Category: Japan

Darling in the Franxx and Shinto Marriage

Darling in the Franxx and Shinto Marriage

Darling in the Franxx (or Studio Trigger does Evangelion), takes its inspiration for the Franxx pilot suits from an unexpected direction–traditional Shinto wedding attire.

The eponymous Franxx robots in Darling in the Franxx are piloted by male/female pairs. The show equates the mental and physical connection between pilots necessary to operate the giant machines to sex using none too subtle innuendo and abundant flower metaphors. The emphasis on a deep connection between the pilots is reinforced by the pilot suits, which are patterned after Shinto wedding attire–a detail that is likely lost to viewers outside Japan and unfamiliar with Shinto marriage ceremonies.

In traditional Shinto weddings, as in Western ceremonies, the bride and groom wear distinctive clothes. For brides, the white ensemble is called a shiromuku and and for grooms it is montsuki. The Franxx pilot suits utilize the distinct details of the wedding kimonos. For the male pilots, the suits echo the black/grey color scheme of the montsuki. The few details on the suit accentuate the similarities with round white circles on the chest piece mirroring the white circular mon, or family crests, on the haori jacket of the montsuki. The final connection is the third circle at mid-torso below the black chestplate, which are accentuated by thin white lines that disappear under the chestplate. This detail reflects the haori-himo, the white cord and decoration that holds the haori closed in formal occasions.

The biggest connection to the shiromuku for female pilots is the color of their suits and the wataboshi, or hood.  Not all brides opt to use a shiromuku with a hood but it is a particularly distinctive look. Although the photo to the left shows a bride wearing a wataboshi, other variations are larger and closer to the size and shape of the hood worn by women in Franxx.

The gendered division of the piloting duo in Darling in the Franxx is not unusual in anime, although Studio Trigger is certainly playing up the sexual connotations. During the connection process, the girls of the piloting duo appear to merge with the Franxx mecha, leaving the boy to pilot. The girl becomes an extension of the machine and the boy controls the robot by two control handles which connect to his partner’s posterior–like an Evangelion entry plug, except far more awkward but probably just as psychologically weird. Franxx is eager to throw in sexually suggestive comments about the connection/piloting process, although they play it it off by showing the young pilots are (mostly) sexually oblivious. While Kill la Kill, an earlier work by Studio Trigger, eventually undercut the hypersexualization of the outfits worn by protagonist Ryuko Matoi, it remains to be seen where Franxx will go with its the unusual and sexualized take on mecha pilots.

The Politics of Dancing: Love Live, Population Decline and School Closures in Japan

The Politics of Dancing: Love Live, Population Decline and School Closures in Japan

The central plot element around which the storylines of Love Live: School Idol Festival and its successor Love Live Sunshine are draped is the imminent closure of the protagonists schools. In both series, the main characters rally together to become school idols in order to attract new students to enroll and in doing so save their institutions. To Western viewers, the closure of the schools might be regarded as simply a convenient plot device to add dramatic tension, urgency and legitimacy to the main characters quest for school idol stardom, a maguffin that is easily accepted in order to proceed with the story. The scenario also calls to mind the classic cinematic tradition of underdog films such as Meatballs 2, PCU, Animal House or even Major League, where the authorities are planning to shut down the summer camp/fraternity/baseball club and the plucky heroes must save their beloved institutions. However the subject of school closures in Love Live is not merely a narrative framing device but an issue that speaks to an increasingly serious problem within Japan, an issue that has resonance with Japanese audiences while being relatively opaque to Western viewers.

Umi, Honoka and Kotori react to the news their school will be closing. Umi, best girl, keeping her cool.

Japan’s population is on the decline, with the Japanese government estimating a drop from 126 million people in 2017 to approximately 88 million in 2065. The Japanese population is also aging rapidly, with projections seeing 40% of the population older than 65 by 2065. With a diminishing, older population, resources are being shifted towards providing services for the elderly while the need for schools is decreasing as there are increasingly fewer Japanese of school age. Schools are facing being closed down or combined as enrollment numbers fall.

On the other side of the coin, a diminishing pool of available students means competition is now becoming intense between schools. Unlike American public schools where placement is usually a geographical matter, schools in Japan have entrance examinations which a student must pass to earn a place–a common element in school related anime. Where schools could once afford to be extremely selective, now even prestigious institutions must consider allowing admission to students with lower scores in order to maintain their student body size and ensure their future. Arguably, the new need to attract students is threatening to lead to a decline in entrance standards, which in turn threatens to erode not only the reputation of Japan’s premier institutions but also the quality of their graduates. Schools hurting for students now must weigh their survival versus maintaining a certain standard. How low do you go? Certain high schools in Japan have connected universities and guarantee admission to students who successfully graduate–successful meaning passing, even if barely. It is a lack of new students opting to apply to Love Live’s Otonokizaka Academy that puts the school on the knife’s edge of closure. Private schools in particular are dependent on attracting students to stay open. For parents and students this means they now hold the whip hand.

Aquors reacts to the news that Uranohoshi Girls’ Academy is scheduled to be closed. P.S. Yoshiko, Love Live Sunshine best girl.

Consider the situation of Otonokizaka Academy, the primary setting of Love Live School Idol Festival. After protagonists Umi, Kotori and Honoka learn their school is going to close, the three attempt to figure out what about their school can be attractive to new students.  A sweet location somewhere near Akihabara and Kanda shrine notwithstanding, the trio come up empty handed except for vague allusions to the school’s rich past. The schools clubs and achievements, they notice with some chagrin, are lackluster. It is this lack of any other distinguishing characteristic that motivates the three schoolgirls to form an idol group after Honoka notices the reputation of UTX, a flashy new school, is bolstered by the presence of the popular school idol group A-RISE. Although the series focuses on the impact of A-RISE on enrollment, it should also be noted that UTX has elements which Otonokizaka and the girls cannot easily compensate for. After the tour of the traditional Otonokizaka with unimpressive results, the brief glimpse of UTX is one of an ultramodern school. The takeaway for viewers is that UTX is a more technologically advanced school, with amenities and impressive facilities not found in Otonokizaka. A second season episode shows UTX has a coffee house and cafeteria with flat screen televisions and students in sleek white modern uniforms. Compare that to Uranohoshi Girls’ Academy in Love Live Sunshine, where Dia ruefully notes that the classrooms do not even have air conditioning as the Aqours girls languish in the summer heat. Which school would a student rather attend, if given the choice?

The UDX building in Akihabara, the real world inspiration for UTX.

In a sense, μ’s had it easier than Aqours in trying to save their school. As a rural school, Uranohoshi Girls’ Academy faces the double whammy of decreasing enrollment and the tendency for young adults to move towards major population centers. Even today, concern is rising that students are eschewing quality regional universities in favor of schools in the major cities. The Japanese government is considering imposing restrictions on student enrollment in Tokyo to prevent even greater flight of youth from rural areas to the urban centers. Ultimately, the efforts of μ’s and Aqours to save their schools come to very different conclusions. μ’s is victorious in Love Live and is able to gain enough new applicants to keep Otonokizaka Academy open. Although they come close, Aqours, despite also winning Love Live, are unable to save their school and prevent its closure.

Perversely, the population pressure on schools comes as the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT} is reassessing the current decades old yutori educational philosophy (ゆとり教育). Yutori education or “relaxed education” sought to end the strict, pressure-cooker Japanese educational environment and did away with compulsory Saturday classes. However, rising sentiment is of the opinion yutori education has weakened the abilities of a generation of Japanese students and stricter school standards need to be reintroduced. How the two concepts will reconcile is a question that is looming over the Japanese educational system. It is worth noting μ’s and Aqours both spend a great deal of time practicing to be school idols while apparently doing just fine in classes.

School idols aside, the differences between UTX and Otonokizaka Academy reflects to some degree the more consumer-driven emphasis in modern American education. What can Japanese schools offer a student is now the imperative, rather than the other way around. The situation is mirrored to a different degree in American universities. Facing budget crunches, many U.S. universities are opting to improve the undergraduate experience in order to draw in more students, as undergrads increasingly bear the costs incurred by schools. New dorms, lazy rivers, and enhanced football facilities often come at the cost of funding the academic side of universities.

Personally though, I would prefer some school idols.


  • Japan’s population projected to plunge to 88 million by 2065 –
  • Student count, knowledge sliding –
  • Universities Struggle to Cope with Shrinking Population and Globalization –
  • Japan considers limits to enrollment in Tokyo colleges to promote regional school –
  • Japanese school reforms fail to make grade –
The American Occupation of Japan and the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Village

The American Occupation of Japan and the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Village

The 1964 Olympics had a profound impact on the urban landscape of Tokyo as the city restructured itself to host the Games. The cost of the Olympics were substantial, ballooning to nearly half a billion dollars compared to the modest 30 million dollar spending on the 1960 Rome Games. The Japanese government saw the Games as means to re-enter the global stage and present an advanced and peaceful Japan to the world. New venues were constructed while existing facilities were repurposed or renovated. However, for the Olympic Village, the housing meant for the athletes, a ready made solution presented itself to the planning committee courtesy of the American Occupation of Japan.

After Japan’s surrender on August 15 1945, 350000 U.S. troops entered the island nation as part of the Occupation force. With Tokyo devastated, housing was required for American military personnel and eventually their tens of thousands of dependents. In Shibuya a former Imperial Japanese military parade ground was turned over to U.S. authorities and renamed Washington Heights. Japanese workers built hundreds of homes and Washington Heights quickly became a small enclave of America within Tokyo. Aside from over 800 houses, Washington Heights held schools, stores, churches and all the amenities of home for the soldiers and their families. Streets were given names like Chestnut and Sycamore while Japanese citizens were not allowed within the tightly guarded community, which was separated from the rest of Shibuya.

The last remaining house of the Washington Heights complex in Yoyogi Park.

The Washington Heights military housing area remained under U.S. control even after the 1952 Treaty of San Francisco ended the Occupation a short seven years after it began and returned the Japanese government to power. Despite the end of the Occupation, the U.S. retained a sizeable number of troops within Japan, a state of affairs that was exacerbated by the ongoing Korean War. By 1961 however, the successful bid by Japan to host the 1964 Games meant that the large amount of land occupied by Washington Heights, encompassing nearly a million square meters, was needed for Olympic facilities. American military families were moved to new housing to the west of Shibuya in Chofu. Some homes were then converted into the Olympic Village for athletes while the rest of the community was leveled to make room for the new National Gymnasium and annex building, which hosted the swimming, diving and basketball events.

The National Gymnasium

Washington Heights was not the only such complex in Tokyo. Narimasu airfield in Nerima ward was similarly handed over to U.S. authorities and was transformed into the Grant Heights community for American military families. Grant Heights was also eventually returned to the Japanese government and is now the site of modern day Hikarigaoka Park and related housing developments.

High rise buildings now occupy the land where the 1964 Olympic Village and the Washington Heights military housing complex once stood.

After the Olympics the Village was demolished to make way for new construction–and despite the successful Games, erase a highly visible reminder of the American Occupation. A large swatch of land north of the National Gymnasium was turned into modern day Yoyogi Park in 1967. The only existing remnant of Washington Heights and the Olympic Village is a single house, preserved in a corner of Yoyogi Park. A commemorative plaque explains the use of the building during the Olympics and the origin of the surrounding garden but leaves out any mention of the American Occupation or of the Washington Heights complex.

The commemorative plaque in front of the sole surviving Washington Heights/Olympic Village building.

References and further reading

  • The 1964 Tokyo Olympics: A Turning Point for Japan –
  • Olympic construction transformed Tokyo –
  • Washington Heights Housing Complex –
  • A Look Back at When Tokyo was Awarded 1964 Olympics –
  • The Games of the XVIII Olympiaid Tokyo 1964: The Official Report of the Organizing Committee
The Origins of Godzilla: Castle Bravo and the Daigo Fukuryu Maru

The Origins of Godzilla: Castle Bravo and the Daigo Fukuryu Maru

Often lost in the modern fan fascination over kaiju and the status of Godzilla as a pop culture icon is the fact that the origin of the King of Monsters is inextricably bound to the atomic age, the fear of nuclear Armageddon and the anxiety over Japanese experiences during World War II. While the Godzilla films in general allegorically speak to the danger of nuclear weapons, one incident in particular served to spark the genesis of Japan’s signature monster: the 1954 Castle Bravo test and the accidental irradiation of the fishing vessel Daigo Fukuryu Maru.

The Godzilla statue in Shinjuku.

The Castle Bravo nuclear test took place on March 1, 1954 on the Bikini Atoll, a part of the Marshall Islands. It was the first attempt by the United States to detonate a dry fuel hydrogen bomb and the latest in a series of nuclear tests that had been conducted since the end of World War II. In the early morning hours of March 1st, the Castle Bravo device exploded with a force of 15 megatons, 1000 times the power of the Nagasaki and Hiroshima bombs. The force of the explosion stunned US authorities, who vastly underestimated the destructive power of the bomb, pegging the expected output at ‘only’ 5 to 6 megatons. The bomb blasted the coral of the atoll into a fine powder which absorbed radioactivity. The ash was then blown into the air and carried by the winds. The Castle Bravo test remains the fifth most powerful nuclear explosion in history to this day.

The unexpected strength of the test combined with strong winds meant the fallout from the explosion covered a much larger area than originally anticipated. The Japanese fishing boat Daigo Fukuryu Maru (sometimes referred to as Lucky or Fortunate Dragon Number 5) lay in the path of the fallout, although the ship was just outside of the announced danger zone. Reports indicate the ship was covered by the fallout dust, which stuck to to clothing and hair. The crew, unaware of the danger, resorted to scooping the ash off the vessel by hand. Upon their return to Japan, the 23 members of the ship’s crew were found to be suffering from acute radiation poisoning. One crew member would die a few months later from related causes. Fear over contaminated fish led Japanese authorities to bury thousands of tons of tuna.

The Daigo Fukuryū Maru inside the Exhibition Hall

The massive fallout and the plight of the Daigo Fukuryu Maru‘s crew became worldwide news, showing that the effect of a nuclear explosion was not limited to those in the area of direct damage. The widespread fallout reached Australia, Japan, parts of Europe and the United States. The Castle Bravo test galvanized anti-nuclear activists and struck a chord within Japan, already grappling with the legacy of the recent atomic bombings and the uncertain position of the country in the developing Cold War. The lingering concerns over the victims of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings were brought back to the surface by the sickened fishermen. Combined with the fallout from the test, Japan was once again threatened by the use of nuclear weapons.

Soon after the Castle Bravo test, Toho producer Tomoyuki Tanaka was returning to Japan after a failed attempt to film a movie in Indonesia. With the unexpected impact of the Castle Bravo test and the Daigo Fukuryu Maru incident in mind, Tanaka quickly came up with a story provisionally titled The Giant Monster from 20,000 Leagues Beneath the Sea and presented it to the studio. Toho bosses approved the concept and work began on the film in April of 1954. Eventually the movie and titular monster were named Gojira (ゴジラ), a portmanteau of gorira (ゴリラ, gorilla) and kujira (, whale).

After a very rapid process of development and filming, Gojira was released in November of 1954 and a cultural phenomena was born. The connection to Castle Bravo and the Daigo Fukuryu Maru is referenced in the movie’s opening scene, which depicts the crew of a ship relaxing before a sudden blinding burst of light explodes in the distance, quickly consuming the vessel in an inferno. The ship burns as the radio operators tap out a final distress call before the vessel is lost, destroyed by a force outside of their understanding or control. The scene both calls to mind Japan’s position in regards to the nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union and the danger posed to all humanity. The 2014 American reboot directly incorporates a 1954 Bikini Atoll atomic explosion into its narrative, postulating that the test was actually a failed attempt to kill Godzilla. However, much of the archival footage shown is of the 1946 Baker explosion, part of the earlier Operation Crossroads tests. Little data is available from the Castle Bravo explosion, as the higher than expected power of the test vaporized the scientific equipment meant to record information.

From the opening credits of the 2014 film Godzilla.

Today, the King of Monsters is an ambassador for Japan, a pop culture icon known across the world. The general perception of Godzilla is one far removed from the sickness and destruction fresh in the minds of Japanese filmmakers in the 1950s. The Bikini Atoll remains uninhabitable due to high levels of residual radiation. The Daigo Fukuryu Maru itself was deemed safe after inspection and decontamination and returned to service on the seas. Renamed the Hayabusa Maru the ship was put to use as a training vessel until it was scheduled to be scrapped in 1967. Upon learning of the ship’s impending destruction, the governor of Tokyo intervened to save the vessel. With the original name restored, the ship is preserved inside the Tokyo Metropolitan Daigo Fukuryu Maru Exhibition Hall in a quiet park on the edge of Tokyo, a silent memorial to the unleashing of monsters both real and imagined.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Daigo Fukuryu Maru Exhibition Hall.

References and Further Readings

  • The Ashgate Encyclopedia of Literary and Cinematic Monsters – ed. by Jeffery Andrew Weinstock
  • “Godzilla’s Secret History” –
  • Official web site of the Daigo Fukuryu Maru Exhibition Hall –
  • “Castle Bravo: Fifty Years of Legend and Lore” – by Thomas Kunkle and Bryon Ristvet
  • The Japanification of Children’s Popular Culture: From Godzilla to Miyazaki – ed. by Mark I. West
Die Hard: Nakatomi Plaza and the Fear of a Rising Japan

Die Hard: Nakatomi Plaza and the Fear of a Rising Japan

For some, John McTiernan’s 1988 Die Hard has undergone a cultural transformation into the unlikely position of a favorite Christmas classic. The setting of the film on Christmas Eve and the inclusion of Christmas in Hollis by Run DMC, Let It Snow over the end credits, and Ode to Joy from Beethoven’s 9th playing as the terrorist/thieves loot the Nakatomi vault as as exuberantly as children opening presents have firmly cemented a connection between the holiday and the film in the minds of most viewers. Yet often overlooked is Die Hard‘s intentional subtextual commentary on the state of America in the late 1980s and the fear of a rising Japan overtaking the United States. It was a fear that appears alien today, with Japan viewed more positively for its popular culture.

Die Hard is based on Roderick Thorpe’s 1977 novel Nothing Last Forever and adapts many elements of the book fairly faithfully, including some of the more iconic moments seen on film such as the final confrontation between Gruber and McClane. However, one major change to the setting of the book influenced the entire tone of the film and reflected a pervasive social anxiety over Japanese power in late 1980s and early 1990s America. Thorpe’s novel was originally set in the headquarters of Klaxon Oil, a large American company. The film switched the firm to the Japanese Nakatomi Corporation. The change fit the times. Oil was a hot button topic in the late 1970s, as the two oil shocks, the gas crisis and clashes with OPEC dominated headlines. Japan was squarely in the news as a global competitor to the United States in the late 1980s–a rival that seemed to be winning on all fronts.

By the 1980s. Japan’s economy was firing on all cylinders. An unprecedented economic revival since the end of World War II had positioned Japan as the third largest economy in the world. Alongside this economic might appeared to be elements of a strong, stable society. Crime rates were very low compared to the States, the educational system was lauded as superior, living standards were high, companies cared for their employees, family was held in high regard, and Japanese technology was seen as the pinnacle of advancement. As Marty McFly stated in Back to the Future, “All the best stuff is made in Japan.” Japan in 1988 was seemingly an unstoppable powerhouse–but a fatal flaw lay at the heart of the Japanese economy.

Japan leveraged that economic power and began purchasing assets in the United States, eventually holding over a third of America’s total debt. Japan appeared ready to surpass America in global economic, if not military, power. This did not go over well with several groups within the United States, many of which took to Japan bashing or to argue for stronger sanctions in an economic showdown with an unexpected rival. The underlying tension in U.S. – Japanese relations in the late 1980s is evident in a short exchange of dialogue between John McClane and Nakatomi executive Joseph Takagi:

McClane: You throw quite a party. I didn’t realize they celebrated Christmas in Japan.

Takagi: Hey, we’re flexible. Pearl Harbor didn’t work out so we got you with tape decks.

Another, more subtle reference to the state of the U.S. – Japanese relationship is found in the set design for the 30th floor of the Nakatomi Tower, where the Christmas party takes place. The exposed stone and waterfall design of the floor are replicas of elements of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, a masterpiece of design by one of America’s greatest architects. The unspoken takeaway for the audience is that the Nakatomi Corporation purchased Fallingwater to serve as decoration for its headquarters, suggesting the sale and breaking up of America echoed in reality by the purchase of Rockefeller Center by Mitsubishi Estates in 1989. Reports stated that 30% of Hawaii and Los Angeles were owned by Japanese interests with 53 billion in American assets purchased, often more as a display of economic strength than economic practicality. The decision to use an architectural landmark rather than famous American paintings (works by Jackson Pollock and American Gothic come to mind), is again meant to evoke the then high-profile purchase of American property by Japanese firms. The result is a more visceral mental image, as it suggests the loss of territory, the expected outcome of a defeat in war. American icons are the prize of a dominant Japan, heritage displayed as trophies in the halls of a foreign power.

Pearl Harbor is also tangentially referenced again when Theo cracks the first code to the Nakatomi vault. The password is “akagi” which directly translated means “red castle” in Japanese. Akagi was also the name of one of the aircraft carriers that participated in the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Business is war, after all.

Die Hard‘s subtext of Japanophobia is not unique. Other films of the era touch upon anti-Japanese sentiment and fear of Japanese economic dominance, including Michael Crichton’s 1992 thriller Rising Sun, which was turned into a mediocre film in 1993. Coincidentally, or perhaps simply reflective of the perceived financial power of Japanese companies buying up American real estate, Rising Sun also features a high rise building named Nakamoto Tower. Several other works use the fear of a rising Japan and an America outmatched by Japanese efficiency and sharp business sense in various ways, including Ron Howard’s 1986 comedy Gung Ho about an ailing American auto plant bought out by a Japanese firm. (Point of fact: The term “gung ho” is not derived from Japanese rather from Chinese. It is a commentary on the general lack of understanding about Japan that still persists to this day.)Tom Clancy’s 1994 novel Debt of Honor has the more outlandish premise of Japan going to war with the United States. A more speculative take on the eventual future of the U.S-Japanese rivalry can be found in the 1992 Emilio Estevez vehicle (pardon the pun) Freejack, where the United States has lost “the trade wars” against a vague Asian power (or powers). The growing influence of Japan upon the United States is seen in the costuming and art direction of Blade Runner and Demolition Man.

The anxiety about Japan buried in Die Hard was not simply restricted to entertainment. Like alien invasions of the 1950s or the zombie films of the 1990s, popular culture reflected the social anxieties of the times. Fear of what was seen to be unfair Japanese business practices and the impression of Japanese workers as superhuman were pervasive. Labor unions exhorted Americans to boycott Japanese products and buy American, particularly automobiles. Politicians and new organizations chimed in on the subject, such as Time magazine in a 1987 cover feature. Writers and academics also pursued the issue, resulting in scholarly analysis such as Politics and Productivity: The Real Story of Why Japan Works, The Enigma of Japanese Power, and Japan. Inc. More alarmist and Japanophobic books hit shelves like Trading Places: How We Are Giving Our Future to Japan and How to Reclaim It, Zaibatsu America: How Japanese Firms Are Colonizing Vital U.S. Industries, and The Japanese Conspiracy. These books either offered advice on how to better emulate Japanese business tactics or attempted to portray Japanese business strategies as a sinister attack on America, akin to a second Pearl Harbor.

The endgame for this particular form of Japanophobia in the United States came from within Japan. A property bubble had been building for years, as speculation drove land value in Japan to astronomical levels. As an example of the massive overvaluation of property, the grounds of the Imperial Palace in Tokyo were worth more on paper than the entire state of California. Stock prices also went soaring, fueled by a ready supply of currency. Japanese banks were inefficient and issuing bad loans, saddling themselves with debt. The central Bank of Japan was aware of the problems but did not react quickly enough to solve the issues. The result was the bubble bursting in 1992, resulting in losses of trillions of dollars and shattering the gears that propelled Japan’s economy. Japan entered the Lost Decade and has struggled to recover ever since. The undercurrent of anti-Japanese sentiment largely vanished from American popular culture and politics with the bursting of Japan’s bubble economy and a resurgence in the American economy in the early 1990s.


  • Japan-Bashing: Anti-Japanism since the 1980s by Narelle Morris
  • “Revisiting the ‘Revisionists’: The Rise and Fall of the Japanese Economic Model” by Brink Lindsey and Aaron Lukas
  • Contemporary Japan by Jeff Kingston
  • The Bubble Economy: Japan’s Extraordinary Speculative Boom of the ’80s and the Dramatic Bust of the ’90s by Christopher Wood
  • Die Hard, directed by John McTiernan
The Tycoon of Japan: The Japanese Origins of the Word Tycoon

The Tycoon of Japan: The Japanese Origins of the Word Tycoon

The word tycoon conjures up images of wealthy industrialists–or at the very least Rich Uncle Pennybags from Monopoly. It may not summon the image of a Japanese warlord, yet that is the original meaning of the word. Tycoon is derived from the Japanese word taikun (大君, Great Prince), a term used to refer to the Shogun. The story how it entered the English language is one of a crisis of communication and the fancy of an American Secretary of State.

When Commodore Matthew Perry arrived off the shores of Japan in 1853, his mission was to open the country to American trade. Japan had been a closed country where foreigners were not allowed since the early 1600s under a policy of seclusion, or sankoku (鎖国). The policy was not absolute but had prevented the United States and other countries from attempting to open trade.

Upon his arrival near Edo (modern day Tokyo), Japanese officials attempted to order Perry to leave for Nagasaki, the only port that foreigners could enter. Perry refused and demanded he be allowed to deliver a letter from President Millard Fillmore to the Emperor of Japan. Japanese officials were at a loss as to how to reply to his demand as American intelligence on Japan was flawed. Although there was an Emperor, it was the Shogun who held real power in Japan. Perry however, was not to be dissuaded. He insisted his letter be accepted by emissaries of the Emperor or he would resort to violence. The Commodore had taken to heart the advice of Captain James Glynn, who had led an earlier attempt to open contact with Japan. Glynn recommended any future negotiations be backed up with a show of force. It was partly for that reason that Perry arrived with what is now modern day Tokyo Bay with four ships, two of them steam powered and belching black smoke into the skies. The black painted hulls of the squadron and black smoke gave the ships their enduring Japanese name: the kurofune (黒船), the Black Ships.

In advance of the expedition, Perry had new Paixhan guns installed on two of his ships, each one capable of lobbing explosive shells deep into Edo from his position offshore. Fire was the greatest threat the city of wood and paper faced and an assault by the American ships would devastate Edo. Japanese officials, fully aware of the damage Perry’s fleet could inflict, were at a diplomatic quandary. The Shogun was technically only a military commander, as a direct translation of the word shogun (将軍) indicated, hardly the rank Perry demanded to contact. In order to impress upon the Commodore the high rank of the Shogun, the term taikun, or Great Prince, was used. Taikun had been used before in diplomatic exchanges between the Shogun and other nations. Perry accepted the emissaries of the Great Prince and handed over his letter. He returned the next year and with the signing of the Convention of Kanagawa, Japan opened to American trade.

Perry’s mission was an immediate sensation in the United States. In recognition of his command, Congress awarded him $20000, worth $500000 in 2016 dollars. Perry spent the final years of his life writing a three volume report of the expedition entitled Narrative of the Expedition of an American Squadron to the China Seas and Japan. He died shortly afterwards in 1858. Excerpts of the report were published in American newspapers and the word tycoon was regularly used to refer to the leader of Japan.

Secretary of State John Hay was particularly taken with the term, as it bore with it connotations of power and the stereotypical concept of a mysterious and distant Asia. As such, he used it to refer to President Lincoln, calling him the Tycoon. From Hay’s penchant to call Lincoln the Tycoon and the repeated use of tycoon in the American press, the word entered popular culture. After the Meiji Restoration in 1868, the word Emperor was used for Japan’s leader. Tycoon remained in the vernacular, keeping the connotation of an important person. However, it was not until after World War I that the word came to specifically mean a business magnate.

As for Perry, his role in Japan’s opening and eventual transformation has not been forgotten. He appears occasionally in anime, such as Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei where he is portrayed as being unable to stop opening things.


  • The History Of How A Shogun’s Boast Made Lincoln A ‘Tycoon’ –
  • John Hay and John Nicolay in the White House –
  • The Capital of the Tycoon: Three Years Residence in Japan by Sir Rutherford Alcock.
Joker Game: The International Settlement and Indian Soldiers in Shanghai

Joker Game: The International Settlement and Indian Soldiers in Shanghai

As a work of historical fiction, Joker Game draws upon the reality of pre-war East Asia to frame its tale of espionage in a world on brink of war. The investigation of a bombing at the beginning of episode 4 shows the complex state of affairs that existed in 1937 Shanghai, a mirror of the international entanglements that would draw the entire world into conflict.

The site of the bombing is located in the Shanghai International Settlement. The International Settlement was a segregated section in Shanghai where many foreign citizens resided and a version of this area can be seen in the Spielberg film Empire of the Sun. In the late 1930s China was nominally an independent country, yet not completely in total control of all of its own territory. Although not a colonized nation, nor under the full dominion of an imperial power, a series of unequal treaties and concessions to foreign governments gave foreigners extraordinary rights and privileges. After Shanghai had been ceded as an open treaty port in the aftermath of China’s defeat in the First Opium War, Britain, the United States and France established settlements in the city. Forcing the defeated Qing government of China to agree to special terms, these settlements were ruled outside of Chinese jurisdiction. The British and American settlements eventually merged and other nations including Japan eventually joined what became known as the International Settlement. The international element of the settlement is evidenced by the number of flags in the center of the banner of the Shanghai Municipal Council, the Settlement’s ruling body.

An old quip about the kind of people who go to China labels them as missionaries, misfits and mercenaries. Although nations had fought the Opium War, most of the residents in China were businessmen and clergymen, with vested interests that did not always coincide with those of their governments. To avoid undue interference, the International Settlement quickly moved to set up its own government early in its existence. By 1937 it was a self governing enclave apart from China with its own military and police force, the majority of which were provided by the British government. The arrangement was not problematic, as it gave each side something out of the deal. The nature of the Settlement’s governance and status as a ceded territory explains why the bombing was being investigated by a British Inspector with Indian policemen.

With East Asia in turmoil, this international state of affairs was not to last. Japan entered into a state of war with China in 1937  Japanese forces attacked and captured Shanghai in August of that year.  It is somewhat unclear as to the date in episode 4 but given the relatively upbeat mood of the city, it is likely before the the Japanese invasion. However, dialogue does mention Nationalist Chinese bombings, so it is probably after the war began in July 1937. As tensions mounted between Japan and other powers in the region, the British withdrew the bulk of their forces in 1940. The end of the International Settlement came after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Knowing that a state of war between Japan and the US as well as other nations was imminent, Japanese solders entered the International Settlement and took control. Foreigners were sent to the Lunghua Civilian Assembly Center to be interned for the duration of the war. (Author’s note: I spent some time at the former site of the Lunghua Center. It is now a high school campus. Very little evidence of the original internment center survives, as the old blockhouses have been demolished and the few articles about the era that once existed have been removed from the school’s museum.)

In 1937 Britain had not yet descended into the twilight of empire, although there were visible and irreparable strains at the seams of imperial control. London still presided over a colonial empire over which many had famously claimed the sun never set. India had been under the direct control of the crown since the Indian Rebellion of 1857. As part of the British Empire, Indians were inducted into service in the British Indian Army. Due to its proximity to East Asia, India provided a means to deploy large numbers of troops rapidly to areas far from the metropole of Britain. Indian soldiers were used in China during the Boxer Uprising and in various theaters in both World War I and World War II. As the majority of foreign troops in Shanghai were provided by the British military, Indians formed a large part of the International Settlement’s Municipal Police and the Shanghai Defense Force.

The style of turbans worn by the Indians soldiers in the scene identify them as Sikh. After the Indian Rebellion of 1857, the British turned to primarily recruit soldiers from what they deemed to be the “martial races.” This race-based ideology stated that people of “martial races” were well suited to be soldiers due to innate bravery and fighting ability. Sikhs were among the groups the British considered “martial races” and were thus recruited heavily.

After World War II, the British hold on India was untenable as internal and external pressures mounted. In India pro-independence sentiments could no longer be contained. At home, Britain lacked the will to continue to hold on to its empire and had begun to turn inwards towards the development of the Welfare State The days of the Raj–the name for the British rule of India–were numbered. Britain quickly began the process of relinquishing control and in 1947 the old British Raj became the new nations of India and Pakistan.


  • The British Indian Army 1860–1914 by Peter Duckers
  • Empire Made Me: An Englishman Adrift in Shanghai by Robert Bickers
  • “‘Punjabization’ in the British Indian Army 1857 – 1947 and the Advent of Military Rule in Pakistan” by Syed Hussain Shaheed Soherwordi
  • Turbans of the Indian Army –
  • “Origin and Development of the Political System in the Shanghai International Settlement” by J.H. Haan
The Tokyo 2020 Logo and the Ichimatsu Moyou

The Tokyo 2020 Logo and the Ichimatsu Moyou

The new logo for the 2020 Tokyo was unveiled on April 25. Created by artist Asoa Tokolo, the checkered indigo blue design is based upon the traditional Japanese pattern called ichimatsu moyou.

Ichimatsu moyou (市松模様?) is named for the kabuki actor Sanogawa Ichimatsu I (佐野川 市松?) Active as an actor from 1733 until his death in 1762 at the age of forty, Ichimatsu was renown for playing young men on stage. He was also well known for his personal beauty, which garnered him many admirers. During performances in Edo in 1741, Ichimatsu used a distinct ichidatami (checkerboard) pattern on this clothing, which led to a minor fashion furor. The pattern came to be known as ichimatsu moyou after the actor.


  • Ningyo: The Art of the Japanese Doll by Alan Pate
Joker Game: Duty, Death and the Imperial Rescript to Soldiers and Sailors

Joker Game: Duty, Death and the Imperial Rescript to Soldiers and Sailors

The beginning of episode 2 of Joker Game opens with a voiceover as scenes of children playing at war segue into images of adult soldiers. The opening narration is lifted from the Imperial Rescript to Soldiers and Sailors (軍人勅諭), a document issued by the Meiji Emperor in 1882. The Rescript was a set of rules which formed the basis of the military code of ethics and conduct. It is often cited as instrumental in the development of the mentality and ideals that guided the creation and operation of the Japanese military. The Rescript was studied daily by soldiers while a shortened version consisting of “The Five Principles of the Soldier” had to be memorized. Troops were expected to be able to repeat the “Five Principles” verbatim, word for word, upon command. As depicted in the episode, the entire Rescript was also read aloud by soldiers on certain occasions, making the Rescript a constant and ubiquitous element of military life.

The phrase “Duty is heavier than a mountain, death is lighter than a feather,” highlights one of the most profound messages of the Rescript. The Rescript stressed loyalty and obedience as the prime characteristics of a soldier and that death was preferable to moral failings and dishonor. Military conditioning furthered the notion that death was a viable alternative when confronted with a dilemma that threatened the honor and standing of an soldier, something that comes into play during the search of suspected spy John Gordon’s home.

As noted by Historian Edward Drea, the values of Japanese society in 1937 were built on the acceptance of a hierarchy, aversions to public humiliation, a belief in the uniqueness of the Japanese people, and a series of allegiances that connected citizens to the Emperor. To create a soldier willing to live and die for his beliefs, military training only had to impose itself upon the social order, to overlay structure and discipline on top of existing values. Drea cites the intense nature of Imperial Army training in what he deems the “hothouse” environment of pre-war Japan as an important element in the making of a Japanese soldier. Love of family and love of country was increasingly conflated with strength of arms and loyalty to the Emperor, effectively making the Empire and military an extension of familial ties. The hierarchy of the military was a series of “little loyalties” which built all the way up to the Emperor. This was a major function of the Rescript, connecting the individual soldier to a greater extended “family” in the form of the nation and ultimately to the Emperor himself.

The pervasive national sense of duty coupled with the brutal methods of training and discipline found in the Imperial Army was aimed towards instilling unquestioning obedience.This operated in combination with what Drea refers to as a “deep fatalism” inherent in Japanese society, perhaps best exemplified by the common phrase shikata ja nai (仕方が無い) or “it can’t be helped.” Shikata ga nai is arguably a reflection of a social tendency to accept whatever comes but also not to rock the boat and rail against arbitrary or nonsensical orders and rules. Even in Emperor Hirohito’s speech announcing Japan’s surrender he asked the Japanese people to, “endure the unendurable and suffer what is not sufferable.” Although it has been noted that there were several different and powerful reasons behind the Japanese tendency to choose death rather than surrender during the war, the impact of this conditioning should not be understated. (For more on the other factors, read my previous article Bakuon!! The Siberian Internment and the Social Stigma of Surrender in WWII Japan)

The first few minutes of Joker Game effectively shows the impact of a nationalist ideology based on duty and the inherent glory of war and the military on children. The usage of the Imperial Rescript to Soldiers and Sailors is integral to the episodes thematic development and to Sakuma’s transition from solider to spy. When Lt. Colonel Yuuki states choosing death is often the worst thing a spy could do, it stands in contrast to the precepts espoused by the military which offers death as a solution to an unavoidable situation–not as a problem. It is important to Sakuma’s development, as overcoming his ingrained instincts are not only overcoming personal beliefs but the weight of the intertwined expectations of both society and the military command. The act of touching the Imperial Portrait by Miyoshi during the search of Gordon’s house shows the ability of the spies to act outside of the normal rules of society, to adapt and respond to any situation. Yet this ability comes at a cost. The spies of Joker Game are not just free thinkers unbound by the strict rules of society –they are men permanently apart from their people. Lt. Col. Yuuki states the ultimate fate of the spies is a life of eternal solitude. More than any other factor it is their position as outsiders that dooms them, unable to share in the binding values of the society they serve.

References and recommended readings

  • In the Service of the Emperor: Essays on the Imperial Japanese Army by Edward Drea
  • Selections from the Imperial Rescript for Soldiers and Sailors
Bakuon!! The Siberian Internment and the Social Stigma of Surrender in WWII Japan

Bakuon!! The Siberian Internment and the Social Stigma of Surrender in WWII Japan

Bakuon!! is a lighthearted anime about the peculiar members of a motorcycle club at an all girls high school. The majority of the first two episodes have been concerned with main protagonist Hane Sakura’s quest to obtain a license and the conflict between Onsa and Rin over the merits of Suzuki bikes. With the introduction of Hijiri Minowa and her butler Hayakawa, things take a interesting historical turn.

Hijiri reveals she is not old enough to have a motorcycle license, so until her sixteenth birthday she will be having Hayakawa drive her in a Ducati 750 Imola Replica with sidecar. After her explanation, Hayakawa replies hasn’t had a sidecar since the Siberia internment. By referencing the Siberia internment, Hayakawa is packing a great deal of often-controversial history, difficult war memory and character backstory into a single sentence.

World War II ended with Japan’s surrender to the Allies in August 1945. This left millions of Japanese soldiers across Asia and the Pacific to work out the means of their own surrender to the Allies. For Japanese troops stationed in northern China, in what was the former puppet state of Manchukuo, the main Allied forces in the area were the Soviets sweeping in from the north. Japanese soldiers who surrendered to the Soviets were shipped off to the already extant system of labor camps in Siberia. This network of prisons, called the gulag archipelago by Russian political prisoner Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, had served to neutralize enemies of the Soviet state since the 1930s. Conditions were brutal and the Siberian winter remains infamously bitter. Prisoners in the gulags were used as laborers and workers, all the while being subjected to reeducation on the merits of communism. In all, approximately 500000 to 750000 Japanese soldiers were interned in labor camps by the Soviets at the end of the war. Of these, 50000 to 60000 died. The exact numbers of both interned soldiers and of deaths remains a point of contention. As the Soviet Union found cheap labor useful, many Japanese soldiers were not repatriated to Japan for many years.

The use of the term “internment” by Hayakawa is critical to both his character and to the beliefs of Japanese soldiers who were interned at the end of the war. Few Japanese soldiers surrendered during the war, due to the extraordinarily rigid codes of behavior imposed on them by both society and during their tough military training. Surrendering and not dying bravely in battle was indeed considered dishonorable, a system of thought reinforced by the military leadership as well as the conditions faced by Japanese soldiers. A section of the Japanese army’s Field Service Code manual issued to all troops read, “Do not live in shame as a prisoner. Die, and leave no ignominious crime behind you.” Another section in the 1882 Imperial Rescript to Soldiers and Sailors read, “duty is heavier than a mountain; death is lighter than a feather.” However, it should also be noted that American forces were unforgiving in battle and the war in the Pacific carried very difficult racial connotations. In War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War historian John Dower characterizes the war as one built on racial hatred and fear. There was also the underlying fear by Japanese soldiers that the Allies would torture or kill a surrendering soldier outright, a fear exacerbated by government propaganda. In the uncertainty and terror of war, kill or be killed was likely seen as the only option open to soldiers on both sides.

When the war ended Japanese troops who laid down their arms in accordance with orders from their government found it important to make the distinction between their situation and the plight of those Japanese soldiers who had surrendered of their own will during the war. The term “internment” became the preferred term by these soldiers to refer to their imprisonment, rather than prisoner of war which indicates surrendering or being captured during active hostilities. The distinction was vital, as Japanese who had surrendered in the earlier Russo-Japanese faced ostracism upon their return. Even as Japanese society was reordered by the American occupation after the war, there was still a sense of shame and dishonor over being taken as a prisoner for surviving Japanese soldiers and their families. The Japanese military command was well aware of the issue. In order to prevent holdouts, minimize any resistance to the surrender and to ease the concerns of soldiers, a statement issued by the military declared that any Japanese soldier who surrendered after the end of the war was not considered a prisoner of war.

With Hayakawa’s offhand comment. he establishes his ability as a soldier, as a survivor, and as a honorable loyalist who will fight until the very end. The line also brings in to focus the increasing re-examination of Japan’s war history in anime, as war veterans are still a relatively rare element. With the concurrent airing of Joker Game, Japan’s difficult relationship with the legacy of the war is being addressed by a new generation.

Suggested reading

  • War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War and Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II by John W. Dower
  • The Anguish of Surrender, Japanese POWs of World War II by Ulrich Straus