Ten Things You Didn’t Know came From Japan
In my time spent studying about Japanese culture and living in Japan, I discovered many things that thought were Chinese or American were in fact Japanese. There are two main reasons for this. The first reason is that many Japanese works such as books ,film, and games are translated to English or even completly remade to suit American audiences obscuring the origins in the process. The second reason is that Japan towns in America decline after WWII because the appaling interment of Japanese-Americans. When they were released from the camps, many found that their business and homes were gone, sold to someone else,ransacked or destroyed. Nowadays, there are only 2 offical Japan towns left in America. A large number of Japanese goods became popular with Chinese-Americans living in China Towns.Without a concretrated area of Japanese -Americans, these Japanese goods became associated with Chinese Americans instead.
I like being suprised and learning new information about things I thought I knew. It took me years to find out about all this stuff so I thought I save you some time with this list. Without futherado, let`s get started.
Before you angrily send me a tweet calling me an idiot and that fortune cookies are from China and not Japan. Allow me to explain. They are technically from neither country as they were created in America in the 1900s. Multiple people/companies claim to have invented the fortune cookie but it is clear that the modern fortune cookie was invented in either Los Angeles or San Francisco by Japanese immigrants. The modern iteration owes its origins to Tsujiura Senbei, a rice cracker with a message placed inside of the bend of the confection. It was eaten in 19th century Kyoto, Japan before being brought by Japanese immigrants to the US. The Tsujiura Senbei is darker and a bit larger. They also have a stronger Umami taste than modern fortune cookies, they contain miso and sesame. The fortune aspect comes from the Omikuji, which are slips of paper with positive and negative fortunes randomly chosen from a box at a Japanese temple(for a fee). Don`t discount Omikuji, I got one in January 2020 and it said that year would a bad time to travel.(right on the money)
The likely reason fortune cookies have become identified with American Chinese cuisine is that when Japanese Americans were forcibly sent to internment camps during WWII, Chinese Americans took over the production of the popular snack. Fortune Cookies were originally handmade but with the invention of a machine that could mass produce them, they became an inexpensive complimentary dessert that could be given out at after meals at Chinese restaurants.
2.The adventures ofMilo and Otis
I have no idea why I was on the Wikipedia page for the film The Adventures of Milo and Otis but I was and saw a rather peculiar thing. This cute movie about an orange tabby and a pug trying to reunite is an english language version of the 1986 Japanese film called Koneko Monogatari, a Kitten`s Story. The film that I watched was the edited English version released in 1989. The movie is about non-talking animals so making an English version simply involved shortening the film by a few minutes and a Dudley Moore english narration.
3. Rock paper scissors
I just found about this one recently when I was googling if there were professional Rock Paper Scissors competitions(there are). It turns out the predecessor to Rock Paper Scissors was created in the Han Dynasty in China(206 BCE – 220 CE) and then later imported to Japan in the 17th century where it became very popular. Sansukumi-ken or games using three hand gestures were drinking games and there were a wide variety. In Japan, Kitsune-ken was the favorite, both hands were used and three gestures were hunter, the village head, and fox(Kitsune). The hunter beats the Kitsune,Kitsune beats the village head and the village head beats the hunter. There was even a strip version of the game. However, gradually Sansukumi-ken changed from a drinking game to a children`s game. Most of the varieties died out but Jan-ken created in the late 1800s survived due to its simplicity. The three gestures are Rock, Paper, and Scissors. Jan-Ken was spread throughout the world by Japanese immigrants and cultural exchanges. Now Jan-Ken called Rock Paper Scissors in english is used by children all over the world to handle important disputes such as who should be it for tag or who should get the last capri sun.
If you watched Scott Piligrim vs the World, you already know that Pacman is from Japan. But for those that haven’t seen this great movie , I will eleborate. Pacman was created as an arcade game by the Japanese videogame company Namco in 1980. The purpose was to create a game that could be fun for both men and women as most games at the time were made for men with themes of war or sports. The inspiration for the character of Pacman was a slice of pizza and 口(kuchi)、the Japanese word for mouth. The Japanese name is Puckman but the name changed when exported outside of Japan to Pacman to avoid people turning the P to an F. I can whole heartily agreed that was a wise decision, otherwise there would be not one machine left with a P. Puck man comes from the character resembling a puck and a man(I know, complicated stuff). Pacman is one of the most iconic videogame characters of all time. How many videogame characters can you think of that had a hit song about them on the Billboard Hot 100? I am of course talking about the certified gold 1981 song (and blatant money grab) ,Pacman Fever. There is even a frog named after him, the Pacman frog named because of its round shape , large mouth, and it deep hatred of ghosts.While no longer played as much as in the 80`s, Pacman legacy still lives on from sequels to merchandise,and to references in other works of pop culture(IE; Scott Pilgrim vs the World).
5.Chinese Lucky Cat
Now, you probably think got with me with this one, it has Chinese in the name. While people think of the cat figurine with a raised paw as the “Chinese Lucky Cat” that is a misnomer and its real name is Maneki- Neko. Maneki-Neko means beckoning cat in Japanese as it originally comes from Japan. The raised paw on the figurine may look like it is waving but this is the gesture you use in Japan to beckon someone. Maneki-Neko are thought to bring good luck or more customers and money so it is commonly displayed in businesses. The breed of cat is a Japanese Bobtail, most notable for having a short tail that looks similar to that of a rabbit. The origin of the Maneki-Neko is uncertain but there is a popular legend about it. It is said that there was once a monk who lived in a small temple, despite being destitute, he shared what little food he had with his cat. One day, a Samurai was caught in a storm and had to seek shelter under a big tree. The monk`s cat appeared and beckoned him to come to the temple which he did. As soon as he left, lightning-struck tree, obliterating it. Grateful for saving his life, the samurai funded the temple, giving it resources for repairs and expansion(and I assume a truck load of fancy feast).
Maneki -Neko figurines made their way over to China as well as Vietnam. Many immigrants from these countries brought their figurines to ensure their businesses would thrive. Gold Maneki-Nekos symbolize wealth and prosperity which is why they are the ones most commonly seen in stores and restaurants. Maneki-Neko became ubiquitous in Chinatowns in the US which led to their misidentification as Chinese. After the internment of Japanese-Americans, Japan-towns dwindled as many could not return to their businesses or homes. The loss of Japan-towns in the US and the abundance of China towns and Chinese restaurants is the main reason the Maneki Neko is incorrectly thought of as the Chinese Lucky Cat.
The blog Go!Go!Nihon has a great post about Maneki Neko, check it out for more information.
Fun fact: Meowth from Pokemon is based on a Maneki Neko.
6.The modern Novel
The Tale of Genji is regarded as the first modern novel. The story was written by a Japanese lady in waiting named Murasaki Shikibu in the 10th century. The story is about the love life of Hikaru Genji, the son of the emperor. It also dives into the customs of the Japanese aristocracy during the Heian period(794 to 1185). Not only is it the first novel but it is also the first pyscholigcal novel, a genre that gives the thoughts, motivation, and feelings of the characters the same weight as external action.
The final chapters takes place in the city of Uji, not far from Kyoto, the capital at that time. I had the good fortune of visiting Uji. The Tale of Genji Museum is there, which has many interesting displays illustrating scenes from the novel. Even if you have not read the Tale of Genji I recommend visiting, to get a glimpse into one of the world`s most important pieces of literature.
On a side note: Uji is also famous for green tea (delicious) and the stunning Byodoin Temple. If you can`t visit the temple in person, you can also see it on the back of a ten yen coin.
While it may not be as high brow topics as a book on the proper customs of the Heian Aristocracy, the next entry is also a monumental work of literature. Everybody Poops is a children`s book that teaches about bodily functions and how they are natural.In hight sight ,I regret making this number 7 when it so obvoiusly should be number 2. The book is still popular abroad and is commonly sold in mainstream books stores.The book was written by the Japanese children book`s author,Tarō Gomi in 1977 . The book is called Mina Unchi in Japanese which directly translates to everybody poops.Everybody Poops wasn’t translated to English and published overseas until 1993. Those poor kids born before 1993 living for years not knowing how giraffes poop.
Here is another entry, that is commonly thought to have come from China or elsewhere in Asia. But once again, this a Japanese creation. A Rickshaw is a cart pulled by a person, a bicycle, or is electric/motorized. Nowadays, they are only pulled by a person for the sake of tourism, to make tourists feel like they are back in time. Rickshaws came about in the 19th century Japan and became a popular form of transportation throughout Asia. They were the main transportation for common people as they were cheaper than carts pulled by horses or early cars. Rickshaw comes from the Japanese word Jinrikisha. The name means person-powered vehicle. Jin-person,riki-power, and sha-vehicle. In Japan, if you visit a historical area like Kyoto, you can pay a driver to pull you around on a Rickshaw.(Those poor guys when they get American customers, that must be quite a work out). In other parts of the world, the Rickshaw lives on through auto versions such as Tuk Tuk in Thailand, bicycle versions like pedicabs in NYC, and electric Rickshaws in South Asia.
Chances are if you ever texted, you have a probably sent an Emoji. While the Emoticon was invented in my hometown of Pittsburgh(Go anyone but the Pirates!), the Emjoji was created in Japan.The first Emoji was sent in 1997 in Japan but wouldn`t become popular abroad until around 2010. (Knowing how depraved people are, I would put good money that the first emoji sent was the eggplant one.)The word Emoji is not related to Emoticon or the English word emotion. Emoji is a Japanese word meaning picture character. E – picture and moji-character/letter.
1o. Ring and the Grudge
Finally , we have a two for one special. The Ring and The Grudge are both movies that are remakes of Japanese horror movies from the late 90s and early 2000s. The Ring comes from the 1998 Japanese film of the same name. The Ring is about cursed video tape that if you watch you will be killed by the ghost of a young girl named Sadoko in 7 days if you watch it.(I wonder what a 2021 remake of it would look like? Probally Sadako doing a Tick Tok dance I guess before murdering some vaping teenagers)The film was both a financial and critical success. The film launched the revival of Japanese horror films with many well known examples such as Dark Water and Pulse being released during this time.The movies gained a cult following among western audiences for their supernatural themes and more subdued horror.80s and 90s horror movies in the west were typically slasher films relying on jump scares, gore,and violence. Japanese horror films at the time left more to the imagination, going for more for atmospheric scares. The refreshing change of pace led to the landslide of American remakes in the early 2000s.Which for most part were less like the American version of The Office and more like the 1998 American version of Godzilla(the one with ferris bueller as a worm scientist). In other words, they were subpar and failed capture the spirit of the original.
The Grudge or Ju-on in Japanese is another film about vengeful spirits. In this film, a house is cursed and those that visit the house will be killed by the spirts of the family that were murdered by the father after learning his wife was having an affair. Which is a bit of an over reaction.The narrative is much looser than the Ring and difficult to follow as there are not really any main characters or a much of a plot. But the film excels in creating a creepy and off putting atmosphere. The American version starring Sarah Michelle Gellar had the same director as the original, Takashi Shimizu and had some of the original cast . The film is about American expats who move into the haunted house in Tokyo but are not welcomed with open arms by the original owners.However, the film received mixed reviews and was not as successful as the Ring.Most criticism was pointed at its lack of coherent plot ,confusing narrative, and not be as scary as the original.
If you want to learn more about J-horror and the American remakes, there is an excellent post by Nightmare on FilmStreet that compare and contrasts the original films and their American counterparts. It also goes into some common themes in J-Horror such as creepy children ,water, or hair.