Chinese Zodiac

The Japanese use the Chinese Zodiac for counting years. This is a 12-year cycle, each year represented by an animal. Why the Japanese use it? Well, see back in the day every time the Japanese invaded China (all the time) they stole something or other. Kanji, Buddhism, tea, etc, etc. Along with the zodiac, they also took the Chinese new year, which might tell you why new year is such a big event here. Unfortunately for China, when Japan opened to the West in 1869 (or around there.. I



Religion in Japan

My shrine visit on the 3rd was a lot of fun. It was packed full of people all praying for the new year, buying fortunes and good luck charms, and just generally exploring the shrine grounds.

If you look at Japanese people and try to figure out what religion they are, you may be very confused. They generally go to a Shinto shrine when born, have a Western wedding in a Christian church (tho it’s usually fake), then have a Buddhist funeral. To further complicate it, if you ask most Japanese people what religion they are they will tell you they aren’t religious. So what are they? Well actually that last one is a lie. The Japanese people are deeply religious but they usually claim no religion simply to avoid talking about it. For one thing, it’s complicated. Shinto and Buddhism have co-existed here for many hundreds of years, to the point where they have both borrowed things from each other and are now very inter-related. To top that off, Japanese Buddhism itself is a combination of Indian Buddhism, Chinese Confucianism, and Chinese Taoism (pronounced “daoism” by the way.). Complicated. The second reason they don’t want to talk about it is they have been taught all their lives that if you talk about religion it will offend people and start fights, so shut up about it.

I added a bunch of photos from my New Year’s shrine visit to my flickr page. I haven’t yet figured out an easy way to add them into my posts here (except the very time consuming way of going several clicks into each photo in flickr and finding a link to copy) so you’ll have to go there to see them.

Click on the “view as slideshow” button for cool feature. Mouse over the main photo, an “i” will fade in, click it and you can see my comments for each specific photo.

New Year

Quick post… About to go to shrine myself to pray for the new year, so I thought I would post a short clip taken from one of them. This is the first thing I found on youtube. I’m sure if you go there and search “Japan new year” you will find more.


Recent pictures, completely random

star wars figures

the star wars figure market is even bigger here than in the States. pic for Mark.

half-life 2

Half-Life 2, in the arcade. Wow.

matcha ice cream

Matcha ice cream. Matcha everything here in Japan, and this one is pretty good.

canned coffee

There are so many kinds of canned coffee here I’ve lost count. Most of them are loaded with sugar and so are too sweet for me, but a few are black, and those are good.


Mini-discs! They are 3.5 inch recordable CDs. Never caught on in the States, but still popular here.

weird erasers

Japan is loaded with toys and wacky inventions. Here you have two erasers that attempt to always give you a corner to use, no matter how worn they are.

Go to my flickr page to see more recently uploaded pics from the sumo tourn I went to last July and from a park famous for it’s fall leaves I went to a few weeks ago.

Site updates and news

So I finally decided that if you do something you might as well do it well, so on my New Years holiday here I

Christmas in Japan

Christmas-time in Japan is a mixed bag. Perhaps thanks to globalization the Japanese now celebrate Christmas to a certain degree, tho no one is quite sure why they do if you ask them. People cover their houses in lights, buy and put up Christmas trees (usually only small ones), and buy gifts for each other and their kids. And stores have sales by the dozens and so are completely packed. That

Chicken pox

For the past two weeks I

Katakana and fun with Jaglish

In the last posting I mentioned how foreign words in Japanese are becoming a problem, not because of their presence in the language per se, but because they are written with katakana. Let

backing in and other tidbits

One interesting difference in Japan is that everyone backs their cars in to all parking spaces. Driving head first into spaces as we typically do in the States is almost never done. I guess it makes sense from a safety standpoint. Cops do this back home too so that if they have to leave in a hurry they can just drive out without worrying about blind spots or whatnot. Tho when I asked a Japanese guy about this he had no idea why.

The weather is starting to cool down here and the leaves have started to change. The Japanese pay a lot of attention to seasonal change, and so the leaves changing is a huge event here. Just like the cherry blossom blooming forecasts in April, the news is full of forecasts about where and when you can see the leaves changing.

The Japanese are typically very concerned about the environment. This is probably in part because of the native religion, Shinto, which is often described as nature worship. That

Japanese School uniforms

Title Graphic for article

Photo by Travis Nep Smith

School Uniforms in Japan

Japanese school uniforms are interesting because they are quite different from the standard school uniform of Western schools. If you have every watched anime you may have some idea already, but for all else this is an interesting look into a part of Japan they may not often get a chance to see.

Traditional style: Gakuran and Sailor uniform

The traditional style school uniform is based on military uniforms from old Europe. Both male and female versions are very common in anime, very often worn by the “bad” kids (yankees), so you may recognize them easily.

Schoolboys wearing gakurans

Photo by cpkatie

The high-necked standing collar male uniform is called a gakuran1 and is based on 19th century Prussian army uniforms. Once upon a time it featured a hat, but nowadays usually only grade schoolers wear the hat. More on that below.


Photo by Archangeli

The sailor suit, the female school uniform, is based on the old British navy uniforms. Unlike the gakuran which is pretty consistent from school to school, the sailor suit can be slightly different at each school.

Modern style: variations on Western school uniforms

At present many schools are switching to a more Western style. I suppose this could be because of the miitary asscioations with the traditional Japanese school uniforms. But I don’t know for sure, nor do any of the school administrators I asked. Go figure.

For guys, the Western version of the school uniform is pretty straight forward. Usually white shirt, slacks, a tie and blazer. And for girls, your basic white blouse, dark skirt and blazer.

Seasonal Changes

There are two dates everyone in Japan knows. These are June 1st and October 1st. What important event takes place on these days? None other than the seasonal uniform switch!

There are two basic versions of the Japanese school uniforms, one for summer and one for winter. As you might expect, the main difference is the winter version is heaver and warmer. It might also feature a slightly different color or design for girls, but this varies by school.

Funny thing…

Funny thing about the seasonal switch is they never change despite the actual weather. Many years2 it is still pretty warm when Oct 1st rolls around, but this is when the schedule says we change to winter wear, so by God, we will.

And it’s the same for summer. By the time June 1st gets here, the kids are really suffering in their winter suits and are really happy to change to summer uniforms!

This has also worked it’s way into the culture and affects peoples’ attitudes. To many Japanese, when the schools change to winter uniform, it’s a sign that winter is right around the bend and signals that it’s time to change out the clothes in their own closets.

Elementary school

The above uniforms are what you will find in many middle and high schools. Japanese school uniforms for Elementary schools can be a little different. The rules are looser and it varies a lot from school to school.

Elementary school kids on a fieldtrip

Photo by jpellgen

Most common is probably casual clothes with a bright hat, usually yellow or orange. Normally it is yellow to and from school, and then white or red while on trips during school. The bright hat is simply so cars can easily see them and so they are easily identified as schoolkids. Oh yeah, in Japan most elementary school kids still walk to school alone.

Boy in gakuran with hat

Photo by Scott Gunn

Other schools may make it more formal and require some kind of standard uniform. These can range from versions of the sailor suit and gakuran to just white shirt, black pants/skirt. Although the trend is away from this to a more casual dress. The backpack he’s wearing there is standard, by the way. There is a red one for girls. Quite a big deal is made out of receiving your first school backpack.


This is more of a girl thing—as far as I know, anyways.

Since the female uniform can vary in design from school to school, many girls pick the school they want to be accepted at solely based on how “cute” the school’s uniform is. Weird, huh?


Watching how the kids try to rebel against the system is kind of interesting.

Girls tend to wear huge baggy socks, called loose socks. This is actually probably the image most people have of schoolgirl Japanese school uniforms. I’m told by my students here in Okazaki that baggy socks are no longer cool, but I still see them all over when I go to Nagoya and even in Tokyo. Maybe it’s a big city thing.

Also common is to sew decals into their regular socks, wear huge very colorful barrettes and they make their skirt as short as possible.

Boys who wear the Western school uniform rebel by wearing as bold a shirt as possible under their white shirt, bold or with crazy pictures or words, all of which obviously show through and are intended to do so. If they wear ties, a current trend is to wear their tie knot as loose as possible and the shirt unbuttoned. Many also roll their slacks up to the knees or farther.

Amazingly, most don’t clean up their appearance when they actually get to school. I’m told that these rebellious ways to wear the uniforms continue in many classes.

Constant Wear & final words

One final thing, it is very common for girls to wear their uniform all the time, even when they aren’t in school. It’s cute, remember, and they picked their school solely based on the uniform, so they wear it as much as they can.

And that, my friends, is all you need to know about Japanese school uniforms!

Interested in reading more on Japanese culture? Read on!

  1. gah-ku-rahn 

  2. All of the years I’ve been in Japan, anyways, and according to my friends most of the years of their childhood, too! 

Right of way for emergency vehicles

I read a story yesterday about an ambulance crashing into another car, killing everyone. That made me think of the main difference between emergency vehicles here and in the States. Back home we have to pull over if we here an emergency vehicle coming. Or we are suppose to anyways, and I believe we can ge ticketed if the police feel like enforcing that. Here, tho, there is no such requirement, and thus no one gets out of the way when an ambulance or other emergency vehicle is coming. The results of this are comical in a sad kind of way: every emergency vehicle has giant speakers attached to the top of their cars (this is very common, in fact… not just with emergency vehicles) and so as soon as they run into traffic