Trampled Torii: Abused by the West


Capitalism is King, if not god, in the West


What would his flesh be, Hardees??

What if we used Christian religious symbols in a rather haphazard and nonchalant way?  Worse, what if it was used for purely commercial purposes.  Would you, maybe some of your friends, or perhaps a family or two become offended or even outraged?  I bet some would.  But then again, let he who is without doing the same among us be the first to cast blasphemies….


I’m not sure the Pakistanis appreciate “The Man” on Their Spiritual Moon

If these graphics have got your dander up, it’s for very good reason.  After doing a recent blog on how the Germans in the 1930s hijacked the Far Eastern swastika for rather dubious purposes (read about it here), it immediately struck me just how oddly inappropriate the West’s use of Japanese “torii” are, especially throughout the American military.  In other words, this blasphemed blade can (and does) slice both ways.

An authentic tori marks the division between the profane and the prolific merchandising of the new base exchange in Okinawa

An authentic torii marks the division between the profane and the prolific (if not sacred) merchandising of the new base exchange in Okinawa

stereoview Kyoto Torii shrineTorii (鳥居, literally “where the birds reside” or “bird abode”) are traditional Japanese gateways at the entrance of Shinto shrines.  In Japan, birds have long mythical connection with the dead, as is true is most shamanistic-based religions or cultures.  The first appearance of torii in Japan can be reliably pinpointed to at least the 10th century (CE); the oldest existing stone torii was built in the 12th century, while the oldest wooden torii dates to 1535.

Huge steel torii marking a Shinto Shrine in Kyoto, Japan

Huge steel torii marking a Shinto Shrine in Kyoto, Japan

Visiting the Fushimi-Inari-Shrine, Kyoto, Japan

Visiting the Fushimi-Inari-Shrine, Kyoto, Japan

Torii are typically made of wood, stone (or concrete in more modern times), and very rarely sometimes metal (steel or cooper).  Wooden torii are usually painted a bright red vermilion, complete with a black upper lintel and contrasting bases, while stone or concrete gates are left in their natural state.  Some of the most profound examples of torii can be round at Kyoto’s Fushimi Inari Taisha, where thousands are lined up in close spacing, forming torii tunnels that run for thousands of meters up and down the shrine’s hillside.  Inari shrines typically have many torii because those who have been successful in business often donate in gratitude a torii (of course inscribed with their name) to Inari, the kami or deities of industry and business.  In an ironic twist, the same shrine has as its anthropomorphic mascot a fox, ideally suited for shrewd and cunning business dealings.

A properly fantastic - and spiritual display of torii!

A properly fantastic – and spiritual display of torii!

While sacred as the USMC invasion beach in WWII, this is a fantastically poor use and portrayal of a torii.

While sacred as the USMC invasion beach in WWII, this is a fantastically poor use and portrayal of a torii.

Not all torii are at shrines or temples; the torii in general marks the entrance to a sacred space, and thereby separates the hallowed ground from our more tangible and profane world.  Rarely is it used as a free-standing non-religious symbol placed in non-consecrated plots.  Roads or paths leading to a Shinto shrine are almost always straddled by one or more torii.  If multiple torii are present, they are used to represent increasing levels of holiness as one nears the inner sanctuary core of the shrine, the honden.

At least this religion makes your ass look better, instead of making you look like an ass....

At least this religion makes your ass look better, instead of making you look like an ass….

glossarytoriigateWalking through a torii gateway helps to cleanse a person, along with water purification rituals that are practiced before formal entrance to the shrine’s honden.  Together, both help one make ready to properly pray to the kami enshrined in and around such sacred ground.  While usually seen at Shinto shrines in Japan, torii can also be found at Buddhist temples throughout the Far East.  On maps, iconic torii usually indicate the site of a Shinto shrines.  Interestingly, in a nod to the past when the Emperors of Japan were considered deities themselves, coupled with the enduring relationship between Shinto and the Japanese Imperial family, a torii stands in front of the tombs of each Emperor.

Former Emperor Hirohito's Tomb

Former Emperor Hirohito’s Tomb

The Religion of the Devil Dog

The Religion of the Devil Dog

The torii functions as an explicitly religious symbol when it marks the entry into a sacred arena.  When such an association is absent, such a structure cannot be properly referred to as a torii.  While torii used outside of a religious context are not religious symbols themselves, they still remain approximate copies of religious symbols, an organic facet of the torii that is simply inescapable.

The only sacraments beyond these gates at Torii Station is the Scuba Locker found there....

The only sacraments beyond these gates at Torii Station is the Scuba Locker found there….

Pilots are not the only priests in aviation.  The divine trinity more appropriately consists of:  Pilots, Navigators, and Aircrew.

Pilots are not the only priests of aviation. The divine trinity more appropriately consists of: Pilots, Navigators, and Aircrew.

However, the torii is widely used by the West well outside of all and any religious contexts.  In fact, it is most often used by the US military in directly antithetical ways to those of the Far East.  For example, it is not just the symbolic entrance of “Torii Station,” an Army base on Okinawa, it is the very name of the base.  Similarly, it is used by Commander, Fleet Activities Okinawa (CFAO), and can be found framing rather pedestrian street signs, building names, and lessor commands and organizations throughout the American footprint in the Far East.

This is where the liberty rule blasphemy is, in part, produced.

This is where a sailor’s liberty is blasphemed


Mr. Don's 80th Birthday Party

Mr. Don’s 80th Birthday Party

In a personally interesting tangent, one of the most well-known army units, the “Rakkasan,” uses a Torii in its coat of arms.  Rakkasan derives from the Japanese word for umbrella, and in the context of this airborne unit, can be loosely translated to, “man falling under umbrella.”  The Rakkasan are the only military unit whose nickname that is still in use was designated by an enemy, and is the only unit in the military whose guidon does not bear a finial but a torii.  I know very well a veteran of this unit, a man named Mr. Don Cripps, who has TWO combat jumps with the Rakkasan during the Korea War.  I have had the honor of skydiving with him almost weekly since I learned to jump in 2006; Mr. Don, as we all refer to him, is now 83 and continues to skydive just about every weekend.  Read more about him here.

Me and Mr. Don skydiving back in Elberta, Alabama.  Not his airborne patch.

Me and Mr. Don skydiving back in Elberta, Alabama. Not his airborne patch.

No doubt religion sells, but I doubt the veracity of their shirts' claims.

No doubt religion sells, but I doubt the veracity of their shirts’ claims.

Hell, it's even on our money!!

Hell, it’s even on our money!!

I wonder if we Westerners have ever stopped to think about how the Japanese – and those throughout the Far East – view our rather insensitive (at best) and probably offensive (in general) use of such religious icons.  While Capitalism may be King in America, and for some, it substitutes as their religion of choice, it still provides no right for hijacking such meaningful symbology, rich in myth in legend.  Particularly when these symbols of peace and the divinity are used to represent violence and death, things which both defile and soil the notion of purity in Shintoism.

If only our wedding chapels were this nice.

If only our wedding chapels were this nice.


Modern Missions of the Far East

Modern Missions of the Far East

But, as I always like to say, the truth is always somewhere in the middle.  Western weddings are all the rage in Japan, and with Okinawa providing the fabulous backdrops of blue skies, sand beaches, lush greenery, and turquoise waters, Western-style “wedding chapels” can be found at all the resort hotels.  Yes, while they are completely modeled on a Christian theme, these wedding venues have little to do with religion.  It is, like for Christmas in Japan (see my blog on this concept here), it is the very notion of the Western Wedding that appeals so to the Japanese, not any aspect of the religiosity of the nuptials.

The Occult of the Mouse, Far Eastern Flavored

The Occult of the Mouse, Far Eastern Flavored

I guess much like the beauty and lines of the torii appeal to those of us lucky enough to flirt with the Far East.  Touché Japan, on this one; I find no grounds for blasphemy or negligent disrespect by either culture.  Still, we all should strive to be more mindfully aware of our surroundings, and what our actions convey and deeds mean to others.  After all, the whole idea of religion is to coexist.  That, my friends, should be the same, East or West, Torah or torii.

What the gods really think of all our stress over religion!

What the gods really think of all our stress over religion!

Surprising Swastikas of the Far East


Nazis in Kyoto?  I mean, my son and I joke about how most things bad or evil in the world today are, or can be traced back to roots in the Nazi party (at least in pop-culture and through mass-media), but seriously, what are these symbols doing everywhere in Japan’s cultural capital?


The swastika (卐) is a symbol instantly recognizable worldwide.  In the West, this is predominantly due to Hitler, Germany, and their Nazi party of the 19th century.  However, in the Far East, as most things are, such preoccupations are quite a bit different….



Symbol of the Gods…


…and Samurai alike.

The earliest archaeological evidence of swastika-shaped ornaments dates to 3300-1300 BCE in the Indus Valley Civilization of modern day India & Pakistan, but can also be found with the ancient Greeks and Romans, the early Indians of North America, and throughout Paleolithic Europe.  Swastikas have been widely used in various ancient civilizations around the world, including Turkic, India, Iran, Nepal, China, Japan, Vietnam and Korea, and remains widely used in both Hinduism and Buddhism.  The word swastika comes from the Sanskrit svastika – “su” (meaning “good” or “auspicious”) combined with “asti” (meaning “it is”), and originally translated as “it is good.”  It is not a German word, nor is it a German symbol; in German it is called the hakenkreuz, or “hooked cross,” in an odd attempt to tie it to perhaps to the more Christian traditions of the West.  As used in the Far East (primarily China and Japan) as a homonym for the number 10,000 (much like banzai, see my blog on that idea here), it more appropriately means “all,” “whole” or “eternity.”

Buddha with a Swastika

Buddha with a Swastika

swastikaswastika-flag2_thumbIn more modern times, however, following a brief surge of popularity as a good luck symbol in Western culture in the very early 20th century, the swastika was adopted as a symbol of the Nazi Party of Germany.  After Adolf Hitler came to power in the 1920s, a right-facing 45° rotated swastika was incorporated into the flag of the Nazi Party, which was then made the state flag of Germany during the Nazi era.  Hence, the swastika in the West has become almost impossibly associated with Nazism and related concepts such as anti-Semitism, hatred, violence, death, and murder, and is now largely and permanently stigmatized.  Not surprisingly, it has been outlawed in Germany and other countries (primarily EU) as a symbol of violence and hate.

Dumb-Ass Modern Neo-Nazis.  Be Glad they are Easily recognizable!

Dumb-Ass Modern Neo-Nazis. Be glad they are readily identifiable by their Nazi-inspired flags and tattoos.

How did a peaceful religious symbol used around the world become so perverted?  Easy:  Political Spin.

Nationalism at its Absolute Worst

Nationalism at its Absolute Worst

Heinrich Schliemann, a late 19th century German archeologist, discovered swastikas during digs at age-old Troy and associated it with ancient migrations of early Germanic peoples.  Making a rather egocentric and culturally-selfish leap, he connected the symbols in Greece with similar shapes found on ancient pots in Germany, and theorized that the swastika was a “significant religious symbol of our [Germanic] remote ancestors….”  Why everything to archeologists has to have a religious or ceremonial use or meaning is beyond me.  Don’t you think that maybe someone thought the symmetry of the swastika was, perhaps, just…pretty??


Not a Nazi, but a Member of the Red Swastika Society 世界紅卍字會, a voluntary association founded in China in 1922 based in philanthropy and on moral education.

This proposed connection of ancient migrations across Europe with Germany helped to establish a long Germanic/Aryan history then demanded by growing nationalistic pride in an only recently unified Germany of the 1860s.  The swastika quickly became the symbol of the “Aryan race”, a Nordic (Northern Europe) master race, an idea perverted from its original meaning of “noble.”

Nothing Noble about this CosPlay Wedding in Japan.

Nothing Noble about this CosPlay Wedding in Japan.

Anime doesn't make it any better.  Quite the opposite.

Anime doesn’t make it any better. Quite the opposite.

42691e9ff8ca5bee10eab8512be17be8f3df731bef05ce51d26f532fbaa342a1In 1920, a red flag with a while circle and black swastika became the official emblem of the Nazi Party.  In Mein Kampf, Hitler describe the new flag:  “In red we see the social idea of the movement, in white the nationalistic idea, in the swastika the mission of the struggle for the victory of the Aryan man…as such always has been and always will be anti-Semitic” (pp. 496-497).  What is it about sooooo many people hating the Jews (and I’m 1/4 Jewish, passed from my Grandfather’s side, so it COUNTS!)?

I'm not sure this is valid, special (get it), or...RELATIVE.

I’m not sure this is valid, “special” (get it?!), or even…RELATIVE.

It’s interesting to note that an abbey school that Hitler attended as a child had a swastika of medieval origin chiseled into the monastery portal (main entry) and also on the stone wall above a spring grotto in the abbey’s courtyard.  Makes one think how much of an impact, conscious or other, this rather random intersection of man and symbol may have had on what has become one of the most infamous brands ever devised by humankind.

Copycat and All-Around General Asshole.

Copycat and All-Around General Asshole.

google-maps-kyoto-shrinesThe Buddhist swastika however lacks such strong association with things bad.  In Asia, it became standardized as a Chinese character “卍萬” (wàn), and from there entered other East Asian languages, including Japanese, “卍字” (manji).  And while the swastika remains a core symbol of Neo-Nazi groups in the West, it is used today in the East as a symbol for Buddhism and marks the site of Buddhist temples, both in stone and on modern tourist maps!  To help differentiate East and West, please note that in Asian a flat or squared counter-clockwise (left-facing) swastika is most often used, allowing for some relief and distinction from the oppressive clockwise-rotated, right-facing symbol of the Nazis.  In a rather absurd and humorous thought, I wonder during the Japanese alliance with Germany and the other Axis powers during World War II if any Japanese official ever intimated about the Germans have it backwards…and crooked!

Swastika Banner at a Buddhist Temple

Swastika Banner at a Buddhist Temple


It’s time for us in the West to understand and disassociate pop-cultures of fear and pervasive paranoia with fact, tradition, and history.  Much like the re-establishment of the Rising Sun flag in Japan in 1954 after that symbol was similarly conjoined with the brutally violent Japanese conquest and occupation of much of the Pacific and East Asia in the 1930s and 1940s, it’s time to reclaim and take back this proud ancient symbol of more reasonable meaning.  Be slower to react, judge and label, especially without all the facts.  If you do these things, you and the world will be better for it.

And please, don’t confuse the monks in Japan with Nazis!!


And I Think to Myself, What a Wonderful World….

Jody and I back in September 2010 when I had a Great, Big Secret

Jody and I back in September 2010 when I had a Great, Big Secret

“Sometimes the heart sees what is invisible to the eye.”  ~ H. Jackson Brown, Jr.

“Where there is love there is life.”  ~ Mahatma Gandhi

“Do all things with love.”  ~ Og Mandino

I see trees of green, red roses too
I see’em bloom, for me and for you
And I think to myself, what a wonderful world.

I friend of mine recently “liked” a comment on Face Book, not an unusual action in the days of over-indulgent social media.  However, what is unusual about the comment on her page, a response from me to a posting of hers, was from early October…of 2010.  Do you realize how hard it is to move that far backwards through your wall?!?

I will Marry Her

Jody knew it too, hence the coy wink

Jody knew it too, hence the coy wink

As you can see, in it I divulged my growing devotion and desire to be with Jody.  Permanently.  Of course this “liking” comes on the heels of Valentine’s Day (VD), a quite romantic if unlikely notion.  But what makes this so very abnormally doubtful is I have no idea what possessed A to reach so far back into her FB postings to see or find this particular entry…if she was, indeed, even looking.

7395685800_1894eb976f_bIt is, as I like to say, another example of how the universe unfolds pretty much how it should.  From my wedding vows, said to Jody more than 13 months after I proclaimed to A that I would indeed marry Jody:

“We are all children of the universe,
no less than the trees and the stars;
and have a right to be standing here, in absolute love.
And whether or not it is clear to those here today,
no doubt for us, Jody, the universe is unfolding as it should.”
Vows at our Alter of Naval Aviation

Vows at our Alter of Naval Aviation


A sentiment NOT associated with Jody, but my earlier mistaken marriage.

Jody and I have decided to adopt the Japanese approach to VD, and trust me, it does not involve the double-barrel shots of penicillin to the buttocks – been there, done that, “butt” (pun intended) the t-shirt had to be burned for infection control.  Rather, Jody is (hopefully) going to get me chocolates, we’ll walk down the block for a local and wine-infused dinner, and then stumble home to continue our celebrations.  In March, I get to return the favor, and then some, during “White Day.”


Here VD in Japan takes an interesting turn away from the West:  women traditionally do all the giving.  When chocolate companies originally started pushing the Western idea of VD in Japan, they focused on women as sole givers.  At the time, Japanese women were quite conservative in voicing affections, so the rather novel idea of surrogate chocolates was immediately and widely embraced.

I see skies of blue, clouds of white
Bright blessed days, dark sacred nights
And I think to myself, what a wonderful world.

However, as a new tradition not yet ingrained in culture, customs surrounding Valentine’s Day in Japan have shifted.  In more modern times, women do give chocolates as a gesture of love.  But before you get too overly excited about receiving chocolates from a Japanese woman, realize that they also give chocolates to work colleagues and male friends – called giri-choco, literally “obligation chocolate” – as a gesture of thanks or friendship.  The concept of giri is very Asian; it is a mutual obligation that the Japanese follow when, if someone does you a favor, then you feel obligated to do something in return.  In this sense, it is not unusual for a woman to buy 20 to 30 boxes of chocolate at several hundred yen each (several dollars) for distribution around the office and to other male friends.

There's a Hooters in Japan??

There’s a Hooters in Japan??

The colors of a rainbow, so pretty in the sky
Are also on the faces, of people going by
I see friends shaking hands, sayin’ “How do you do?”
They’re really sayin’, “I love you.”

Conversely, for that special man in her life, a Japanese lover can choose from various types of honmei-choco (“sweetheart” or “true love chocolate”) of much higher quality (and cost) than the obligation sweets.  And, even more recently, home-made treats have become even more popular, along with gyaku-choco (“reverse chocolates,” men giving women chocolates), and tomo-choco (“friendship chocolates,” very popular between young girlfriends).

Another New Trend:  Heart-Shaped Pizza!

Another New Trend: Heart-Shaped Pizza!

It’s clearly become a very popular day in Japan; more than half of Japan’s annual chocolate sales happen during February and March, when “White Day” occurs.  “White Day” was created in Japan in 1980 to help soften the guilt of males who received VD chocolates.  Exactly one month after Valentine’s Day, men who were lucky enough to receive sugar-infused gifts are given the chance to return the favor.  But, in a sexist twist that seems to have not been lost in translation, the expectation for these return gifts is to be of higher value than those purchased by women!

I hear babies cry, I watch them grow
They’ll learn much more, than I’ll never know
And I think to myself, what a wonderful world
Selfie at the Alter

Selfie at the Alter

6211305178_bb5798e566_bNo matter how you elect to treat your own VD, please strive to root your life in compassion and love.  It is a utopian ideal, but one worthy of our attentive focus and best effort.  To Jody, I rededicate my life to the You and the Me in Our Us, and finish this Valentine’s Day with the closing stanza of my wedding vows when I did indeed marry you, not so secretly:

“In the face of the sham, drudgery, and broken dreams of the past,
You have made the world – my world – a beautiful place.
Be we cheerful this day as we always strive to be happy.
I love you Jody, my Desideratum, my desired thing
Wife from this day forward.”
Yes! I DID marry that girl!!

Yes! I DID marry that girl!!


Yes I think to myself …….what a wonderful world.

~~~ Happy Valentine’s Day~~~


Bowel Movements and Moaning Myrtle: Using the Facilities in Japan

“Psychiatry’s chief contribution to philosophy is the discovery that the toilet is the seat of the soul.”  ~ Alexander Chase

“Castro couldn’t even go to the bathroom unless the Soviet Union put the nickel in the toilet.”  ~ Richard M. Nixon

“Today, the degradation of the inner life is symbolized by the fact that the only place sacred from interruption is the private toilet.”  ~ Lewis Mumford

Weirdly funny Japanese toilet commercial

Hanako-san, Poltergeist of the Privy

Hanako-san, Poltergeist of the Privy

Using the toilet in Japan can be, at first, a quite scary endeavor.  Hanako-san (トイレのはなこさん “Hanako of the toilet”) is a Japanese urban legend about the spirit of a spooky young World War II-era girl who haunts school bathrooms across Japan.  She allegedly appears when one says her name three times.  Three figures prominently with this Asian version of Harry Potter’s Moaning Myrtle, although not nearly as entertaining, cute, and perhaps with a much naughtier twist.

Moaning Myrtle naughtily checking out Harry's "Junk"

Moaning Myrtle naughtily checking out Harry’s “Junk”

hanako_of_the_toilets_by_autumnends-d55nvjcAccording to the legend, a person who wishes to see Hanako-san must go to the third stall in the girls’ bathroom on the third floor and knocks three times before saying her name…you guessed it, three times.  After that, if that person still has the “guts” (pun intended) to enter, she will encounter a small, young girl with bobbed black hair, dressed in a red skirt.  Note to self:  avoid the third stall when I try to convince Jody to take a break for some afternoon delight (wink).

TP must be scared of ghosts....

TP must be scared of ghosts….

Grades and Ghosts

Grades and Ghosts

Hanako-san is a popular and widespread urban legend, often used by school children as a rite of courage or as a method of hazing.  Depending on the agenda at hand, Hanako-san acts as a mischievous, malevolent or benign wraith of the water closet.  And, of course, there are widespread claims that anyone courageous enough to open the door after taunting the spirit is immediately pulled into the toilet.


And, in what I can only conclude as a truly devious plan of various school administrations and PTA’s working in close, secret collusion, it is said that one ever needs to get rid of this particular poltergeist – and this is where a really cool urban takes a detour directly to nerd-ville – showing her a graded exam with a perfect score (or “good grades”) makes her vanish into thin air.  Ah, youth:  always wasted on the young.

Apricot Wash??  And, are we to assume that apricots have bung-holes in need of washing?!?  See below.


A Westerner’s first interaction with a modern Japanese bathroom can be like a Close Encounter of the Third Kind.  In fact, sitting on one of their electronic toilets, I often find myself thinking of myself as Admiral William Adama, firmly in command of the Battlestar Galatica, where I can inquire with my XO (2nd in command), “Who does Number Two work for!!?!!”

The pictures here of Japanese facilities are from Kansai Airport near Osaka, Japan.  Kansai happens to be my favorite airport in the world, and is consistently in the 10 ten list of best airports since it opened.  And tickle-my-fanny and color-me-crazy, how bathrooms in Japan have changed from their traditional “squatters.”

Lucky, this one has non-skid pads for your feet, and a bar to bear down on.

Lucky, this one has non-skid pads for your feet, and a bar to bear down on.

This graphic is just full of crap!

This graphic is just full of crap!

fallonshitYep, you can still find these historical holes, and in some places, this is your only option if you really gotta go.  In fact, Jody and I both found ourselves in dire need of relief recently in Kyoto.  Out on a hike through the Arashiyama (嵐山) “path of bamboo,” we had no choice but to use such facilities.  Now, neither of us is a fan of these squats-and-squirts.  One of my favorite (and only) jokes about the difference between Air Force and Naval Aviators is this:  “flare to land, squat to pee….”  As the joke implies, squatting can be somewhat emasculating, especially for a Westerner who’s squatting muscles are not quite limber enough for such a laboratory.  Luckily, many have directions for use, and if you’re really lucky, you have a squat bar to hang onto and bear down on.  I can neither confirm nor deny if I have ever played the role of the mad crapper as pictured; as a trained bombardier-navigator, I will admit I’m rather ashamed of my…”accuracy.”

Moral of the Story:  carry a mask, just in case!

Moral of the Story: carry a mask, just in case!

Japan 2014, bathrooms, video entertainmentBefore we get knee-deep in more potty humor, john jokes and privy puns, we find that modern bathrooms in Japan are extremely well-appointed.  There is a fold-down false floor that can be used for changing clothes.  And how many times do you wish you had THAT?  For me, often enough to think of the Japanese as porcelain prodigies for considering this eventuality.

Japan 2014, bathrooms, changing pad in the stalls

Japan 2014, bathrooms, spacious, clean, and well-equippedThere is hand and toilet seat sanitizer provided, along with handles for those times where a little additional leverage is required to make your movements properly.  There is a nifty wall-mounted child seat nearby and of course a video screen for enhanced entertainment.  Personally, I have always considered the toilet a quiet refuge from the world where, in my middle age, I seem to get the majority of my reading done.  My entrails are not entertained.

Japan 2014, bathrooms, kid-friendly seating

Japan 2014, bathrooms, kid-friendly toiletsJapan 2014, bathrooms, rocket-surgery electronic toilet control panelBut then we come to the throne, no one offers porcelain pride like the Japanese.  They start with dual seat tops, for adults and children (why don’t we do that??).  But, it gets immediately better:  the seats raise and lower automatically, and are HEATED!  You cannot imagine how agreeable this touch is on your tush.  And all these comforts and conveniences are at your fingertips via remote control.  Hell, you can even buy a toilet in Japan that operates via Bluetooth.  Forget starting your car from your phone, I can remotely clean my ass in Japan all from my iPad, from which I can read, simultaneously.

Do you really need to control your toilet with your phone??

Do you really need to control your toilet with your phone??

Japan 2014, bathrooms, rocket-surgery electronic toilet control panel instructionsYes, “showering” toilets have become the standard in Japan.  I’m not sure what the difference between a commode’s “hip wash” and “bidet,” but I can assure you that the warning about not pushing the buttons without covering the commode (with hips or lips, as it were) is extremely well-founded.  In a pinch, you could wash your hair with the result, standing up.  And if your latrine requires a line diagram of a certain complexity and magnitude, you really should heed the warnings prior to using such a privy on your privates!  Oh, and washing is not enough; the commodes also will dry your derriere.  In a way, one can consider Japanese toilets as the car wash equivalent for your rump and bump.

Like at a carwash, pick your service carefully!

Like at a car wash, pick your service carefully!

toilet-yoga-1In Japan, the vernacular “water closet” is really the proper way to think of bathrooms.  The rooms are generally waterproof, complete with floor drains, where water is used not just for washing hands, but for all those nether regions which seldom see the light of day…or have the opportunity for blow-dried hair styling (for those who don’t man-scape).


Shit happens.  And in the Far East, as you can see and tell, that means just another amusing adventure.


“Only if you’re ugly:” Japanese Low Cost Carriers (LCC)

“The Christian resolution to find the world ugly and bad has made the world ugly and bad.”  ~ Friedrich Nietzsche

“I’m so ugly – I worked in a pet shop, and people kept asking how big I’d get!”  ~ Rodney Dangerfield

“Poetry is what gets lost in translation.”  ~ Robert Frost

We all have baggage.

We all have baggage.

“I’m SAR-re, you must out one kilogram,” the Peach Airlines Japanese counter attendant said as we tried to check in for our flight home from Kyoto.


Do kids get to have heavier baggage, you know, since they weigh less?

Do kids get to have heavier baggage, you know, since they weigh less?

Jody and I were prepared for this eventuality.  We packed for our Far East foray together, sharing one small suitcase because we would be using so much public transportation.  And bringing extra stuff like we always do, we were slightly overweight.  It seems that the Japanese LCCs (Low-Cost Carriers) only allow for 20 kilograms (44 pounds) per checked bags, but will go to 21 kilos (and additional 2.2 pounds) by placing a “HEAVY” tag on the bag, but you can’t pay for any extra weight beyond that absolute cutoff.

Our bags weren't free, but still only $25.

Our bags weren’t free, but still only $25.

Adjusting the bag and taking it back through x-ray, we bring it confidently back up to the counter for re-weighing, and perfect!  We are at 20.6 kilograms.  “Oh-kay,” the attendant says with a beaming, courteous smile like really only the Japanese can provide in a customer service setting!

About all she did was make our carry-ons heavier....

About all she did was make our carry-ons heavier….

She gets out a “HEAVY” tag, and on the back she writes some things.  “You must sign,” she says, still with a smile.


Not knowing what I’m signing for, I pause.  She must sense my confusion because she continues, “You sign only if you are ugly,” again with a smile.  “So we not responsi-ber because you are ugly.”

This is kind-da how I felt...(sigh).

This is kind-da how I felt…(sigh).

Now both Jody and I are confused.  I smile back, thinking to myself in my inner voice, “Okay, I get it:  all us gaijin look the same.  But did she really just tell us we were ugly?”  And worse, we have to sign and acknowledge that unpleasant characterization?!?

Wait a tick!!  Maybe she’s talking about our luggage!  However, the bag is not that bad as to be summarily and nonchalantly dismissed as ugly, regardless of how much she may be smiling.  The bag may be worn, it is certainly not handsome, and possibly it’s beyond its prime, but ugly?  That’s a little extreme.


Not satisfied and not understanding what was Lost in Translation in this transaction, I ask – just to be sure – and with my own pleasant but now slightly bruised ego, “What are we signing for?”

“Sign only if you’re ugly!” came another overly cheerful response.  Boy she is “real-ree” happy about me being so unattractive….

No, ThIS is ugly, and certainly no virgin.

No, ThIS is ugly, and certainly no virgin.

Best flight attendant uniform ever.  Or at least since the 40s....

Best flight attendant uniform ever. Or at least since the 40s….

I turn and face Jody, with a grimacing smile that silently says, “Is she really saying that to us?”  Jody, recognizing that all three of us were due for some much-needed clarification, turned to the attendant and asked, “Do you mean ‘HEAVY?’!”

“YES-YES!” came the hurriedly excited reply matched with exaggerated head-nodding.

Whew.  What a relief.  Jody and I aren’t ugly after all.  And neither is our luggage.  Now we’re just…“heavy.”  That’s a lot better than being ugly; nothing a diet can’t take care of….


I still don't get the whole "Peach" thing.  But sex always sells.

I still don’t get the whole “Peach” thing. But sex always sells.

A LCC (Low-Cost Carrier, aka no-frills, discount or budget carrier or airline, or better yet, plain’ole cheap bastards) is an airline that generally has lower fares but offers fewer amenities.  To make up for revenue lost in decreased ticket prices, the airline often will charge for extras.  They are not to be confused with smaller, regional airlines; LCCs in fact quite often offer wide domestic and limited international services.


Really, they dress their dude stewardesses in THAT??

Really, they dress their dude stewardesses in THAT??

0020_peach2In 2012, three new budget airlines entered the Japanese market serving Okinawa (where we live), creating increased competition and thankfully much lower fares on several domestic and international routes.  Interesting enough, while competing directly with the established JAL and ANA Japanese full-service airlines, almost 40% of Peach is held by ANA, a direct competitor.

"Cute" in Japan has no price.

“Cute” in Japan has no price.

Yes, that's plastic lawn furniture in their terminal.

Yes, that’s plastic lawn furniture in their terminal.

Yes, that's basically an empty hangar/warehouse....

Yes, that’s basically an empty hangar/warehouse….

The fares offered by Peach were truly unbeatable.  In fact, since they were about 30% (or less) of what ANA or JAL would charge, we actually made inquiries as to their safety, performance, and validity at our on-base Japanese travel agency, who quickly vowed on all three points.  While Peach doesn’t use the standard passenger terminals, which for the Okinawan hub means a bare-bones operations involving plastic lawn furniture and a warehouse like environment, their services, aircraft, and performance were impeccable.  Actually, being in their own terminal building, while necessitating an extra shuttle ride, makes check-in and security quite easy and simplistic:  there were no lines anywhere and we never had to wait for service.  We boarded on-time with seat assignments situated together, and their departure and arrival times were as advertised.  And, they were flying new Airbus aircraft, an industry standard by any means.  The service is so good actually that there is really no need to ever fly with the “heavies” at three times the cost.

Our Peach-sweet ride to Kyoto

Our Peach-sweet ride to Kyoto

In a truly humorous note, the LCC sharing the hangar with Peach is called Vanilla, probably the perfect name for a budget airline!

Peaches and cream.  Sort'of.

Peaches and cream. sort ‘of.

But be careful when you are “ugly.”  These cheap bastards are not afraid of calling you out and making you answer for such transgressions!

Photo-Bombed by the Asian Dude!!

Photo-Bombed by the Asian Dude!!

Like a Surgeon: Japan’s Obsession with Surgical Masks

“Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.”  ~ Oscar Wilde

“I got the bill for my surgery. Now I know what those doctors were wearing masks for.”  ~ James H. Boren

Who wants to ear an ugly, bulky mask when you can plug your nose??

Screen-shots from Bladerunner.  Look closely and you'll see today's streets of Tokyo.

Screen-shots from Bladerunner. Look closely and you’ll see today’s streets of Tokyo.

The movie Blade Runner contains sweeping street scenes that include scores of surgical face-masked pedestrians densely crowding the rainy, dark streets of a futuristic metropolis that appears to be a sleazy hybrid between Hong Kong and New York.  Although many of us probably didn’t pay it much attention, some way, somehow, Ridley Scott foresaw a future where “normal” street people would attempt to protect themselves from the effects of ever-increasing population density playing out in a dystopia:  the inevitability of zombies, uhm. I mean disease.


Now THAT is a mask!

Now THAT is a mask!

For those visiting Japan from the West, the shear proclivity of people in Japan to publicly wear surgical masks can be quite confusing and intimidating.  Jody and I, on our trip to Kyoto last week, saw hundreds of people wearing disposable face masks pouring out of train and subway stations each morning and afternoon, in a scene that is more reminiscent of 28 Days Later than real life.  An immediate thought:  what do they have, will I become a zombie, and holy crap!  Should I be wearing one too?!?  Okay, so maybe that’s a bit of exaggeration, but for those lacking flirtations with the Far East, the whole surgical masks being worn in public can be at best strange, and worst, scary.  The other only options are to club those suspicious of carrying disease, as we were all taught to do by Shaun of the Dead.

If the masks don't work, the clubs will.

If the masks don’t work, the clubs will.

bigAlthough I remember seeing the masks both times I lived in the Far East before (1999-2001, 2004-2005), the use has skyrocketed since those times.  It seems there were two turning points concerning wider mask use:  the 2009 swine flu (Kobe, Japan) and the 2011 tsunami and nuclear disaster (country-wide fear of nuclear fallout).  Both these events helped stimulate a degree of public panic and establish the masks’ role –rightly or wrongly – as the frontline protection of the public.  However, even before 2009, 72% of manufactured Japanese masks were sold for personal use, compared with just 16% in medical applications and 12% in industrial settings (Ohmura 2008).  Approximately 10-12% of Japanese use surgical masks in public and at work, of course adjusted for season and pandemic outbreaks.

Most are sold for personal use.

Most are sold for personal use.

While it does afford some measure of protection from others, a surgical mask is actually intended to be worn by health professionals to catch bacteria shed in liquid droplets and aerosols from the wearer’s mouth and nose.  Surgical masks, however, are also used by the general public in heavily populated countries in East Asia, primarily as an attempt to reduce the chance of spreading airborne diseases.  In Japan, it is common to wear a face mask when ill to avoid infecting others in public settings.  Surgical masks are also widely used in China, Hong Kong, and Vietnam, particularly during outbreaks of disease, like SARS or bird flu.

Nursing students in Taiwan!

Nursing students in Taiwan!

Bosozoku, the long-lived Japanese biker gang, are known for wearing masks (see my blog on this gang here:  bosozoku).  However, I’m sure that their surgical masks are not going to be what gives them away as members of a biker gang (wink).  These bikers wear masks simply to conceal their faces; they aren’t wearing them for allergies or disease prevention, unless, of course, they are from a kinder, gentler, more socially considerate bosozoku chapter!  Since they are known to carry clubs, they would, however and ironically, probably be the best first-line and frontline defense against zombies!!

Biker's evil eye, over a mask-covered face.

Biker’s evil eye, over a mask-covered face.

However, a much more common reason for mask-wearing (and in fact the leading reason) is that the wearers are sick, and wearing a mask is expected as consideration of those around them.  Likewise, many people wear masks to safeguard themselves from others.  Still others try to protect themselves from pollen, pollution, and even radiation!  And people don’t avoid others wearing masks like they are zombie-plague carry creatures; actually, the Japanese basically consider it an insult and will go out of their way to avoid you if you are coughing or sneezing and aren’t wearing one.

Mask-wearer in Hong Kong

Mask-wearer in Hong Kong

Given the vast increase in surgical mask use in public, I do believe that this has become Japan’s culture of fear.  I actually have been looking quietly and silently for where the Japanese obsess in some negative fashion.  For example, in America, we have a culture of fear centering on our own basic safety:  we are afraid of terrorists, afraid of criminals, and indeed, many of us are afraid of our neighbors that we no longer know….  Japan knows little fear in that regard.  But every culture has an Achilles’ heel.  And all this time I thought it was the depravity of their manga!

Manga Mathletes - like me - will appreciate the equations on the blackboard.

Manga Mathletes – like me – will appreciate the equations on the blackboard.

3742312738_931b81a789However, mask use in Japan goes much deeper than simply as a write it off to one-dimensional fear.  For example, there are those in Japan who wear surgical masks because they are self-conscious about the way they look or have something they want to hide.  Women admit wearing masks when they have no makeup on, particularly on public transport.  Women (mostly) also state protection from the sun as another reason.  In March 2011, News Post Seven surveyed 100 people wearing surgical masks in Shibuya, Tokyo’s most popular fashion district, and found that roughly 30% were wearing masks for reasons wholly unrelated to sickness or allergies.

Clearly a fashion statement.

Clearly a fashion statement.

masuku-yasu3Further, the Japanese news program ZIP! recently aired a special segment about young adults who choose to wear surgical masks as fashion accessories.  In a rather unscientific study, the staff counted the number of people wearing masks as they walked down a Tokyo street and found that the number has increased significantly from levels seen a decade ago.  ZIP! also surveyed the reasons why, with some surprising results:

1.  They’re not wearing any makeup/want to hide their face, emotions

2.  To keep their face warm

3.  To make their face look small

4.  It comforts them

Or perhaps to demonstrate just how secure you are with your masculinity.

Or perhaps to demonstrate just how secure you are with your masculinity.

So, in this sense, wearing masks for reasons other than for health considerations has become much more popular, especially with young people in the last 4-5 years, enough so that it actually has become a fashion trend, promulgated by the media, and pushed by commercial interests.

There really should be a black mask to go with those formal gowns....

There really should be a black mask to go with those formal gowns….

According to info-gathering site Naver Matome, some women see the mask as not only a way to cover up their face on a bad makeup  or acne outbreak day, but also as an accessory that can make them more attractive in some sort of strange nod to the veils of times past of the middle-east dancing concubines.  “It gives you a mysterious appearance since only your eyes are showing,” says one high-school girl.  “Wearing a mask makes me look cuter!”  It also identifies you as a potential zombie….



However, surgical mask use in Japan may go even psychologically deeper than self-image.  “I don’t want to show others my true self,” “Since my face is covered, people don’t know how I’m really feeling. It’s comforting,” and “I don’t like having to create facial expressions for people” are some of the reasons given by Japanese high school students who mask-up.  Author Yuzo Kikumoto, author of Date Mask Izonsho, claims that many Japanese students wear a mask to keep from standing out among the crowd.  “They have an abnormal fear of showing who they really are to their peers.”  Wearing masks in public offers some degree of anonymity in social settings, a comforting factor to many shy and introverted Japanese.  In many school settings, surgical masks give young people another way to blend in with the crowd.

School students in Japan all part of the crowd.

School students in Japan all part of the crowd.

And, with any good democracy, there are strong and powerful commercial interests seeking to capitalize on this new fashion trend.  Check out Picomask’s “Design Mask Collection” for a sample of their stylish and colorful surgical masks, sold since 2010.

Designer Masks

Designer Masks:  <$7USD!

Now we're talkin'!  Wash & Wear.

Now we’re talkin’! Wash & Wear.

So why is mask use not as prevalent in the West?  Well, it’s because we in the states (and much of Europe it seems), know that it is actually touch which is the more important factor in disease transmission.  It is more likely that simply washing hands is more effective in relation to reducing the threat of disease; a 2009 Japanese survey showed less than half wash their hands regularly).  And, in this sense, there is a distinct lack of disbursed and publicly available hand sanitizer in Japan.

>Tom the Tailor offered nose and mouth protectors for 35 cents to keep people safe from influenza. The ad ran on Nov 1, 1918.Either way – mask-wearing and/or hand-washing – such risk rituals are, in my opinion, more likely to embed anxiety centered on disease rather than resolve such worries.  We are told, East and West, and made to feel, at least rhetorically so, that we are individually responsible for disease transmission:  stay home when sick, wash your hands, sneeze into your sleeve, wear a mask, and get your shots!  But such health risks are, in some significant part, beyond our individual control, making the assumption of our inherent responsibility for sickness just about as useful as the risk rituals that accompany them.

We too dabbled with masks...almost 100 years ago.

We too dabbled with masks…almost 100 years ago.

myso3_mamBut who wants to end up stumbling through the narrow, dark Gion alleyways of Kyoto foaming at the mouth and with a taste for brains?  Although many Japanese would probably be quick to agree that surgical masks are not that effective, masks are still better than nothing.  Worse, coughing and sneezing on a crowded subway without wearing one indicates to other potential zombies that you really don’t care much for their welfare…or their brains, tasty as they might be.  So, it’s not hard to see how medical masks have become commonplace, at least as an expected standard of Japanese social etiquette.


For more information and some sources: