Nandemo kiite (Ask Me Anything)
I totally rivered[i] myself on an article. Not only was the scope of the article getting out of control, I must have accidentally deleted a portion of it. I was just frustrated and wanted to get an article out as soon as possible. So I decided to open up the floor to questions for a Reddit-style #AMA. Well, OK, it’s not reddit-style as it didn’t happen in real time. But you get the point.
If you have a question you’d like to ask for a future AMA, feel free to add in the comments section. When there’s enough demand, I’ll do this again.
Why Don’t Other Countries Use Washlettes?
Dude, this is a good question and it’s a question I’ve actually thought about myself!
For the readers who aren’t familiar, a great deal of Japanese toilets – especially in the home – are outfitted with heated toilet seats, adjustable warm water bidets, and adjustable warm water asshole cleaners. Some models have a self-cleaning function (for the water jets, not the whole toilet), a deodorizer mechanism, and even sensors that engage an auto-flush mechanism as soon as you move away from the toilet. Once you’ve become accustomed to this type of toilet, any other 1st world countries’ toilets seem barbaric.
So if these “robo-toilets” are so great, why doesn’t everyone use them? I wondered this myself for years until I was back in the US, taking a dump. I looked around the bathroom and realized that the difference most likely lays in the fact that Japanese bathrooms are laid out very different from western bathrooms. The Japanese consider the bath/shower one space, for cleaning and relaxing. The toilet is a completely separate room; it’s dirty and shouldn’t be in the same room that you relax in after a hard day’s work.
What I noticed in the western bathroom is that not only are the bath/shower and toilet combined, the toilet in American bathrooms is often right next to the bath/shower. This means that there is no safe place for an electrical outlet because… hello, risk of electrocution. You have to plug in a Washlette. Even in American bath/showers that have the toilet isolated, there isn’t much of a tradition of needing electrical outlets where the toilet is – and indeed it could get pretty unsightly stringing out cords or extension cords.
In short, bathing culture, shitting culture, and where cultures think we should have electrical outlets installed is different. That’s my thoughts on why the Washlette hasn’t caught on outside of Japan.
Any Idea Where Your Interest in Etymology Came From?
I think I’ve mentioned this here and there, but maybe not directly on the blog. In short, I’ve always been curious about “why things are the way they are now if they weren’t that way before.” This is probably a bad answer. So, let’s go back to my junior high and high school days.
In junior high, my parents encouraged me to learn a foreign language. If I remember correctly, it wasn’t a pre-requisite until high school, but for some reason my parents thought it would be good for me to start in junior high. I was pretty opposed to the idea. Learning a foreign language seemed like the most boring thing I could ever do.
I eventually relented and took Latin[ii]. Prior to studying Latin, I sucked at English – grammar, in particular. Studying Latin changed my entire perspective on the world. My grammar also got really good. As you may know, something like 80% of Modern English vocabulary is derived from Latin – much of it via French. Once I started to see the connection between Latin and English, I got really curious about why there was such a connection. 2 books in particular really sparked a flame: The Story of Latin and the Romance Languages by Mario Pei and The Story of English by Robert McCrum and Robert MacNeil[iii]. I still recommend these books to anyone who is looking for a way to get into the subject. They’re both written in pretty accessible language, though admittedly, the Mario Pei book assumes you have some familiarity with a Romance Language or two.
Later, in university, I did a short stint studying abroad in Italy. It was here that I realized that having a solid base in Latin and understanding many of the rules governing sound changes in Vulgar Latin[iv] gave me VIP access to most of the local dialects that I came into contact with. And while I can’t say I understood every non-standard Italian word or phrase that I came across (I definitely couldn’t), I could definitely understand the linguistic processes at work.
So, years later when I moved to Japan, I found myself staring at train station names and quickly looking up the kanji. I saw names like 渋谷 Shibuya “astringent valley,” 新宿 Shinjuku “new lodging,[v]” 谷中 Yanaka “middle of the valley” and I was curious about the stories behind these. At first, I took them at face value but as I began to investigate more – for the purpose of this blog, that is – I realized that more often than not we can’t take the kanji at face value. As I’ve written more and more, I’ve also realized that I can use my geeky curiosity about etymology as an excuse to explore the history of the city as well.
So, I think my interest is really based on a fascination with change and the dynamics of recorded history. Edo-Tōkyō has evolved and changed over the years and so has the Japanese language and culture.
What Got You Interested in Japanese History?
Short answer. After I came to Japan, I wanted to understand Japanese culture more deeply and I wanted to have a shared background with the people around me.
Long answer. When I first visited Japan in 2002-2003, I was staying in 鶯谷 Uguisudani and almost every day, I’d take a walk around the area that I now know is the 上野台地 Ueno Daichi Ueno Plateau. I stumbled across what is left of 寛永寺 Kan’ei-ji, one the 2 Tokugawa funerary temples in Edo-Tōkyō[vi]. I found the 勅額門 chokugaku mon imperial scroll gates of Tokugawa Ietsuna and Tsunayoshi (4th and 5th shōguns, respectively). I later found the grave of Tokugawa Yoshinobu, a stone’s throw away in Yanaka. When I asked my Japanese friends about who these shōguns were, I couldn’t get any good answers. One friend said, “I think Tokugawa Iemitsu was gay.” Well, whatever. Lots of people are gay, but only 15 people were Tokugawa shōguns. I needed answers and I wasn’t getting jack shit.
So before I’d go to bed each night, I’d log on to the public computer at the hotel I was staying at and google as much as I could on the shōguns. As a random sort of game, I made it my goal to visit all 15 shōguns’ graves before I returned to America. In the end, on that trip I only visited 5[vii]. I knew nothing about Japanese history so I felt like I was a detective uncovering a great mystery. Every layer I peeled away made the next layer so much more tantalizing.
Before I knew it, I was obsessed with this old culture and its ways. Soon I found myself strung out on the most hardcore strains of J-History. I was blowing history professors in Shinjuku 2-chōme for a fix of Bakumatsu here, a Nobunaga story there. Then I hit rock bottom – I tried to write a series of articles about the rivers of Edo-Tōkyō.
You Often Use The Phrase Edo-Tōkyō…
That’s not a question.
But anyhoo, yes. I often use the term “Edo-Tōkyō.” Other than the 江戸東京博物館 Edo-Tōkyō Hakubutsukan Edo-Tōkyō Museum, I don’t see the word in English much. However, the term 江戸東京 Edo-Tōkyō is something I come across from time to time in Japanese. Since Edo eventually became Tōkyō, this is a convenient Japanese word to describe the city as a continuum. Clearly Edo is not the same as modern Tōkyō, but they don’t exist independent of each other. Since a lot of my blog deals with the history of Edo and Tōkyō, I decided long ago to use the concept of Edo-Tōkyō as a term and an approach to dealing with the life of the city.
How Long Have You Been in Edo?
Hahahaha. Nice reference to this.
My 10 year anniversary was in January of this year.
Where has the time gone? I still remember my first night in my first apartment on my 2nd day as a resident like it was yesterday[viii].
What Exactly Are The “Shōgunal Duties” Performed Within The Friendly Confines of The Ōoku?
Well, I know this is my boy, Rekishi no Tabi, just messing with me, but OK. Sure. Let’s talk about what went down in the Ōoku.
First of all, Ōoku means “the great interior” and refers to a physical location in 江戸城 Edo-jō Edo Castle. In theory, it was the most isolated interior section of the castle compound. This is where the women lived. Many people translate the term as “the shōgun’s harem.” Rekishi no Tabi and I love to joke around about this too. In popular culture, the Ōoku was and is often imagined as the shōgun’s garden of earthly delights. In reality, this was just the women’s quarters of the shōgun’s court. The women held official posts within a hierarchy, with the shōgun’s 御台所 midaidokoro legal wife at the top[ix]. In a culture steeped in ritual, one did not simply strut into the Ōoku and fuck until one’s dick fell off.
The Ōoku existed because Japanese culture at this time was strictly patrilineal. This meant any family with a name needed sons to carry on the family line. Women had value in the culture in so far as they could provide heirs to the male head of the family. Love happened. Marriages happened. But males were expected to keep the family going and you need women for that. Once you’re talking about imperial succession, daimyō succession, or most importantly shōgunal succession, combined with high infant mortality rates, taking concubines isn’t such a crazy idea. It’s basically a non-egalitarian form of polyamory[x]. You have a primary partner that you’re expected to respect and take care of, but the man is expected to get a little on the side for the benefit of the family line. Women of elites weren’t extended this privilege in the Edo Period – though many of them most certainly did. Even in modern times Japanese culture is fairly monogamish[xi].
But of course, everyone wants to hear about the sex – myself included – so let me take this chance to teach you some sexxxy Ōoku vocabulary. Regardless of rank within the hierarchy, women could be divided into 2 clear categories: 御手付 o-tetsuki “those touched by the shōgun” and 御清 o-kiyo “the pure ones.” The number of o-tetsuki skyrocketed during the reign of the 11th shōgun and my personal hero, Tokugawa Ienari[xii], the Party Shōgun.
When a Japanese Person is Named Sakura (for example), How Can One Tell If It’s a Male or a Female?
About the given name “Sakura…” As far as I know, this is only a female name. There are a variety of ways to write it in kanji: 桜 Sakura (cherry blossom), 愛咲 Sakura (love blooms), さくら Sakura (cute way to write “cherry blossom”). There is also a family name 佐久良 Sakura (has nothing to do with cherry blossoms).
The easiest way to identify a female name is if it’s written in hiragana only. In this case, it would be さくら Sakura. If you were to meet a man with the name “Sakura,” the name would be written with kanji that look “masculine.” However, I’m not sure what that would look like, though. In general, cherry blossoms and most flowers are considered delicate and feminine so I doubt you will find many men named “Sakura.”
On a side note, katakana is considered more masculine than hiragana, so theoretically you could name a son サクラ Sakura, but to my eyes, this looks like a manga character or a young girl who works in the sex industry. I’m not sure how to wrap up this answer tidily, but I’d say men’s names generally don’t include kanji for flowers and fruit.
UPDATE: That said I found the name 秋桜 Sakura as a boy’s name on the website DQNネーム Fucked Up Names. All of the comments on that name expressed shock at both the name and the way of writing it. The kanji mean “autumn cherry blossom” with the first kanji being completely silent. I showed it to a few native speakers and they were just confused by it. 2 people were surprised it was even a name. They thought it was a species of tree. Everyone thought it was weird to give a boy this name at all.
It’s like naming an American boy Jennifer. You could do it, but everyone of our generation will think of it as a girl’s name.
Hope that answered your question…
Where Do Doctors Fit Into the 4-Tier Class System?
I haven’t researched this, but I think I can take a good stab at it. If someone else knows more, I’d love to hear it.
Much to do is made of the 士農工商 shinōkōshō system – it means “samurai, farmers, artisans, merchants” and from top to bottom it lays out a social hierarchy with samurai at the top and merchants at the bottom. To understand Edo Period society, you have to know this rigid system. But there are 2 more things you need to know. First, these castes were essentially inherited ranks and secondly, they weren’t always linked to your profession. There were also professions and/or families that existed outside of the system. Also, contrary to popular belief, social mobility was a possibility in certain situations. Adoption of males into families that lacked male heirs was one way, but samurai status could also be bought or sold in some domains.
As for doctors… just think about today. It costs a lot of money to become a doctor because you need access to the latest research and you need to get certain qualifications. An Edo Period doctor didn’t need certificates (as far as I know[xiii]), but he needed access to the best Chinese, Japanese, and Dutch medical knowledge available. This means an Edo Period doctor needed to be rich enough or hold enough rank to get access to certain texts. While it’s possible that some merchant families could buy this kind of education for their sons, I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that only samurai families and imperial court families could do this. Of those samurai families, 旗本 hatamoto direct retainers of the shōgun would be likely candidates. The 朝廷 chōtei imperial court and the 幕府 bakufu shōgunate had their own special doctors. I’m assuming the government of each 藩 han domain also had their own network of doctors.
A similar question came up on Twitter a while back about Buddhist monks. Where did they fit into the system? The monks/priests of Shintō and Buddhism could theoretically come from any rank. So someone might have been elite, but for some reason or another they decided to became a Buddhist priest. An elite would then become an elite in the religious order. Their elite status didn’t just disappear. The wives of the Tokugawa shōguns were required to become monks upon the death of the shōgun.
In short, the so-called “4 classes of the Edo Period” weren’t as strict as they could have been[xiv]. But, doctors and monks would have been afforded respect worthy of the class they were born into[xv] and do to the amount education required to become a doctor or a monk, these positions would have been filled by men (and sometimes women) who had a lot of money. By default this means the samurai and court nobles, but certainly could have included merchants and rich farmers.
Can I Get A Geisha In This Day And Age? How Much Does It Cost?
Yes, you can. But enjoying geisha entertainment today is going to cost you so much more than it would have in the Edo Period. The age of a geisha today will be somewhat older than the age of an Edo Period geisha. You’ll also probably have to be introduced by an acquaintance before you’re allowed to attend a geisha’s performance.
Also your phrasing “Can I get a geisha” is a little bit disturbing to me. But I’ll talk about that later.
I, for one, have never enjoyed a proper geisha performance. It is way out of my price range and even if I wanted to get into that scene, I don’t have the right connections. And believe me it takes connections, time, and money to get access to that world today. As such I can’t quote you clear prices, but I once spoke to ex-Kyōtoite who is a manager of a 料亭 ryōtei traditional restaurant in Tōkyō that features geisha. She told me that a night of entertainment starts at about 50,000円-60,000円 ($500-$600 USD) and can go anywhere upwards of that.
In short, it’s not cheap.
I will say that there is something called 温泉芸者 onsen geisha (“hot spring geisha”). This is a term that has evolved over time, just as the terms 芸子 geiko and 芸者 geisha have also evolved over time. Geisha isn’t a consistent term historically and it also varied from location to location. Onsen geisha may be a cheap alternative to high ranking geisha. But you have know what you’re getting into.
Today the general understanding to the average Japanese person is that a geisha is a performer – a kind of artist or entertainer. Some even say that she’s the precursor of the modern アイドル aidoru idol.
The persistent western image of the geisha as a sex worker is most definitely a misunderstanding of geisha’s job. It’s also born out of the changing culture from the Bakumatsu up to the WWII era. Geisha weren’t prostitutes by default. They were performers, entertainers. But they were human so sometimes sexual relationships happened. Sex with customers wasn’t a requirement of the job in most cases. But even geisha fall in love.
In Yoshiwara and in the Meiji, Taishō, and Shōwa onsen towns, the “onsen geisha” became a profitable job for a woman of traditional musical talents and conversation. She would have been looked down upon by her colleagues in Kyōto and Tōkyō, but the services wouldn’t have been much different[xvi]. The difference in Meiji Era Tōkyō is that the geisha of Yoshiwara were in direct competition with prostitutes. I think there was a strong social pressure for geisha at any time in history to exchange sex for money, though they didn’t have to.
The Bubble Economy saw a new generation of liberated Japanese women in Tōkyō, but women in small towns, especially rural onsen towns, were left behind economically. By the time the Bubble burst, domestic tourism to onsen towns (as opposed to overseas tourism) increased. Demand for traditional entertainment waned and the onsen geisha rose in popularity as curious sexual fetish. As a result the onsen geisha is now just a nostalgic version of what in Tōkyō is usually thought of as ﾃﾞﾘﾍﾙ deri heru delivery health (outcall prostitution). In the case of onsen geisha, they show up at your hotel room at the hot spring dressed as geisha. But these girls are not geisha. It’s just cosplay.
All of this said, there are still some onsen geisha who aren’t prostitutes and will come and perform and party with you at a hot spring.
Can I Get a Woot Woot?
Yes, you can.
Me & My Girlfriend Are Coming to Tokyo This Summer For Our Honeymoon. I Fancy Myself a Bit of a History Buff, So Where Do You Recommend For the Ultimate Edo Experience?
First of all, congratulations!
Second of all, I hate this question because I don’t want to fuck up your honeymoon. lol
I don’t know what you guys like and what you’d like to see.
Ummmm… OK, so if you read my blog, then I assume you like history and traditional stuff.
I’d recommend these things:
- Edo-Tokyo Museum
- Ueno Park
- Yanaka Ginza
- Yanaka Cemetery
- Edo Castle
- Tōkyō Water Works Museum
- Hama Rikyū Teien
- Shiba Rikyū Teien
- Tōkyō Tower
- A bicycle ride along the Sumida River
- Ride a yakatbune (party boat in Tōkyō Bay)
- A walk from Ueno Station through Ameyoko-chō and Okachimachi to Akihabara
- Or look through the blog for individual places you’d like to see!
Also keep in mind, there’s no “Ultimate Edo Experience.” Very little of Edo remains so you have to really go out of your way to look for it. Sometimes you have to be satisfied with a mere memorial plaque or an old stone wall. Anyways, I think I made a pretty decent list for you.
Of All the Place Names You’ve Researched, Which Investigation Produced the Results That Excited or Surprised You the Most? What Do You Consider Your Favorite “Find?”
This is a really hard question to answer.
Recently, all the “horse” places in Setagaya blew my mind… simply because it was all a coincidence that came from a reader request. Even when I tried to quit the area, another horse related place name came up. But that’s what makes writing this blog so fun for me. I like to think I’m teaching my readers about Edo-Tōkyō but the truth is that I’m learning with you… so I hope we’re fellow travelers on this journey through history.
The crazy river series I did, despite the burn out I inflicted upon myself, is something I look back at with a certain amount of pride. The rivers come in contact with so many interesting areas and related local histories. Akihabara was interesting for me because I had no idea it was such a recent invention.
Kuramae is another favorite of mine because it changed my fundamental approach to the blog. I’m actually pretty sure that’s when all the articles started getting longer. When I wrote that article, I realized that I didn’t have to focus on etymology[xvii], but I could use etymology as a launch pad to look at the bigger picture. I think that was when I started to go into the cultural history of the area.
I feel like I’m not actually answering your question and for that I apologize. The truth is, as far as linguistics and etymology go… nothing’s shocking to me anymore. My favorite “find,” as you put it, is that people actually read the blog. Of that small group of people who follow me, a few people ask questions and suggest articles. Some even donate a dollar here and there. That’s the biggest surprise for me – far bigger than any place name.
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[i] Here at JapanThis! we like to use the verb “to river oneself” to describe scope creep.
[ii] My friends took German, Spanish, and French. And everyone said the teachers were strict or mean. No one took Latin, so it seemed like the safest bet.
[iii] The book was originally a companion edition to a PBS mini-series on the history of the English language.
[iv] Not what you think it means…
[v] “Where’s the old one?” I wondered…
[vi] Here is my article on the graves of the Tokugawa Shōguns.
[vii] Ieyasu (1st), Iemitsu (3rd), Ietsuna (4th), Tsunayoshi (5th), Yoshinobu (15th). There was so little information on the web at that time, that I couldn’t even figure out where the other shōguns were interred. Though I’ve been to all the sites, there are 6 graves that I haven’t actually seen with my own eyes. And by graves, I don’t mean the gate ruins. The actual graves at Kan’ei-ji are off limits to the public and photography is banned. I haven’t given up hope, though.
[viii] Mainly because I was woken up by my first earthquake.
[ix] This is an oversimplification on my part, to say the least. Also, the shōgun’s wife had an abbreviated title, 御台様 midai-sama.
[x] Another ‘modern’ concept might be “open marriage.” Though, by ‘modern’ standards, this would be a very unfair example of an open marriage.
[xi] A certain “don’t ask, don’t tell” ethos is fairly prevalent.
[xii] Ienari didn’t limit his sexual explorations to the “friendly confines” of the Ōoku. There is some corroborating evidence that he regularly summoned geisha and girls from highest end shops in 吉原 Yoshiwara to Edo Castle. I trust you know Yoshiwara. It was Edo’s licensed pleasure quarter and it spanned several city blocks. You can think of it as a sexual amusement park with kimonos.
[xiii] So I could be very wrong about the no need for certification thing…
[xiv] It was a pretty stupid system anyways and that’s why it wasn’t so literal.
[xv] This horizontal mobility still exists in some traditional Japanese companies. While American companies seek specialists, traditional Japanese companies seek to develop generalists. This is an echo of the old Japanese patriarchal system.
[xvi] I’m assuming Kyōto would have been different. Kyōto has remained somewhat crystallized since the Edo Period.
[xvii] The etymology of Kuramae is actually quite simple and well documented.