Category: Japanese Culture

Japanese YouTube Alternative, NicoNico, Will Satisfy Your Pop Culture Needs

NicoNico Logo

While YouTube will likely always reign supreme as THE video sharing site around the world, it still faces tough competition in Japan in the form of NicoNico.

Originally known as Nico Nico Douga (literally “Smile Videos”), the site first launched in December 2016 using YouTube as its video hosting service. The site rapidly grew in popularity and was subsequently blocked from YouTube in February 2007, just a couple of months after their original launch. Luckily for fans, the downtime was minimal as the site relaunched in March of that same year with their own server and from there has ballooned into one of the top 200 sites in the world.

Changing their name to NicoNico in April 2012, the main features of the site which set it apart from the competition is the very distinct commenting style. On this site, viewing videos is a shared experience thanks to every single comment being locked to the video via timestamp and scrolled across the video player every time someone views the video from that point forward. As you might imagine, this can create a mess of text when a video is particularly popular which is why the site gave users the option to filter or even turn off the comments entirely.

In order to comment on videos on NicoNico, you must be a registered user. A big part of the money that NicoNico makes is from selling premium memberships which run ¥540 a month (though they also have free memberships). I haven’t been able to find up to date statistics regarding their registered user accounts but it is known that in 2012 they had 1.5 million premium members around the world.

NicoNico Commenting Style

In addition to the scrolling comments, NicoNico also has a special live feature for premium members which allows them to easily broadcast themselves. That feature launched for all premium members in December 2008 and gained popularity very quickly. By July 2012, the total quantity of programs broadcast on the service reached 100 million.

In terms of content, NicoNico isn’t all that different from YouTube… they’re kind of like YouTube’s sugar-fueled, hyper, smaller cousin. There are plenty of people who stream themselves gaming, regular videos of people celebrating holidays, personalities from various walks of life, commercials for the latest eiga, music (there are even several stars such as the original members of pop duo ClariS who got their start on this site), and, of course, various anime content. Perhaps my favorite trend on NicoNico is the MADs. In these nuggets of joy, users remix anime dialogue into original songs and sometimes they can be quite catchy.

The one downside to the site being translated into different languages is that you can’t use it to learn “internet Japanese” any longer as most of the comments you see will be in your own language.

If you’re a fan of Japanese pop culture and you’re looking for an alternative to YouTube to get your fix, NicoNico has more than proven themselves as being worthy of your attention.


Invasion of the Virtual YouTubers!

Move over, Logan Paul, because a new sensation has spread across Japanese YouTube!

Fading are the days of real live people interacting with audiences on the popular streaming site. The new trend revolves around people creating virtual anime avatars using motion capture technology. The reasons as to why fans are flocking to these avatars are quite varied. Some people enjoy watching virtual presenters when they are playing games; some people feel that they are getting a raw and real version of Japanese culture that they can’t get from a live person; and some folks just find the freedom of the virtual world to be a perfect catalyst for a few funny or crazy adventures that they can share with the host. No matter what their reasons are, though, they and others like them are tuning into these virtual hosts in droves.


Kizuna Ai

The Virtual YouTuber trend was pioneered by Kizuna Ai (a name that uses the kanji for “Bonded Love”), who is easily the most famous of all virtual YouTubers. Debuting in the tail end of November 2016, Kizuna Ai has become a superstar in the field. In her introduction video, she states that her goal is to one day appear in a commercial. And while, to my knowledge, she hasn’t gotten her own TV spot, she has appeared in multiple video games and anime titles, and she’s become the first virtual YouTuber to get a verified Twitter account. On top of that, in 2018, she was named as the official tourism ambassador of Japan.

Ai’s not the only one, though. To date, there are literally thousands of these characters on Japanese YouTube (an exact number is impossible to guesstimate, as new virtual YouTubers are now appearing and disappearing almost daily). With so many new presenters making their debuts over the past couple of years, it can be hard to know where your attention should go, exactly. That said, most of the more popular avatars have some kind of defining characteristic that makes them stand out from the pack.

A simple search on Google will pull up many different options to pick from, including a Japanese idol who speaks perfect English, a catgirl who loves FPS games, a tsundere student council president, and many, many others.

It’s not always easy to break into this industry, though. Becoming a virtual YouTuber can take a lot of hard work and patience.  Also, it can’t be understated that sometimes, a little luck will go a long way towards success, as was the case for the woman behind the virtual avatar named Rhythm Otonashi. Chosen via raffle to appear at Kizuna Ai’s first live event in March 2018, she traveled all the way from Germany and soon caught the performing bug, herself. Catching the audience’s eye right away, it was only a month later that Otonashi was invited to join the same talent agency as Kizuna Ai, Project upd8. It’s one thing to start performing on YouTube, though.  It’s another thing entirely to keep it up for a sustained amount of time and gain a legitimate following.

Rhythm Otonashi.

“I try to upload 1-4 videos a month and on my current schedule, I stream 4+ times a week. Personally, I’m sort of a niche producer and don’t feel pressured to create videos on things that are currently trending, so it’s more of a matter of finding the time to record, edit and sometimes figure out how to pull something off from a technical point of view,” Otonashi told me via an interview. When asked about the varying demands of the audience and if it’s difficult to please such a wide range of people, Otonashi spoke of the difficulties she’s had up to this point. “It is definitely difficult, yeah. Many Virtual YouTubers make a large variety of content instead of focusing on one specific niche, which is why I think establishing a personality that people enjoy is really important.”

It’s difficult to pinpoint a single reason why this trend has exploded in popularity but one popular theory is that being presented by a virtual avatar allows people to be more free and expressive with their emotions and interests. Otonashi, for example, stated strongly that her virtual persona is a big part of who she really is though she also admitted to having a bit of stage fright when she first started.

Regardless of the why’s, the popularity of these virtual presenters is still climbing and while some fans believe that the trend is either currently at its peak or is close to it, others don’t feel that way at all. Rather they’re of the opinion that this is only the beginning as the technology is still becoming more widely available to people outside of Japan.

“I absolutely believe in the phenomenon surviving and evolving in the future though. Virtual YouTubers are about far more than just making YouTube videos by now and we’ve seen them appear in events, concerts, games and show off their skills as creators beyond just talking in videos,” Otonashi said after careful deliberation. “I don’t think Virtual YouTubers will grow to the point where they *replace* other types of entertainers but there are still many, many possibilities for them.”

With the trend still rising in popularity and scope, it’s impossible to predict where this trend will go in the future. Will we see more virtual YouTubers appearing to the point that a real person appearing on the site is a novelty? Doubtful but it appears that those with a terrible case of the shys have a new avenue when it comes to self-expression.

Senpai! Please Notice This Blog Post!

senpai kohaiIf you’ve studied Japanese culture at all, you’ve likely come across the words senpai and kohai. What do these words mean exactly? The truth is that the senpai/kohai relationship in Japan is one of the most important systems that the people there follow. The basic idea behind it is that the more experienced person is the senpai and the less experienced person is the kohai. This is particularly true in schools, clubs, and places of work. In these situations, the senpai acts as a friend and mentor to the newer, less experienced person in order to help guide and teach them. They are in charge of keeping tabs on the new recruit and help them navigate the waters by showing them how things are done, how to please the boss/coach and other things of that nature.

Sounds pretty great for the kohai, right? They get a new friend who is usually around their same age and a mentor all in one. What’s the catch? Respect. If you’re the kohai in the relationship, you show respect to your elder at all times. You do the menial tasks that no one else really wants to do, you pour the drinks at parties and functions, and you show deference to your senpai as much as you possibly can.

This is a system that has been in place since the beginning of Japanese history. It’s not going to disappear at any point in the near future so if you end up staying in Japan for an extended period of time, you should probably do your best to get used to it as soon as possible.

If it sounds tough, that would be because it can be and before you ask, yes there have been cases of senpai letting the power go to their heads to the point of being severely punished for abusing their kohai. In the modern era, the senpai/kohai system has relaxed a little. With the economic bubble burst of 1992, more senior members of the workforce suddenly found themselves having to find new companies to work for which led to kohai appearing who were physically older than their senpai. In other circles, the extreme respect that was expected from the younger members of the team is being lessened as well (though the appropriate level of politeness in language is still expected).

The general attitude towards the senpai system is acceptance though there are still plenty of critics within Japan who are reluctant to accept it or even completely indifferent. Many people feel that the system is antiquated or that their senpai was overly bossy or pushy. Others are afraid that it is creating generations of citizens who are afraid to stand out from the pack for fear of outshining their senpai and causing them to lose face.

Regardless of how you feel about this system, it has survived many centuries and is so ingrained into Japanese society that it’s a foregone conclusion that you’ll experience it at some point during any extended stay within the country.

You Can Be A Winner At the Game of Karuta!

Karuta Queen and MeijinEver since I first saw the anime series Chihayafuru, I’ve been fascinated with the world of competitive karuta. If you’re not already familiar with the game, competitive karuta (競技かるた Kyōgi karuta) is a lightning-fast game of skill which demands a lot from those who choose to pursue it as a hobby. In order to play the most well-known and widely played variety of karuta (known as Hyakunin Isshu) first, prospective players must memorize all 100 of the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu anthology of classical Japanese poems. Think that sounds difficult enough just to start? Well, it gets a whole lot more complicated from there!

There are two different decks used in competitive karuta. The first deck is made up of 100 cards called the Yomifuda (reading cards) which contain an entire poem from the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu. The other 100 cards are the torifuda (grabbing cards) which contain only the final two lines of one of the poems. The point of the game is to choose 25 cards from the 50 cards each player gets at random at the beginning of the match, arrange them in three rows in front of you, and be able to grab each card one by one as each poem is read faster than your opponent.

Think about everything that goes into each match for a second: At the start of each match, both players are given a 15 minute memorization period in which they must memorize the position of each card in front of them and their opponent which means half the cards are upside down. Keep in mind as well that the layout of the cards can change throughout a match and once the match is over, the board layout must be completely forgotten to make room for a new board layout in the next match (this is particularly true for tournaments). Just how seriously do these players take the game? Watch how fast the players move in a real-life queen match from 2017 to determine the best female player in Japan.

This is a game that requires a razor-sharp memory, lightning-fast reflexes, mental and physical stamina to spare and serious determination to make it all the way to the top!

History of Competitive Karuta

Interestingly though, this is a game that has only been around since the early 19th century, a little before the Meiji restoration began. In the early 20th century, the rules (which vary from region to region) were unified under a blanket set of rules instituted by the Tokyo Karuta Association and the first competitive karuta tournament took place in 1904 though these days the rules and regulations are governed by The All-Japan Karuta Association established in 1957. Tournaments to determine the best players in the country have been held annually since the mid to late 1950’s for both men and women.

In the current era of competitive karuta, the championships are held annually in January at Omi Jingu in Otsu, Shiga. The title for the male champions is meijin while women are called queens though both are considered Grand Champions.

karuta cardsVarieties

As mentioned above, there are plenty of different varieties of karuta that are played by different age groups and in different regions of Japan. Along with the Hyakunin Isshu, there is also a simpler version aimed at children called Iroha-Garuta. In this version, there are only 96 cards total and the point of the game is to match proverbs rather than poems. Then there’s Obake Karuta which features the artwork of famous monsters from Japanese folklore. The point of this variety is to listen to the clues being read out and to match the clues to the correct hiragana syllable on the grabbing card. If that’s not enough for you, there are also regional editions of this game which can have wildly different rules depending on where you are.


International Acceptance

Up until very recently, Japan was the only place in the world where you could play this game competitively. That all changed however when in 2012, an international tournament was held which hosted players from the U.S., China, South Korea, New Zealand, and Thailand. Another organization is attempting to arrange another international tournament in Japan in 2020 (the same year that Tokyo is hosting the Summer Olympics) so if you want to join the fun before it becomes an international sensation, start working hard now!

As you have learned, karuta is a fascinating and difficult game but is also equally beautiful and mesmerizing. Ready to go memorize the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu and become the next meijin or queen yet?

The Art of the Kimono

The Japanese kimono is one of the world’s most fascinating garments, not only because of its beauty but also because of its history, as well as its longevity. While the kimono is an ancient garment with a history going back to Japan’s Heian period (794-1185), it has stood the test of time amazingly well and is still regarded as one of the most attractive (and comfortable) forms of clothing ever created.

Kimono Styles

In the beginning, kimono (the word in Japanese is the same in its plural form) were simpler in style and were worn with trouser-like skirts known as hakama. Sometime later the hakama was discarded, and the obi, a wide sash, was added. It wasn’t until the Kamakura period ( 1185-1333) that color combinations became fashionable, and today’s formal kimono still reflect colors and designs based on themes, seasons and even family and political ties.

Since ancient times, Japanese men and women have typically worn heavier silk kimono in the fall and winter, and lightweight linen and cotton kimono in the spring and summer.

A simple kimono, such as a household kimono or man’s casual kimono, is worn much like a robe. A classic formal kimono (such as the style that’s synonymous with geisha entertainers) is a much more complicated affair, enhanced with an elaborate obi, a wide sash that is tied around the middle and enhanced with a makura, an obi bustle pad in the back. A cord, known as an obijime, is tied in front to keep the obi in place.

Are Kimono Still Worn in Japan?

Is the kimono still being worn in Japan? The answer is a resounding yes. The kimono is still a staple costume in many types of traditional Japanese theater, including classic kabuki and noh. In real life, however, most Japanese restrict their kimono-wearing to special events and festivals, such as the November 15 children’s festival Shichi-Go-San, or Shogatsu (January 1-4), the Japanese New Year.

However, you can still see the kimono being worn in the streets of Kyoto, Japan’s center of kimono culture — although chances are that most of the people wearing kimono will be tourists. Kyoto is also the site of Japan’s famed geisha schools and teahouses, and tourists spend hours waiting for a glimpse of these talented kimono-clad performers. According to those in the know, if you want a photo, the best place to wait is in the historic Gion district at around 5:45 pm, when geisha are on their way to their evening engagements.

While in Kyoto, you can purchase a kimono from one of the town’s many specialty kimono shops, as well as rent them by the hour. When you do, be sure to pick up the proper tabi socks (with a separate big toe) and zori (kimono sandals) to complete your outfit. You can even get a geisha makeover, complete with fancy kimono, makeup and studio photos of yourself, for a reasonable price.

Taking a Language (and Kimono) Trip to Japan

Each year, thousands of people in the US learn Japanese online, teaching themselves Japanese words and vocabulary via websites. If you’re wondering how to learn Japanese online or how to read kanji, be sure to visit Nihongo Master, which offers a wide range of Japanese language lessons for every level. While you learn, Nihongo Master online also entertains you with manga-style comics and puzzles, making lessons not only more fun but easier to relate to and remember.

One of the best ways to learn Japanese is to take a language trip, where you can immerse yourself in the written and spoken language — as well as the culture — of this fascinating country. If you love the history of kimono, you can make it a kimono trip as well by taking a journey to Kyoto. For many, a trip to Japan isn’t complete without seeing at least one kimono-clad geiko (the Kyoto word for geisha) or maiko (apprentice geiko), either in performance or walking to a gig. While you’re there, be sure to treat yourself to an authentic kimono from one of Kyoto’s many kimono shops. It’s the best possible souvenir you could bring home from a trip to Japan.

How to Use a Japanese Onsen

How to Use a Japanese Onsen

Japan has a unique culture and heritage. Whether you are learning Japanese or heading to Japan for a vacation, there are lots of experiences to try as a visitor. One of these is the onsen or bathing in natural springs. Here’s how to bathe Japanese-style.

Find Your Onsen

An onsen is a natural hot spring with water temperatures at 25 degrees Celsius or above. They have at least one of 19 defined minerals within the water. There are over 2,300 onsen all over Japan. Some are within resorts and hotels, whereas others are located within natural spring areas. There are many places to choose from and with a little research, you’ll find one suitable. Do check the male and female opening hours, as some onsen have separate times for men and women.

Understand the Culture

In Japan, an onsen is taken completely nude. This is part of the heritage of the country and has been in existence since the eighth century. It is a great way to get an insight into Japanese culture. Do some research before you go to understand how the onsen operate, as many do not speak English. That’s also a good reason for taking the time to learn Japanese online.

Learn the Etiquette

Japanese onsen have several rules and traditions. Understanding them will help you have a positive experience and avoid offending anyone. When you go to the onsen changing room, look for the blue kanji sign for men or the red one for women. You will need to undress completely and put your belongings in a locker or basket. If you have soap and toiletries, take them with you to the next stage.

In the shower area, find a place by the showers. You will be given a plastic stool and a bowl. It is considered bad manners to sit where someone else has left their belongings, even if they are not there. You’ll need to wash and ensure you are thoroughly clean before heading to the bath area itself. Make sure you tidy after yourself and wash down the stool. Tattoos are frowned upon in Japan, as they are connected with gangs and crime. Some people with large tattoos may be refused entry to an onsen. An alternative is to find an inn with a kashikiriburo, or private bath, where you can bathe and not offend anyone with your tattoos.

Get Into the Onsen

One of the most important things to remember is that the water temperature in an Onsen is hot and can be up to 42 degrees Celsius (107.6 degrees Fahrenheit). Some places have several baths where the temperature varies so you can start with a cooler one. Be careful when getting into the bath itself as it is hot, so take it slowly. Do not jump into the onsen, splash others or swim — this is taboo. You will have been given a (very small) towel in the changing area. This must be kept out of the water. Some people fold and place the towel on their heads to keep cool. If the towel slips into the water, wring it outside the bath. Do not put your face in the water. The heat and some minerals in the water could be harmful if they get in your eyes. Talking loudly is not acceptable in an onsen, so if you plan to practice some Japanese words, be aware that most people will appreciate a greeting but not a long conversation in the bath. If they speak to you, then you’ll have a wonderful opportunity to speak some Japanese.

When you have finished in the onsen, wipe away any excess water or sweat as best you can with that small towel before going back in the changing area. Once you have dressed, you may find some onsen have areas where you can relax with a drink to complete your experience.

Images via Pixabay

Puroresu: Japan’s Weird World Of Wrestling

Mention “wrestling” and “Japan” and many people will think of sumo. However, the country is also crazy for professional wrestling, the strange mix of sport and entertainment that millions enjoy.

What to Watch

Pro wrestling is one of the most versatile forms of entertainment, and no matter your interest you may find something in Japan that’s to your taste. If you like the combat of mixed martial arts — but with a guarantee of excitement — watch the Hard Hit promotion. If you like gymnastics, try the high-flying world of Dragon Gate. If spectacular stunt shows are to your taste — and you aren’t put off by a violent display — then Big Japan Pro Wrestling could be for you. Fans of physical comedy should take a look at the Dramatic Dream Team promotion. And if you want everything together in one package, New Japan Pro Wrestling is the major leagues where you’ll see some of the best in the world at performing this athletic drama.

Where to Watch

While most towns and cities get touring shows, and a few even have their own promotions, Tokyo is truly wrestling central. Korakuen Hall in Suidobashi is the home of wrestling, with shows almost every night from different promotions. You can buy tickets in advance from the fifth-floor box office or get them on the day of the show at a ground floor window. While some shows sell out, you can always queue for standing room tickets on the day.

Right next door, the Tokyo Dome hosts an extravaganza on January 4 every year named Wrestle Kingdom: In 2018, an estimated 2,000 Westerners made the voyage to see the event in person.

Other venues hosting big shows include Ryogoku Kokugikan (where sumo tournaments also take place) and Budokan Hall. For a more intimate experience, check out Shink-Kiba 1st Ring in Koto or Shinjuku Face in the Humax Pavilion Shinjuku building, both of which are used by smaller promotions.

What to Expect

Crowds at Japanese venues vary, but in some cases, they’ll be quieter than you expect because they are paying close attention to the action. In other cases, they’ll cheer the heroes, boo the villains and get caught up in the drama of the performance. Shows are often convenient to attend, usually starting around 6:30 p.m. and finishing by 9:00-9:30 p.m., giving you time to check out the local nightlife afterward. Most venues let you bring your own food and drink, while some sell beer and snacks.


Pro wrestling is known as “Puroresu,” which is simply a shortened version of the Japanese pronunciation of the English term “professional wrestling.” Shows featuring an all-female lineup are known as “joshi” events, short for “joshi puroresu” (or woman pro wrestling.)

When buying tickets, you’ll normally want to ask for a “shiteiseki,” which means “reserved seat.” This means you get a specific seat and don’t need to worry about working out where you can and can’t sit. If you have trouble finding your seat, you can show an attendant or another spectator your ticket and ask “doku desu ka,” which means “where is this [seat]?”

Most venues are laid out with the seating blocks listed as north, south, east and west. While the signs for these are usually listed in English, the tickets themselves may only use the kanji characters, so they are worth learning.

While watching a match, you’ll often hear the ring announcer say a phrase like “go-bun” or “ju-bun,” which means that five minutes or 10 minutes, respectively, have gone by in the match. (Matches usually have a 30-minute limit, but it can be 60 minutes for a championship bout.) When wrestlers fight outside the ring, they have a count of 20 to get back in, though this is usually made in English.

Header image via PixaBay

What is the Buddhist Swastika in Japan?

If you’ve been to an East Asian country, you’ve probably seen a swastika and thought, WHAT THE #$@& IS THAT DOING HERE? Well first of all, watch your language. But second of all, you should know that it’s not at all what you think. The word for this Buddhist swastika symbol in Japan is manji (まんじ)

manji swastika


Japanese Etiquette DOs and DON’Ts

Everyone knows that manners and etiquette can vary greatly from one country to the next, but some countries take their social standards much more seriously than others. Well, Japan is one of those countries. Almost everyone knows that you should bow in Japan instead of shake hands, but what other manners in Japan do you need to know? Use this list to learn important Japanese etiquette tips and make sure you don’t embarrass yourself on your next trip to Tokyo!