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I recently read The Otaku Encyclopedia: An Insider’s Guide to the Subculture of Cool Japan, by Patrick W. Galbraith.  I can’t remember ever reading an encyclopedia before – not the entire thing.  I’ve read most of an encyclopedia on Star Wars.  I’ve read some of an encyclopedia on financial terms and a few others.  But this book is quite different.  It reads well – well, like a real book.

I posted the review in, but here it is below.

The Otaku Encyclopedia: An Insider's Guide to the Subculture of Cool JapanThe Otaku Encyclopedia: An Insider’s Guide to the Subculture of Cool Japan by Patrick W. Galbraith

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Otaku Encyclopedia; is exactly as advertised, an encyclopedia devoted to all things otaku. While the word “otaku” has not become mainstream vernacular, for people who are well versed in things originating in Japan or in global subculture, the word is familiar and, interestingly, becoming quite “cool.” It is interesting because the term, in Japanese, conveys quite the opposite of cool; even if the obsessive pursuits of seriously devoted fans of a complex and, often, slightly deranged medium become popular, it is the slightly disapproving public perception of the pursuit that separates the otaku from a mere fan. For every fan of games, anime, manga, idols, dolls, and related hobbies, only the devoted otaku transcend from a passive consumer to active participant.

Patrick Galbraith’s book is, no doubt, an encyclopedia. It provides an alphabetical dictionary to all things otaku. But unlike most other encyclopedia’s, it is one that is actually quite readable in its entirety, from A to Z. Not only for its short interviews with a handful of some of the people noted for their contributions to otaku history and culture, but the definitions themselves provide a great deal of information for those who are trying to understand contemporary Japan and, particularly, the Cool Japan movements that are being promoted by the Japanese government and many others.

Even though the subject matter may seem juvenile, risque, and somewhat frivolous to some, it is very informative and useful for any student of contemporary Japan. Even if you are not interested in otaku pursuits, some understanding of these phenomenon is critical to knowing modern Japan and planning the way forward.

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Picture Books are a treat throughout the world.  There are so many different kinds, designed for children and adults of all ages.  But Kamishibai are a special treat that I think are pretty unique to Japan.

Kamishibai is, literally, “paper drama” or “paper theater”.  It is a type of storytelling in Japan that started in Buddhist temples around the 12th Century.  In the modern era, kamishibai is much closer to vaudeville or some kinds of puppetry, in that the storytellers were often traveling entertainers and even minor hucksters, playing in and around carnivals and festivals throughout the countryside.   This was particularly true after the 1920s, when the Great Depression in the United States had an impact worldwide.  Although the protagonist in the long-running movie, Otoko wa Tsurai yo, Tora-san, never was a kamishibai storyteller, his character was a travelling salesman, who tells humorous and glorified stories to help boost the sales of his trinkets and wares.  This is precisely the kind of world in which the kamishibai storytellers thrived.

Kamishibai storytellerWhile travelling kamishibai storytellers have all but disappeared, there are a number who are trying to revive the old art.  This artist is part of a small group – I’ve seen him twice around Tokyo with a compadre – that tells an original story that is an adaptation of an oft-told historical tale.  His version is supposed to be a frightening one, but being told in the daytime and with his style of delivery, it becomes a comical horror story.

In this Creative Commons photograph from Wikipedia, you can see the storyteller carrying a pair of sticks hoyshigi, that he uses to announce his arrival and capture the audience’s attention.  The wooden case is a special stage that the storyteller uses to show the frames of his storybook.

The stage has an open rear, from which slides are changed, and with the story lines written on the back.  Because the frames are removed from the side facing the audience, the back side of the slide contains the text pertaining to the next slide.  When the slide that is just finished is removed and the slide replaced back into the frame furthest away from the audience, then the words on its back side are read to the audience.  Of course, street performers tend not to read from the slides, but perform ad lib while a compadre changes the slides.

In the past few decades, kamishibai have experienced a revival, due to their use in libraries, elementary schools, and kindergartens.  In many libraries there are special rooms, equipped with a kamishibai stage and filled with books.  There are now publishers that have divisions that focus on kamishibai books, such as Doshinsha (Japanese).  However, due to a growing popularity of kamishibai around the world, the company now publishes English and French translations of many of their books.  The Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, California has a wonderful and beautiful kamishibai demonstration online in electronic format.

There is also a great site about kamishibai for kids.  Based in New York, the three people associated with the site, Margaret Eisenstadt, Donna Tamaki, and Eigoro Futamata, have created quite an amazing resource, including materials for schools and teachers and a range of publications that they have translated and illustrated for Doshinsha.  They also apparently conduct readings and other events in the United States.  I’ve also found kamishibai sites in German, Spanish, French, and other languages, showing that their appeal is cross cultural.

Watch this short video of a kamishibai master, Yassan, on YouTube – it’s in Japanese, but you might become a fan!

You are probably wondering, “How can currency be so cool?”  After all, cash is cash.  It is great to get paid and great to spend it, but it is only cool because of what you get in return for your cash, right?

Well, I’m not so sure.  I like spending money, too, to get what I need and want.  But in Japan, I think that the currency itself is pretty darn cool.

What is Currency?

Currency, of course, is defined as money in any form used as a medium of exchange, but the term is often taken to mean the paper bills of a country.  The paper bills of Japan are, to me, among the most beautiful and cool of any found in the world.

Japanese banknotes were overhauled in 2004, with a range of security measures added to the new designs.  The printing includes a wide range of technologies, including special inks, printing techniques, and special marks.


Inks included in Japanese banknotes since 2000 (including the 2000 yen note issued to commemorate the millenium and the 26th G8 Summit) include fluorescent, luminescent, and pearl inks. These special inks are all somewhat similar, in that they all give a sheen or shine under a variety of circumstances, unlike standard inks. Fluorescent ink is also known as invisible ink and is the kind of ink that glows when black lights (UV emitting) are shined on it. Luminescent ink is similar to fluorescent ink, but appears to shine without the use of black lights. Pearl ink, as the name implies, has tiny reflective particles in it that give it a sheen that is pearl-like. The video below gives a good demonstation of how fluorescent inks work:

Printing Techniques

In particular, Japanese banknotes employ for security measures printing technologies such as Intaglio printing, microprinting, and latent imaging. Intaglio printing is basically a type of printmaking that uses etching, engraving, and other incisions on the surface of copper or zinc plates.  Microprinting is, basically, exactly what it sounds like.  Usually, it is the printing of really small text, which makes a bill extremely difficult to counterfeit, because it is usually too small to read without magnification.  Latent imaging is really simply a photographic process that creates “invisible” images.  The images can be seen when it is exposed to light.

Special Marks

Japanese bills employ a range of special marks, including tactile marks, watermark, watermark-bar pattern, and display of the EURion Constellation.  Tactile marks are a technology that is in both the paper and imprinting, that enable the blind and visually impaired people to identify it.  In addition, the tactility makes the paper more durable and resistant to deterioration.  Watermarking of the bill includes both images and a bar pattern, both of which are extremely difficult to reproduce. Finally, the EURion Constellation is a pattern of symbols found on many banknotes used globally since around 1996. The pattern resembles the constellation Orion.

The central watermark printed in a 10000 yen note can be seen in the image below:

Invisible image in 10000 yen note

watermark image unveiled in 10000 yen note

A Barrier to Counterfeiting

The combination of features serve to prevent counterfeiting for one primary reason – it is just too expensive! In order to reproduce a bill that can deceive most people, especially a big store or a bank, the total cost of the paper and printing is likely to cost more than the bill itself is worth.

Who’s on First. What’s on Second.

Another of the features that makes Japanese currency special is who and what is printed on the bills. The currency of the United States features, for the most part, past presidents and major political figures. Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Jackson, and Grant, as well as Alexander Hamilton and Benjamin Franklin, adorn common US currency. The Queen Elizabeth is on the currencies of Great Britain and many Commonwealth nations. But Japan’s currency celebrates many different figures.

The 1000 yen note features Noguchi Hideyo, a bacteriologist that discovered the agent of syphilis.  The 5000 yen note is adorned by Higuchi Ichiyō, a female author who lived only to the age of 24, but is considered the first female professional writer in modern Japanese literature.  The 10000 yen note features Fukuzawa Yukichi, an author, writer, teacher, translator, entrepreneur and political theorist who founded Keio University.  The previous currency, issued in 1984, featured on the 1000 yen note the famed author Sōseki Natsume, best known for his novels, Kokoro, Botchan, and I am a Cat.  On the 5000 yen note was Nitobe Inazō, a agricultural economist, author, educator, diplomat, politician, and, notably, a Christian.

The persecution of Christians in Japan is the subject of much historical attention in the west.  Because of the spread of Christianity in most of the world, the prohibition of open practice of the faith for roughly 300 years from late 1500 to late 1800 was an anomaly.  Furthermore, the person who first ousted Christian missionaries was none other than Toyotomi Hideyoshi, one of Japan’s most revered rulers, or daimyo.  In fact, however, the most brutal treatment of Christians was practiced under Hideyoshi’s successors, Tokugawa Ieyasu, Tokugawa Hidetada, and Tokugawa Iemitsu.  To this day, Christians tend to be a silent minority in Japan, fearful of having to defend their faith against the majority of Buddhist/Shintoist/Agnostic peers.

What I find distinguishing about the faces that adorn modern Japanese currency is that they celebrate famous writers, scientists, educators, and, particularly, people who are not the statesmen an noblemen featured on notes issued until the late 1960s.  I cannot think of any other currency that features a bacteriologist!

Counting Money

Finally, one of the most interesting things about Japanese currency is how people count it. No, I don’t mean as in, “1, 2, 3…”. The number system is interesting, too, but that is a separate matter. The way that Japanese people count wads of bills is special. Watch, and enjoy:

Now, wouldn’t you agree that Japanese currency is pretty cool too?


The title of this song, “Shimanchu nu Takara”, in the dialect of the people of Okinawa, means “Treasures of the Island People”.  Sung by the Japanese band, BEGIN, the song tells a wonderful story of youth leaving Okinawa to forge a new life on the mainland, but for whom the distinctive culture and language of the islands is important.  It is, no doubt, a song that is based on the bands own experience, having started to achieve national acclaim when the song was released in 2002.

Shimanchu nu Takara is one of my favorite Japanese songs, because it is one that not only celebrates local cultures and cultural heritage, but also for its eloquent portrayal of someone who has chosen to leave his homeland and yet maintains strong bonds to his upbringing.  For me, it echoes in both ears.  I left my own upbringing in California, where I still call home.  On the other hand, I came to Japan in 1987 to discover the roots of my ancestors and, in that sense, my cultural heritage.  I feel like someone who is caught between two islands, both of which are home and where I have cultural and linguistic roots.

The lyrics to the song are followed, line by line, with a brief translation.

Boku ga umareta kono shima no sora o  (Looking up at the sky of the Islands here where I was born)
Boku wa dore kurai shite iru n darou  (and I wonder how much I know about the sky)
Kagayaku hoshi mo nagareru kumo mo  (shining stars and billowing clouds)
Namae o hikaretemo wakaranai  (I have no idea what they are called…)
Demo dare yori dare yori mo shitte iru  (Still, I know more than anybody else)
Kanashii toki mo ureshii toki mo  (in sadness and in happiness)
Nando mo miagete ita kono sora o  (the sky I’ve looked up upon so many times)
Kyoukashou ni kaite aru koto dake ja wakaranai  (There is no way to comprehend by just reading textbooks)
Taisetsu na mono ga kitto koko ni aru hazu sa  (There must be something invaluable here)
Sore ga shimanchu nu takara  (That is the Treasure of the Island People)
Boku ga umareta kono shima no umi o  (Looking below at the oceans of the islands here where I was born)
Boku wa dore kurai shitte iru n darou  (and I wonder how much I know about the ocean)
Yogereteku sango mo hette yuku sakana mo  (the dirty coral and the disappearing fish populations)
Doushitara ii noka wakaranai  (I have no idea what to do about that)
Demo dare yori dare yori mo shitte iru  (Still, I know more than anyone)
Suna ni mamirete nami ni yurarete  (covered in sand and rocked by waves)
Sukoshi zutsukawatte yuku kono umi o  (the ocean that is slowly changing)
Terebi de wa utsusenai rajio demo nagasenai  (It cannot be shown on television or heard on the radio)
Taisetsu na mono ga kitto koko ni aru hazu sa  (There must be something invaluable here)
Sore ga shimanchu nu takara  (That is the Treasure of the Island People)
Boku ga umareta kono shima no uta o  (The music of the Islands here where I was born)
Boku wa dore kurai shitte iru n darou  (How much do I know them?)
Tubarama mo densaa bushi mo  (Tubarama and densaa bushi)
Kotoba no imi sae wakaranai  (I have no idea even what the words mean)
Demo dare yori dare yori mo shitte iru  (Still, I know more than anyone)
Iwai no yoru mo matsuri no asa mo  (the night of celebrations and the morning of festivals)
Doko kara ga kikoete kuru kono uta o  (the songs that can be heard everywhere)
Itsu no hi ka kono shima o hanareteku sono hi made  (until that day – someday – when I must leave the Islands)
Taisetsu na mono motto fukaku shite itai  (I want to really know and understand deeply the important things)
Sore ga shimanchu nu takara  (these are the Treasures of the Island People)

The Japanese Kanji character "Wa" in calligraphy

和 Wa

The Japanese character [和]”Wa“, is a very important one for understanding Japan and Japanese.  It has many important meanings, particularly peace, harmony, and Japanese style.  The character is used in a huge number of words; a list of many of the compounds in which the character is used in Japanese can be found on Wiktionary.

In Japanese, many Kanji characters have several readings; that is, they have different sounds when used in different words.  One indicator of the complexity and importance of a character in the language is the number of readings it uses.  This character has more than 20 different readings, depending on the context in which it is used!

The most simple reason that this is true is because the word’s origins are from the oldest recorded name for Japan.  This story is recorded most clearly and comprehensively, in English, on Wikipedia.  Chinese, Korean, and Japanese, until the 8th Century, generally referred to the nation with the character [倭]and the sound “Wa” or “Yamato”.  In the 8th Century, many Japanese began to find the character to be offensive and initiated the process to replace it with the character [和]meaning peace, harmony, or balance.  The sounds “Wa” and “Yamato” are retained to this day to mean the nation, Japan, and Japanese character or style, with the Kanji characters [和]”Wa” and [大和]”Yamato”.

The Wikipedia article provides a great deal of insight as to why the Japanese found the original character [倭]”Wa” to be offensive and repugnant.  The Chinese character combines the radical [人]or its simplified [イ]meaning “person” or “human”, with the character [委]meaning, in Japanese, to entrust or detail.  However, in Chinese, the character “wěi ” – which combines the elements for “grain” or “rice” [禾]over the character for “woman” [女]- is considered to have had derogatory meaning.  The Japanese of that period realized that the character used to represent Japan and Japanese depicted a person who was “bent down like a woman working with grain” and implied a “short, submissive, obedient, dwarf people”.   In this context, it is quite understandable that the Japanese were not pleased with the representation.

The character [和]”Wa”, then, represented a much better alternative.  The ideas of peace, harmony, and balance indicated a much more appealing sense of self and national worth.  But why [和]?  Apparently, this character has a very different etymology.

The character uses a [禾]”nogihen”, a character that is rarely used in Japanese alone, but as an element in a more complex Kanji, and [口]or “mouth”.  The “nogihen” has at its core the root [木]or “tree” and is used on the left hand side of many Japanese Kanji.  Apparently, the “nogihen” is indicative of a tree with 2 branches.  But it is also notable that this character is written with 5 (brush) strokes.  In the case of the Kanji  [和], the 5-stroke “nogihen” is combined with “mouth”.  This combination has been taken to mean that “harmony” is achieved when the “5 senses” are appreciated “tastefully”.

Thus, peace, harmony, and good Japanese style can be thought of as an attempt to find a good balance of the 5 senses in taste.  I like that!

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