25.

Horiyoshi the Third explained that anyone could wear a tattoo underneath their clothes: “People’s clothing are the ‘social symbols’ which allows other people to understand whether he/she is a Buddhist monk, a Christian priest, a salary man, or a medical doctor. Therefore the clothes are the symbols constructed by the community. But at the public bath, once naked, no one knows whether you are a monk, a priest, a lawyer or a musician. The tattoo is the individual’s own symbol. It is a different world. People who wear tattoos feel like they live in two different worlds. Usually, ordinary people live in the same society, whether they take off their clothes or whether they wear them.” He said during a tattoo session in his Yokohama studio.

“People’s clothing are the ‘social symbols’ which allows other people to understand whether he/she is a Buddhist monk, a Christian priest, a salary man, or a medical doctor. Therefore the clothes are the symbols constructed by the community. But at the public bath, once naked, no one knows whether you are a monk, a priest, a lawyer or a musician. The tattoo is the individual’s own symbol. It is a different world. People who wear tattoos feel like they live in two different worlds.

At a special event organized at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan (FCCJ) on May 22nd, Horiyoshi III explained that tattoos remain popular among Japan’s organized crime members, but he insisted on the fact that nowadays, a person who choose to have a work of art indelibly marked on their skin are not necessarily a gangster.

Men tattooed by Horiyoshi III, live show at the FCCJ, in May 2012
Men tattooed by Horiyoshi III, live show at the FCCJ, in May 2012

 Interview with Horiyoshi III in Yokohama, in summer 2012

How does it feel to have your skin permanently colored?

People who wear a tattoo have the chance to review themselves all the time, because they can observe themselves inside and outside, in the sense that they constantly position themselves from the point of view of ‘the other’, from the point of view of a third person.

Urban legend says that European aristocrats have been secretly tattooed by Japanese tattoo artists in times when tattoos were forbidden in Japan, could you give us a comment?

During the Meiji period, creating tattoos and wearing them was forbidden, however the Japanese irezumi (入れ墨)were hugely popular in foreign countries.

Frederique IX of Denmark (King of Denmark from 1947 to 1972) probably did not get his tattoo in Japan, in a time when it was banned by the government. Tattooing has been outlawed by three government decrees. When we see the old photos of him, we can indeed see he has a Japanese dragon, but who knows if there is a public record of his travel to Japan? There is another Horiyoshi in Azabu (Tokyo), who has no ties with us, the Horiyoshi from Yokohama. Many people get mixed up. I am a descendant of this tradition, and despite those bans, our culture has survived.

There are many tales about the European aristocrats. Nikolai II from Russia is also known for having a tattoo made by a Japanese tattoo master. It is said that he had it done in Yokohama, but it is more likely that it happened in Nagasaki. Documents have come out recently about this incident. He really insisted that he wanted to have a Japanese tattoo although the Japanese government was banning tattoos for its own people. But because the request came from a nobleman, the Japanese government allowed this to happen.

There are many stories like that on the record. We do not know what parts of these stories are true and what parts are not. However, one thing is sure, there was never a Horiyoshi master from Yokohama involved in these kind of stories.

Tattoo on the back of the son of Horiyoshi III, who will become Horiyoshi IV someday
Tattoo featuring a female ghost on the back of the son of Horiyoshi III, who will become Horiyoshi IV someday

What does religion say about tattoos?

In the Confucian society, you are not suppose to hurt your own body, otherwise it was the beginning of the unhappy life.

Could you tell what you think about the mayor of Osaka and his latest crackdown on tattoos?

Modern Japanese people are being mind controlled, in the sense that they ‘fear’ people who wear Japanese irezumi. Because the mass media have ranked irezumi out of the arts, the ordinary people started to recognize it as a ‘bad thing.’ For example, when a child sees a tattooed person at the swimming pool or at the public bath, his or her parents would say ‘don’t go there, don’t watch it,’ that’s why, unconsciously, people start to hate tattoos. We can say this is a sort of propaganda.

We say ‘yakuza are bad’. It is true that they do bad things, but it isn’t only the yakuza who do the bad things, and people without tattoos can also be criminals. For example, during the Great Hanshin Earthquake in Kobe in 1995, those who took emergency action before the administration were the yakuza. They distributed drinking water, baby diapers and many other survival materials. The media never report on the good things they do. This can be seen as an accusation. The Japanese government takes advantage of their help only when it is advantageous, but when it doesn’t suit them, they truncate, this is the power of the state. But when you have a big crime, you can sure that all the media will be after it. So, according to me, the question is which news should be covered more intensely. I do believe that the media associate the tattooed people with the ‘bad ones.’ So, in the news, you will read ‘a tattooed person did such or such crime.’ I don’t know why, but the people who hate tattoos have a reason to discriminate people who wear them.

I think it is bad from the media to report only one side of the story of these people. The obligation of the media is not to force people to believe one thing, but to give the chance to the readers to understand both sides of an issue and decide for themselves.

Front side of the future Horiyoshi, unusual and morbid features
Front side of the future Horiyoshi, unusual and morbid features

 Why do we refer Japanese tattoos to organized crime (yakuza)?

I think that the Western people also have a prefabricated idea that the Japanese traditional irezumi are designed for the yakuza. Someone once told me ‘I want a yakuza-style’ tattoo. It is a common recognition of it. But it is not the yakuza’s fault if their tattoos are designated in such way.

How long did it take you to tattoo your entire body?

In total, it took me 12 to 13 years to get the entire tattoos on my body, including the time that I didn’t get tattooed. It is one of the good things about Japanese traditional tattoos, is that it requires time, thought and energy to realize them. In the west, people make them too quickly, without giving it deep thought, and they regret their actions. For them, it is normal to have one tattoo started and finished quickly on the same day.

It is difficult to say whether the wabori Japanese traditional tattoo hurts more or less than the electric needle tattoo. Pain is like a tickle, it is not a feeling that you can measure. You can measure the weight of a person, for example, but you cannot measure pain. Some people say they are afraid of the sound of the electric needle.

Do you tattoo yakuza?

My clients are 90% “ordinary people”, among them salary men, musicians, bar hosts, of course I do have yakuza clients as well. However I have fewer yakuza clients than I used to have in the past. Some kumi or organized crime groups nowadays order their members to erase their tattoos with lasers, if they can afford it.

How different is it to tattoo on female body?

I do not really enjoy tattooing women, not that I am misogynistic. I hate to ask a woman to undress herself, but I cannot tattoo them if they are not naked. Also, the problem with women is that they tend to bring tattoo masters to court because of a missed movement. It is also very annoying to constantly try to be vigilant not to have the next client sitting in the waiting room to try and see the naked body of the female client. It is simply too time consuming and I don’t have the energy for that anymore.

A painting found at the Tattoo Museum in Yokohama
A painting found at the Tattoo Museum in Yokohama

I think that the Western people also have a prefabricated idea that the Japanese traditional irezumi are designed for the yakuza. Someone once told me ‘I want a yakuza-style’ tattoo. It is a common recognition of it. But it is not the yakuza’s fault if their tattoos are designated in such way.

How long does it take to make a whole body tattoo?

To estimate how long it takes for a whole body tattoo, it depends on the weight and the height of the person, however in average, it can take up to more than 200 hours.

 Is traditional wabori (和彫り) more painful than the modern needle?

It is difficult to say whether the wabori, the Japanese traditional tattoo hurts more or less than the electric needle tattoo. Pain is like tickle, it is not a feeling that you can measure. You can measure the weight of a person, for example, but you cannot measure pain. Some people say they are afraid of the sound of the electric needle.

A fresh tattoo, the red ink of chrysanthemum petals looks like blood
A fresh tattoo, the red ink of chrysanthemum petals looks like blood

You are a very experimental tattoo artist, what are some of the innovations you made?

I was using my own technique for twenty years before I presented it to the general public. However, once it was launched, every Japanese tattoo master in the world started to use it, because it was much more hygienic than the traditional bamboo stick tool.

Very traditional tattoo masters use a tool which I have refined. It is called the tebori you no nomi, which means the “hand digging tool.” In Japanese the tattoo is like the action of “digging in the skin.”


above “tebori you no nomi” modified by  Horiyoshi the 3rd

Do you think your art will fade?

I am a descendant of this tradition, and despite the government bans our culture has survived. The tattoo will never die, it will evolve. It is natural that compared to the Edo period, the tool, the designs and technologies are all in constant evolution. Therefore my art will evolve, rather than disappear, this is my belief.

For example, in the past, I used to throw shochu (potato liquor) on the scars, nowadays, thanks to progress in the art, we use certified disinfection drugs. This is also an evolution of the techniques.

Ten years ago, I had 10 percent of foreign clients and this year, I have maybe 40 percent of clients who are non-Japanese. The number of Japanese tattoo fans is continuously increasing over the years. Tattoos may fade over time but the art of tattooing itself will never fade way. 

Update: Japanese Citizens Protest Against Japan’s Dolphin Hunting and Whale “Research”

The Fisheries Agency of Japan is allegedly  planning to start selling meat from whales caught for “scientific research purposes” directly to individual brokers and restaurants in 2013 in a bid to raise more funds needed to cover the continued losses stemming from the controversial program.  They will also attempt to lower the prices of whale meat to encourage its use in school lunches.  This is great news if you love eating whale or are running a whale meat speciality restaurant.

The Fisheries Agency spokesman told JSRC yesterday that he wasn’t sure how the Agency would “directly” sell the meat to restaurants, but will clarify it to us next week. While some Nationalists vigorously defend whaling as traditional Japanese culture, others are beginning to question the practice and the use of taxpayer money to sustain a program that produces international ill-will and meat that very few people want to eat.

originally published on Tokyo – November 24, 2012

By Jake Adelstein

Animal rights activists against dolphin killings gathered in seven major cities of the world on November 24th, and this year for the first time, also in Tokyo.

A group of about 70 activists, including a majority of about 40 Japanese activists staged a ninety-minute rally in the city this afternoon against Japan’s practice of hunting dolphins for profit and killing whales under the guise of research.

It is the first time Japanese citizens have gathered in protest against this practice, although since the Oscar winning movie “The Cove” was released in 2009, Japan has heavily been criticized for continuing to support these activities. (The Cove won the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 2010.)

The protestors claim these practices are inhumane, unhealthy, and a waste of taxpayer money. Right wing activists have organized a counter demonstration saying that, “Killing the practice of whale hunting is the same as killing the Japanese people.” (Of course, one might point out that there is no recognized group of merchants killing Japanese people and calling it “Japanese population research.”)

In recent years Japan has heavily been criticized in the West for its treatment of sea mammals, but even some Japanese are beginning to find the support for whaling and dolphin killing questionable. Today’s march by Japanese citizens was unprecedented in that it wasn’t led by outsiders but by Japanese citizens themselves.

The dolphin hunt at Taiji takes place not once a year but over several months. During these “hunts”, the fishermen herd hundreds of dolphins into an isolated bay and select between 10 to 70 dolphins to be sold into captivity to aquariums. The rest are slaughtered for their meat, which is consumed locally. The meat is also sold as “whale meat” to foreign countries. As noted elsewhere in the article, the Japanese government has issued warnings that dolphin meat contains high levels of mercury and may be dangerous if consumed.

The protestors held signs saying, “Stop Dolphin Hunting!” and the obligatory photo of a cute dolphin saying, “Please, don’t kill me.”

The Society to Protect Marine Mammals (海洋ほ乳類を守る会)is a small group of Japanese citizens who gathered together over the internet and attempted to organize their first protest on World Dolphin Day this September 1st in Tokyo; however, they were thwarted by opposition. Mr. Satoshi Komiyama, designated as the leader of this young movement said that today is officially the first protest rally against the killing of dolphins for meat in Japan (the previous attempt on September 1st fell apart under the pressure of the right wing activists who disrupted their attempt to march). “There is no official movement to protest against dolphin killings in Japan. I think the Japanese average person is simply indifferent to this matter, they probably even don’t know that in some regions of Japan, dolphins are brutally killed. Wakayama prefecture is providing the license to the Taiji city’s fishermen to kill dolphins, so our goal is to get the government to make this illegal.”

Japanese nationalists held a counter demonstration but did not follow the rally, unlike a smaller nationalist group lead by Takayuki Kanetomo (27).

Mr. Komiyama says that Japanese mainstream media would never broadcast The Cove, especially state-owned NHK.

The controversy over Japan’s state-supported whaling industry was heightened when allegedly nearly 30,000,000 dollars of Japanese taxpayer money marked for earthquake recovery was siphoned off to fund research whaling in the Antarctica this year.

Mr. Nagai, one of the organizers said, “Research whaling and dolphin killing are bad for Japan’s image. The meat piles up in storehouses because no one wants to eat it and Japanese government agencies have reported that the dolphin meat in particular is dangerous to eat because of high mercury levels. It’s time to stop this practice, which benefits no one. It is a problem that has to be solved between the government and the citizens of Japan.”

A Japanese nationalist munching on whale jerky in protest of the people protesting the practice of “research whaling” known also as “killing whales and eating them.”


Mr. Shun, the Japanese spokesman and video translator for “Texas Daddy’s Japan Secretariat” *, a Japanese group with conservative political views lead by a man from Texas, USA*, said in an interview with JSRC that he does not take a position on the consumption of dolphin meat, while stressing the fact that he does love animals. He strongly insisted that he opposes people who kill animals for no purpose, but “intruding in lives of some people who live upon the dolphin meat industry and interfering with how they earn their living is unfair.” According to him, the existence of the dolphin flesh industry in Japan is a matter of supply and demand. “This industry [dolphin slaughtering] exists in Japan for ages and still does, because there is a demand for it. Japan is a democracy, people have the right to chose what they wish to eat. Whether it is healthy or not, the decision should be made by the marketplace.”

Mr. Shun, the Japanese spokesman of “Texas Daddy”, said his group had no ties with the  Japanese nationalistic group Zaitokukai ** which gathered in a counter demonstration in another location, 50 meters away from the dolphin activists’ meeting point. The Zaitokukai did not follow the rally unlike a dozen Japanese patriots lead by Takayuki Kanetomo (27), member of another “citizen’s group,” that has no ties with Zaitokukai either.

The anti-whaling protestors chanted, “We don’t need dolphin meat!” which is actually a pun in Japanese.  “いるか肉はいらない!” “いるか肉は要るか?”

It is questionable that there really is a marketplace for the meat which some Japanese media reports as being stockpiled in warehouses.

Ironically, it’s the living dolphins rather than the ones killed that make dolphin hunting a profitable industry.

According to a report released by Elsa Nature Conservancy*** and the Trade Statistics of Japan by the Financial Bureau, the number of live dolphins exported from Japan (mainly Taiji), increased from 17 in 2002 to 62 in 2011, peaking in 2010 at 79 dolphins. According to the report, Japan sells the captured dolphins mainly to China, Korea, Ukraine, Turkey, Iran, Thailand,the Philippines and Saudi Arabia for  prices that vary between 1,351,000 yen ($16,395) to 7,712,000 yen ($93,585) per animal.

Rie (31), a protester present at the rally this afternoon in Tokyo who declined to give any further information about herself due to fear of right wing retaliation said, “Nobody in Japan wants to eat dolphin meat. Modern Japanese people don’t want to eat dolphin meat. I think it is since Sea Shepherd started to make the headlines in the news that I learned about these awful practices.”

The group of 70 protestors, was mostly Japanese, with 40 Japanese citizens amongst them. They held signs warning that dolphin meat is full of mercury and unhealthy.

Sea Shepherd’s annual $4.6 million (\365 million) operations against whaling helped decrease the whalers’ catch down to nearly a third of their target, according to Kyodo news. The Antarctic hunt was suspended for the first time during the 2010-2011 hunting seasons because of the interference of the activists.

Reportedly, some tactics used by the Sea Shepherd’s activists have been challenged in court by the Institute of Cetacean Research, which supervises Japan’s whaling, pointing out that its actions are unsafe. However, the Institute’s suit was dismissed. (Correction:  “The law suit filed against Sea Shepherd by the Institute of Cetacean Research in the U.S.A. has not been dismissed. A request for a preliminary injunction was denied and the ruling appealed by the ICR. A ruling on the appeal heard on Oct. 9, 2012 by the 9th CIrcuit of Appeals in the U.S. is pending.”)

The police were very good at keeping the angry Takayuki Kanetomo (27) away from the protestors.

Mrs. Hemmi Sakae, a Japanese expert on dolphin mercury contamination, and Secretary General of the Japanese organization Elsa Nature Conservancy, told JSRC that one of the major reasons why some Japanese people still consume potentially hazardous dolphin meat is out of sheer ignorance. “Although the Japanese Health Ministry has posted a list of mercury contaminated food, including dolphin meat on its homepage, it supplies this information with guidelines to consume it without harm.”

The Ministry of Fisheries, after several phone calls made to their media office, declined any comments regarding the dolphin fishing issue.

The city hall of Taiji did not respond to JSRC’s request for information, sent by fax to their offices.

This year’s “whaling research mission” is expected to reach Antarctica before the end of the year.

For reasons unknown, a right winger made a “Heil Hitler” gesture during the protest. Perhaps he was confusing Jews with Dolphins.

* “Texas Daddy” in an interview with JSRC said he formally apologized to the mayor of Taiji city for  all the “westerners who had intruded their daily lives” in the past. This is how he became one of the rare people to enter the closed sphere of Taiji’s fishermen association. Texas Daddy’s spokesman, Mr. Shun told JSRC he receives visits from Japanese right wing politicians.

** Zaitokukai is not officially registered as a uyoku or Japanese right wing group.

***Elsa Nature Conservancy (ENC) is a Japanese organization working on environment and animal welfare since 1976, and claims to have no connections with the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (SSCS).

In Japan, Tattoos Are Not Just For Yakuza Anymore

A young man with a stunning tattoo of Kanon Bosatsu (観音菩薩)the all-seeing, all-compassionate Buddhist deity. Designed by Horiyoshi The 3rd.

Tattoos are as Japanese as sushi, samurai, and yakuza but in recent years with the crackdown on organized crime (the yakuza), tattoos have become increasingly socially unacceptable while many younger Japanese and people living abroad have embraced tattoos as a fashion item.

In December last year, the government of Saitama Prefecture submitted a bill to revise local ordinances to prohibit tattoos under the age of 18. A fine of up to  500,000 yen will be levied on the violators of the law.  If a space is provided to tattoo on young people under 18, there is  a fine of up to 300,000 yen for the tattoo parlor owners. If the law is passed it will go into effect as of February 1st, this year.

Japan has waged many fruitless wars in the past and the latest war is a war on tattoos. Kicking it off was the Mayor of Osaka, the son of a yakuza boss, who as most yakuza are, was probably heavily tattooed.

In May 2012, the mayor of Osaka and founder of the Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Restoration Party), created a huge controversy by ordering all public employees to confess to whether they had tattoos or not. In Japan, where tattoos are seen as a sign of being a yakuza, (member of the Japanese mafia), the tattoo “witch hunt” is in danger of alienating a large number of Japanese citizens and tourists as “tattoos” become more and more fashionable. Ironically, due to a series of laws cracking down on organized crime, the yakuza themselves are ordering their members to remove tattoos or not get them in the first place. One yakuza boss and tattoo artist laments, “All of my customers now are straight people (katagi). No yakuza in his right mind gets a tattoo now. You can’t do business that way. You can’t rise up the underworld ladder.”’

According to AERA magazine’s June issue (2012), at least two people in the Osaka metropolitan area have removed their tattoos after the mayor of Osaka announced the city’s crackdown on tattoos.

The young and charismatic mayor of Osaka, Toru Hashimoto, who was elected in 2011, has been compared to Adolf Hitler in the Japanese media for his authoritarian governing style, showing that Godwin’s rule applies even in Japan. Although, Hashimoto does have some fascist tendencies. It’s hard to really root for a guy who rose to stardom under the tutelage of yakuza associate and lousy comedian Shimada Shinsuke, who had Hashimoto appear on his variety show about laws in Japan. Hashimoto also got his start as lawyer for consumer loan outfits, Japan’s equivalent of legal loan-sharking, which doesn’t exactly make him a champion of the downtrodden.  Never mind.

From May to June this year, he ordered an official survey upon the Osaka civil servants to reveal whether they wear a tattoo on a visible part of their bodies.

Mr. Hashimoto, 42, announced a crack down on tattoo bearers who work in the public sector in Osaka last May. After a survey was conducted, the people of Osaka decided, that public servants should not wear tattoos, “because those who see them feel ‘awkward,’” the spokesman of the Osaka city hall explained. The mayor Osaka then requested all the public servants to indicate how big and where  their tattoos were located, in an official letter.

The root of this controversial crackdown on tattoos was sparked by the case of a welfare officer who intimidated children by exhibiting his tattoos. “We do not wish the tattoo to be visible to the eyes of the public, we simply would like them to hide their tattoos with clothes or band aids, if they are visible,” the spokesman said.

To conduct the survey, the city hall of Osaka asked the public servants to respond to their inquiry, which is a “work-related instruction.”

After May 2012, the esthetic surgery clinics reported that tattoo related issues and requests from patients “to remove their tattoos” had increased by 25% and are still increasing, according to AERA.

According to a medical doctor interviewed by AERA, there are three ways to clinically erase a tattoo: the laser ablation, the resection and the food technologies.

It should be pointed out that this policy is not going to become a law, but simply “the ethics of work” in Osaka, and the staff will be requested not to exhibit their tattoos at work.

In order to target the concerned staff, the city of Osaka sent a written request to 35,000 people. 113 replied that they had tattoos in a visible place on their bodies.

In December 2012, three Osaka municipal workers who were punished for refusing to respond to the survey have submitted a petition to the mayor of Osaka urging him to revoke the disciplinary action, Kyodo News reported. They submitted the signatures of 3,205 people. The supporters who wish to revoke Hashimoto’s disciplinary measures say that the Osaka Municipal government has “violated human rights.”

A sculpure found at the Tattoo Museum owned by Horiyoshi the Third in Yokohama, 15 minutes away from his work studio
A sculpture found at the Tattoo Museum owned by Horiyoshi the Third in Yokohama, 15 minutes away from his work studio

According to Manami Okazaki, the author of Tattoo in Japan: Traditional and Modern Styles, who researched in depth the current situation of tattoos and those who wear them in modern Japan, “With the popularity of tattoos in America, with several reality TV shows and celebrity tattoo artists, tattoos are increasingly popular among young people in Japan.” Whereas before, more yakuza people used to wear tattoos and “the gang connotations were stronger.” However, the historical connection to the yakuza still remains overall, because the recent crack down on tattoos in Japanese society has increased more than ever, she explained.

An explanation of the decline of yakuza clientele and the increase of ordinary citizen clientele given by Hokuo, a tattoo master in Japan interviewed by Manami Okazaki, is that nowadays, the yakuza do not have the money to buy extravagances such as whole body tattoos. A decade ago a full-body tattoo could take up to 500 hours to complete and cost over 5 million yen.

The cooperative association of Hakone hot springs and ryokan said that the traditional Japanese irezumi (入れ墨)generate “fear and awkwardness,” generally because they are associated with members of the anti-social forces (反社会的勢力. The Hakone hot spring association spokesman said that, people wearing tattoos are now increasing and “discussions are raising everywhere in Japan, because there is no definition or explanation of the ‘fashionable tattoo’ and the traditional irezumi.” He also added that there was no clear explanation given to whether this is “good or this is bad,” but the Japanese irezumi is forbidden everywhere, in public baths, in swimming pools, etc.

He said that the problem is when the tattoo creates “fear and uneasiness.” “It’s a difficult problem. It’s true that the irezumi could be seen as part of Japanese culture, and people who are not members of the yakuza are also wearing tattoos. However, in general, in Japan, tattoos are not good,” he concluded.

Another figurine found at the Tattoo Museum, featuring Horiyoshi III working on the body of a woman
Another figurine found at the Tattoo Museum, featuring Horiyoshi III working on the body of a woman

The Asahi Newspaper in Hokkaido reported that a new initiative rose among the Hokkaido public baths owners’ union who submitted a proposal to restudy the manuals for letting tattooed customers use the facilities.

The initiative, currently under consideration, was raised as some owners started to say that: “excluding tattooed people is discrimination.” According to the Asahi Shinbun, since the Hokkaido organized crime exclusionary laws went into effect in 2011, this reality has raised other sorts of trouble. 245 public bath owners have been inquired on this issue. 75% have replied to the inquiry.

Currently, 75% of the public baths owners allow tattooed people to use their facilities, 19% believe that they might lose customers if they ban them, 17% answered they fear that “not letting tattooed people in might create trouble with the other customers,” and 36% answered that they have nothing to report in particular. 24% of them informed their customers about the ban on tattoos on posters or orally. 71% answered they have not announced anything in particular.

Most of the public baths owners reported that their main concern was to “establish the right limits between the Japanese traditional irezumi and the fashion tattoo.” Many also reported that even though they announce the ban on posters, “it is difficult to actually refuse them entry.” The result of the survey basically announced that 60% of the poll requested that “each public bath owners should have the freedom to exercise the right to ban or allow entry to tattooed individuals based on their own judgement.” And 16% wish the rules to be changed, and are considering changing the content of the manuals. The reason given is that discriminating against  tattooed people would be a violation of the human rights.

Archives of Japanese tattoos aimed for criminals explaining their meaning on different location of the body
Archives of Japanese tattoos showed how they were used to brand criminals explaining their meaning on different location of the body

The spokesman of Hokkaido’s union of public bath owners said that they did not intend to change the manuals only because of the tattoos issue. They conducted the survey because they received some complaints over the last few  years. The revised manuals have been published in the summer of 2012. “Some people think that the tattoos are a nuisance. But the opinion are quite diverse, it is fifty-fifty,” the union member said.

The Hokkaido Organized Crime Exclusionary Ordinance Team  told JSRC that the inquiry started in November last year and that the survey does not judge whether the tattoos are “good” or “bad.” The Hokkaido organized crime exclusionary laws that went into effect in 2011 evoke the issue in a “hygienic sense,” and also from the point of view of the human rights and discrimination against tattooed people.

With regard to the hygienic issue, the spokesman of the Hokkaido law enforcement unit explained the hygienic issues of tattoos, such as transmissible diseases. Tattooed customers’ “hygienic issues” were compared to customers with tuberculosis.

“The reason we have to kindly ask certain customers not to use the public facilities is because we would like to have ‘healthy bathtubs’, the message is ‘let’s have clean public baths. People tend to feel awkward on the hygienic level when they bathe with tattooed people,” he added.

Tom Stringer, 25, a British English teacher in Osaka for  four years was refused entry to become a member of a gym spa called Costa, because he was wearing an 8 cm diameter circular tattoo on his chest. First, when he tried to apply, the staff asked him if he had any tattoos at all, he answered honestly, and he was banned from the gym.

He said he had to wait 7 months before reapplying, hoping that the club had forgotten about him. Tom left the Costa gym earlier this year, but during the whole time he was attending the gym facilities, he could not use the shower, nor could he use the hot tub. In the changing room, he was constantly trying not to be seen by the staff members, and had to change facing the wall. It was a supreme pain in the ass. (Metaphorically.)

In Sapporo this year, Tom was also discriminated because of his tattoo on hischest. Inside the changing room of a spa, while he was getting ready to use the facility, he was kindly asked to put back his clothes and leave the onsen, when a female cleaning staff member came in and saw his tattoo.

In his four years living in Japan, Tom was discriminated twice for wearing a tattoo. At  the Language school in Osaka where he is currently teaching English, no one has treated him badly because of his tattoo.

Foreigners or tourists are not the only victims of tattoo discrimination. The surgeon interviewed by AERA also reported the case of a young Japanese woman who was discriminated over her tattoos. One of the surgeon’s patients, a young woman in her twenties, told him that a employee of a spa kicked her out while she was washing her hair, and did not let her finish bathing. She told him she remembered crying bitterly after that experience.

 Horiyoshi III, Japan’s most famous tattoo artist, and also said to be the inventor of a new and better tools for wabori (和彫り)traditional Japanese tattooing, spoke to JSRC in his tattoo studio in Yokohama. “I think that the Western people also have a prefabricated idea that the Japanese traditional irezumi are designed for the yakuza. Someone once told me ‘I want a yakuza-style tattoo.’ It is a common recognition of it. But it is not the yakuza’s fault if their tattoos are designated in such way.”

Horiyoshi the Third, the world's most famous tattoo artist, in his studio in Yokohama
Horiyoshi the Third, the world’s most famous tattoo artist, at work in his studio in Yokohama

Horiyoshi the Third claims that his clients are 90% “ordinary people”, among them salary men, musicians, bar hosts, “Of course I do have yakuza clients as well.” However he said that he has much fewer yakuza clients than he use to have in the past. “Some kumi, or organized crime groups, nowadays order their members to erase their tattoos with lasers, if they can afford it.”

Horiyoshi III holding the original tebori XXX
Horiyoshi III is renown for using the Tebori you no nomi

It is difficult to say whether the wabori Japanese traditional tattoo hurts more or less than the electric needle tattoo. Pain is like tickle, it is not a feeling that you can measure. You can measure the weight of a person, for example, but you cannot measure pain. Some people say they are afraid of the electric sound of the needle.

Despite the crackdown on tattoos, Horiyoshi the Third does not believe that his art, together with the art of tattoos in general will ever die after his death. “I am a descendant of this tradition, and despite the government bans our culture has survived. The tattoo will never die. It will evolve. Since the Edo period, the tool, the designs and technologies are constantly evolving. Therefore my art will evolve, rather than disappear.”

“Ten years ago, 10 percent of my clients were foreign and this year, I have  40 percent of my clients are non-Japanese. The number of Japanese tattoo fans is continuously increasing over the years,” he added.

A mid-level yakuza boss and tattoo artist in his spare time explained to JSRC that during the Edo period, there was no real jobs related to the firemen, it was the carpenters or the workers on construction sites who volunteered in stopping fires when such accidents occurred. “They [the firemen] were the ones known for wearing whole body tattoos. It seems like this category of people were those who did the work that nobody else can do or does not want to do, like the ancestors of the current anti-social forces.”

A yakuza boss and part-time tattoo artist at work.

According to this tattoo artist on his spare time, the layer of ink inside the skin helped the firefighters to endure the heat of the fire. Whether this is true or not is hard to say–there hasn’t really been a study of tattoos and fire-fighter endurance.


John, 52, is a computer engineer currently based in California, who worked seven years in Japan in the past. He started his whole body tattoo at age 40 with Horiyoshi the Third, in Yokohama. John travels two weeks a year to Japan to get his tattoo finished year after year by his favorite tattoo master. John has been tattooed by Horiyoshi III for 12 years but the tattoo is not yet complete.

John was tattooed by Horiyoshi III since XXX
John has been tattooed by Horiyoshi III for several years but the tattoo is not yet complete

John operates in the business world, and as an educated man with a career, he admits there is a certain amount of risk concerning what his colleagues would think about his tattoos. When asked if he faces social discrimination at work in California for his tattoos, he replied: “Tattoos are not  business wear. I do not display or mention them in professional situations. I feel that concealed tattoos should not matter. It’s the same as with a suit. When the situation calls for a business suit, I must actually wear one. It does not matter how many are hidden in my closet.”

 A special agent with the Australian Federal Police said on background, “We don’t see the young yakuza coming in with tattoos or missing fingers. The new generation is all cleanskins.*

 One Japanese police officer states, “If we continue to discriminate against people with tattoos or ex-yakuza, we’ll never be able to reintegrate them into society.  Tattoos are no longer a reliable indication of whether a person is in the yakuza at present. It’s time the laws reflected the reality.”

Mr. Kazuki Kai, 42, from Kyushu said he heard about Horiyoshi III’s reputation even before he had his tattoo studio in Yokohama. Mr. Kai started to have his first tattoo of a dragon by Horiyoshi-sensei on his left arm 23 years ago. He abandoned having any tattoo for a while and started again a new tattoo of a snake on his right arm and shoulder this January 2012. (You can see the difference in the colors.)

Mr. Kai works as a harbor blacksmith for a power generation company in Kyushu. He intends to get a whole body tattoo at Horiyoshi the Third’s tattoo studio in Yokohama. He estimates that it will take him another 3 to 4 years.  The traditional methods of tattooing in Japan are close to dying out and as Japanese culture adapts to tattoos, Japanese society is experiencing some growing pains. Whether those growing pains even come close to the actual pain of a traditional tattoo is best left to the imagination.

“It is difficult to say whether the wabori Japanese traditional tattoo hurts more or less than the electric needle tattoo. Pain is like tickle, it is not a feeling that you can measure. You can measure the weight of a person, for example, but you cannot measure pain. Some people say they are afraid of the electric sound of the needle.”–Horiyoshi the 3rd

Mr. XXX from Fukuoka accepted to pose in the studio of Horiyoshi the Third
Mr. Kazuki Kai from Kyushu accepted to pose in the studio of Horiyoshi the Third

 *Criminal without identifying body art or physical features.

AIDA MAKOTO: Monument To Nothing (Art Exhibition Reviews)

Aida Makoto is one of the most well-known modern artists in Japan today. However, the prevalence of grotesque and erotic themes in Aida’s work overshadow some of his political and social messages. Some of his pieces might be considered child pornography in the United States.

According to the Mori Arts Museum, “while projecting modern Japanese society, he simultaneously draws heavily on traditional artworks and modes of expression. It is also true, however, that surveying Aida’s oeuvre, that very ambiguity starts to resemble a miniature version of Japanese society. This exhibition, Aida Makoto’s first solo museum show, will reveal the artist in all his chaotic glory, via around 100 works – including new offerings – covering the two decades since his arrival on the international art scene.”

The exhibition will continue until March 31st at the Mori Arts Museum

Lykke Lafaye, art fan and frequent twitterer, was kind enough to contribute her review of the exhibition. She was over 18 at the time of the review.*


Waterfall by Aida Makoto
Waterfall by Aida Makoto

Extended Adolescence 

If you feel an affinity with both nationalism and anarchism, then Aida Makoto’s exhibition in the famous Roppongi Mori-Art Museum is your go-to of the year. The artist, who it seems is like a prepubescent trapped in an adults’ body, expresses his twisted world vision –whether it be war, suicide or the recent nuclear dilemma in Japan in several mediums: drawings, installments, objects. Whilst some of his work poses nothing other than seemingly meaningless mind-disturbers reminding much of its guests of the famous Ghibli movies, other pieces display Aida’s strong view on political issues. Having profound interests in JK’s (an acronym for “Joshi-Kousei (女子高生)”, meaning high school girls) or perhaps even to those younger, Aida himself switches character from adult to child when creating certain pieces. His obsession with either working on art with minors in it, or working on art as a minor, casts an interesting mindset over all of the exhibition. One minute you feel as if you have accidentally walked into an apartment of a man with perverted interests, the next minute you feel as though you are visiting a kiddy exhibition at your local primary school. Whilst being concerned with Aida’s coherence when producing these works, the subtle fascination–not only of amusement but also of admiration and repulsion–cannot be ignored when looking at the faces of the museum’s visitors. Their reactions become a part of the art.


After all, this is not an exhibition for the right-minded, nor is it suited for the “weak-stomached”. Be prepared to be grossed out, as well as amazed, upon your visit to this twisted abyss of modern Japanese art.

*WARNING: (also from the Mori Arts Museum) This exhibition contains works with provocative and sexually explicit content. These works reflect diverse aspects of contemporary society in Japan. However, please be warned if you find subject matter of this nature disturbing. The sexually explicit works are displayed in especially designated room and these are marked as being suitable for 18 years old or older only.

The Best Articles About Japan 2012 (on our blog) :D

Screen Shot 2012-12-26 at 9.15.01Dear Gentle Reader,

All of us at Japan Subculture Research Center would like to thank you for your  reading the articles posted here this last year, your contributions, and your comments. Here are some of the articles we thought were the most amusing, edifying, or just fun, grouped together in general order.  We had some outstanding outside contributions which made for some excellent reading–and to those contributors thank you as well. Whether you’re interested in Japanese culture or pop-culture, Japan’s nuclear problems, or yakuza and the Japanese underworld—there’s something for everyone.  Enjoy!

Just For Fun

It’s a fuckin sale! 


A little English goes a rong way
A little English goes a rong way


The most read piece we posted last year. And the one we put the least amount of effort into.

Young Japanese Men and Women Reject Marriage, and Ultimately Each Other : Japan Subculture Research Center

Love: Japan style.

The Tears of a Cat: Hello Kitty’s Guide to Japan, English and Japanese/ ハローティの英語で紹介する : Japan Subculture Research Center

Hello Kitty is an international refugee?

British or Japanese?
British or Japanese?

“You would be cute, IF you had a tiny face.” Japanese facial corset promises cuteness in just 3 minutes! : Japan Subculture Research Center

The most painful article ever.


Let’s Convenience Store! The Musical: コンビニへ行こう! : Japan Subculture Research Center

A great piece by Mr. Noah-sama, a contributor to the blog. The best of Japanese life.

Coffee & Cigarettes Together At Last : Speak Lark, Drink up : Japan Subculture Research Center

What could be better? Manju and Green Tea? I think not.

Facebook Is Stalking You, Baby. (Notes From The Uncanny Valley, Japan) : Japan Subculture Research Center

How are we feeling today? A little paranoid, perhaps. Maybe not.

The Fallout from 3/11 and Japan’s nuclear industry 

Another photo of the now famous Fukushima ostrich (2011) photo: Naoto Matsumura
Another photo of the now famous Fukushima ostrich (2011) photo: Naoto Matsumura

The Buddha of Fukushima’s Forbidden Zone: A Photo Essay : Japan Subculture Research Center

A tribute to one man who will not go quietly.

Independent Commission on Nuclear Accident: Earthquake, TEPCO negligence, Myth of Safety Caused Meltdown : Japan Subculture Research Center

We hope someone in the Japanese government is paying attention.

The Melting Sun: Japan’s Nuclear Follies : Japan Subculture Research Center

History not only repeats itself, sometimes it predicts the future. A long essay on Japan’s nuclear industry by Professor Jeff Kingston worth reading.

Japan’s historical anti-nuclear protest on July 29th, 2012, a photo essay : Japan Subculture Research Center

The protest movement is heard.  The follow up is here on The Daily Beast.  Nuclear Power Protests In Japan Are Finally Heard. 

Every Friday night thousands gather to call for an end to nuclear power in Japan.
Every Friday night thousands gather to call for an end to nuclear power in Japan.
Misao Redwolf working with the police to keep the protests peaceful.
Misao Redwolf working with the police to keep the protests peaceful.

The Underworld and The Yakuza

The Last Yakuza: A Life In The Japanese Underworld coming in 2014 : Japan Subculture Research Center

I know–total self-promotion. What else do you think pays the costs of running this labor of love? Book sales, some donations, and whatever else I can scrounge up. All that aside, I’m hoping this will be a good read with a moral to the tale. All good stories have something to teach.

The Centers For the Elimination of Organized Crime will be able to launch legal proceedings to shut down yakuza offices under the new laws, if the group is designated "extremely dangerous."
The Centers For the Elimination of Organized Crime will be able to launch legal proceedings to shut down yakuza offices under the new laws, if the group is designated “extremely dangerous.”

The $1,000 Pineapple. Japanese Police Offer Rewards For Hand Grenades : Japan Subculture Research Center

Those Southern Yakuza are pretty ornery!

Yakuza Go On The Record About 3/11 Relief Efforts In July Fanzine (実話時代) : Japan Subculture Research Center

When I wrote about this in 2011, it was a taboo. Not anymore. Sometimes even the bad guys do good things.

Yakuza Comix: An Illustrated Guide To The Front Company フロント企業図解 : Japan Subculture Research Center

Pictures and words

Yakuza Comix #2: The Buck Stops With The Boss : Japan Subculture Research Center

It’s not easy being a yakuza chief these days.

Everything I Ever Needed To Know In Life I Learned From the Yakuza or The Cops That Kick Their Ass in 7 Lessons : Japan Subculture Research Center

Live and learn. Sometimes we die and learn.

On Modern Slavery: Thoughts on Human Trafficking : Japan Subculture Research Center

Published posthumously. Michiel Brandt, rest in peace.

Little Mermaids & Little Fingers: An illustrated yakuza tale : Japan Subculture Research Center

Even Yakuza have kids and sometimes try to be good fathers.

Yakuza blues
Yakuza blues


Meet Japan’s Nuclear Mafia: Yakuza, deadbeats, and security risks welcome

TEPCO and the Yakuza
TEPCO and the Yakuza



Japanese Culture and Cultural Events from 2012

Along the Tamagawa 多摩川 today, the cherry blossoms reached full bloom. (April 15th 2012)
Along the Tamagawa 多摩川 today, the cherry blossoms reached full bloom. (April 15th 2012)

Sakura Time 2012: A photo journey of Tokyo’s awesome cherry blossom viewing : Japan Subculture Research Center

The beauty of April in Japan.

Sakura! 桜!
Sakura! 桜!

Graduation Day: Goodbye to 虐め (いじめ)? : Japan Subculture Research Center

“Ijime” bullying is a part of the culture. Unfortunately.

O-bon: Festival of The Dead or “Please Feed The Hungry Ghosts Day” : Japan Subculture Research Center

Halloween in Japan–in the traditional sense.

Annular Eclipse: After 173 Years A Dark Sun Rise In The Land Of The Rising Sun : Japan Subculture Research Center

Do we have to wait another 173 years? There are some great photos here.


Journalism In Japan (and the world) 

Jake, I know that you're planning to log off and I'm afraid I can't let that happen. And how are you feeling, today?
Our lawyers are watching you.

Protecting Sources & Risking Lives: The Ethical Dilemmas of Japanese Journalism : Japan Subculture Research Center

Why we are reluctant to use the names of our sources in Japan–and for good reason.

The Trial Of Minoru Tanaka: The high cost of investigative journalism in Japan & “the nuclear mafia” : Japan Subculture Research Center

Do you want to be an investigative journalist in Japan? You’ll need a good lawyer. Increasingly, litigation is used to shut up voices of dissent.

The Journo Blues: A Song Inspired By Arianna Huffington : Japan Subculture Research Center

The HuffPost and Google News have started to turn the business into a con game–the con being that “exposure” will get you a real job as a journalist. Better think twice on that. If journalism is your calling, you may need to have a second job.

Meet the Rupert Murdoch of Japan: Tsuneo Watanabe




Ray Bradbury, Journalism & Mr. Dark. “You can’t act if you don’t know.” : Japan Subculture Research Center

Yes, Ray Bradbury was a novelist but sometimes people can say greater truths in fiction than they can in an essay. I was sad to see him go and this is my small essay on what I find inspiring in his best novel, as a journalist, and as a father.

スクリーンショット 2012-06-07 22.48.18






Gambling. Dopamine.Sex. Drugs. Art. X-mas plans in Japan?

If you’re looking for something to do on this lovely X-mas day in Japan, you still have a chance to catch the fascinating Tokyo University Of the Arts Doctoral Program Final Exhibition at the University Art Museum in Ueno. And because it’s Christmas, admission is free.

Are we safe yet?
Are we safe yet?

(Well, actually admission has been free since it opened on the 16th, but I figured more people would go if they thought they were getting a bargain.)

I’m not an art critic nor do I know much about art, but I do know some artists–mostly through the introductions of journalist friends with better taste and broader areas of interest than myself.  So please pardon me if my musings on this exhibition are mundane or way off. I’m a journalist not an artist.

Because I had previously met, Beatriz Inglessis, the artist who’s current exhibition “The Educational” is still running today, I went to see it last week before leaving Japan. She was kind enough to walk me through the exhibit but before explaining anything she asked me to walk through and tell her what I saw, without offering me any guidance.


Fight, Flee, Freeze (or be free?)
Fight, Flee, Freeze (or be free?)


And so I did. Because I see everything as an investigation rather than an interaction, I approached it more like a crime scene than an art exhibition. And I was surprised to find that I felt oddly at home. What’s more, I didn’t do so bad on the impromptu pop quiz afterwords. I’d give myself a B+. (Even in Art, I always think there’s a right answer. This is the nature of a newspaper reporter–everything is in black or white. Sometimes grey but that’s usually just because of laziness.)

“The Educational” is a series of paper-cut outs on major themes as seen through medical science and through educational forums. As the son of a coroner, I could see the art in the science behind the works and appreciate it. Ms. Inglessis added another level of interpretation to the artwork by taking it outside of the workshop and placing them in related environments, which she then photographed. The digital slide show which forms part of the exhibit is a moving microcosmic look at some aspects of Japanese society and security that are enthralling.

It opens with “Transportation”, a crossword puzzle on airport security seemingly designed for the few TSA employees that can actually read. What was highlighted and not highlighted was of interest to me.

"Transportation" (TSA Crossword Puzzles)
“Transportation” (TSA Crossword Puzzles)
Metro Check List
Metro Check List

“Primal Scene” was pink female figure on a makeshift operating table.

Primal Scene
Primal Scene


“Primal Scene: Cabinet Panoramic” was based on an MRI (magnetic resonance image) of a couple having sex. I recognized it from having seen a similar photo essay a few weeks back in the the weekly magazine Shukan Post. Although, I’d have to say the penis proportions were a little out of whack. But then again, it is art.

Primal Scene: Cabinet Panoramic (Based on an MRI of a couple having sex. Spot the penis, win a prize. BTW, I'm surprised Tokyo Police aren't raiding the place on obscenity charges.  Just kidding.)
Primal Scene: Cabinet Panoramic (Based on an MRI of a couple having sex. Spot the penis, win a prize. BTW, I’m surprised Tokyo Police aren’t raiding the place on obscenity charges. Just kidding.)

My favorite object of art was “Flight, Flee, Freeze.” Those are the three primary reactions we have to fear. There are objects of fear such as a spider and the other pieces show the neurological and physiological processes involved in dealing with a threat. The Japanese catalog misspelled the title as “Flight, Free, Freeze.” Darn those tricky “l”s. But it did make me stop to think that perhaps we do have four choices when facing our fears. We can fight the source, flee them, freeze and be overcome by them, or perhaps we can learn to free ourselves from our fears and maintain calm. I was reminded of an obscure Buddhist verse, “A man is not a wise scholar simply because he talks much. He is a real pandit (wise scholar) who is tranquil, free from hatred, free from fear.”


The only person I know who is a man without fear is Daredevil–who also happens to be a comic book character. But never mind.

Drug Mug shot was a paper cut version of the infamous “faces of meth.” Ms. Inglessis noted that after years of attempts to educate youth about the horrors of drug usage, the faces of drug users series–showing their decline in appearance after years of drug use–remains the most effective. Because apparently, teenagers care more about how they look than how fried their brains might get from using hard drugs. Whatever works.

Drug Mug Shots–The Faces of Meth in Paper form

Finally, “Gambling, The Dopamine” is a chart of what happens when a gambler is playing the game, making his bets. Rational thought inducing chemical levels go down, pleasure inducing dopamine levels sky-rocket. The mind of the gambler and the drug user aren’t that far apart. Gamblers turn out to be some of the most optimistic people in the world. They believe that despite the odds, good fortune and wealth are just a few rolls of the dice or a few pachinko balls away.

IMG_7645 IMG_7689

Ms. Inglessis was able to convince a pachinko parlor to let her superimpose her artwork on some of the machines and photograph them. The contrast between the brightly moving machines stoking the gambling urges and the graphic depiction of the dopamine flow that it creates make for fascinating “street theatre.”

I only won at Pachinko once. 50,000 yen. And I never played again. Over time, I’ve learned how to wager on myself and make better bets. If I ever played again, I’d lose it all and more. Sometimes, winning is a simple as knowing when to quit…or not making a bet at all.

Betting between heads and tails.

There are several floors of artwork on display at the exhibition–many of them as equally fascinating. If you manage to take the day off today, have a look. The show closes at five.

Beatriz Inglessis has her next exhibition showing at The Container from January 14th. We’ll post details here next year.

Graduations and Goodbyes.

Professor Tsuneo Akaha, of Monterey Institute of International Studies, sent me photos of Michiel “Mimi” Brandt’s posthumous graduation ceremony on December 8th (US time). Michiel was one of the founders of this blog and my BFF. The tremendous amount of joy and warmth she brought into the world during her short life inspired me and apparently many others as well.

Below is the address Professor Akaha gave in her honor.

Michiel Brandt graduated posthumously with honor.


Today we are delighted to award Michiel Brandt an MA in International Policy Studies  posthumously and to have Michiel’s mother Hiroko from Tokyo and her brother Daniel from San Francisco to receive her diploma. 

Michiel was nearing completion of all the requirements for her degree with a specialization in Human Rights, International Norms, and Justice, when she lost her battle against cancer  on July 9 this year. She was 30 years old. She attended MIIS four semesters, from September to December 2008, and again from August 2009 to December 2010. She took a leave of absence between the two periods to undergo treatment for leukemia. Her medical battle did not deter her from pursuing her dream of a professional career to help the disadvantaged, the weak, and the vulnerable in the world. She was particularly dedicated to the cause of fighting human trafficking, the reason that brought her to MIIS in the first place.

In order to honor her and to carry on her dream, MIIS has established a Michiel Brandt Memorial Prize Fund to support Monterey Institute students pursuing an internship in the human trafficking field. If you are interested in donating to the Fund, please go to the MIIS website and click on “Giving” on the front page or contact the Institutional Advancement Office. “

Michiel was one of the warmest, sweetest, and most diligent persons I have ever known. She was always willing to assist others who needed help with academic and nonacademic matters. Behind her fellowship and friendship was her bilingual and bicultural background. She had lived, studied, and worked in both Japan and the United States. I also believe that her battle with cancer gave her the strength and courage with which she conducted herself. “

Over the three years that I knew her, not once did I hear her complain about her own issues. Instead, she helped others with compassion and love. The numerous posts by her friends on her Facebook page, which continues today, testify to the fact that she touched the lives of so many people while she was with us and continues to do so even after she left us.  

In short, Michiel was a model MIIS student, committed to pursuing a professional career to make a difference in the world, in the lives of the disadvantaged and the vulnerable. Even though she is not with us physically, in her seat we have a Japanese flag in her honor.  

Now I ask you to join me in welcoming Hiroko-­‐san and Daniel-­‐san onto the stage.  

December 8, 2012

Michiel Brandt Memorial Prize Fund (Monterey Institute of International Studies) – Please help us keep Michiel’s dream alive:
Here is how to give to this Fund:
1) Go to:<>;
2) Click on “Giving Now”; and,
3) Complete the giving form: under “2. Gift Information” “Direct Your Gift”, please select “Michiel Brandt Memorial Prize Fund.”


Coffee & Cigarettes Together At Last : Speak Lark, Drink up

Any hard-boiled journalist or cop will tell you that coffee and cigarettes go well together. So I guess it was a stroke of marketing genius for Philip Morris to team up with Tully’s Coffee and offer a can of Tully’s Barista Blend Royal Presso with every 410 yen pack of Premium Quality Lark Cigarettes. Available in 3 varieties of lethalness. 6mg, 3mg, 1mg. Smooth, soft, and light. They even have the coffee packaged with the cigarette pack itself–just carry it to the register and you’re ready to go.

It’s almost perfect marketing except for the fact that the coffee is lukewarm when you get your cigs. I don’t know about you, but I either want my coffee hot or ice cold. Lukewarm coffee is like the Democratic Party of Japan–somewhere between the Socialist Party and the LDP and just plain sucky. Lark has customized the cigarettes with the slogan, “あなたに似合う味わいを” anata ni niau ajiwai wo—“(have) the taste that best matches you.”

410 yen gets you a pack of cigarettes (LARK) and a can of coffee. Or 410 yen gets you a can of coffee and a pack of cigarettes. Great deal!


Unfortunately, for me, Lark does not offer a “燃え尽きたきつい苦みの味わい” (moetsukita kitsui nigami) –“burnt out harshly bitter” flavor. I feel like my demographic has been ignored. This means I’ll have to stick to either not-smoking or find a vending machine somewhere that sells my old favorites.

LARK has always been innovative in its marketing. Years ago, it had a hit with Timothy Dalton aka James Bond, smoking their brand and intoning in a deep baritone voice, “Speak Lark” after dispensing with the usual non-smoking evil villain. We never had any idea what it meant but it resonated just the same. This campaign also seems to be a surefire hit. If you think about it, the combination of coffee and cigarettes in Japan actually makes a lot of sense. Once upon a time, instead of saying “smoke cigarettes” people actually said “drink cigarettes” (煙草をのむ).

It could be a trivia question someday. “Name two stimulants in Japan you can ‘drink'”. For just 410 yen, you have the answer.

Life With Zero Electricity: Naoto Matsumura in Fukushima, “it’s Possible”

Tokyo – September 11/ 2012 was the one year and six months anniversary of the big Tohoku earthquake and tsunami disaster, followed by the Fukushima nuclear accident.

The nuclear disaster has displaced more than 100,000 people. The nuclear disaster also made huge amounts unusable land in northern Japan for decades to come. Critics in Japan and overseas have largely questioned, whether TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Company) has sufficiently considered the tsunami and earthquake risks.


Tomioka town, Fukushima prefecture (2011) Photo: Naoto Matsumura

For more than eight months, the 20 km zone around the Fukushima power plant was a forbidden zone where evacuation was an obligation for everyone, except one man. Since the nuclear accident, Naoto Matsumura refuses to leave his farm. At the age of 53, this farmer is physically in a good shape. In the city of Tomioka, in the Prefecture of Fukushima where he currently lives, there is still no water and no electricity. People who can identify themselves as being residents of the evacuated area and members of their families can get inside with a special pass. Reporters have requested these passes by pretending they were “married” or somehow “family related” to the residents who originally lived in the evacuated zone in order to get inside and report how it is. Therefore, Mr. Naoto Matsumura is not the only man going inside the forbidden zone, however he is still living there in his original home with the animals which he took under his responsibility. The police patrols and the border guards do not seem to be very picky on checking the faces and the identities of the people going inside and outside, like foreign reporters, because of the necessary masks and whole body white suits.

Naoto Matsumura has spent two hot summers without electricity at all, and he said it is a matter of accustoms to survive without electricity. “I feel like being Robinson Crusoe in his deserted island,” he said over the telephone today.

Mr. Matsumura usually never gives a phone call from his own initiative, but yesterday night, the phone rang at 9PM. He said that he felt a bit lonely, and that when the evening comes, everything gets dark so he has nothing else to do but to lay in his futon and drink some sake to wait until the night passes. “Time goes by slowly in those moment. I have no electricity, no tap water, no television, nothing else but sake to entertain my evening. But how strange it is, I am not envious of watching TV at all.”

Currently, Naoto Matsumura is taking care of three dogs, Taro and Ishimatsu, and a third little orphan he found near the awful cow skeletons, now so sadly famous. Just three weeks ago, Mr. Matsumura was paying a visit to some remote areas of Tomioka town, and he said “the poor dog probably got a skin or fur infection. He was lying there in the middle of the dead cows, he looked sad and depressed. His fur had gone off, and it looked skinny. When I approached him, he didn’t react aggressively, on the contrary, he looked happy to find a man, alive. So he followed me into my pick up truck and I took him home and fed him.” Mr. Matsumura called the dog “Kiseki”, the word for “Miracle.”

"Cows Tomb" in Tomioka town, Fukushima prefecture (2011) Photo: Naoto Matsumura

Poor little Kiseki, aka Miracle, will probably never be adopted by anyone in Japan, like some other Fukushima dogs had been recently. He looks too ugly, nobody would want it in the living room or even in one’s garden. He can only live in the Fukushima no-go zone, counting on the gentle voice and love of Mr. Matsumura, and his two companions, Taro and Ishimatsu, which accepted him pretty well, since they all share the same fate.

Other than the team of four, who often stay together, there are additional 30 or so cats, which are much more independent and learned to live pretty much in the wilderness, but which still count on the hands of Mr. Matsumura to be fed occasionally.

There are two ostriches, two females. One of them got a big egg recently, but it was technically not fertilized and so will never be the next eggs.

Another photo of the now famous Fukushima ostrich (2011) photo: Naoto Matsumura

Seventy Five Cows and a Pony

Mr. Matsumura also has a little pony, called Yama, like the mountain. As for the famous cows, there are now 60 males and females and happily 15 healthy calves.

“Today, I had a visit from a reporter of Friday Magazine, so I had some human encounter, but those guys leave when it becomes dark, so it isn’t fun.” Mr. Matsumura never complains, but he admitted that the summer had been tough, the water from the well dried up. No air conditioning, no television, no water. “I still eat exclusively precooked food, cup noodles, instant curry and so on. I go to my attributed evacuation home only 2 or 3 times in a month.”

Naoto Matsumura said he dares not ask for help to anyone, since doing anything inside the no-go-zone can affect one’s health, due to the high radiation rate. However, his NGO partners from “Ganbaru Fukushima” had left him aside lately, and he is dealing with the feeding all by himself. He said sometimes he receives donation pet food from Japanese nationals who support him and encourages him. He has stayed in good contact with “Gattsu Fukushima” and its leader Endo-san, but his own NGO “Ganbaru Fukushima” had had only one active member until recently, and it’s himself. Time passes by slowly indeed. But the Fukushima nuclear accident has caused the forced evacuation of more than 100,000 people in Fukushima. Many will never step their foot back in their home land again. The left behind are the animals. “We cannot do anything about them, this is a no-go zone,” the authorities had said. But Mr. Matsumura continues to feed those animals left behind. And he will continue to operate inside the town until someday action will be finally taken by authorities and the Japanese people to rebuilt this region of Fukushima, with decontamination of the soil, and reconstruction of the houses.

Tomioka town (2011) photo: Naoto Matsumura

Note from the writer: the featured image on this post is a photo of Naoto Matsumura taken by photo journalist Munesuke Yamamoto, in 2012.

“Kibou no Bokujo” is an NGO similar to “Ganbaru Fukushima”.

Yasukuni Shrine: The Nation’s Pacifying Shrine That Angers Other Nations

Memo: JSRC is neither opposed to the existence of Yasukuni Jinja nor does it support the views of the group currently operating the shrine or Japanese nationalists.  We felt that it would be useful to get a glimpse at why some people go visit the shrine and who those people are. We apologize if anecdotally shedding light on the cultural background offends you. 

Yasukuni Shrine. 靖国神社.

靖 (Yasu) means “peaceful” “国” (Kuni) means “Nation”. “神社” (Jinja) means “Shrine.”

The Shrine of The Peaceful Nation. And it’s true, Japan is now a peaceful nation, but this shrine in which some of Japan’s war criminals are enshrined and which honors the war dead in general–this shrine is a perennial source of international and national conflict.

“There are three kinds of people who visit Yasukuni shrine every year on August 15th:  There are the opponents to the controversial visit, the ultra nationalists and those who really come to greet the spirit of the dead.”

 A visitor sitting on a bench aside the main alley on the way to Yasukuni Shrine, said this on the day officials of the Japanese government made their first visit to the shrine since the DPJ took power in 2009.

We tried to meet and understand who are the other people going.

In August,  thousands of people visited the controversial shrine of Yasukuni to celebrate the 67th anniversary of the end of the Pacific War and the beginning of peace in Japan. Both interpretations were true.

Thousands of Japanese paid a visit to the Yasukuni shrine yesterday.

Yasukuni jinja, or the “shrine that pacifies the nation” is famous for honoring the war dead, but the political controversy starts at the point where convicted war criminals have also been enshrined in the same place: after being convicted and sentenced to death by the military tribunal of the Allied Forces, the spirits of more than a thousand Japanese war criminals, and later on 14 “class A” war criminals have been enshrined at Yasukuni in 1969 and in 1978.

"Let us mourn the souls of the heroic departed" (Left flag), "We are opposed to replace a new facility to mourn the dead" Fukushima prefecture shinto and political association (Right flag)

The visits made by a big number of Japanese politicians, including prime ministers have raised the concerns of the international community, especially the governments of China and Korea, which were invaded by Japan and view the Yasukuni shrine as the symbol of Japanese Militarism and a strong support for nationalism. The most widely reported visits in the media were those of Former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi (Liberal Democratic Party), in power from 2001 to 2006, who repeatedly visited the shrine on an official level.

Old men exhibiting their imperial military costumes at the entrance gate of Yasukuni shrine.

This year, the visits by Transport Minister Yuichiro Hata and State Minister in charge of North Korea’s abductions of Japanese Nationals Jin Matsubara, marks the first controversial visits by Democratic Party of Japan’s Cabinet members since they came in power in 2009, despite Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s demand to his cabinet members “not to make an official visit” to the war heroes’ shrine. “The visits may be an indication that Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s power is waning,” The Japan Times noted.

"idealism without illusions", Japanese cookies sold for 630 yen at the Yasukuni shrine presents shop.

The visits made by the two Cabinet Members this Wednesday spark the diplomatic tensions already palpable after the official visit by the President of South Korea Lee Myung Bak to dispute the Takeshima islands claimed by Japan.

An official ceremony began under a white tent around 10:30 am with the broadcast of the Japanese national anthem and Emperor Hirohito’s speech broadcasted on national radio on August 15th 1945 to announce the end of the war and Japan’s defeat. Further down the road, closer to the shrine, white doves were thrown in the air and filled the blue sky.


Back in the white tent, various guest speakers and old timers spoke about their experience of the war standing on a podium facing a number of  senior citizens wearing the black outfits of mourners. At various occasions, a Japanese man in his fifties in the crowd screamed insanities about other Asian people, but  the most disturbing things was that nobody around him reacted to his remarks. He was finally taken away by force from the tent by two men in black.

Two members of the parliament were also part of the ceremony: Mrs. Eriko Yamatani, known for her views on Japan’s territorial claims of the Tsushima Island, owned by 0.007 percent of Korean residents, and Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, in charge from 2006 to 2007, and current member of the House of Representatives, was part of the ceremony, visiting the shrine on an official level, unlike his 2006’s visit, which raised concerns from the Chinese and South Korean governments at the time. “Like all of you here, I was blessed with hearing the voice of the emperor 67 years ago. And we gave up our weapons and surrendered. And since that time, we have walked a long hard road.” He said during his speech, before disappearing in a car. It was hard to tell if he actually visited the shrine or not.

Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (2006-2007)

 Under the shades of the old trees aligned along the way to the shrine, the grand son of deceased Tsuekichi Ishikawa is now 62 years’ old and sits on a tatami mat with two or three friends, eating odango rice and red beans sweets. His ancestor was a professional ranked soldier at the Yokosuka Navy. He is the current owner of a hundred years old imperial banner, which used to be carried by his grand father when he served in the Japanese Navy.

"This flag is hundred years old", the grand son of Captain Tsuekichi Ishikawa said.

The grand son of deceased Captain Ishikawa was until recently the manager of pro wrestler Kozo Takeda, and he comes to Yasukuni shrine on August 15th, every year: “I come here to commemorate what people commonly refer as the ‘end of the war’, but in fact we can call it the ‘loss of the war,’ I think it makes more sense.” He said exhibiting a rare copy of the design layout of the famous battleship Yamato gunkan, which sank on April 7th, 1945 near Okinawa, where it was sent to protect the island from invasion by the American Navy and fought until destroyed.

A precious copy of the blueprint of the Yamato battle ship that sank in April 1945, while protecting Okinawa from the invaders.
Captain Tsuekichi Ishikawa, his entire family and the mayor of his town, Hitachi Omiya city when he returned safely from war.

Kazuhiko Ikezoe (53) is a judo teacher, but he used to be a salary man at Honda: “Yasukuni is the place where the dead souls come to meet the living people. If you want to meet your ancestor, you can go to Yasukuni shrine, his bones may not be there, but it was decided that on August 15th, we can all meet up in Yasukuni shrine, living and dead ones. The souls meet up there. I came to visit the spirit of my uncle who died in the Philippines.” He explained.

At another corner of the shrine, a group of nostalgic elderly people gathered together in a circle, singing the war songs “Yokaren no uta” (song of the Japanese air force trainees) also known as “Wakawashi no uta” (song of the young eagles) on the background tunes of an old harmonica. It is a title song used in a propaganda film to recruit Japanese youth for the air force, the song came out in 1943.

Old timers singing "the song of the Japanese air force eagles"

After the recent setbacks created by the South Korean president Lee Myung Bak’s request for his nation to receive “official apologies” from the Japanese emperor for the atrocities of the Japanese occupation, a reporter in his early thirties from a major Japanese newspaper investigating what the foreigners attending the memorial said that if he could express his personal views, he would say that “it is quite disturbing that the Korean president makes such official demand to the emperor of Japan.”

Japanese nationalism is not yet buried nor is it a ghost.  Yasukuni Jinja symbolizes Japanese nationalism and Japan’s imperial hubris to many. What it symbolizes to those who visit it is very different from person to person.