Pursuing peculiar passions: the wacky world of Japan’s offbeat groups

by

Special To The Japan Times

Play it safe. Follow the rules. Respect authority. And, above all, don’t stick out like that silly proverbial nail.

That’s Japan’s recipe for social harmony. Student, salaryman, office lady, homemaker — everyone has a role to play in society, so just fit into the mold and get with the program, OK?

But Japan also has some truly dedicated eccentrics who like to stir things up and add a little spice to life. You can see the really obvious ones on the street: the ojiisan dressed as a schoolgirl, the guy who takes his pet African giant tortoise for a walk or the “tiger man” of Shinjuku careening through the streets on his bicycle.

Less visible are the eccentric types who pursue their passion for rarified pursuits by forming associations with like-minded folks. No matter how arcane or bizarre the hobby or interest, there’s probably an organization in Japan dedicated to it.

There are associations of ventriloquists, paper airplane enthusiasts and people who like eating gyoza dumplings. There’s also an association of ameotoko and ameonna — men and women who supposedly have the ability to make it rain.

Some groups sound rather dodgy. Take the Twin Tail Association, for example. It’s dedicated to helping Japanese women become “more beautiful, energetic and happy” by encouraging them to wear their hair in double pigtails. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, mind you, but the plethora of photos of pouting, pubescent twin tail-coiffed girls on the association’s website give pause for thought.

There’s even a Japan Narcissists’ Association. Attempts to contact them for an interview were unsuccessful, which is hardly surprising — the self-obsessed have so little time for others, including nosy writers.

Teppei Yasuhisa of the Japan Karaage Association
Teppei Yasuhisa of the Japan Karaage Association | COURTESY OF TEPPEI YASUHISA

Teppei Yasuhisa typifies the kind of amiable eccentric who starts a group to pursue a personal passion. For him, it’s kara-age — Japanese-style deep-fried chicken. Yasuhisa launched the Japan Karaage Association in 2008 to spread the word about his favorite snack. It now has some 80,000 members.

Yasuhisa holds kara-age-themed events around Japan and provides consulting services to retailers and restaurants.

“We Japanese love kara-age,” Yasuhisa says. “If everyone in the world ate kara-age, we would have world peace.”

He claims kara-age is more popular in Japan than sushi, which is a bit hard to swallow.

Yasuhisa runs his own IT and web design company in Tokyo’s upscale Takanawa district. But as he holds forth about the joys of being a “kara-agenist,” it’s clear that his true calling is to spread the kara-age gospel.

Yasuhisa was born on the island of Tanegashima in Kagoshima Prefecture and lived there until his family moved to Tokyo when he was 9 years old.

Although his mom sometimes made kara-age, Yasuhisa says it wasn’t until he tried the deep-fried treat at a family restaurant in Tokyo that he had his epiphany.

“That’s when my kara-age life began,” Yasuhisa says.

“I eat kara-age every day,” he says, his thin frame belying any notion that the deep-fried morsels make you fat.

Yasuhisa points out that kara-age isn’t limited to chicken — squid and octopus are also good deep-fried, he says. He likes to wash his kara-age down with a highball, together with some onigiri rice balls.

Masako Ochiai of the Kaibun Society
Masako Ochiai of the Kaibun Society | COURTESY OF MASAKO OCHIAI

Like Yasuhisa, Masako Ochiai has an all-consuming passion. Hers is a literary one — palindromes. Ochiai is a middle-aged office worker who doesn’t stand out from the crowd. However, when she starts talking about her favorite form of wordplay, she becomes a passionate proselytizer for all things palindromic.

“Anybody can write haiku,” Ochiai says, “but not many people can create palindromes.

“I became interested in palindromes when I was in primary school,” she says. “I thought they were interesting.”

Ochiai is at pains to point out that Japanese palindromes are very different from those in Western languages, which are based on taking a phrase and reading the letters that make it up in reverse order. “Madam, I’m Adam” is a classic example.

Japanese palindromes, in contrast, work by reading a given phrase in reverse order phonetically. Ochiai offers this example: “世の中ね顔かお金かなのよ,” or “Yo no naka ne kao ka o-kane ka nano yo.”

Some might consider creating palindromes a waste of time, on a par with collecting string. However, Ochai says it’s a great form of brain training.

“When I’m on the train, I’ll pass the time by looking at words in advertisements and trying to make palindromes,” she says.

Ochiai launched the Kaibun Society website in 2006. She says the organization doesn’t have members as such. It’s more of a forum for people to share palindromes they’ve come up with. Ochiai says about 200 people have contributed to her website so far.

The internet has played a key role in bringing together people with common interests who might otherwise have pursued their hobbies in isolation. Ochiai says that’s definitely the case with her and her palindrome posse.

Masaaki Shirai of the Japan Spaceguard Association
Masaaki Shirai of the Japan Spaceguard Association | COURTESY OF THE JAPAN SPACEGUARD ASSOCIATION

The web has also proved a useful tool for the members of the Japan Spaceguard Association to share data as they pursue their mission of protecting Earth from interplanetary peril.

Despite the sci-fi-sounding name, the folks at the association aren’t a bunch of nutters. Since the group was established in 1996, it’s been working to protect our planet from collisions with near-Earth objects such as asteroids and comets by studying and observing them.

The organization’s 400 members include professional and amateur astronomers, students and others. Its secretary-general is Masaaki Shirai, a 79-year-old retired lawyer.

Atsuo Asami, the association’s vice president, says women account for just 10 percent of the group’s membership.

There was a time when people such as Asami and Shirai would have been dismissed as cranks with their heads in the clouds, crying the sky is falling. Lately, however, they’ve been getting more respect.

Atsuo Asami of the Japan Spaceguard Association
Atsuo Asami of the Japan Spaceguard Association | COURTESY OF THE JAPAN SPACEGUARD ASSOCIATION

Asami says one reason is the widespread coverage of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9’s crash with Jupiter in 1994.

“If it had hit Earth, it would have been really bad,” he says.

More people have become aware of the peril our planet faces now that we know the dinosaurs were wiped out when an asteroid struck the Earth 65 million years ago. Asami says it could be our turn next — unless we act.

In 2000, the association began operating the Bisei Spaceguard Center in Okayama Prefecture. Besides looking for near-Earth objects, the astronomers at the Bisei observatory track man-made debris in Earth’s orbit.

So what happens if the group’s eagle-eyed observers spot an asteroid and determine it’s headed for our patch of cosmic real estate? Blasting it to bits would be a decidedly bad idea, Asami says, because much of the resulting debris would hit Earth anyway. He says the only solution would be to send a space probe to the threatening asteroid and fire a rocket to deflect it away from Earth.

The association is taking part in the International Academy of Astronautics’ Fifth Planetary Defense Conference in Tokyo from May 15 to 19. Experts from around the world will meet to discuss the threat that asteroids and comets pose to Earth.

That threat is very real, Asami stresses. “On average, two objects measuring 10 meters across hit the Earth every month,” he says.

Yasuhisa would probably recommend a plate of kara-age, washed down with a highball, to reduce the sense of cosmic dread caused by an interview with the Spaceguard Association. Another way would be to pay a visit to the very affable Kuninaga Osawa.

Kuninaga Osawa of the World Funny Face Association and Steve McClure make funny faces.
Kuninaga Osawa of the World Funny Face Association and Steve McClure make funny faces. | COURTESY OF KUNINAGA OSAWA

Osawa is the head of the World Funny Face Association and, like Yasushisa, he’s a man with a mission.

“Japanese people are too worried about how they appear to others,” Osawa says. He castigates them for being too wound-up and conservative, noting that “everybody is boring.”

Not Osawa. He’s an animated, endearingly wacky guy, whose nonstop spiel is broken only by frequent searches in his Japanese-English dictionary as he tries to find the right English word for a concept too abstruse for someone with limited Japanese ability.

Osawa’s basic message is that making funny faces is good for you.

“Making funny faces, smiling and boosting positive thinking all help to relieve stress,” he says. Osawa then contorts his visage into a vaguely disturbing, verging-on-grotesque expression to make his point.

Osawa is a character, for sure. I’m interviewing him in his comfortable, if minimally decorated, office in an upscale building in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district.

Osawa is an acupuncturist and massage therapist by trade. His work led him to look into ways to help people deal with the stress of modern life, and one solution he found was the seemingly silly — but simple — expedient of making funny faces.

Osawa established the association four years ago. He says it now has more than 3,000 members, from all walks of life, all over Japan. And judging from the photos on the association’s website, they’re no slouches when it comes to making ridiculous faces. Some take the idea to what appear to be downright painful extremes.

“Making funny faces boosts the immune system and can help prevent cancer,” Osawa says. Besides operating his website, he travels around the country to spread the funny-face gospel.

Osawa recommends starting each day by making funny faces in the bathroom mirror as you brush your teeth. He counsels moderation, however, and says it’s probably not a good idea to do that during a business meeting, for example.

A woman sits in a seiza position.
A woman sits in a seiza position. | ISTOCK

Somehow it doesn’t seem likely that making funny faces is part of the program at the Japan Seiza Association. The organization has been promoting the virtues of sitting upright while squatting on one’s haunches since 1999.

Association spokesperson Yasuko Hashizume says sitting seiza-style is good for the spine and mental well-being. It also helps to alleviate lower back pain.

Hashizume is not a seiza fundamentalist. She’s not averse to sitting on chairs. “But I do try to sit seiza every day,” she says.

That may be fine for the lithe of limb, but what about a long-legged 58-year-old foreign guy with creaky joints?

“Sitting seiza may be painful until you get used to it,” she says. “However, it may be a good experience.”

I’ll take her word for it.

The members of another association with a traditional Japanese theme want people to gird their loins — literally.

A man wears a fundoshi (loincloth) at Tokyo
A man wears a fundoshi (loincloth) at Tokyo’s Teppozu Inari Shrine in January 2006. | AP

The Japan Fundoshi Association has been promoting the merits of wearing the traditional loincloth since 2011. The association warns against what it says are the deleterious effects of wearing underclothes with tight elastics.

Wearing such garments interrupts the circulation of blood and lymph, the organization cautions. Wearing a fundoshi, it says, improves blood circulation and boosts “lower-body energy” as well as the quality of sleep.

The association holds workshops to make people aware of the virtues of wearing the humble loincloth. It also sponsors special events on Fundoshi Day every Feb. 14 — Valentine’s Day.

A sociologist might argue that the rich variety of special-interest groups in Japan reflects the healthy state of its civic society. They’re autonomous, grass-roots organizations formed by people with strong, independent personalities, many of whom fall under the category of eccentric.

A less charitable view is that they reflect the Japanese tendency toward “groupism,” and that their formal organizational structures merely replicate the hierarchical nature of society.

A political scientist might say innocuous-sounding groups such as the Karaage Association, far from showing the healthy state of Japanese society, are a substitute for meaningful social and political activity. (Of course, there’s nothing stopping you from being both a kara-agenist and an environmentalist, for example.)

And for some non-Japanese, groups such as the Fundoshi Association reinforce the tired “wacky Japan” trope.

The main thing, though, is that they’re simply fun. And as Lennon and McCartney noted in “She’s Leaving Home,” “Fun is the one thing money can’t buy.”

Naomi Umemura and Rie Nakaya contributed to this story.

Useful links

Karaage Association: karaage.ne.jp
Kaibun Society: kaibun.jimdo.com
Japan Spaceguard Association: www.spaceguard.or.jp/index_e.html
World Funny Face Association: bmkbiken.or.jp/wha
Japan Seiza Association: www.seiza.net
Japan Fundoshi Association: www.japan-fundoshi.com