Do You Even Sumo, Bro?

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Mark Guthrie Gets to Grips with Some Sweaty Summer Sumo

The sun has been up for barely an hour as I cycle into a northwest suburb of Nagoya, but the mercury has already hit the high twenties, with the humidity making it feel a lot more. From the park behind me comes the steady buzz of cicadas in the trees, and as I corner a meandrous road I almost collide with a group of chattering sailor-uniformed schoolgirls carrying brass instruments on their way to early morning practice.

But despite the insects and the kids, the most prominent sound is a slow, mournful, counting. “Ich’, ni, san, shi, go.” One, two, three, four five. It’s purposeful yet casual. “Rok’, shich’, hach’, kyu, ju, ots’”. Six, seven, eight, nine, ten, done. As the road winds past the modern new-build houses and old wooden homes, the counting grows louder until I arrive at Goshosha shrine, the temporary home of the Isenoumi Sumo Beya.

The Isenoumi beya [literally ‘room’, but in sumo commonly translated to ‘stable’] is an old and storied one. Though its current incarnation dates from 1949 it has origins in the mid-eighteenth century, with one of the first yokozuna [top-ranking sumo], the legendary Tanikaze, and his protégé Raiden, considered to be the greatest rikishi [sumo wrestler] of all time, its early champions. Today, the stable is not quite as illustrious as its glittering past, though on the day that I meet them I see Nishikigi Tetsuya, a mid-ranking maegashira [fourth-level rikishi], putting the younger men through their paces 

And they are some paces. As the morning ages, even stood in the shade of the shrine I am sweating like a rabid dog at customs, but to step closer to the training ring, with the sun hammering on its corrugated-tin roof, the heat radiating from it is choking. And in this extreme temperature these huge guys are stretching, pumping iron, practicing manoeuvres and undergoing grueling sparring bouts. It seems like utter madness.

Yet there is reason for this madness. For, while the Isenoumi Beya are based in Tokyo, each summer they, along with the other major stables, travel south to Nagoya in order to train and acclimatise for the intense humidity of the city’s Grand Tournament, the Nagoya Basho.

The Big Six

There are six such annual honbasho [professional sumo tournaments] – three in Tokyo, one in Osaka, one in Fukuoka and the Nagoya Basho, each lasting 15 days. Rikishi ranked in the top two divisions compete once each day, while those of the lower divisions wrestle seven times throughout the tournament, and the cumulative results of these bouts determine whether they will rise or fall in the rankings. While some honbasho are considered more prestigious than others, Nagoya’s intense summer humidity makes it perhaps the most demanding. It’s also a great spectacle.

The day starts at around 8:30 with the first low-ranking rikishi bouts, as the early spectators arrive. These are mostly families carting cool boxes of picnic food piled on top of the contraband beer and sake that the guards blatantly ignore (unless you happen to be a foreigner with just a couple of cans in your backpack, and then you can guarantee that they will be discovered, meaning that you have to either toss them – let’s face it, not gonna happen – or stand out in the car park necking both before you’ve even had breakfast).

Inside you make your way to your seats which range from the corporate boxes, the ringsides, mid-level tatami or the stalls in the gods, and all but the first and last consist of zabuton [seating cushions] on tatami mats. These vary in price (though are cheaper if you’ve got mates in a top company or decent yakuza group), but no matter what, you want the cushions. More on which later.

Ready? Fight!

In the first few hours the hall is pretty empty, and you can roam as you please, getting right up close to the dohyo [ring]. Within the dohyo the action is fast. Rikishi enter, and CRASH-BANG-WALLOP it’s all over and the next pair appear. It goes so quickly that, if you look down to open a can of beer (costing 800 bloody yen!) a fight has been and gone.

Few people are interested in this lower-level competition, however, instead choosing to wander the hall, meeting up with friends, getting drunk and hanging around the smoking area that is so heavy with smoke that it looks like a genie convention that all turned up at once. 

Sometime around lunch, as people start pulling onigiri [rice balls] and packets of dried squid from on top of the quickly-depleting booze caches, more and more people file in. At about three o’clock an appreciable buzz fills the air, and within the crowd can be seen pockets of beautiful women in exquisite kimono. These are the sujo [short for sumo joshi, sumo girls] who admire the rikishi for more than their athletic prowess, making me wonder where they were when my university-days’ diet of donner pizzas and Greggs pasties caused my weight to balloon to near-sumo stature. I would’ve been well in.

By half-past three the hall is packed and the atmosphere is as palpable as the insane heat, rising to a crescendo as the makuuchi [top-ranked] and juryo [second-ranked] rikishi are paraded into the ring for their dohyo-iri [ring-entering ceremony] clad in gorgeous, ornate loincloths. The yokozuna then perform dohyo-iri of their own, thunderous applause accompanying every ritualised stamp of feet and clap of hands, as they expel bad spirits from the ring.

Getting Down to Business

Whereas the earlier bouts are undertaken with relative abruptness, for these high-level rikishi posturing is a key element. The battle does not begin until both fighters touch their knuckles to the dust of the dohyo, but before this can happen they cast huge fistfuls of purifying salt around the ring. The rikishi face each other, but time and time again one may stand up, toss some more salt and stretch, before returning to starting positions; Alex Fergusson-level mind games.

Then, in a flash, all four fists have touched the ground and they collide. There are eighty-two sanctioned winning moves in sumo, but most bouts end with one rikishi forcing the other out of the ring. It is then that, if you were lucky (or rich) enough to have acquired a front row seat, you may begin to regret your decision, as the wrestlers regularly topple into the crowd. It’s like one and a half sweaty baby elephants falling ungraciously into your lap. 

Finally, the day reaches its climax, with the final bouts usually involving one of the yokozuna. There are currently only two yokozuna in action, and as such, the basho often ends with one taking on a lower-ranked wrestler, which is where the drama really heightens.

Commonly the Yokozuna are victorious – they’re the top guys for a reason – but on occasion the lesser-fighter overcomes his more esteemed competitor, which is when the whole place erupts. To show their gratitude for the performance, the fans hurl their cushions in a cavalcade of padded seating into the ring. I told you you’d need the cushions.

With the fight concluded the two men return to the ring, neither showing such undignified emotions as joy in conquest or dismay in defeat, and the victor is handed envelopes stuffed with cash from sponsors and admirers. After the final fight of the honbasho an elaborate ceremony is held to announce the champion, complete with prizes that include a trophy so big you’d need to strap it to the roof of your car to get it home, ¥2 million [£16,000] as well as other gifts from sponsors sometimes including cars: which is handy what with the trophy transportation issue.

All of which makes me wish that there was a sumo team at my uni when I was at my Greggs-induced fattest. It sure pays better than journalism, I can tell you!

Originally published in NEO Magazine

Five Japanese Authors You Should Read


From the stories of twelfth century court life in the world’s oldest novel, Murasaki Shikibu’s Tale of Genji, to the epic tales of Nobel-Laureate-in-waiting Hideo Furukawa, Japan has a rich history of spellbinding writing.

To get you started on your journey into Japanese literature, below are five authors that should be your jumping off points.

Natsume Soseki

Soseki is probably the godfather of Japanese literature, to such an extent that if prior to 2004 you opened your wallet you’d find him staring back out at you from a 1,000 yen note. Often considered the greatest writer in modern Japanese history, much of Soseki’s work deals with the relation between Japanese and Western culture, the eternal Japanese conflict between duty and desire, and of ordinary people combating economic hardship.

Noted work: I Am a Cat

Soseki’s best known work is a satirical novel that examines the Japanese preoccupancy with, and aping of, Western culture at the turn of the 20th century. Told from the viewpoint of a pompous, sneering cat who commentates on the hoity-toity, supercilious middle classes with whom he lives, it purrs with bile and cynicism.

Mark’s Recommendation: Botchan

The work that cemented Soseki’s position in the Japanese cannon, Botchan (young master) follows the eponymous reckless – and somewhat repugnant – youth through childhood, and into adulthood. Following the death of his parents he relocates to a small town to teach, where his arrogance sees his career blow up in spectacular fashion.

Jun’ichiro Tanizaki

Another author who explores the juxtaposition between Japan and the West, Tanizaki is considered by some to be the rival to Soseki for the crown of Japan’s greatest modern writer. While some works are subtle portrayals of family life, others delve into a world of shocking sexuality and eroticism. Tanizaki was shortlisted for the 1964 Nobel Prize in Literature, and the Tanizaki Prize is one of Japan’s most sought-after literary awards.

Noted work: Naomi

In this tale of obsession, power and domination, Joji, a well-educated salaryman from a wealthy family, yearns to break free from the staid tradition of his family, as he fetishizes the Western modernity sweeping across Japan. Personifying this desire is Naomi, a fifteen-year-old cafe worker with ‘Eurasian looks’, whom Joji decides to groom her into his ideal, glamorous Western-style woman. Or so he thinks.

Mark’s Recommendation: Quicksand

Another story of destructive obsession, Quicksand shares themes with the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald, particularly in its depiction of the inherently vacuous lives of the leisure classes. However, Tanizaki’s tale of a four-way bisexual tryst gone awry is darker still than Fitzgerald’s oeuvre, and must have been shocking for its bold depiction of sexuality on its 1928 release.

Yukio Mishima

Very much the macho man of the Japan literary world – think Hemingway, but swap the pipe and beard for a sword and six pack – Mishima was also a playwright, actor, model and nationalist, though it is the latter that comes close to overshadowing his extraordinary writing career. Vowing to protect the emperor from Marxist revolutionaries, Mishima formed a militia and on November 25, 1970, stormed a Tokyo military base in order to persuade the soldiers to join him in overturning Japan’s pacifist Constitution. When they refused, Mishima, descended from a once-powerful samurai family, committed ritual suicide, aged 45.

Noted work: Confessions of a Mask

First published in 1949, Mishima’s second novel launched him to national fame despite being still in his early twenties. Kochan, who bears striking similarities to Mishima himself, struggles in his childhood to conform to Japanese ideals of fitness, cultural normality and sexuality. As he grows, his inability to conform is reflected in his distain for the others participating in the ‘reluctant masquerade’ of life.

Mark’s Recommendation: The Temple of the Golden Pavilion

Loosely based on the arson attack on Kyoto’s Kinkakuji Temple that shocked Japan in 1950, Mishima’s novel follows a young, stammering Buddhist acolyte whose appetite for destruction becomes an obsession, an expression of hatred for the beauty of the world around him, and a symbol of his intention to leave his mark, for good or for ill.

Haruki Murakami

Yes, it’s obvious, but you can’t really not include him. Perhaps the best-known of the modern Japanese authors, Murakami’s novels have a mystical, ethereal air giving the reader a floating sensation as he flows through the prose. While he definitely has his regular tropes (to the extent that there is a Murakami Bingo poster), he creates the most fantastic worlds and intriguing characters that you are likely to find in Japanese literature.

Noted work: 1Q84

The work that catapulted Murakami to worldwide fame, 1Q84 (the title a play on the fact that ‘9’ in Japanese is pronounced ‘kyu’) is a sprawling tale of parallel universes, assassins, the literary world, precocious teens and shady villains (Bingo!). High in concept and long of story, it is a must-read of modern Japanese literature.

Mark’s Recommendation: Kafka on The Shore

While I enjoyed 1Q84, I felt somewhat let down at the end (a common problem for Murakami, in my opinion). Perhaps I had just wanted it too much. However, personally, I find Kafka… a much more satisfying read. A tale split between two characters – runaway teen Kafka, and finder of lost cats Nakata – the vicious, sexual and supernatural elements of Murakami’s work are very much to the fore.

Banana Yoshimoto

Yoshimoto, whose father is the famous poet and critic Takaaki Yoshimoto, began her writing career while working as a waitress at a golf club restaurant. Her works center on the problems faced by youth, urban existentialism, and teenagers trapped between imagination and reality. Banana (not her real name) details her themes as being “the exhaustion of young Japanese in contemporary Japan” and “the way in which terrible experiences shape a person’s life”.

Noted work: Moonlight Shadow

Winner of the 16th Izumi Kyōka Prize for Literature, the novella tells the story of Satsuki coming to terms with the death of her boyfriend in a car accident and her friendship with her boyfriend’s brother whose girlfriend also died in the same accident. Moonlight Shadow is a surrealist portrayal of grief, loss and hope.

Mark’s Recommendation: Kitchen

Another story of coping with loss, in Kitchen, Mikage struggles to overcome the death of her grandmother. After growing close to one of her grandmother’s friends, she moves in with him and his transgender mother, Eriko. There she discovers loss, love and a joy for culinary exploration against the backdrop of tragedy.

Notable others

Ryonosuke Akutagawa, ‘Rashomon
Ryu Murakami, ‘In the Miso Soup‘ *
Yasunari Kawabata, ‘Snow Country‘ *
Miyuki Miyabe, ‘All She Was Worth
Sayaka Murata, ‘Convenience Store Woman‘ *

*Mark’s personal favourites

Originally published for H&R Group

Go Figure - Discovering Japan's Anime Figure Bars

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While many people come to Japan due to their deep-seeded interest in Japanese culture, I arrived here possessing absolutely zero knowledge of what was going on around me, popular culture-wise. I couldn’t tell Pokémon from Doraemon, AKB from Arashi, or Pet Cafes from Maid Cafes.

I had such little understanding of otaku [pop-culture obsessive to a nerdy degree] culture that when a new friend told me that he was ranked number six in the UK at Yu-Gi-Oh!, my first question was, “what the hell is that?” before taking a wary step backwards, presuming it to be some kind of dangerous martial art. After he informed me that it was a card battling game (and after he had explained what a card battling game was) I re-tracked my step confidently, and followed up with two further questions: “But aren’t you twenty-five years old? And don’t you have a girlfriend?” To my mind this sounded like one of those childish pursuits that we put away when we become adults, like believing in Santa Claus and getting drunk in the park.

But that seems not to be the case in Japan. As well as enjoying a few Asahi beers in cherry blossom-lined parks in spring, grown adults seem to relish what I consider ‘kids stuff’. My friend Yoshi is a prime example.

Yoshi is in his early thirties, a salesman for an aeronautics company and engaged to be married; someone you would very much consider ‘an adult’. However, having been invited over for dinner, his fiancé gave me the guided tour of their home and we came to his ‘office’. But rather than the regular trappings of the businessman as I expected, this room was lined floor to ceiling with cases of anime and manga figures.

When I voiced my surprise, my friend’s fiancé just shrugged. “It’s normal, no?” No, I replied. It’s crazy. My friend smiled broadly. “You think that’s crazy? Let’s go for a drink at a little bar I know.”

Figuring it all out

Yoshi slid open the door and quickly made his way to a stool at the end of the bar which, I was to later discover, was his regular seat. I, however, had barely made it in past the entrance, mesmerised as I was by the insane number of figures that took up every square inch of surface.

Amusement Bar Water 7 is dedicated to the popular pirate anime One Piece and is one of the growing number of figure bars that are springing up around Japan.

“When I was younger, I used to hang out at Manga Cafes and game centres, but at uni I discovered the joys of drinking, and when I started work company I kind of slipped away from the otaku life,” Yoshi explained. “But about three years ago I noticed these places springing up around town, and I found that I could share the adult side of my life – drinking and partying – with my favourite figures.”

Yoshi wasn’t the only one, and while we ordered a pair of beers served in pirate tankards (naturally) Water 7 soon started filling up. As my only prior experience of otaku hang outs had been walking past maid cafés, where young girls in terrifyingly skimpy uniforms loiter outside touting for the business of a very specific clientele, I was surprised to find it was a varied crowd. In one corner a pair of women in their twenties sipped One Piece themed cocktails, in another a group of men and women of mixed ages seemed to be regulars, and along the bar from us a trio of German tourists took selfies.  

Otaku are regular people too, apparently

I was intrigued to find that, although they shared their table space with dozens of character figures, they weren’t all deeply ensconced in detailed, nerdy conversations of obscure episodes and fan fiction, but they were just chatting about regular, day to day stuff: work, family, boyfriend troubles.

“What did you expect?” Yoshi asked as we headed out into the street towards the next spot. “They’re otaku, but they’re just regular people, like me. Think of these places as sports bars, places where you get together with friends, chat and watch the occasional game. Our sport just happens to be anime figures.”

Sieg Zeon is a Gundam theme figure bar, and though there are fewer figures on the bar and counter than in Water 7, Yoshi pointed out to me, with a hushed reverence, boxes of the toy robots that have been signed by animators and voice actors. I was more interested in the bar’s landlord, a regular-looking middle-aged guy, who if you poured him into a polyester suit wouldn’t look out of place working in a low-level accountancy firm, but dotted around the bar I found a number of photographs of him in impressively-full cosplay. Appearances can be deceiving…

Everyone loves anime, right?

We left Sieg Zeon after just one drink (it was too quiet, and it doesn’t usually pick up in there until well after 1 am, according to Yoshi) before ending up in Toaru Anime Izakaya. This was a decidedly younger hang out, and the clientele were heartily engaged in the young folk pastimes of getting drunk and chatting up the opposite sex.

Flicking through the menu I became far too confused by the wide array of anime-styled cocktails and plumped for a beer. As I placed it amongst a few figures on the bar I chatted with the barman who informed me that the figure bar phenomenon has really started to explode over the last three years. I asked him why he thought they were so in vogue. 

“Everyone loves anime, don’t they?” he asked. Recalling Yoshi’s comment that these places were like sports bars, and also that saying in a couple of bars in which I have drunk in the past that you aren’t interested in sport is tantamount to saying that you enjoy drowning kittens, I replied with caution. “Well, personally I don’t know much about it.” “No? Do you know who this guy is?” the barman replied, picking up a figure from the bar. “Yeah,” I replied with confidence, “that’s Lupin.” The barman looked impressed, if not entirely sincere. “You know well. So, you’re from England, you like football, right…?”

As figure bars grow in popularity, it’s likely that I’ll be seeing many more of them springing up around town. Which gets me to thinking about back home in the UK. I wonder if there is a market for figure bars there? What do you reckon? Bar Thundercats, Ho! Could be a winner.

Originally published in NEO Magazine (UK Print)

The Inside Story of Digital Technology in Mainland China

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Of the many fronts in which the US and Mainland China are competing for global supremacy, perhaps the newest is digital technology, with artificial intelligence (AI) its primary battleground. It is a campaign in which Mainland China is determined to be victorious in.

Technology has been pinpointed by the Chinese government as an area in which the modus operandi must be changed. For so long, Mainland China has been the chief provider of ‘cheap and cheerful’, but recently there has been a determined drive to become the creators of market-leading value-added technology, with an eye on world domination. 

Much like the Made in China 2025 initiative to drive forward Chinese industry, the government is making a concerted push into technology, with a stated aim to become the world leader in AI by 2030. 

“Artificial intelligence has become the new focus of international competition,” said a State Council policy statement.  “We must take the initiative to firmly grasp the next stage of AI development to create a new competitive advantage, open the development of new industries and improve the protection of national security.”

To this end, Mainland China intends to build a domestic industry worth almost US$150 billion and as a PwC report predicts, AI could add US$15.7 trillion to the global economy by 2030 – more than the output of India and Mainland China combined – so there is no surprise that private companies such as Baidu, Alibaba Group Holding and Tencent Holdings are making concerted moves into the industry

All this movement is driving mass requirements for candidates in various areas of the AI industry.

While this global war for AI dominance rumbles on, there is another battle taking shape closer to home. With one of the world’s largest consumer pools, online retailers are fighting for customer share and interaction. For now, the stand out player is Alibaba, with its e-commerce presence pushing it to become the world’s sixth largest retailer, its revenues in 2017 had been outstripping predictions even before November’s Singles Day event in November saw it hit an astronomic US$25.4 billion in sales.

Though it accounts for about 80 per cent of online sales in Mainland China, it’s not just Jack Ma’s conglomerate that is reaping the rewards of the online shopping market. Multiple outlets in the e-commerce sector are taking gradual steps towards challenging the dominance of bricks and mortar retailers, and companies are exploring ways of reaching out to customers. As Chinese spend 95 per cent of their online time on their mobile devices, it is here, with internet commerce and mobile downloadable apps that the battle for consumer capture and sales is likely to be fought and won.

As a result of this, there are an abundance of vacancies in the sector and it is an extremely candidate short market, particularly in the areas of Ecommerce Operation Managers, Internet Operators, Big Data Analysts and Product Managers who can install and operate online strategies.

Due to this shortage, there has been competition for candidates over the last 18 months. This has led to local companies accelerating their recruitment processes to ensure that they are able to secure available candidates, meaning that roles do not remain vacant for long. MNCs, who tend to have more structured interview processes, are unable to move so quickly leading them to miss out. These talent wars are likely to continue into the next year as the continuous creation of different products and different applications will require a steady stream of those who can develop, maintain and implement strategies.

Despite this shortage, digital technology is not an unattractive career path. Quite to the contrary, it is one of the most popular industries at the moment as career progressions are fast and candidates are keen on operating with the latest technology in the most current trend areas. However, demand is so strong that candidates can receive four or five offers at a time, a trend that is expected to continue for the coming year.

All this means that it is a good time for candidates to consider finding new positions as companies work hard to entice them, with bigger organisations unleashing considerable budgets on employer branding, online marketing, offline event strategies and seminars.

The shortage is so pronounced, particularly in niche tech areas, that candidates are fully aware of their power and are holding out for increasingly substantial packages, with some local companies offering increases of between 30 and 50 per cent for junior and mid-level candidates. However, as salaries continue to rise, candidates may persuaded to move after less than two years in a position, with some not even seeing out probation periods before absconding to the next wage increase.

MNCs, conversely, seem less prepared to engage in salary skirmishes, preferring candidates who are looking for more than just the highest bidder. As they seek out creative, proactive candidates with leadership potential and an ability to drive innovation, they offer status and global exposure rather than fiscal reward. Due to the international nature of these roles, English speaking is a must, particularly in the mid to senior-level vacancies. 

To fill these positions, companies are looking increasingly overseas, with the USA proving to be a fertile hunting ground. With a large and longstanding internet practice, companies are extremely interested in attracting candidates from the States, especially those who have operated in Silicon Valley and have worked with big data or on large Internet platforms. The key challenge here is of course that the local internet giants require Mandarin-speaking candidates at all costs. Due to this necessity, a returning Chinese national is preferred, however the only barrier to Mandarin-fluent foreigners would be recently tightened visa restrictions, something unlikely to pose serious impediments for any large Internet conglomerate. 

And so, as China’s digital technology companies look to bring high level talent from the U.S., as they set up R&D centres in Silicon Valley, and as the government continues to pour vast investment into AI, it feels like there could be two clear winners in the digital tech war: Mainland China and the candidates who work within its industry.

Originally produced for Hays Recruitment

Yasuke: African Samurai

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Mark Guthrie charts the amazing rise of Yasuke, from slavery to samurai

Despite it being more than 150 years since Japan ended its self-imposed isolation from the world, the country remains a nation of homogeneity. Foreigners make up less than two per cent of residents, with some seventy per cent of those living within the three major metropolitan areas of Tokyo, Osaka and Yokohama.

This means that even today, for many Japanese, coming across a foreigner in the flesh can be something of a novelty, and curiosity often overrides good manners. Many gaijin [foreigners] find that they are openly gawped at in public, and while there is rarely any malevolence in the attention, it can be a little disconcerting; comparable to possessing the residual fame of a male member of S Club 7, or an X-factor contestant from 2011.

But if today’s gaijin finds this a little unnerving, imagine how it felt for Yasuke, the only black samurai in sixteenth century Japan…

Stranger than strange lands

Like most African slaves of the 1500s, little, if anything, is known of Yasuke’s early life. While it is broadly believed that he originated in Portuguese Mozambique, even his birth name remains unknown, with Yasuke most likely a Japanization of his real or slave name. Furthermore, no contemporary images of him exist.

What we do know, and where the documented story begins, is that Yasuke was ‘taken on’ as a ‘servant’ (sanitising euphemisms abound) by Jesuit missionaries and posted as a page to Alessandro Valignano, Visitor of Missions in the Indies. In 1579 the high-ranking missionary brought him on a Portuguese ship for his first visit to Japan.

For a slave abducted from his African homeland and shipped halfway around the world, Yasuke’s landing in Asia would have no doubt been a dramatic experience for the young man. His reception perhaps even more so.

At this time, most Japanese had never seen a foreigner – even Valignano’s imposing height was said to draw crowds – but the arrival of a man six-foot two-inches tall and black skinned sparked pandemonium in the streets of Kyoto, with locals breaking down the door of the church in which he was residing, several being crushed to death in the clamour, just to catch a glimpse of him.

Becoming Nobunaga’s man

Yasuke’s fame travelled and soon came to the attention of Oda Nobunaga, the powerful warlord who had united Japan in this time of duelling chieftains. Nobunaga is said to have been obsessed by all things western, and is one of the first recorded Japanese to have worn western clothing, used tables and chairs and drunk wine from goblets.

Whether he truly was impressed by the foreigners or this was simply an affectation to ingratiate himself with the Portuguese and their access to superior western weaponry – and there is little more that impresses a warlord than guns – is open to debate. What is not, is that hearing of this famous black man, Nobunaga was immediately intrigued and demanded an audience with Yasuke.

Upon first seeing him, “black as an ox, healthy and good looking, and possessing the strength of ten men” as contemporary witnesses attest, the great daimyo [lord, or general] literally could not believe his eyes, and had him stripped to the waist and scrubbed to see if the ‘ink’ on his skin could be removed. Finally convinced of Yasuke’s natural state, Nobunaga was obviously impressed by his size and strength, but it was the page’s ability to speak Japanese (Valignano was a contentious figure amongst Jesuits, but his insistence on missionaries and servants being skilled the local language brought about one of the great early advancements in the understanding of the Japanese language) that made the greatest impression, enough to insist that Yasuke remained under his command while Valignano returned.

Although Nobunaga, who lived under permanent threat of assassination, understood the importance of Yasuke’s physique when retaining his services, it was not long before he found that it was his new vassal’s intellect that he relied most upon, and the former slave became one of the warlord’s most trusted advisors. As his Japanese fluency improved and Nobunaga turned to him with increasing regularity in battle and military strategy (something that has led to conjecture that Yasuke had been a warrior prior to his enslavement), his reliability was quickly rewarded. Around 1581 he was escalated to the social rank of samurai, the elite of the elite, becoming perhaps the first non-Japanese to be awarded the honour. With this standing came money, property, wives and, the greatest symbol of samurai status: the right to carry two swords.

There were even rumours at the time that he was to be made a daimyo himself, a chief amongst samurai. Whether or not this was in fact Nobunaga’s intention it never came to fruition. In June 1582, catastrophe struck, when Nobunaga was betrayed by his trusted retainer, Akechi Mitsuhide.

The fall of Nobunaga

With Nobunaga’s entourage of just thirty pages (including Yasuke) stopping at Kyoto’s Honno-ji temple to partake in a tea ceremony, Mitsuhide’s army took the opportunity to attack and initiate a coup d’état. Although Yasuke was able to fight his way to safety and escaped to Azuchi castle, Nobunaga was not so lucky. As the temple burned to the ground he committed seppuku [ritual suicide], the standard samurai response to impending defeat, bringing to an end of the Oda clan’s rule over Japan.

With Nobunaga dispatched, Mitsuhide then charged on to Azuchi Castle, and though Yasuke fought valiantly the defenders were overwhelmed. Following the western tradition, Yasuke relinquished his sword to Mitsuhide’s men in defeat. Confused by this seemingly-unusual action, the soldiers deferred to Akechi who asserted that Yasuke was ‘nothing more than a beast’ who could neither be expected to understand nor be worthy of the honour of seppuku. As a result, Yasuke was stripped of his title and returned to the Jesuits.

Yasuke’s legacy

Though we know that the Jesuits were relieved to see Yasuke alive, this is where his story goes cold, and no evidence of what became of him remains. However, his legend lives on in popular culture.

Children’s author Kurusu Yoshio won the Japanese Association of Writers for Children Prize in 1969 with Kuro-suke (‘kuro’ is the Japanese word for ‘black’ and ‘suke’ is a common ending for male names), a story based on Yasuke’s tale. In 1998, manga artist Takashi Okazaki wrote and illustrated the first of his Afro Samurai comics, a manga that was later developed into a video game and anime (the latter of which starred Samuel L Jackson and was soundtracked by Wu Tang Clan’s The RZA) with the eponymous hero based on Yasuke. And in November 2018, Netflix announced plans for a new Yasuke anime set in feudal Japan, but including magic-wielding warriors and robots. 

For me, Yasuke’s legacy isn’t about media spin offs (though I am quite excited by the Netflix anime), but rather his strength, intelligence and the great things people can achieve. Many foreigners living in Japan complain about a glass ceiling, that it is impossible to escape low-paid jobs, or that they will never be truly accepted.

But if Yasuke can climb from slavery to the upper echelons of society, and if a powerful lord of a homogenised society can show acceptance of the unknown, then there is opportunity for us all.

Black Sumo.jpg  by Wikicommons Public Domain

Originally published in NEO Magazine (UK print)

A Body. A Canvas.


Becky Alp is bringing her ambitious performance art exhibition, ‘Dual’, to Nagoya’s Plastic Factory 

Nagoya, and its expat community in particular, has long been home to a thriving art scene, but recently it feels things are beginning to take off in a big way. Exhibitions are being held all over the city, with installations and events popping up everywhere.

One of the key proponents of this flourishing scene is multi-disciplined artist Becky Alp who, since coming to Nagoya five years ago, has become one of a new wave of artists who are instrumental in breathing new life into Nagoya’s art world.

“Growing up on the Mediterranean, with its millennia-long history of mythology and folklore, I guess that it was only natural that I was heavily influenced, and I developed a great passion for mythological creatures, mysticism and mysterious faraway lands. Over the years this emerged into a deep artistic curiosity,” says Becky.  

“I became fascinated by images and how the world was represented through the eyes of my favourite authors and artists, such as André Breton, Man Ray, Maya Deren and Francesca Woodman. During my time studying in London I cultivated a greater interest in photography and art, and from there my work advanced and I learned to express my inner chaos through these disciplines. As my artistic education evolved I began seeking out not only greater ways to progress and grow, but also others who share a similar vision.” 

Becky found those others in Nagoya art scene cornerstones Jessica A. Robinson and Sophie Goto, the guiding lights behind the creative community, Unbound Collective. 

“Unbound Collective is focused on developing collaborative artwork in theatre, performance, art, photography, costume, modeling and film, and this multi-faceted outlook very much spoke to me, and I am extremely proud to be part of their movement,” Becky explains.

As part of Unbound Collective, Becky has exhibited work – primarily fine-art, conceptual photography and mixed-media combinations – at some of Nagoya’s more prestigious spaces as well as underground galleries, including the Foreign Artists Exhibition, Nagoya University’s ITbM Gallery and Gallery White Cube.

However, her coming performance art project, Dual, is perhaps her most ambitious work to date. 

“According to metaphysical dualism there are two kinds of reality: the material and immaterial, that is the physical and the spiritual. My performance show, Dual, is an attempt to experience both the physical and spiritual reality in order to create an artistic amalgamation of the two worlds,” Becky explains.

“To do this I use just two aspects: a body and a canvas. However, as an immersive theatre experience, the audience, or as I prefer to call them, ‘the participants’, is just as important. Unfortunately, I cannot expand much further, as to do so would be to reveal too much to the detriment of the performance, but I can assure you, it is set to be an experience of the like that you will not have encountered before.”

“Dual”, Unbound Collective’s maiden performance art show, will take place at Nagoya’s Plastic Factory on May 19.

32-13 Kandacho,

Chikusa Ward,


Website :

Originally Published in NAGMAG

Toyota: The Driving Force Behind Aichi’s Prosperity

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Aichi Prefecture is well known for manufacturing, but there is one company that stands head and shoulders above the rest. The Toyota Motoring Corporation that sprang up from the Aichi city that now bears its name is (by some metrics) the largest automobile producer in the world, and without it, Aichi would most definitely be a very different place.

Toyota: the Beginning

Although Toyota is now known worldwide for its automotive production, the company has its origins in fabric production. After developing looms since the 1890s, inventor and industrialist Sakichi Toyoda invented the Toyoda Type G Automatic Loom in 1924. With this as his centerpiece, Toyoda established Toyoda Automatic Loom Works in 1926.

The company soon grew, and the development of his jidoka principal (autonomous operation), the forerunner of the Toyota Production System, earned him the titles “the King of Japanese Inventors” and “Father of the Japanese Industrial Revolution.”

This expansion saw international acclaim for both the Toyoda principals and its manufacturing, and in 1929 the patent for the Type G Automatic Loom was sold to British company Platt Brothers, generating the starting capital for a movement into a new sector.

Becoming ‘Toyota’

In 1929 Kiichiro Toyoda, son of Sakichi, traveled to Europe and the United States to research automobile production, which he followed up in 1930 with studies into gasoline-powered engines. Around the same time, the Japanese government, due to the demands of war with China, encouraged Toyoda Automatic Loom Works to build automobiles to aid the war effort.

Using the proceeds of the Model G patent sale, Toyoda began developing automobiles in 1933, and two years later the first prototypes; the A1 passenger car and the G1 truck – were manufactured. These were followed in 1935 by Toyoda’s first passenger car, the Model AA, going on sale for a price that undercut Ford and GM by 400 JPY.

The Toyota Motor Company was established as an independent company in 1937, the change of name coming about as the katakana alphabet spelling of Toyota (トヨタ) takes eight strokes to write (as opposed to Toyoda,トヨダ, which takes ten). The significance of this being that the number ‘eight’ is considered lucky in many Asian cultures, as well as having a ‘cleaner’ sound to the Japanese ear. In addition, with the word toyoda literally meaning “fertile rice paddies,” the name change removed the association with traditional agriculture, lending it a bright, new modernity.

Post-War Toyota

During the Pacific war, Toyota almost exclusively manufactured automobiles, trucks in particular, for the Japanese government’s war efforts. As a result, the Toyota factories were scheduled for bombing targets by Allied aerial attacks; however, the war drew to a conclusion before the strikes took place.

While Toyota escaped annihilation at the hands of bombers, the immediate post-war era was a time beset with difficulties for the company. Although at the end of 1945 the U.S. military gave Toyota permission to begin peacetime production, a result of which saw the unveiling of the new, smaller vehicle, the Toyopet model SA, with Japan facing severe financial hardship and the company plagued by regular strikes and union action, Toyota twice flirted with bankruptcy.

As the scapegoat for many of these problems, Kiichiro Toyoda resigned from the company he developed in 1950 and died two years later. He was succeeded by Taizo Ishida, the chief executive of the Toyoda Automatic Loom company, and the company’s fortunes were almost immediately revived as America entered the Korean war and ordered over 5,000 vehicles for their military. Ishida cleverly saw this as an opportunity to invest in manufacturing infrastructure, building a new plant, something that would give them a decisive upper-hand over their primary competitor, Nissan, in the years to come.

Going Global

Toyota eventually branched out into the American market, opening a Hollywood headquarters in 1957. The first Toyotas to go on sale were the Land Cruiser and the Toyopet Crown. Neither, however, made much of an impression on the American people, with the latter singularly unattractive as its name brought to mind associations with pets and toys, a difficult sell in the nation of Cadillacs and Mustangs.

Consequently, the company turned its focus to the creation of a car that was designed especially for the American market, resulting in the introduction of the Avalon and Camry, though the Corona, with its 90 horsepower engine and significant passenger room, was to become the first truly Americanized Toyota. By 1967, Toyota had become an established brand in the U.S.

In the same year as Toyota arrived in the US, divisions in Brazil were opened, followed in the 1960s by research and development facilities in Thailand. In 1963 a plant in Melbourne, Australia built the first Toyota outside of Japan, and for the next two years, Australia was Toyota’s biggest export market. At the same time, importer Erla Auto Import A/S of Denmark struck an agreement to become the distributor for Denmark, Norway, and Sweden with the Netherlands following soon after, establishing Toyota across northern Europe.

Global Leaders

Throughout the 1970s, Toyota went from strength to strength, growing its market share over a broad scope of automotive industries. However, the oil crisis of 1973 saw consumers of the American market turn to more compact, fuel-efficient vehicles, and with Toyota slow to make the change to front-wheel drive automobiles; the Nissan Sunny overtook the Toyota Corolla in the number of cars built. Despite this setback, in the 1980s, the Corolla was one of the best-selling vehicles in the world

1989 saw Toyota move into the luxury car market, with the launch of their Lexus division, followed by full-sized pickups the T100 and the Tundra, SUVs, and upgrades of their sports vehicles.

Modern Toyota

In 2005 Toyota ranked eighth on Forbes Global 2000 list of the world’s leading companies and was ranked number one in global automobile sales for the first quarter of 2008. Today, Toyota regularly tops lists of worldwide automobiles produced, and regularly vies with Volkswagon for the title of the most valuable automotive company.

Perhaps the greatest influence that Toyota has had on the modern era of automobiles is the Prius, afull hybrid electric car that first went on sale in Japan in 1997, making it the first mass-produced hybrid vehicle.

Subsequently introduced worldwide in 2000, the Prius is sold in over 90 markets, reached the 1 million vehicle mark in May 2008, and totaled global cumulative sales of 6.1 million units in January 2017.

In November 2015, the company announced that it would invest US$1 billion over the next 5 years into artificial intelligence and robotics research, and is currently one of the leading automotive developers in this area.

Affect on Aichi

Toyota has long been a major influence on Aichi Prefecture. In Japan’s industrial age, Toyoda/Toyota was a key employer in the area, with textile manufacturing in both Nagoya and Komoro. Local legend has it (though little factual corroboration can be found) that the reason for Nagoya being rebuilt with wide, spacious roads following the destruction of the Allied bombings was at the behest of Toyota so that their cars would have more room to be driven.

In 1959, the Aichi city of Komoro, where the primary plant was situated, changed its name to Toyota due to the fame and economic importance of its major employer, fittingly becoming a sister city with Detroit a year later. And Aichi’s large Brazilian contingent owes much to the requirements of the company’s manufacturing plants needing greater numbers of workers during the bubble years.

As a symbol of Japan’s manufacturing prowess, Toyota’s international strength is of great pride to many Japanese, and it started right here, in Aichi.

For Toyota Buffs

If you are at all interested in Toyota, cars, or just local history, check out these great museums and tours:

Toyota Plant And Museum Tour

Toyota Commemorative Museum of Industry and Technology

Toyota Automobile Museum

Image: by TMWolf via wikicommons. [CC BY-SA 2.0] – modified

Originally produced for H&R Group

The Inside Story of Marketing & Digital in Hong Kong

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Hong Kong’s marketing industry, at times, feels like it is trapped in the recent past, focused almost entirely on the traditional areas of TV and print media. Despite the global recognition of the rapid – and perhaps terminal – decline of these outlets, there is still a distinct feeling that digital marketing in Hong Kong remains a ‘poor cousin’ to the establishment.

This feeling is backed up by an admanGo report which showed that, although digital marketing made year on year growth, it was the six per cent third quarter advertising spend shift into television that took the headlines and drew an impassioned Facebook rebuttal from Pixels CEO Kevin Huang.

However, due to the relative youth of the digital industry, it is perhaps understandable that businesses show it little reverence. Hong Kong’s companies are very much married to traditional mind sets, with a WL Media HK studyshowing that Hong Kong’s businesses are three times less likely to have adopted internet marketing than their rivals in Singapore.

On the face of it, Hong Kong’s digital marketing industry could be facing a dilemma, and yet there are distinct signs of positivity.

As a region, Hong Kong is growing and changing. There is a generation discovering new art forms and indulging in alternative, diverse life styles. If advertisers want to engage with this new Hong Kong and its consumer needs, then they will need to adapt to more innovative forms of marketing approaches.

In fact, there is evidence that they may already have.

As pointed out by campaignasia, the admanGo report did not paint a full picture as it “fails to monitor the majority of digital ad spend, especially in paid search, paid social and programmatic advertising.” This year has seen unprecedented confidence from advertisers, as well as a PwC report predicting digital to reach US$6.6 billion in revenue in 2021.

Some of this improvement may have been affected by a new direction taken by the Hong Kong government. While in the past it had been slow to encourage the digital marketing industry, this year’s change in leadership has led to a change of direction, bringing promises to invest more in FinTech and technology through its Innovation and Technology Venture Fund of HK$2 billion(US$ 256 million), a portion of which is set aside for marketing.

This investment boom is leading to various industries developing greater interest in digital marketing strategies, whether they be innovative creative startups, FSCG (fast selling consumer goods) companies or traditional financial institutions. This means that there is an increase in opportunities for candidates wanting to break into the digital marketing sector.

The areas of social media and content are particularly important in the coming months as companies increase investment in their own branding. Part of this, where there is a candidate shortage, is in customer experience. Previously this specialty may have been listed under the operations sector, but as it increasingly involves looking into customer behaviour, marketing departments are on the lookout for data analysts who are able to tailor social media content and strategies to reflect what their consumers are doing online.

As an extension of this, some companies are recognising content marketing as an important function in driving incremental sales through thought leadership. It is currently proving difficult to source talent in these areas and in the past, companies may have recruited freelance copywriters to provide content. However, a recognition that freelancers often struggle to understand corporate ideologies has seen this moving in-house in the last 12 months. This is particularly prevalent in the growing travel and hospitality sectors.

Being such a new industry, and one that is growing at speed, there are obviously difficulties in sourcing ideal candidates. Taking a positive stance, companies are more and more open to candidates from a variety of industry backgrounds, understanding that they may not necessarily tick all boxes required. This means that companies are developing workforces with a diversity in outlooks and thinking that encourages innovation and creativity. However, this does mean that there has to be some level of expectation management as candidates from differing backgrounds with varying working practices may need to alter their professional practices in the way they work.

Another way of tackling this shallow talent pool is by looking outside of Hong Kong. As local language skills are not a primary concern in Hong Kong, looking abroad poses few problems, however Asian countries with close cultural ties – Singapore, Korea and Mainland China in particular – are preferred as marketing strategies will need to be culturally relevant.

For candidates looking towards a move, now is a good time for considering options and beginning proactive steps into the job market. Due to shortages, some companies are open to approach, and it may be enough for candidates to meet with hiring managers, demonstrate their thought processes, experiences and impart their ideas of how they are able to impact the company’s future direction.

Yet some companies continue to be selective. While candidate requirements may have broadened in the last 12 months, there is an increasing importancebeing placed on an ability to fit a company’s culture and its vision for the future.

Because companies know that it is imperative that, as Hong Kong’s marketing industry shifts away from dying media towards digital and reflects the transforming needs of a diversifying region, it is time to make an impact.

There is a growing feeling that if businesses do not change now, then they never will, leaving them unable to catch up. There may be nothing worse than having eschewed the ‘poor cousin’ to find him become the market leader after all.

Originally produced for Hays Recruitment Asia

Legoland Japan in Nagoya


Theme parks are one of the best ways to entertain the family all day, leave them enthused and exhausted, and talking about their adventure for many years to come. Of course, Japan has its fair share of amusement parks, however most of these cater to older children and even adults.

Thankfully, LEGOLAND Japan is a theme park tailored to families with young children aged two through twelve with over 40 attractions, meaning that those of us with younger kids can get in on the action. And what’s more, it’s right here in Nagoya!

What You Can Do at Legoland Japan

LEGOLAND Japan is an expansive theme park with a number of zones filled with fun activities for all of the family to enjoy.


Ever wondered how LEGO is made? What better way to see the famous building blocks being built than a tour of the factory, and watch the magic take place for yourself.

Learn about the history of how LEGO began and developed, see the machinery it takes to make the different pieces, and at the end of the tour, receive a fresh piece of LEGO right off the production line as a souvenir to take home.

Knight’s Kingdom

This medieval land is chock-a-block with rides and amusements to thrill, terrify and exhilarate your children of any age.

Pedal your way into the air with Merlin’s Flying Machines, get in a spin on Merlin’s Challenge carousel, and scream to go faster on the climbs and falls of The Dragon rollercoaster.


Thrill-seeking kids can ride the Brick Party merry-go-round, the Wurlitzer-like Imagination Celebration or the Duplo Express train.

For your budding creatives there are a number of stations at which you can make your own LEGO creation, including flying contraptions and robots.

Pirate Shores

Yo-ho-ho and a barrel of, um, juice! In this pirate-themed world you can ride a spinning pirate ship, climb about in Castaway Camp and fire water cannons as you make your way through pirate-infested waters.


Want to see Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto and Nagoya all in one day? Now you can, and so much more. Using more than 10,496,352 LEGO bricks, Miniland recreates ten landscapes and city skylines from all over Japan.


See your children grow up and become responsible members of society before your very eyes!

At LEGO City, kids can learn to drive electric cars at the driving school – picking up a license as they do – fly a plane, steer a boat, help the police and even save a “burning building”. There is also the Splash Pad water park, though it is seasonally dependent.

Anniversary Action

Until May 6, LEGOLAND Japan is celebrating its second anniversary, which means that there are a number of extra events going on.

NINJAGO Training Academy

In this event for children from 2 to 12 years, train to become a fully-fledged ninja! There are six challenges to undertake to attain your Ninja License. If you pass all six, you will be entitled to priority entry to LEGO® NINJAGO WORLD, due to open in July 2019!

Sea Life Nagoya

On Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday from 14:15 there will be a greeting show at Sea Life Nagoya, featuring underwater divers.

If you can find and take three pictures of Shark Guys hidden in Sea Life Nagoya and  LEGOLAND Japan (Submarine Adventure) you can receive a special Sea life Nagoya block when you show your pictures to staff members.

Things to See

Around the park there will be specially-built lego models, such as a beautiful cherry blossom tree. Behind Miniland, from 16:00 or 16:30, there is also a daily Feel the Emotion show, performed by all your favorite LEGO characters!


Legoland is accessible just a short (3 minute) walk from Kinjo-futo Station on the Aonami Line( Nagoya Station).

2-2-1 Kinjo-futo, Minato-ku, Nagoya, Aichi-ken (map)

Annual Pass

Children: From 6,500 yen *ages 3–12
Adults: From 9,900 yen *ages 13+

1 Day Pass

Children: From 3,300 yen  *ages 3–12
Adults: From 4,500 yen *ages 13+

Image: By S.Brickman via [CC SA 2.0] – Modified

Originally produced for H&R Group

Horsing Around at Tado Festival in Mie

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Japan has so many strange, eccentric and exciting festivals every year that it is sometimes difficult to keep track. However, few festivals are exciting and dramatic as Ageuma-Shinji, held every year in Tado, Mie. Also known as Tado Festival, Ageuma-Shinji has been held in this sleepy little town since the Nanboku-chō period (1336 to 1392) and is an incredible spectacle that sees powerful horses charged down the high street to predict the next harvest. Confused? Perhaps I should explain.

About Tado Festival

Though the festival takes place on May 4 and 5 each year, preparations commence a month before, when six local boys, between the ages of 16 and 19 are selected as divine representatives of their village, and they begin their Shojin Kessai, a month-long ritual during which they will abstain from eating meat.

Finally, the first day of the festival arrives. Down the length of Tado’s main street right up to Tado Shrine are built two long platforms from which spectators can watch the drama (and though it costs between 1,500 and 4,000 JPY to take a place on the platform, it is highly recommended, though arriving early to find a spot is a good idea). The space between the two platforms forms a run, at the end of which is a muddy, earthen ramp near the entrance of the shrine, and at the very top is built a two-meter-high jump with a narrow gap dug out from the top.

Then, one by one, the boys on horseback will charge down the street on their horses between the two long platforms, the locals cheering them on as they gallop down the road. Then, as they arrive at full speed, they come to the ramp, and the rider must bravely guide his horse up and over, through the narrow gap. If he is successful, the crowd will cheer hysterically, and his village can expect a good harvest in the coming year. If he fails, then he, horse and all, tumble back down to the ground, and the pressure builds on the next rider.

On the first day of the festival, each boy will make two attempts to complete his jump. On the second day, they will each try just once, after which there are some traditional ageuma festival events, with various horse riding exhibitions performed by riders in samurai warrior clothes, including parades and horseback archery (yabusame). There are of course food and drink stalls.

Animal Rights Concerns

As a display it is an exhilarating spectacle; however there have to be questions raised about the danger posed to not just the rider, but the horse as well. When I visited last year, I spoke to one of the locals who help organize the event and raised my concerns. He assured me that he hadn’t known of any horse being severely injured (though he couldn’t say the same for the riders) and that there was no more danger to the animals than there would be in horse racing. However, you may feel otherwise, so it is certainly something to take into consideration if attending.

Tado Festival Details

When: May 4 and 5 annually.
Where: Tado Shrine is a 25-minute walk from Tado Station. Simply follow the crowds; 1681, Tado, Tado-cho, Kuwana-shi, Mie (map)

Tado Shrine

While you are in the area, it is an excellent opportunity to check out Tado Shrine. The shrine is said to have its origins in the 5th century, during the reign of Emperor Yūryaku, and is connected to the legend of a white horse that carried the prayers of the local people to the kami (god) enshrined on Mt. Tado. Unfortunately, the original shrine was destroyed by fire during the battles of Oda Nobunaga, but it was rebuilt by the feudal chief of Kuwana, Tadakatsu Honda, in 1606. From that time Tado Shrine grew to be of such importance that it was said of pilgrims making their way to Ise Jingu ‘When he goes to Ise, he goes to Tado.’

Tado Shrine is beautifully laid out, with numerous interconnected shrines and temples that climb up the mountainside. The shrines are all in perfect harmony with the natural surroundings, with wooden bridges crossing streams and over rocky outcrops, and small nooks and ponds here and there. It is certainly worth a visit.

Image: via wikicommons [CC 3.0] – Modified
Image: via wikicommons [CC 3.0] – Modified

Originally produced for H&R Group

Miso Katsu, Nagoya’s Number One ‘Soul Food’


Ask anyone around the country what springs to mind when you think of Nagoya, and you might be surprised to learn that it’s not the castle. Nor is it Toyota or the TV Tower. No, when Japanese people think of Nagoya, many think of miso katsu.

From International Cuisine to a Nagoya Staple

Today, miso katsu is very much considered to be Nagoya’s soul food, but it has its origins in the ‘yo-shoku,’ or international-inspired, food movement of the late nineteenth century. The word ‘katsu’ has been over time shortened from ‘katsureto,’ taken from the English word ‘cutlet,’ and generally describes a two centimeter-thick, deep-fried breaded pork cutlet. Katsu (or tonkatsu, literally ‘pork cutlet’) can be found served all over Japan, and usually comes served with a thick, sweet sauce, which is pretty much just ketchup mixed with Worcester sauce. But this being Nagoya, the ‘sauce’ is rejected in favor of a miso-based flavor.

Make it Miso!

Ah yes, because Nagoyans love their miso, and not just any miso, but hacchoumiso, a red, thick miso that, when it comes to flavor, knocks all other misos out of the park. It’s only popular in this area, but in this area, it’s VERY popular!

Miso katsu is usually served sliced into strips on a bed of breaded cabbage, with the miso slathered on top. However, it may also be found in the form of ‘miso katsudon,’ in which the katsu is served on top of a bowl of rice, or ‘miso kushi katsu’, which is like a small, deep-fried pork kebab on sticks, with miso poured over.

However the katsu is brought to your table, for those who like their food full of flavor (and are not overly concerned with their waistline) it is a delicious example of Nagoya’s culture.

Where to Find Miso Katsu

With it being Nagoya’s best-known dish, restaurants all around the city serve up miso katsu, and when it comes to quality, you pretty much can’t miss. However, some places do it better than others, and the below restaurants are generally considered the Kings of Katsu!


And Yabaton is very much the King of Kings. If you have been to the Yaba-cho area of Sakae, there is a good chance that you would have noticed Yabaton, with its massive mural of a smiling sumo pig towering over the area, and the line of hungry customers snaking out the door and down the street.

Established in 1947, Yabaton’s cutlet is made from high-quality pork from south Kyushu, and topped with natural-brewed bean miso that has been matured for eighteen months. Their large katsu is probably their most popular and is so big that you can have both sauce and miso on the same cutlet (see the main photo).

Where: 3 Chome-6-18 Osu, Naka Ward (map)

Kitchen Matsuya

At fifty years old and still going strong, Kitchen Matsuya is for those who really love their Nagoya food. Open for lunch and evening meals, the small restaurant is known for its signature ankake miso katsu, a katsu dish that also takes on some of the qualities that you would find in ankake spaghetti (about which you can read more here).

Rather than being slathered all over, here the sauce is delicately added in a French style so that the breadcrumbs absorb it, meaning that not a drop of taste is wasted. And as it is French in style, it goes well with a glass of red wine.

Where: 1-20-22, Nishiki, Naka-ku, Nagoya-shi, Hirokoji YMD Building 1-2 Floor (map)


Having been in business for over 30 years, Tonpachi is highly regarded for its tonkatsu. The pork used is kenkobuta from Gifu, famed for its tenderness, and is paired with Koshihikari rice from Niigata Prefecture.

The miso sauce differs a little from more traditional Nagoya dishes in that it is a bit lighter and sweeter, and if you aren’t keen on miso, try their cheese katsu. It’s pretty mouthwatering.

Where: 3 Chome-17-15 Chiyoda, Naka Ward (map)

Image: by bryan… via [CC BY 2.0] – Modified

Originally produced for for H&R Group

The Inside Story of Banking & Financial Services in Japan

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Following the 2008 global financial crisis, a state of affairs blamed by some on the freewheeling deregulation of the banking sector, regulatory compliance has been the overriding theme of an industry looking to insulate itself against a catastrophic repeat.

Since then risk compliance has been an integral part of banking concern, with global banks seeing regulatory fees dramatically increasing relative to earnings and credit losses. However, banks in Japan have been slow to follow suit. While some of the more prominent firms may have large compliance units others, particularly smaller organisations, may be restricted to just two or three professionals in their entire compliance unit.

Financial Services Agency (FSA) survey from October of this year, sparked by concern regarding patchy measures for fighting criminal abuse of the financial system, uncovered deficiencies amongst Japan's regional banks and credit associations. The report also found that many of Japan's smaller lenders have inadequate risk management and little buy-in from senior management.

Despite appearances to the contrary, this does not necessarily mean that Japanese banks are entirely negligent in this area. The last 24 months has seen rising concern over compliance practices, and firms have been adding to their compliance departments in order to ensure the robustness of their infrastructure, while others have been outsourcing some of their compliance practices.

One problem that the banks are facing is that some of the old regulations were out-dated and more applicable to the post-bubble era of the 1990s. The FSA has been making moves to change these regulations.

As this happens, in order to adapt to newer controls the banks will require additional staff to implement any new governance that comes out. Regulators are currently in the process of advising banks on the levels of compliance professionals required, applying pressure to ensure that these recommendations are carried out.

Compliance issues also bleed into the other hot topic in the Japanese banking industry, that of crypto currency adoption. By the start of October, worldwide Initial Coin Offerings (ICOs) coin sales worth $2.3 billion had been conducted during 2017 almost 25 times that of the entire previous year, and this exponential growth is making it very much a global talking point.

While Japan was the first nation to popularise the e-wallet, the Japanese public are famously techno-adverse when it comes to payment, with 2014 statistics showing more than 80 per cent of transactions by value were made in cash, and it would not have been beyond the realms of impossibility for Japan to go the ways of China and Korea in banning crypto currency.

However, in September Japan’s financial regulator approved the registrationof 11 crypto currency exchanges. Following this approval there is some debate as to whether these currencies will act as replacements for, or concurrently with the yen. In the meantime, perhaps the biggest question is as to how, and by whom, these currencies will be regulated.

So, with banks already in poor shape with risk compliance, new regulations being adopted, and the possibility of a new currency system, the Japanese banking industry is crying out for experienced compliance professionals. The problem here is that these professionals are made very much conspicuous by their absence.

While Japan’s employment market as a whole is in short supply, with job availability in July reaching a 43 year high of 1.52 positions for every job seeker, this is particularly prevalent in the banking compliance sector where it is estimated that there are three to four positions for every candidate, and companies are struggling to find adequate hires. 

Historically compliance has not been considered an attractive area for candidates in Japan as it has long been deemed a low-impact, poorly remunerated, perhaps uninteresting sector. However, this perception is starting to change as compliance becomes a number one priority in the banking industry, and companies recognise the need to encourage staff into this sector.

To this end, companies are seeing to it that successful candidates can now expect highly competitive salaries, with the additional attractiveness of working an area that offers visibility in an integral piece of the firm.

This is leading not only junior level candidates to become increasingly responsive to the enticement of compliance and securities firms, but also those from other sectors of the industry such as trading or, most prevalently, operations, who see the potential of applying their skills and knowledge to an area with perhaps a better work life balance and an improved salary.

One adverse affect of this skills shift is the rise in candidates required for the operations sector as replacements for those who have moved into compliance. This revolving door situation means that banking operations is another area of firm growth.

When companies do find a suitable candidate, particularly in the hyper-competitive compliance market, they are likely to move quickly and aggressively, driving through the recruitment process with haste. However, this is not necessarily always the case throughout the whole of the banking industry, and quite often the process can be painfully slow, as the candidate short market can lead companies to act with extreme caution as the fear of hiring the wrong candidate, and thus being lumbered with them on a long term contract, prohibits speed of action. This situation is something of a double-edged sword, as companies understand that they must move with urgency, but are apprehensive of doing so.

Despite this recruitment hesitancy, now is a good time for candidates to be in the market, particularly for those in compliance and operations areas, yet candidates must be aware that, although their skills are highly sought after, they can not expect to command astronomical salaries. Each position has a market value spectrum, with some negotiating power depending on the depth of the candidate pool. But if candidates hold out for over and above this valuation, they are likely to be overlooked.

Aside from salary, thanks to the recent societal shift towards shorter office hours following the much publicised working-to-death culture and a realisation by organisations that overworked staff leads to high turnover, candidates can expect to be offered more flexible working options. This may include shorter hours, limited overtime and in some cases, particularly for working mothers, working from home.

Partly thanks to regulatory bodies clamping down on previously lax practices, and partly in reaction to new technological advances, while it may have taken the banking industry in Japan some time, it seems that companies are finally realising the necessity of regulatory compliance. As a result it is a particularly good time for candidates with knowledge of this area. Candidates with a combination of extensive experience working with a regulatory body as well as in a securities firm will be pursued above all others.

Originally produced for Hays Recruitment Asia

Here's Blood in Your Eye

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Mark Guthrie discovers that Sumo is not Japan’s only wrestling

Back when I lived in the UK I had an office job alongside a lad who, in his spare time, took part in local wrestling bouts. “Like Hulk Hogan and the Ultimate Warrior?” My reference points were a little dated. “Yeah,” my co-worker confirmed. “You? Like The Undertaker and Andre the Giant?” “Yeah,” he replied, wearily. “But you’re five-foot-four!”  

If there were two things that I knew about pro-wrestling, it was that he was far too small to make it as a wrestler; and that if he was able to ‘fight’ huge roidheads and still turn up to the work without a scratch, then it was all just fake.

I was disavowed of the former assumption two years ago when my friend was signed up to WWE. The latter was annulled after I attended my first Big Japan Pro-wrestling Deathmatch.

Japan: Where Hardcore means Hardcore

Hardcore wrestling, where disqualifications, count-outs and other such safeguards don’t apply and weapons are not only permitted but encouraged, has been around since at least the mid-20th century. But it was not until a Japanese organisation, Frontier Martial-Arts Wrestling (FMW), got involved in 1989 that hardcore truly came to mean ‘hardcore’.

Centred around the organisation’s founder and biggest star, Atsushi Onita, FMW was the home of ‘deathmatch’ events. In a world where huge muscles and acrobatic combat stand steroided-shoulder-to-steroided-shoulder with theatrics and pantomime, wresting is not immune to a touch of hyperbole. Yet, FMW’s deathmatches came close to their billing, combining the willingness of competitors to risk their personal safety to the Nth degree and a complete disregard for health and safety, all in the name of entertainment.

Throughout the 1990s, Japanese pro-wrestling saw a series of events that could only be described as batsh*t nuts. Piranha battles saw competitors win by holding their opponent under a bath filled with flesh-eating fish for ten seconds. Scorpion battles were similar, if more fraught with danger. Rings were covered in barbed wire as standard, with fighters being thrown into the lacerating wire or attacked with weapons coiled in it.

Ring of Fire

The deathmatch fights were perhaps best known for their pyrotechnics, with explosive barbed-wire barricades made of rigged paraffin heaters dotted around the ring, or hanging vats of what was, for all intents and purposes, flaming napalm. However, with these ‘landmines’ proving somewhat costly, wrestling organisations began to cut corners,  and began simply hanging paraffin-soaked cloths around the ring ropes (which were actually, of course, barbed wire), leading in 1992 to a ‘Hellfire deathmatch’ event where the entire ring was set ablaze leading to the evacuation of the venue. Fortunately, no one died (though according to some reports one sixty-eight-year old participant was hospitalised with serious burns and fell into a heat-induced coma) and the tradition continued, with in 1995 Yukihiro Kanemura being power bombed onto a huge inferno which removed seventy-five per cent of the skin tissue on his back and shoulders.

Not that I knew of any of this insanity. When a friend of mine suggested we check out a bout, I wasn’t necessarily enthused due to my aforementioned ‘it’s all fake’ antipathy. I was relieved of that notion pretty quickly when, as we went to grab seats and I chose chairs near ringside my mate shook his head. “Don’t want to get blood on us,” he said. I laughed. He wasn’t laughing. We moved two rows back. We should have moved further.

Reality Bites… and Kicks, Punches and Rubs Glass in Your Face

The first battle was a tag team fight featuring the legendary Abdullah Kobayashi. At five-foot-nine and 20st 7lbs, Kobayashi is a huge butterball of a man – not that I’d say that to his face – and his back is covered in a thousand lacerations that told of a lifetime in the pursuit of violent entertainment, and their source soon became apparent. This was a ‘fluorescent light tube deathmatch’, and every now and again huge strips of lighting where brought into the ring. Their purpose? For hitting each other, of course.

With the first swing of a bunch of tubes in his opponent’s face, Kobayashi sent glass everywhere. Sugar glass, I presumed, like they used in movies. But then, when I went to take a swig of my beer, I stopped mid-swallow as I noticed a chunk of glass floating in the foam. This sh*t was for real. As was the blood that splattered over a girl in the front row. She stood up. She screamed for more blood. 

The second bout on the ticket was a comparatively more sedate affair, more akin to the WWE style that I had expected – lots of posturing and acrobatics. That was until they brought out a full set of table and chairs, all wrapped in barbed wire, and it was close to being over when one guy was bombed from the top rope into the table, razors and all. But then out came the bowling balls, and victory came when a ball met its, ahem, three-pinned target. The crowd howled.

I’ll be honest, after all of that, being of a somewhat squeamish nature, I had to take a break and retired to the bar for a while where I had a fortifying beer (or three). I was going to need them. The next and final fight was the Rest in Peace Fluorescent Lightbulb Graveyard match, and when I came back out I found that the ropes were entirely covered in the glass tubes and barbed wire. This, I realised, was going to get messy.

An Angel and a Crazy Monkey

Another tag team battle, the crowd’s roar reached a crescendo when Jun “Crazy Monkey” Kasai and “Black Angel” Jaki Numazawa took to the ring. Along with Abdullah Kobayashi, these two are perhaps the best-known wrestlers on the deathmatch circuit. I finished my beer in readiness, not wanting another mouthful of glass.

Before long the ring was awash with remnants of lightbulb. If someone wanted to headbutt an opponent, it was through the tubes. Dropkicks were through glass. And when an opponent was down, handfuls of glass were rubbed into backs and faces, so that when the fight came out of the ring and clattered into the audience blood flew everywhere. Kasai, living up to his ‘Crazy’ moniker, chose to rub the glass into his own forehead, the blood cascading into his wild, odd-coloured eyes.

By the end of the show there was not a light bulb standing, not a fighter unbloodied and my sensitive psyche as scarred as Crazy Monkey’s forehead. And my opinion of Japanese pro-wrestling? As real as it comes.

Originally produced for NEO Magazine (UK Print)

The Inside Story of Manufacturing & Operations in Mainland China


For almost thirty years the phrase ‘Made in China’ has been analogous with the low-cost manufacture of consumer goods. From shoes to cell phones, from refrigerators to air conditioners, thanks to its inexpensive labour and vast governmental assistance, Mainland China has been very much considered the world’s factory. Times, however, are changing, and for this new age the phrase has received an upgrade: ‘Made in China 2025.’

Taking inspiration from Germany’s ‘Industry 4.0’ strategy, Made in China 2025 (MIC 2025) is an initiative to comprehensively upgrade Chinese manufacturing, shifting the focus from consumer goods towards high-tech areas of industrial robots, aerospace and automation by way of heavy investments in research innovation and government subsidies.

This transformation is having a profound effect on how Chinese manufacturing is perceived overseas. Whereas previously foreign organisations looked to invest in Mainland China’s manufacturing and operations (M&O) sector due to low labour and operational costs, companies now recognise the possibilities inherent in the new Chinese model. Understanding that the nation is on the cusp of actualising its desire to move from mechanical drive to electrical and software control, foreign companies are as a result investing in engineering and research and development (R&D) centres. The foreign powers who have traditionally operated in this high-tech space are taking notice.

“[Made in China 2025 is] a very, very serious challenge, not just to us, but to Europe, Japan and the global trading system,” said U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer. “They want to be on top of all the high-tech, all the cutting-edge economic areas. And it’s smart for them to do it.”

While the advantages of MIC 2025 are obvious in advancing Mainland China’s desire to become a high-income economy, it also provides opportunities for companies to reduce costs, as manufacturing moves away from a labour-heavy space towards a higher reliance on automation and IoT, an increasing concern as salaries rise.

In 2017 many Chinese provinces raised their wage minimums, something that, according to Zhao Yang, chief Mainland China economist at Nomura International in Hong Kong, is “guided by the top leadership’s emphasis on poverty alleviation and sharing more of the fruit of growth with the disadvantaged.” However, the costs of these rising wages, in some instances equalling or bettering some areas of Europe, are being passed on to manufacturing companies, and to alleviate this they are turning to operations departments to cut costs, with the use of Six Sigma and lean practices especially prevalent.

However, this does not mean that Trade Representative Lighthizer has overstated concerns of Mainland China’s ability to compete with American high-tech industry. Mainland China’s manufacturing market share is growing in anumber of areas as companies invest heavily in product development and domestic and international M&A activity. These ventures were prominent through 2017, and have continued to be so this year, though recent months have seen a slight slowdown in M&A following the heightening of the recent trade war with the U.S.

This robust activity is having a dramatic effect in how Mainland China’s M&O sector is being implemented and is driving a desire to locate candidates for a number of areas. From R&D managers with electrical or software engineering backgrounds, to automation engineers, to lean and Six Sigma engineers, there is a battle to acquire the top talent that will enable organisations to improve in the MIC 2025 era.

Unfortunately, companies are finding these areas candidate short, forcing them to adopt a number of tactics to fill talent gaps. One strategy is to look internally to existing employees who may have abilities that can be adapted through upskilling, and in the areas of automation and Six Sigma, these positions are regularly filled by employees from engineering or process engineering departments.

While this may be an initially cost-efficient way to locate talent, many companies are proving impatient. As sales teams cannot always be relied upon to increase profits, companies are pressing operational areas to make savings by placing lean engineers as quickly as possible, meaning that they are more likely to hire directly than take the time required to train existing staff.

In these instances, companies regularly turn to recruitment companies such as Hays to source highly skilled candidates, and those experienced in the famed Toyota Production System are top of manufacturing companies’ wish lists, whether they are automotive manufacturing firms or first tier suppliers. If these optimal candidates are not available, companies desperate to fill roles are showing flexibility to those who may not quite meet requirements but have similar skills or experience in comparable roles.

In R&D and engineering sectors companies are looking further afield, with even domestic organisations interested in candidates from overseas should they have the skillsets required to assist in product development. Elsewhere, however, localisation is very much the key, as there is an understanding that, with 20 years of repeatedly upgraded experience to mine within the Chinese manufacturing industry, the talent in the area is sufficient to not require costly overseas hires, and there is a trend for foreign employees already at companies being returned and replaced with local candidates.

With a strong and stable market, there are plenty of opportunities to exploit. Even if candidates are not considering new opportunities in the immediacy, it is a good time to appraise options, with salary increases of between 10 and 20 per cent available. When this is combined with the chance to progress careers and manage larger teams, candidates are in positions of strength in these exciting and fast-changing times.

Original for Hays Recruitment Asia

Nagoya Undergoing Marie Kondo Style Un-clutter Treatment


The city of Nagoya is currently undergoing a de-clutter procedure by Marie Kondo, starting with the destruction of Central Park, much to the confusion of local residents.

Kondo, known as ‘Konmari’ in Japan and as ‘that woman on Netflix who talks to inanimate objects’ everywhere else, has been recruited by the Nagoya City Council to clear up the city and leave it with nothing but things that ‘spark joy’ in the hearts of Nagoyans.

“When it comes to cities, nothing creates more clutter than trees,” said the ‘organization expert’, who somehow manages to call herself that whilst keeping a straight face. “Leaves fall in the autumn dirtying the streets, birds sit in them to defecate, and branches can drop off. Who can honestly say that they have looked at a tree and felt pure joy?” continued the woman whose job it is to convince people to get rid of family photo albums and old love letters.

However, the move has puzzled locals, who can see no good reason for willfully destroying the only nice part of Sakae.

“I love walking through Central Park on my lunchtime,” said graphic designer Mai Nishida.

“It’s the best spot to get away from the hectic city atmosphere, see some greenery and commune with nature.

“I was shocked when I saw that the Park had been ravaged. I heard rumors that a ‘monster mother’ had complained when a branch fell and hit her child. A friend of mine suggested that the council were using the wood to save money on the reconstruction of the castle,” added Nishida.

“I had even heard that it was because the council had erroneously decided that the park had too many trees*. But now I’ve heard about Marie Kondo’s involvement, which at least makes a little bit more sense. Because surely no one ever thought to themselves ‘do you know what this city centre park needs? Less trees’.”

[*Yes, if you hadn’t already figured it out, that is exactly the hair-brained reasoning behind hacking down half of the park. Baffling, eh? – Daily Nag Ed.

Originally published in NAGMAG (Japan Print)

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Hanging Out at Forest Adventure Shinshiro in Aichi Prefecture

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Do you feel at one with nature? Do you prefer to be up in the trees than down on the ground? Or perhaps you have a little monkey who is climbing the walls this holiday? If you find yourself nodding along, or even just curious, get yourself along to Forest Adventure Shinshiro.

About Forest Adventure Shinshiro

Forest Adventure Shinshiro is an off-ground adventure facility, an “outdoor park in harmony with nature,” within Shinshiro City’s expansive, forested General Park.

Covering some 8,000 square meters of the park, Forest Adventure Shinshiro challenges visitors to navigate gang-walks and wires high into the tree line. With a total of 39 activities spread across five courses, it is one of only 25 facilities of its kind in the country, and the only one in Aichi.

The courses are divided into three levels of difficulty, with the hardest (and most exciting!) being the ‘Adventure’ course. Here you will be high off the ground for the longest of time, ride a thrilling ‘Tarzan Swing’ and finish by flying along a 100-meter zip line.

For those who are a little unsure about being suspended in the air for all that time, or just want to get a feel for it before graduating to the Adventure Course, the Discovery Course is a little easier, and easier still is the Canopy Course.

Safe Fun for the Family

Though it sounds like the domain of action men and women, or a grueling military exercise, Forest Adventure Shinshiro is, in fact, a great day out for all of the family, with the Canopy Course open to children from 110 centimeters (though children must be 140cm to enjoy the Adventure Course).

As such, safety is paramount, and there is a constant emphasis on personal responsibility. There is an extensive training course at the beginning of the activity, with training on the belay system especially important. As this may be difficult for small children, the Canopy Course has a continuous belay system that does not require uncoupling.

Forest Adventure Shinshiro Details

It takes between two and two and a half hours to complete the Adventure Course. While some basic level of fitness is probably advantageous, it is not strictly necessary as many of the activities are light work, and the safety harness supports your weight. However, the more you can do without their help, the more exciting it will be!

Originally for H&R Group