Japan - from Asahi to Zen
Traditional terms, and a pop culture glossary through the eyes of a raw gaijin.
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Sabi,   Sado,   Sake,   Salaryman,   Samurai,   -san, or, -zan,   Sashimi,   Seals,   Self,   Sento,   Seppuku,   Sewamono,   Sexy,   Shame,   Shamisen,   Shikoku Pilgrimage,   -shima, or, -jima,   Shin-Kabuki,   Shinkansen,   Shinto,   Shitamachi,   Shochu,   Shogun,   Shoji,   Shosagoto,   Slurping,   Soaplands,   Sodaigomi,   Subway,   Suicide Clubs,   Sumi-e,   Sumo,   Suntory,   Sushi,   Sword

Elegant Simplicity.

Along with Wabi, Sabi is one of the highest aesthetic values aimed at by Japanese arts such as the Tea Ceremony or the Haiku poetic form.    It encourages a profound feeling of inner melancholy, and an appreciation of quietly clear and calm, well-seasoned and refined simplicity.

See Also:    Wabi,   Yugen

Sake is a traditional Japanese alcoholic drink.    Like most other things in Japan, it's made from rice.    But not just any old rice, there are special types of rice which are considered better for making sake.    Generally speaking they're not as effecient as other types of mass~produced rice, but that doesn't matter, since lots of sake is made by small local breweries, and the production quality involved is considered to be very important.

Other ingredients include yeast, water (preferably mountain fresh), and a special paste.

The most important question with your sake is whether to have it hot or cold?    One of my students advised me:    "But teacher, if you drink it warm, maybe 40 degrees, you get drunk faster."    Hmm... thank's for the information, but is that a warning or a tip?

See Also:    Asahi,   Izakaya,   Shochu,   Suntory,   Yebisu

The lifestyle choice for the braindead workaholic slave generation.

The Plan goes a little something like this.   

  1. Finish universtiy.
  2. Take a 3 week trip to Guam or Korea.
  3. Buy 20 identical black business suits, and white shirts.
  4. Work for a large corporation.
  5. Work six days a week.
  6. Grope a few women on the Subway crush each morning.
  7. Have an (arranged?) wife, and some kids you never see.
  8. Cheat on them at office party nights in Soaplands .
  9. Comfort yourself with the fact that your wife knows this, and is probably cheating in return.
  10. Wait forty years.
  11. If you are a bad employee, and don't manage to actually die whilst in the office, then you can retire aa a happy Salaryman

See Also: Karoshi,   Officelady,   Sodaigomi

Samurai ( lit. Servant )

"In flowers, the Cherry Blossom.
In men, the Samurai."
The Warrior class, retained by the Daimyo.    They usually fought from horesback, firing arrows as they rode into battle, much like the Mongols.    However, for a Samurai his sword was his life and honour.    No true Samurai would bear to be parted form his sword, which acquired a reverence and spiritual significance.   

These followers of Bushido basically lorded it over the other "commoner" classes and were the lynchpin of the feudal system in Japan.    Indeed, at one point, the Samurai were the only class allowed to carry swords at all.

The rank of samurai was strictly defined and regulated.    No one could claim this status without the permission of the Shogun.    This was just as well too, since the Samurai retained the right to "cut down and leave", i.e., to kill with impunity, and leave the body lying where it fell, no questions asked.

an old samurai The Samurai were renowned not just for their remarkable fighting prowess, but for their unflinching bravery and above all, their extreme loyalty.    There were fearsome killing machines.    However, they were also religious men, followers of Zen, and in later life, many of them "took the tonsure".    They gave up their lives to join a cloistered monestary, hoping that through devotion and prayer in later life, that they could atone for the deaths on their hands.

See Also:    Bushido,   Daimyo,   Ronin,   Shogun,   Swords

Raw Fish

a plate of sashimi A distinctive characteristic of Japanese cuisine is to enliven dishes with ingredients that are as fresh as possible.    Sashimi is typical of such dishes.    This is in contrast to French cuisine, for example, in which ingredients are invariably processed.    Sashimi are pieces of raw fish, cut to appropriate sizes, which are dipped in soy sauce and eaten.    For this dish, how to select and prepare the high-quality ingredients, determines the proficiency of the chef's skill.

See Also:    Fugu,   Sushi

In the West, we usually indicate ourselves by pointing to our chests.    In Japan, it's the nose that people touch.    Indeed, the Kanji symbol of "self" is just a stylised representation of a nose.

See Also: Nose, Blowing

Fee-paying public neighbourhood baths.

The history of sento in Japan goes back to the Edo Period.    At that time, the population of Tokyo City (Edo), exceeded one million.    The Sento sprang up as public hygiene facilities (and the Japanese are nothing if not hygenic), and also as places of social interchange, almost like the function of an izakaya.

Now that Japan is a rich country, everyone has their own private bath at home, so the sento are either closing down, or turning into health centres, offering massae and sauna etc.

See Also:    Edo,   Edo Period,   Furo,   Notemburo,   Onsen,   Rotemburo

manga seppuku Ritual suicide by disemblowelment.

Suicide doesn:t carry the same stigma of sin in Japan as it does in the West, and in fact, it was previously seen as an honourable course of action.

It also had other uses:

"His Lordship had used him badly, but in a case like this, the proper thing for a retainer to do is to register his protest by a formal suicide."
Tadano0kyo Gyojo Ki, by Kikuchi Kan

See Also:    Suicide Clubs  

In Kabuki, this refers to "contemporary plays" portraying in a realistic way the lives of ordinary people in the Edo Period.    Usually this is the last item on the programme.

A word that you can use to describe about 80% of all nubile Japanese women.    Well, if you like, cute, petit, slim, feminine women with lustourous black hair, perfect white teeth, red lips and great style that is.

A traditional three-stringed instrument, played with a plectrum.

An instrument which takes some getting used to for Western ears.

Shikoku Pilgrimage
2 months, 1000km and 88 Buddhist temples make this the longest and most famous pilgrimage in Japan.

That's two months by foot of course, however, many people complete the journey by bicycle, car, tour bus, or even helicopter.

The 88 temples represent the 88 evils identified by the Buddhist saint Kobo Daishi, in whose honour the pilgrimage takes place.

See Also:    Inland Sea,   Regions

"New Kabuki" plays written after 1868 according to the theory and practice of western drama.

bullet train nose The Bullet Train

For people who think that Japan's regular train services just aren't expensive enough.

See Also:    Subway

The Way Of The Gods

Japan's indigenous religion, based on the premise that gods inhabit all natural things, both animate and inanimate.    Shinto is an inherently cheerful religion, growing out of a love of nature, rather than concepts of sin and punishment.

After the introduction of Buddhism from China, Japan gained a new level of religious complexity.    Shinto says nothing about sacred scriptures, a heavenly realm, an afterlife or any sort of metaphysics beyond simple ancestor worship and animism.    Buddhism filled this gap, and the two religions variously co-existed and competed throughout Japanese history, until the Meiji Restoration when Shinto was promoted as the official state religion.

Sadly, "God", i.e., The Emperor, (May He Live Forever!), was officially obilterated by a constitutional adjustment once the Americans took over.    In modern times, half of the religions people in Japan follow Shinto, although for many Japanese people it is a vererable traditional custom rather than an expresion of faith.

See Also:    Sumo,   Torii,   Zen

Low-lying, working-class districts of eastern Tokyo.    Usually referring to Asakusa and Ueno these days.

Low-class distilled spirits, made from rice, corn or wheat.

Shochu contrasts sharply with Sake, which is brewed, whereas Shochu is distilled.    Also, Shochu is much stronger, usually about 35 or 40% alcohol volume, compared to 12-15% for Sake.    The good news is that it only costs about the same as sake, and as such, measured by alcohol content, it's the cheapest drink in Japan.

The technique originated in Arabia in the 11th century, and was brought to the Far East in the thirteenth century.    Shochu (also known as soju ) is also hugely popular in Korea.

See Also:    Asahi,   Izakaya,   Sake,   Suntory,   Yebisu

a woman behind a screen Paper-covered sliding screens used to cover windows or divide rooms.

See Also:    Fusuma,   Futon,   Genkan,   Irori,   Kotatsu,   Tatami,   Tokonoma,   Windchimes

Supreme Military Commander

The military rulers of Japan before the Meiji Restoration in 1868.    Nominally subordinate to the emperor, but for a long time they effectively acted as a series of military dictators.    After a time, these Shoguns who had sidelined the Emperor were themselves sidelined by the Head of Council, until the position of Shogun was merely a marginal one.

Originally the title was merely a temporary one, given to the leader of the armies who fought against the Ainu.    However, with the setting up of the Tent Government, the title became permanent, and hereditary.    The Shoguns ruled Japan for many years by binding the samurai to them and ensuring their loyalty.

"Dance". In Kabuki, this is usually the second item on the programme.

Japanese people consider it correct to slurp whenever you're eating noodles, ramen or soup etc.

Making lots of slurping noises when you eat your soup and noodles is considered to be polite.    It shows that you are enjoying your meal, and not to do so would be rude, however much you hear your mother's voice in the back of your head, screaming at you not to play with your food.

Also, slurping serves a practical purpose, as noodles, ramen and so on, are often served very hot, and slurping draws air into the mouth which helps to cool the food as well as bring out the flavour.

However, don't take things too far.    Slurping is perfectly acceptable, (desirable even), with noodles or soup, but on the other hand, it is just not done with Western foods.    You slurp in your Japanese noodles, but not your spaghetti.

See Also:    Pasta

Previously known as "Turkish Baths" until a complaint from the Turkish Ambassador forced these pleasure dens to change their names.

A Soapland is a small backstreet business, offering a range of services, from the full (and I mean full) body massage, to outright prostitution.    The Japanese attitude to this seems to be much less puritanical than ours though.    You get the feeling that it wouldn't be totally bizarre for your average Salaryman to pop along for a little R'n'R.

See Also:    AV,   Bukkake,   Cosplay,   Enjo Kosai,   Girl Hunter,   GRO,   Hentai,   Kogal,   Naked Sushi,   Salaryman(6),   Underwear

Sodai Gomi
Literal meaning:
Oversized Trash
Slang meaning:
Husband. (retired).

Japanese husbands spend much of their waking hours at work, and at work-related functions.    trash The average Salaryman might hardly see his wife and children at all during his working life.

But what happens after retirement?    Suddenly husbands are at home, with nothing to do except to get under their wives feet!

And so they become sodai gomi - oversized trash. Useless, taking up space, and just waiting to be thrown out for good.

Such husbands are also sometimes known as "nure ochiba" (damp fallen leafs - uselessly clinging on to their wives.

See Also:    Salaryman

The stereotype of the modern Japanese city - a vastly overcrowed yet horribly effecient public transport system.

It has some interesting kinks that aren't present in the west though.

  • While you are waiting for the train to arrive, you stand in polite neat rows, calmly queueing for your train.
  • When the train arrives, the first rule you must bear in mind is that no matter how crowded it looks, there will always be room for one more.
  • If you're in any doubt about the above rule, there's a white~gloved attendant ready to shove you in.    I think he might be willing to accept as the upper limit the number of dead bodies you could fit in there, given the possibility of packing them in at leisure beforehand.
  • Then, once you get one the train, certain rules come into effect:
    1. You shouldn't drink coffee on the subway in the morning.
    2. But it's OK for a Salaryman to drink beer on the subway when he's coming home from work.
    3. You shouldn't talk on your cell phone on the subway.
    4. If you're near the seats reserved for the old and infirm, then you shouldn't even have your phone on at all, apparently they interfere with packmakers and whatnot.
    5. There's a problem with Salarymen groping Office Ladies so on certain trains there are grope-free women-only cars.

My absolute favourite thing about the subway here though, is that when you finish buying your ticket from the vending machine, instead of the curt "thank you" that you might expect, instead a little animated attendant appears on the screen and bows to you!

Suicide Clubs
Japanese people have never had the religious antipathy towards suicide so common in Christian-derived Western morals.    Indeed, for much of Japanese history, Seppuku, or ritual suicide, was an honourable course of action.

In modern times, Japanese Salarymen, overworked and overstressed, have taken to suicide as an increasingly-normal way to escape social pressures.    (or at least until the train companies started sending the clean-up bills to the families of the deceased.)

However, although there is no strong religious prohibition against suicide, naturally enough, many people still find it a lonely and difficult time in their lives.    This may be especially true for the group-loving Japanese - who from a young age are trained against individual action.    To overcome this difficulty, rather than dying alone, why not just join a Suicide Club?

Suicide clubs exist so that desperate people can die together.    There are frequent news reports of people found dead together, twos, threes or fours, locked together in mutual suicide, each person more-or-less unknown to the others.    They get together just to end it together.

Traditionally, such people have found each other through personal columns:   'have pills, will travel'.    However, in modern times, suicidal Japanese have taken to meeting one another over the internet - on-line Suicide Clubs have formed for just such people.    There is some concern in mainstream Japan that such websites may actually encourage people to die.    The Suicide Clubs are growing in popularity however.

See Also: Salaryman,   Seppuku

Ink paintings, traditionally using black ink.

Painting has a very different tradition in the Far East than i the West.    Originally this style of painting was just something to do with the ink you had left over from working on your calligraphy.    Initially paintings were always accompanied by a poem or script, and this was seen as an integral part of the work.

Also, whereas Western paintings can be completed over days or months, Eastern painting is often dashed off in a period of minutes or hours.    The theory is that the Artist spends months and years forming the painting in his head, cultivating his inner thoughts etc., in preparation to actually putting brush to canvas.

Unlike the many colours and realism of western painting, Japanese paintings show detail in what they omit, as much as what they portray.    This is the theory of unstated beauty, or Yugen.    Depth and perspective are added using varying shades of black, and types of brushwork to add meaning.

See Also:    Arts,   Cha no yu,   Haiku,   Ikebana,   Sabi,   Ukiyo-e,   Wabi,   Yugen

Sumo is Japan's National Sport, a form of very heavy-weight wrestling, where a player tries to push his opponent out of the ring.

Sumo evolved from ancient Shinto divination rites.    Its religious roots can still be seen today in almost every aspect of the highly ceremonial sumo match.    For example, Sumo wrestlers often stamp their feet repeatedly on the ground.    This is a common training exercise to build up the all-important lower body strength, but it is actually a holdover from Shinto where stamping the ground was seen as a way to drive out evil spirits.

Unfortunately, as a spectator sport, it sorta sucks for the casual tourist.    You can't just show up at any time in any town, and have a reasonable chance of catching a match.    Basically Sumo tournaments are only run in Tokyo, Osaka, Fukoka and Sapporo, and even then, only at certain designated times of the year.    You really need to check in advance if you're to have any chance of catching it.

Bitter, moi?    ;-)

See Also:    Martial Arts

An inferior, though cheap, brand of Japanese larger.
The alcohol content is normal, but the taste is negligable.    I suppose you might drink this beer if someone else got it for you, but if you want to taste a nice beer try a Yebisu brew, or if you're looking to get drunk, head straight to Sake, or Shochu.

Slices of raw fish, laid on rice which has been treated with vinegar and rolled by hand.

This is the food known worldwide as Sushi, although in fact, it is more properly referred to as Edomae-zushi.    Originally Sushi meant fish which was pickled to preserve it from spoiling, however in the Edo Period, sushi was made by laying slices of raw fish, freshly caught in Edo Bay, on rice and rolling it by hand - hence Edomae-zushi.

Throughout Japan there are also other types of Sushi.    In the Kanto Region "oshi-zushi" (pressed sushi) is rice mixed with viengar put into a wooden container with slices of raw fish and pressed tightly from the top.

See Also:    Fugu,   Kaiten Zushi,   Sashimi

2 katanas Japanese samurai swords achieved a technical perfection, seldom if ever surpassed anywhere in the world.    When they were tempered, the back of the blade was insulated from the head applied to the front, thus the swords were at once both keen and strong.

The swords themselves had a spiritual significance, and their forging was treated religiously.    The smith would prepare himself by undertaking Shinto purification and abstence rites, then dress in the white robes of a shinto priest whilst forging the blade.   

Japanese swords fall into the following broad categories:

A sword 67cm or longer, worn through the obi, and held edge upwards.
A sword 67cm or longer, worn suspended from the waist, with the cutting edge facing downwards.
A sword 30 - 60cm in length, worn in the same manner as a Katana.
A short sword whose blade would not exceed 30cm in length.

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