The execution of the Aum Shinrikyo cultists

This month, Japan executed 13 people related to the Aum Shinrikyo cult, which was responsible for a satin gas attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995.

The 13 cultists had been on death row for some time. Why did the Ministry of Justice decide to execute all 13 this month? In Japan, the fact that a death row inmate has been executed is reported after the fact to journalists at a press club. No one besides the Ministry knows when an execution is to be heard.


The execution has brought back the sarin attacks, the Aum cult, and the death penalty apparatus into the spotlight in Japan.

According to the last Cabinet Office survey on the death penalty in 2015, 80.3 percent of respondents said that the death penalty was a necessary evil (死刑もやむを得ない). As to the reason why they thought so:


Asking the 1,467 respondents why they thought “the death penalty was a necessary evil (やむを得ない = lit. unavoidable)”, 53.4 percent of those respondents said “if the death penalty is abolished, the victims and their families cannot achieve closure in their feelings”, while 52.9 percent of respondents said “the cost of committing evil crimes is one’s life.”

Is it possible to have an abstract “debate” on the death penalty – the termination of a human life – without knowing what the death penalty actually entails in practice?

A close friend shared an op-ed written by Haruki Murakami in The Mainichi, the English language version of Mainichi Shimbun: 

I suspect that it is not possible to assert, to make a black or white judgment, here and now that the decision to go ahead with the mass execution (I dare use the expression) of 13 people was right. The faces of too many people emerge in the back of my head, and the emotions of too many people are still in the air. Just one thing I can say now is that the AUM-related cases did not come to a close with the latest executions. If there was any intention of “bringing a closure to those cases,” or an ulterior motive of making the institution called the death penalty a more permanent one by using this opportunity, that is wrong, and the existence of such a strategy must never be allowed.

Murakami published two books on the sarin attacks. Underground (extracts of which are translated into English) was a series of interviews where he received a lot of raw material about the Japanese psyche. Underground 2 (published only in Japanese) is the sequel, featuring interviews with Aum cultists themselves.

Vice News just so happened to send a correspondent to Japan right before Shoko Asahara, the cult leader, was executed.

At around the two minute mark, Dexter Thomas (a bilingual correspondent for Vice) interviews Asahara’s defense attorney, who offers the following explanation about the closure that the execution brings:

The Emperor will step down next year, ushering in a new era. They want to close out the case, by carrying out the executions before the Heisei Emperor abdicates. That’s one possibility. [The other possibility is that] Tokyo will soon host the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics. If Japan executed seven people right before the Olympics, how would that look to the international community?

What do Japanese executions look like?

Some years ago, a TV network in the UK made a ‘what-if’ documentary called The Execution of Gary Glitter, which one can easily find on YouTube. It was a response to a survey at the time which stated that a majority of people in the UK wanted capital punishment back. The ambitious broadcast wanted to reignite the “debate” by imagining, well, the execution of Gary Glitter, a British rock singer and child sex predator.

In any case, the producers deserve credit for what I’ve mentioned above: that a “debate” on the death penalty is fruitless without seeing and knowing what someone being sentenced onto death row is like.

A book I’ve been trying to finish for a long time is Shikei by Tatsuya Mori, who also made a number of documentary films about the Aum cult. A very readable piece of Japanese creative non-fiction, the book explores broadly what it means for Japan to continue having the death penalty without necessarily taking any sides in the “debate.” That the Japanese government is unapologetically opaque about the death penalty is a running theme, even towards the few Diet members who do care:

とても回りくどい語彙を使う国会式答弁の典型のような応酬だ。「これを公開するというのはなかなか難しいのではないかというふうにわれわれとしては言わざるを得ないわけでございます」という坂井矯正局長 [the minister responsible for correctional services (=矯正局)] の答弁の意味を要約すれば、「公開なんかできるわけがないって何度も言ってるだろ」ということになるのだろう。

In 2010, the Ministry of Justice allowed news cameras to enter 東京拘置所 (translated into English as “Tokyo Detention House”), which contains one of Japan’s seven execution chambers.

NHK made a longer documentary about the death penalty at the time but I think this short segment from a daytime news show called Miyaneya is to the point.

Some interesting parts from the broadcast on Nippon TV (affiliated with Yomiuri Shimbun) include:

  • The death row inmate may first speak to a Buddhist or Christian religious chaplain over manjuu and tea in a private room.
  • The last thing the death row inmate sees before his head is covered is a golden statue of Buddha (or a Christian cross).
  • Where the death row inmate’s head is covered is a plush carpet room. One side of the walls has a closed curtain. Beyond the curtains is the gallows.
  • Three prison officers each press an identical button at the same time to affect the execution. No one knows which button is the “real” one. The program explicitly says that this set-up is to reduce the officer’s psychological burden (of killing someone). (刑務官の精神的な負担を減らすための仕組みだ。)

The Language of Your Media Bubble

A friend shared this thoughtful article by Hiroki Mochitsuki tonight on Facebook and I thought to share it on this blog.

Basically, Mochitsuki says that Japanese people are trapped in a Japanese language media environment.


The number of people around the world who speak Japanese is actually quite small. Thus, Mochitsuki reasons that the amount of information out that that is not in the Japanese language is quite substantial. When the Japanese media makes so much effort to gather information about the world and turn that information in the Japanese, dissected into colorful subtitles and digestible snippets of information repeated in the morning, evening, and late night news, just what are those consumers of information missing out?

At the same time, that language determines the boundaries for any media bubble is not a uniquely Japanese-language problem. There’s some, but not a lot, of critical analysis about Japan in English but the bestselling book on Japan on Amazon US is this godawful volume about discovering the land of geeks and zen. Can the average person on the street really be blamed for being ignorant because he doesn’t know and can’t read in another language?

Five manga recommendations in less than fifty words each

Here are some off-beat and hipster manga recommendations I hope more people should enjoy.

1. あげくの果てのカノン(小学館)AND HE ARRIVED AT THE KANON. A poisonously addictive cocktail of post-apocalyptic science fiction and extramarital love affair. The author admitted at a talk event that she had no experience of dating anyone before.

2. 春風のエトランゼ(祥伝社)Harukaze No Étranger. A love story between a 20-year-old freeter and a 27-year-old writer. The writer ran away from his home in Hokkaido (and from an arranged marriage) after telling his parents he was gay. Beautiful illustrations. See also the prequel 海辺のエトランゼ.

3. ポプテピピック(竹書房)POP TEAM EPIC. An absurdist comic that makes absolutely no sense. A title that one can genuinely judge by its cover. See also its anime adaptation which is separately a piece of art.

4. 僕たちがやりました(講談社)Bokutachi Ga Yarimashita. A thriller about four high school boys whose school is constantly harassed by yanki youth from the neighboring school. They do a terrible thing in revenge, and the comic follows the consequences of their actions on their lives.

5. れっつ! ハイキュー!?(集英社)Let’s! Haikyuu!? A parody of the Haikyuu volleyball manga. You’ll need to watch either the anime or read the original Haikyuu manga for this parody to make sense.

An excellent profile of Sayaka Murata

Sayaka Murata is a Japanese author who writes on uncomfortable topics. Her bestseller, Konbini Ningen コンビニ人間, was translated into English and published as Convenience Store Woman a few days ago.

Her stories are uncomfortable. They’re not for everyone, and certainly not for people looking for a feel-good tale about Japan. As someone who worked for four months at FamilyMart and who read the original Japanese version two years ago, though, I loved the novel. The horror of the protagonist’s isolation is something that personally hits very close to home.

The Financial Times publishes an excellent series called ‘Lunch With The FT’ every weekend, and a few weeks ago decided to profile Sayaka Murata. It’s an excellent profile from their Tokyo correspondent:

“If I were born again, I would choose to be a woman,” she says, gathering up her bag, checking its contents and twisting around to the beautiful view from the bay window behind her after nearly two hours with her back to it. There is a darting efficiency to the bag-gathering which has the slightest feel of shelf-stacking. I wonder if she has noticed me noticing that. “The shrapnel left in my mind after having a hard time is very important to me. I was able to discover so many things by being hurt. If I led another life, I would want to lead one in which I was hurt — without that I wouldn’t be able to be the same me.”

I can’t wait for Murata’s next novel.

Priority seats are toxic

There’s a hilarious video (or a really sad video, depending on your perspective) about priority seats from TomoNews:

  1. An organization in Sendai thought it was a good idea to “reserve” seats on a train by placing pieces of paper all over the train one station in advance for their members, who were all elderly.
  2. An old man told a pregnant woman to get up because he was entitled to the priority seat.
  3. A woman assaulted a man on a bus for sitting in a priority seat.
  4. Two women got into a fight in China because the woman to whom the seat was given didn’t say thank you.
  5. A 71-year-old man decided to wave a knife at a man who sat next to him and was operating an iPad. The 71-year-old man apparently didn’t like people who played on mobile devices at the priority seats.

All 5 of these events push the concept of priority seats to the logical extreme. I’m not sure, though, if any of these events actually happened. TomoNews is, after all, the Japanese equivalent of 蘋果動新聞.

Putting the value of fresh graduates in perspective

While browsing through YouTube, I came across this video from Dentsu, Japan’s largest advertising agency, made during their 2016 fresh graduate recruitment exercise.

This video was called “一次選考は終わっちゃったケド電通ビル37階から通過者ファイルにすべり込もう選考” or “終わケド選考.” What this essentially means is that people who didn’t make it through the first round of interviews can still ‘slip’ into the final round of interviews.

According to what I see from the “終わケド選考” series of videos that remain on YouTube (the website on Dentsu is gone), people who didn’t make it through the first round submit a form on Dentsu’s website entering a sentence on how they feel about failing their first-round interview.

The form is connected to a printer on the 37th floor of the Dentsu building. The printer spits out a piece of paper containing an applicant number and the applicant’s thought. The paper then flutters down 10 meters into a foyer below. On the floor of the foyer is a blue binder propped upright. If the piece of paper slips into the blue binder, the applicant to whom the piece of paper belongs to advanced to the final interview.

The video above shows a digest of what happened. According to the video, 2,791 people decided to do this disgusting activity. 5 people’s pieces of paper actually fell into the binder and they got to advance into the final round.

Some late-night thoughts about owakedo-senkou.

I tried looking up what people said about this at the time. The more polite blogs said that a ‘unique’ way of choosing people (“ユニークな選考”). I agree more with this commentary:


電通の発案者は、これを自分がやられたら嫌ではないのでしょうか?どこかに 転職するなりコンペに作品を出すなどして、自分の職務履歴書や企画書が相手方の会社の2階から床に落とされ合否を判断されるとしたら良い気分はしないはずです。


First, it’s rude to throw people’s names all over the floor. It’s also disrespectful to know that you were selected (or rejected) not for your skills, talents, or even ability to charm the interviewer, but because of some Dentsu employee’s dumb idea to have a printer shit paper from the 37th floor of their office.

On the other hand, it’s refreshing to know that Dentsu is upfront about how it treats its fresh graduate job applications. I’ve been told numerous times in recruiting events that HR administrators spend 7 seconds scanning a resume that you spent 70 hours to perfect. Not to mention the “resume bots” that companies employ.

Second, life imitates art, which I guess isn’t ironic since advertising is an art. In Bioshock Infinite, in a side commentary on runaway 1920s capitalism, the player gets to see peasant workers bid for jobs in an auction that awards jobs to the worker who can do it in the shortest time possible. The times proposed are so short that the worker who wins the auction won’t get paid anyway because he will fail to complete his job in the auctioned time. The same futility applies here. The applicants probably spent a really long time figuring out what to write on that piece of paper for the slim hope that some Dentsu employee might care enough to make a difference on their application.

Third, a friend in law school once told me that we (students applying for jobs) are flies surrounding piles of shit (the jobs themselves). There’s no better visualization of the metaphor than the owakedo-senkou video.


A topic I hope to cover eventually is weeaboos, a phenomenon encountered almost exclusively when studying Japanese in the context of American universities.

I’m not a regular Reddit user, so I don’t particularly have favorite subreddits, but I found one hilarious subreddit called r/weeabootales where Reddit users complain about people who over-romanticize Japan (one classic attribute of a weeaboo, though that’s not their defining characteristic).

Here’s excerpt from a post from jmoney777, who says they’re multiracial:

“So how long have you been studying Japanese?” Oh gosh, I hate this question. People look at me and think I’m some white dude that studied for years and years just because I sound native to non-native speakers. As of this current school year I am actually studying it simply because I need a language class for my major, so if I get asked this question now then I can reply “since October” (lololol).

I feel the same! (Albeit in a different context from Japanese people who think non-Japanese speakers cannot be fluent in Japanese despite millions of immigrants in Japan across the world and across the Japanese nation in thousands of workplaces, schools, and cultural institutions and in the mass media who are evidence to the contrary!)

So I’m involved in the Asian heritage clubs at my school and have met a lot of cool people at them, but unfortunately the Japanese club attracts some… weeaboos. I joined these API clubs because I was interested in meeting people who have had similar experiences to me (moving countries at a young age, different languages spoken between home and school, being able to talk about our cultures as if it’s normal as opposed to an outside romanticized version of it, etc.), and I wish they would understand that I have no interest whatsoever in meeting the weeaboo/Japanophile type of people.

In my senior year at Georgetown University, our student union (the Student Activities Commission) decided to place Japan Network and the Anime Club together for no reason and the exact same phenomenon happened. We (Japan Network) expressed no interest in them; they (with their pink hair) expressed no interest in us. It was awkward.

People that walk up to Asian people and start speaking Japanese. […] Just because someone is Asian does not mean they can speak Japanese!

This also happens in tourist trap cities where restaurant proprietors attempt to ‘connect’ to you by speaking your language. One summer in Rome, a man tried to appeal to me on the attractiveness of his pizza by clasping his hands together (Thai?), bowing (Japanese? not really), and saying 안녕하세요.

There’s more in the post and in the comments of the post which is worth reading in full.

Japanese book sizes

One thing I love about reading Japanese books is Japanese book sizes. The size of the book speaks volumes (no pun intended) on the attention and care Japanese publishers put on the print product.

Generally, when one walks into an English or Chinese-language bookstore, the paperbacks one finds come in an arbitrary array of shapes and sizes. This makes storage difficult. This also makes it difficult to read on the go. Ideally, everyone wants some quiet time on the couch, or in bed, or on the beach doing some summer reading. Realistically, who has time for that these days?

Herein lies the genius of standardized Japanese book sizes. First, storage is simplified. Bookstores and libraries can store and sell hundreds or thousands of volumes even if square footage is limited. That is why even the most local mom-and-pop bookstores in the middle of nowhere in Japan are overflowing with books. Second, reading becomes mobile. If you’re commuting from Yokohama to Shinjuku (and back) for work everyday, what would you on that 1.5 hour crowded train journey (each way)? Reading is one option. No book takes up more space than necessary.

Choosing what goes into the print product also becomes a discipline. I cringe when a Chinese-language book with so much white space and unnecessary adornments around the text. That is a waste of paper, ink, binding, and fossil fuels used to deliver the book from the printer to the bookstore or library.

Bunkobon (文庫本). This is my favorite size. A bunkobon is just barely smaller than my hand (and I have small hands). Each volume typically contains 200 to 300 pages of text and yet it is just barely a centimetre or two thick. Each page is thin, yet the paper is silky smooth to the touch. It’s technically a mass-market paperback, and yet the book doesn’t crinkle or crease with age, as thousand-page English-language airport novels do. The binding is durable: of the hundreds of second-hand books I’ve bought, only one is on the verge of falling apart. And every volume comes with a dust jacket (!): it is a book to be respected. And yet every volume is a reasonable price. Most books are 600 to 800 yen each, and those volumes with color photographs or glossy paper rarely cost cover 1,000 to 1,200 yen. That is still well below the typical price of a paperback from Amazon.

The bunkobon was the most powerful object that attracted me to improving my Japanese. Every aspect of its construction was so ingenious. Even the kanji chosen to represent the concept is ingenious: a “word vault.”

A Google search reveals that Iwanami Shoten, an academic publishing house (that now continually publishes books critical of Shinzo Abe and the Liberal Democratic Party), was the first to adopt the bunkobon format. They copied the standardized book size and colors of the German Reclams Universal-Bibliothek to create Iwanami Bunko. And like the original Reclams Universal-Bibliothek, Iwanami Bunko is a series of Japanese-language literary classics with identical covers at relatively affordable prices (and still exists). And because Iwanami Bunko was such a great idea, every other publishing house decided to copy the format. One can still see the historical connections with the colorful Reclams Universal-Bibliothek today if you line up the bunkobon you own by publishing house. The spine and back cover of each bunkobon follow a standardized format.

Sometimes I wonder why Japanese intellectuals exported the word ‘revolution’ into China but not bunkobon into China’s publishing houses. Perhaps the concept didn’t survive the Cultural Revolution.

Shinsho (新書). This word is a misnomer because in Chinese this word means “new[ly arrived] books” (but in Japanese the correct term to express this meaning is 新刊). This is another standardized paperback size, also pioneered by Iwanami Shoten. The book is a little taller and thinner than bunkobon, but is just as mobile and durable as its German-sourced counterpart. Iwanami Bunko was the paperback classics series; Iwanami Shinsho was the paperback contemporary series, in which contemporary authors would dish out contemporary wisdom. At least, that’s what the Kotobank dictionary says:


Unlike bunkobon, shinsho are exclusively non-fiction. (The exception to this rule is children’s fiction titles (児童文庫) which are the same size as shinsho but these titles have no relation to shinsho anyway.) What better way was there to inform readers about current affairs than to publish affordable, high-quality paperbacks?

Shinsho is also a great way for Japanese-language learners (JLPT N3 and up) to improve their reading and vocabulary since the writing is not completely academic and the length is reasonably short.

Tankobon (単行本). This word captures every other book that is not a bunkobon or shinsho. In general (but it’s difficult to generalize here) new Japanese novels are released as tankobon hardcover titles that cost 1,200-1,500 yen before the titles are republished as bunkobon paperbacks. Less academic non-fiction titles can also be found in the tankobon paperback format.

The term also refers to manga that are re-released as standalone volumes after serialized manga chapters have been published in manga magazines. Manga tankobon generally (but not always) follow a standardized format. Shonen/shojo manga tankobon are a similar size to shinsho, whereas seinen manga are slightly wider and thicker.

A relatively new sub-category of tankobon is sensho (選書). These are paperback non-fiction titles also with a standardized size and cover. Their price and content lie somewhere in between shinsho and hardback academic titles from university professors that cost upwards of 4,000 yen.

Welcome to the N.H.K. and the postmodern outlook for Japan’s youth

I wrote this essay in July 2016 for a class at Waseda University called ‘Japanese Youth in Visual Culture.’

First broadcast in 2006 and adapted from a novel of the same name, Welcome to the N.H.K. is a connected series of stories revolving around a 22-year old man named Tatsuhiro Sato, who stops going to university and becomes a hikkikomori in his one-person apartment in the suburbs of Tokyo. N.H.K. was one of my first exposures to Japanese made-for-television animation when I started learning Japanese as an undergraduate. The show stood out because it was stylistically and substantially different: it was brimming with depressing stories of post-bubble era life in precarity, such as Internet suicide pacts and the mildly creepy lolicon phenomenon, and created a cynical contrast to the sanitized, government-endorsed ‘Cool Japan’ image that attracts thousands of foreigners to pick up interest in Japan every year.

This essay will argue that at first glance, Sato’s hikkikomori and, briefly, otaku behaviors are part of a broader range of popular escapist endeavors that Japanese youth are expected to abandon when they mature into adults with responsibility. Upon further examination, the anime presents these youth phenomena as the natural conclusion of Japan’s post-Fordist societal conditions in the early 21st century and problematizes the celebration of otaku behaviors in the ‘Cool Japan’ discourse. N.H.K. predicts an uncertain future in the long term for youth who lack belonging and attachment in a harsh, urban neoliberal society.

Continue reading “Welcome to the N.H.K. and the postmodern outlook for Japan’s youth”

Some 本音 about foreign professionals working in Japan

A recent Toyo Keizai (a website kind of like Business Insider, but in my opinion much more substantial) article interviewed a number of expats working in Japan. Issues about expats generally aside, I thought that the interviewees dished out some hard truths about working in Japan.

[All emphases in the extracts are mine.]


This interviewee says, in essence, that he gets asked a lot when he’s returning to Spain. Reviewing my LINE chat logs recently, I realize I got asked this a lot when I was on exchange in Japan. Everyone’s foreigner existence is supposed to be fleeting.


Here the interviewee poses the question: What is the meaning of ‘global’? Does it create a legitimate expectation among professionals attracted to working in Japan who act in reliance on it, and then suffer adversely when that legitimate expectation is breached? And to what extent does it begin in education?


More hard questions. As Japan imports more foreign workers (skilled and non-skilled), will divisions about Japanese identity rise? (Not that it hasn’t risen already vis-a-vis ethnic Korean Japanese and returnees from Latin America!)