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  • How we can use “wa” 和 now more than ever

    The beauty of Japanese kanji characters is that they can convey so much meaning in so few strokes. Take the kanji “wa” 和 for example. It has numerous connotations wrapped up in just eight simple lines, and one those meanings, “harmony”, is particularly significant during this time of worldwide crisis.   Let’s first jump back almost two millennia to the founding of the Japanese nation. The oldest recorded name for Japan is “Wa”, originally used by the Chinese to refer to the Yamato 大和 people living in Japan around the 3rd century. After using a different kanji that had the pronunciation of “wa” but the unfortunate meanings of ‘distant’, and ‘dwarf’ (倭), the kanji “wa” 和 was chosen as a homophone by the Japanese in the 8th century, which has the much more pleasing meaning of “harmony ...

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  • Salaryman vs. Kawaii

    When I first started learning Japanese at high school, I was interested only peripherally in Japanese pop culture. This made me stand out from my classmates, who were strides ahead of me already because of their love of Japanese comics, animation, and movies. They could confidently introduce themselves in Japanese, and answered the teacher's questions with a confident hai! (yes!) at every opportunity. What was it about Japanese pop culture that drew them in? What made them want to learn such a difficult language and adopt the mannerisms of the fictional characters they loved so much?  It wasn't long before I was introduced to the term kawaii, meaning cute in Japanese. Our teacher told us that the word is used liberally in Japan, and the popularity and appeal of 'cute' is widespread thro ...

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  • Paper Screens: Book Recommendations

    So many wonderful books have been written to help us better understand the Japanese people. These books help us reconcile the contradiction of a culture that finds beauty in unrefined simplicity and yet feels infinitely bizarre and complex to most foreigners. Travellers, scholars, and Japanophiles have written volumes about how we should perceive the country and why things are the way they are. For decades, I have loved and devoured these books by outsiders – but the greatest insights in understanding this wonderful country have come from Japanese authors writing about everyday subjects and with no intention of helping foreigners like myself better understand their country.  Fortunately for those who can’t read Japanese, many of the country’s best authors are painstakingly translated in ...

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  • Culture Shock every day in Japan

    If you’ve spent any time in Japan, you know it can be quite a bewitching place. The delicious food. The quiet shrines. The peaceful gardens. For some, that is enough. Their time in Nippon goes by in a flash and they leave with cherished memories. For others, they have an amazing time, but become stuck on certain things: why is everything so clean? How did that waiter know I was going to drop my chopsticks and have a new set ready for me so fast? And wait – where are all the trash cans? For those who have those remaining, niggling thoughts (and for those who are just curious) maybe a little culture shock could be the cause.  Culture shock can immediately bring up negative connotations; however, it doesn’t always have to be a bad thing. Culture shock can sometimes simply be an observa ...

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  • Tiny torii of Kyoto

    As you’re strolling around the narrow streets of Kyoto, you might notice little red torii gates, affixed to the walls or tucked down on the ground. Usually, a torii gate is a sure sign there’s a shrine nearby, but here it’s just a blank wall. What’s up with that? There’s a rather down-to-earth explanation for this! In Japan’s Shinto religion, a torii is the gateway between the sacred and the profane, and are found at the entrance to all shrines. Although there’s no shrine behind the little red torii, it’s still denoting a sacred space and Japanese are expected to behave similarly. The little torii are in fact there to protect the neighbourhood from drunks urinating against walls, or dumping rubbish. The story goes that back in Japan’s Edo Period (1603-1868) Kyoto was well-provide ...

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