Japanese Myth Busters: “Japanese People are Always on Time”

About a week ago I gave a presentation on “Time Studies in Japan” to a local club, so it is kind of funny timing that I should spot this article titled The Unspoken Contradictions Behind Japanese Punctuality by Almoamen Abdalla on Nippon.com.

Image result for the white rabbit

My own presentation covered a few of the MANY ways in which Japanese people measure and observe Time. Some of the methods we covered were from Japan’s earliest era up until the 19th/20th century.

During the Q&A part of the presentation, someone commented about Japanese people always being punctual (I was actually about 5 minutes late for the meeting!). My response was, “No way! Punctuality didn’t become a trait of Japanese people until the Meiji era (at the earliest) when things started getting really militarized, only to be refined later in the 20th century with the development of Japan’s marvelous railroad network.”

In short, Japanese punctuality is a 20th century invention.

This article backs-up my response.

For most of Japan’s history and up until the late 19th century, they really didn’t have a method for keeping precise, punctual time–at least not one that was ubiquitous throughout all social classes and in all parts of the country.

Read the article!





“Kurashi no koyomi”–a fantastic gift!

I recently met a friend at a Time studies conference and she gave me an awesome gift–a book called Kurashi no koyomi くらしのこよみ edited by the Utsukushii Kurashikata Institute うつくしいくらしかた研究所 and published by Heibonsha 平凡社. The title Kurashi no koyomi basically means “almanac for living” and what the book is is a beautiful guide to the traditional 72 seasons of the year!


Kurashi no koyomi–a Japanese way of “plucking the day,” and I think Horace would agree.

There is an entry for each of the 72 seasons. Each entry has a beautiful photo wonderfully illustrating the micro-season, a brief explanation of the season, a seasonal haiku complimenting it along with an explanation of the haiku, and a short bio of the poet. Following that is a seasonal fish/ seafood, a seasonal vegetable, a seasonal fruit or flower, and any other type of food particular to the time of year. Then finally there is a seasonal “fun” activity–usually something traditionally done every year like, fireworks, cherry blossom viewing, etc.

In the paragraph above I put “fun” in parentheses because one of the activities is “summer rain,” as in going out in the rain or watching the rain. In Japanese it says kisetsu no tanoshimi 季節のたのしみ which means enjoyment of the season. At first I thought, “I really wouldn’t call being out in the rain ‘fun,'” but then I thought it gets so hot and humid here, that yeah, maybe I should embrace the rain and enjoy it. In fact I used to love sitting on my porch at home during rain storms in the summer… 懐かしい.

Here are a few shots of what the book looks like:


(Above) Each entry/chapter is 6 pages long. The season is indicated on the right page (1st page), and a haiku, explanation, and poet bio are on the left (2nd page).


(Above) Next is the seasonal fish (right, 3rd page) and seasonal vegetable (left, 4th page).


(Above) Finally there is a seasonal flower or fruit (right, 5th page) and lastly the seasonal fun activity or enjoyment (left, 6th page).

I’d like to start composing haiku in Japanese more regularly, so this book is going to be a tremendous resource of inspiration. Reading it regularly will also encourage me to stop and smell the roses and not let the days just zoom-by.

Hot off the press! Serow: Journal of the Akita International Haiku Network, Vol. 1

I’ve been a judge for Akita International Haiku Network‘s Japan-Russia Haiku Contest for the past few years. This past year I undertook a mission to put all of the winning haiku and honorable mention haiku into a journal. The contest has been becoming more and more popular every year, so I thought that this would be a good way to display our success. The journal (titled Serow) may be viewed online here:

Serow, Volume 1

I taught myself how to use InDesign to get the job done. Of course this journal could have been made with any number of software products, but InDesign has a certain mystique about it!

Aside from the online addition above (complete with ISSN–woot-woot!) I made a booklet version that can be printed and used in classes:

Serow Vol. 1 Spring 2018 (Booklet Print edition)

ISSN: 2434-1711 (online edition)

*Notes for printing: please set the printer to print on BOTH sides of A4 (8.5 x 11) paper and “flip on short edge.”

I’m looking forward to improving my InDesign skills and to more projects like this!


Rice Planting: Then & Now

Recently (“in recent years” is probably more accurate) I’ve been working on a piece of Muromachi-era fiction called Fushimi Tokiwa. In it, the protagonist/heroine Tokiwa gets snowed-in a small town called Fushimi and is unable to leave until spring comes. During that time a group of village girls entertain her by singing tauta 田歌, rice planting songs.


There are five village girls, each representing a different region of Japan. Before singing they explain that they are not from the same town, so they can not sing the same song together. They also explain that while they (the women of the village) plant rice the men of the village accompany them by playing music.

As I drive around the outskirts of Akita these days, I can’t hep but see the stark contrast between rice farming then and now. That is of course if one is to believe the portrayal in the tale is at all accurate.

Separation of the Sexes…

First, I observed mostly MEN doing the field work–not young women, or even “women” as is in the tale. Let me qualify this: these days planting is mostly done by machine. I did not (or to my recollection ever) see a women driving one of these planting tractors. I did however see individual women planting little sections of rice by hand once in a while.

This is opposite of what is depicted in Fushimi Tokiwa, leading me to the conclusion that women played a more active role in the labor-intensive rice planting in premodern Japan than they do now.

Whistle while you work…

Second, the most glaring difference is that no music accompanies modern day rice planting! What a shame! In Fushimi Tokiwa the women say that male musicians accompany them while they sing and plant. It does not specify which instruments they play, but the kanji characters indicate that it was probably flute (a side-blown flute, not like a recorder) and probably some type of small drums.

These days they could at least have speakers blasting prerecorded music, just to keep some remnant of the tradition alive.

An important thing to point out is that these rice planting songs were probably very local and connected with the local kami (native spirit/spirits) associated with the land. Therefore as local regions stop passing down their songs from generation to generation they become lost. The kami become silent and forgotten.

It takes a village…

The third obvious difference is that since the industrial revolution, rice planting does not require a large number of people any more–it’s not a community effort. Now one guy on a tractor can do acres of planting with minimum support from others.


A bit of editorializing: Quite often, people I meet tell me about how globalization is a threat to “the Japanese way.” But in the case of perpetuating the tauta field song tradition, that was something very much in their power to keep alive, they just chose not to do so. It’s not like American “planting songs” (are there any?!) have come in and taken over Japanese ones–they just quit it all together.


For more beautiful photos of Akita, visit https://500px.com/alanbessette.

“A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall”

On rainy days, it’s a chore to come to campus–for the students and me! Everyone loves music, so I try to brighten the mood a bit by remarking on just how many songs there are in English about “rain”–“Stormy Monday Blues,” “Rainy Day, Dream Away,” “Rain King,” “Red Rain,” “Rainy Days and Mondays,” to  name a few. I always ask students what Japanese songs do they know about “rain,” but I never get concrete answers. Surely there must be some.

A calligrapher’s rendition of ame

Akita’s first snow fall was quite early this year–November 20th. Soon Akita will be covered in deep heavy snow. On those days I can’t help but think that people will be wishing there was rain instead!

Here’s the list of ‘rain words’ from Japan-talk.com. This is by no means an exhaustive list of rain words. A quick glance at a dictionary, and I found dozens more–a few of which I added at the bottom.


あめ ame rain
白雨 はくう hakū rain shower
急雨 きゅう kyū rain shower
俄雨 にわかあめ niwaka ame rain shower
降雨 こう rainfall
Rain by Intensity
弱雨 じゃくう jakū weak rain
小雨 こさめ kosame light rain
小降り こぶり koburi light rain
微雨 びう bi-u light rain
小糠雨 こぬかあめ konuka ame fine rain
煙雨 えんう en-u misty rain
細雨 さいう sai-u drizzle
多雨 たう ta-u heavy rain
大雨 おおあめ ōame heavy rain
強雨 きょうう kyōu severe rain
横降り よこぶり yokoburi driving rain
吹き降り ふきぶり fukiburi driving rain
篠突く雨 しのつくあめ shinotsuku ame intense rain
集中豪雨 しゅうちゅうごうう shūchū gōu severe localized downpour
Rain Combos
風雨 ふう wind and rain
雨氷 うひょう uhyō freezing rain
雨後雪 あめのちゆき ame nochi yuki rain then snow
雪交じり ゆきまじり yuki majiri snow and rain
雨混じりの雪 あめまじりのゆき ame majiri no yuki snow and rain
晴後雨 はれのちあめ hare nochi ame clear then rain
雨露 うろ uro rain and dew
Cold Rain
涼雨 りょうう ryōu cool rain
冷雨 れいう reiu chilly rain
寒雨 かんう kanu cold winter rain
氷雨 ひさめ hisame very cold rain or hail
Types of Rain
夜雨 やう ya-u night rain
梅雨前線 ばいうぜんせん baiuzensen seasonal rain
春霖 しゅんりん shun rin spring rain
春雨 しゅんう shun u gentle spring rain
緑雨 りょくう ryokū early-summer rain
五月雨 さみだれ samidare early-summer rain
秋雨 あきさめ akisame autumn rain
秋霖 しゅうりん shū rin autumn rain
凍雨 とうう tōu winter rain
十雨 じゅうう jūu refreshing rain once in ten days
恵雨 けいう keiu welcome rain
人工雨 じんこうう jinkōu artificial rain
放射能雨 ほうしゃのうう hōshanōu radioactive rain
天泣 てんきゅう tenkyū rain from a cloudless sky
Time and Rain
雨模様 あまもよう ama moyō signs of rain
雨催い あまもよい ama moyoi threat of rain
雨上り あまあがり ama agari after the rain
雨後 うご ugo after rain
雨間 あまあい ama ai break in the rain
晴一時小雨 はれいちじこさめ hare ichi ji kosame brief light rain
ながめ nagame long rain
霖雨 りんう rin-u long rain
長雨 ながめ nagame long rain
陰霖 いんりん in rin long rain
夕立 ゆうだち yūdachi sudden evening rain

from Japan-talk.com

Other Rain Words I found
雨止み あまやみ ama yami stopping of rain; lull in the rain
雨水 あまみず/ うすい ama mizu/ u-sui rain water
雨中 うちゅう u-chū in the rain
雨天 うてん u-ten rainy weather
雨気 あまけ ama ke threatening to rain; signs of rain
雨足 あめあし ame ashi a passing shower
雨声 うせい u-sei the sound of rain
雨夜 あまよ ama yo rainy evening; rainy night
雨音 雨音 ama oto sound of rain falling
雨飛 うひ u-hi coming down like rain
雨続き あまつづき ama tsuzuki long rain; rainy spell



“I like watchin’ the puddles gather rain”: RAIN as a Seasonal Word

Writing haiku brings the poet closer to nature and the natural world around them. This is the feature I enjoy most about writing haiku.

Rain, Drops, City, Streets, Drizzle

Part of displaying one’s closeness with their environment is by noticing ch-ch-ch-changes in the natural world and incorporating them into a haiku. Generally speaking, these seasonal expressions are called kigo 季語.

Haiku poets of the Bashō school maintain that each haiku must include a seasonal word (kigo 季語). For poets of English haiku who wish to follow Bashō’s tradition as closely as possible, English seasonal-words are indispensable.

As one would guess, many seasonal words relate to climate and to “rain” in particular. Here’s an article from Japan-talk.com listing 50 words/ expressions for “rain” in Japanese. There are photos interspersed with the terms. Some of the terms at the beginning of the list are not so interesting to me, but there are some good ones down towards the bottom.

This list is really useful for writing haiku because it allows people to think of rain from a perspective other than their own. I for one get in the rut of using the same words all the time. Reading this list refreshed my memory to words/expressions I have not used in a while.


How many expressions are there for rain in English?

I typed “rain” into Thesaurus.com and 35 results came back:




























cat-and-dog weather


heavy dew

liquid sunshine


sun shower

wet stuff

window washer

With all these words for rain, in both English and Japanese, how does one express No Rain?



Take four minutes and six seconds out of your day to watch this video.


Natsume Sōseki in Nippon.com

I came across an intriguing article online comparing the early 20th century Japanese author Natsume Sōseki 夏目漱石 (1867-1916) to Shakespeare. The article is “Sōseki vs. Shakespeare: Two Giants of World Literature” by Damian Flanagan and appeared on the website Nippon.com.

Image result for natsume soseki

“It’s all about the Natsumes, baby”

The term “world literature” caught my attention in the title. There is no doubt that Sōseki is highly regarded in Japan and that he is one of the most influential authors of the 20th century. But, what is his contribution to world literature? How widely known is he to non-specialists?

When I taught high school Language Arts, one of the courses was World Literature. Japanese literature was all but missing from the textbook. I made my students buy Abe Kōbō‘s 安部公房 The Woman in the Dunes (Suna no onna 砂の女) to introduce them to modern Japanese literature and to complement their reading of Albert Camus‘s LÉtranger. Any of Sōseki’s novels would have been equally (if not better) suited to have taught in class.


I refuse to refer to Sōseki as the “Shakespeare of Japan,” but I don’t mind comparing the two authors. Similar to Shakespeare, Sōseki also wrote across-genres. Just as Shakespeare had his plays and sonnets, Sōseki was both a novelist and poet.

The article neglects to mention that Sōseki was a poet of both kanshi 漢詩 (poetry in Chinese) and haiku 俳句. He entered Tokyo Imperial University at the same time as Masaoka Shiki 正岡子規, famed haiku poet of the 20th century. Shiki undoubtedly influenced Sōseki’s haiku interest. Although Shiki is the pre-eminent 20th century haiku poet, Sōseki, too, composed fine “modern” haiku.

Here is one of Sōseki’s haiku and its translation by Ueda Makoto.  Notice the haiku‘s 18-beat* pattern. Freeing oneself of the confines of the traditional 17 beat haiku was one of the marks of Shiki’s modern haiku movement. Also, there is the lack of a seasonal word (kigo 季語), which adherents of the Bashō school (including me!) agree is a mandatory element of haiku.

sumigama ni

kazura ha-iaguru


Onto a charcoal kiln

a vine keeps climbing while

being burnt to death

*I’m trying to eliminate using the word “syllable” when referring to haiku. Using the word “syllable” as a translation of on 音 has caused so much confusion, which has contributed to the deterioration of English haiku as an art.

The Case Particle “NI” に used in Haiku Explained… BY THE BUNPŌ BUSHI!

Here’s a haiku by the 20th century poet Takahama Kyoshi 高浜虚子 (1874-1959):



あまのがわのもとに  てんじてんのうと  おみきょしと

Beneath the Milky Way–Tenji tennō and his retainer Kyoshi


Image result for 高浜虚子

Why do you hate 17 syllables so much?

When I started to translate this poem, the first thing that I noticed was that there is NO VERB! I read it a second time, and yup, sho nuff, there’s no action word. Instead it’s basically a prepositional phrase and a couple of names linked by conjunction-like-particles.

The haiku can be broken into three phrases:

  1. under the Ama no gawa 天の川のもとに
  2. Tenji tennō and 天智天皇と
  3. retainer Kyoshi and 臣虚子と

Even those just starting out learning Japanese will recognize the particle ni . Three common ways that ni is used are to indicate 1) the place of an action, 2) the time of an action, and 3) destination or direction of an actionMoto もと can mean “beneath,” “base of,” “bottom,” etc. So in the case of Takahama’s poem, the particle ni indicates the place of the action (“action” in the existential sense).

Moto ni もとに is found dozens of times in the Kokinshū 古今集. The expression is not in the poems themselves, however, but in the descriptive prose introducing many of the poems. A few examples are:

#57 beneath the cherry blossom petals (sakura no hana moto ni さくらの花もとに)

#119 beneath the wisteria petals (fuji no hana no moto ni ふぢの花のもとに)

#305 beneath the tree with autumn leaves falling (momiji no chiru ki no moto ni もみぢのちる木のもとに)

The lack of a verb brings a sense of stillness to Takahama’s haiku. This may be useful to keep in mind when writing haiku en inglés.


One application of the Imperfective Verb Form… by the BUNPŌ BUSHI!

In the last post I wrote about the Attributive Verb Form (rentaikei 連体形). This post is about the Imperfective Verb Form (mizenkei 未然形) and it’s application to forming the Passive Voice. 

I can’t believe how many “kitten and snail” images there are on the internet! Truly a universal haiku… Bravo Saimaro!

This post’s example poem comes from an Edo period (1600-1868) haiku poet, Shiinomoto Saimaro 椎本才麿 (1656-1738). Also, the haiku features a kitten, so I’m hoping this post gets a lot of hits~!

Saimaro is a contemporary of the famous Matsuo Bashō 松尾芭蕉 (1644–1694), but which one have YOU heard of before? I’m guessing not Saimaro.

Here’s Saimaro’s poem:

猫の子に 嗅がれてゐるや 蝸牛
neko no ko ni / kagarete-iru ya / katatsumuri

My translation:

Aww… it’s getting
sniffed by a kitty cat!
A land snail

I could only get to 14 syllables with this translation. It’s hard to get it to 17 syllables without taking too many liberties with the interpretation. I stretched the ya や into “aww,” which I count as two syllables; was able to turn kitten (2 syllables) into “kitty cat” (3); and snail (1) into “land snail” (2).

Passive Voice:

Imperfective verbs on their own indicate that the action has “not yet been realized,” as the kanji for “imperfective,” or mizen 未然, suggests. However, the root of the verb in Imperfective Form also gets us to the passive voice.

The main verb in this haiku is kagu 嗅ぐ (to sniff/ smell/ get a whiff of something). In order to make this a passive situation you must put kagu into the Imperfective Form, then attach the Passive Voice suffix -ru ~る. This will give us “the snail is being sniffed by the kitten” rather than, “the kitten is sniffing the snail.”

To do this, first kagu needs to be changed to the Imperfect Form by inflecting the ~u sound to an ~a sound, making it kaga 嗅が.  Now, the Passive Voice suffix –ru can be joined to it making the Passive Voice kagaru.

If it were at the end of the sentence, then this would be all you need to do. But, as you can see, it appears as kagarete-iru in the haiku, not as kagaru. The reason for this is that it is in the Passive Voice and Present Continuous Tense, which can be a topic for a later post. For now, just identify the fact that the Imperfective Form (mizenkei 未然形) is needed to make a verb passive.

Translator’s notes:

I was surprised to find that the kanji for the name of the snail (katatsumuri 蝸牛) is also read as kagyū and is the name of a part of the inner ear, the Cochlea. If you Google-image it or click here, you can see that the part of the ear looks snail-y.

Also, I wrote “land snail” because there are thousands of species of snails, hundreds just in Japan alone. So many things in Japanese culture are connected to the sea, so this very well could be a sea snail (think: the cat is by the sea or on a dock), however, katatsumuri specifically indicates a land snail not a sea snail.

The Seasonal Word (kigo 季語) is snail!