An “Otaku Dictionary” has Japan’s subcultures upset at an attempt to define them. Thu-Huong Ha and Yukana Inoue join us to explain the linguistic scandal before discussing whether or not Japan has mastered “sitting.”
On this episode:
Yukana Inoue: Articles
- How a dictionary came to spark outrage among the web’s otaku (Thu-Huong Ha and Yukana Inoue, The Japan Times)
- Test your otaku vocabulary, from 'oshi' to bacon lettuce’ (Thu-Huong Ha and Yukana Inoue, The Japan Times)
- Let the gaming begin: A guide to Tokyo’s video game landmarks (W. Tanner Kirk, The Japan Times)
- Has Japan mastered sitting? (Thu-Huong Ha, The Japan Times)
- Bedbugs are spreading in South Korea and China. Is Japan next? (Karin Kaneko, The Japan Times)
- Japan to start trial of over-the-counter sales of morning after pill (Kathleen Benoza, The Japan Times)
Get in touch: Send us feedback at [email protected]. Support the show by rating, reviewing and sharing the episode with a friend if you’ve enjoyed it. For a transcript of the show, visit japantimes.co.jp, and don’t forget to follow us on X!
Transcript note: Deep Dive is made to be listened to, and we recommend this transcript be used as an accompaniment to the episode. This transcript has been generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcription, and may contain errors. Please check its accuracy against the episode.
Shaun McKenna 00:09
Welcome to Deep Dive from The Japan Times, I'm Shaun McKenna. Earlier this year, we celebrated a kind of milestone. Forty years ago, in a column for the magazine Manga Burikko, writer Akio Nakamori coined the term “otaku” for a group of young people he saw at a convention. The word itself is derived from a Japanese honorific for the word “you,” but Nakamori was far from polite in describing what he saw, calling the guys “the kind who are inept at sports and stay inside at recess playing chess,” and describing the girls he saw as “overweight” and “unfashionable.” But much like nerd culture in the West, Japanese otaku now command a considerable amount of purchasing power, and have sway over everything from entertainment to politics. Today, I'm going to be joined by Japan Times staff writers Thu-Huong Ha and Yukana Inoue, they just wrote a story about the creation of an Otaku Dictionary that had lots of people up in arms on social media. And after we've done that, we'll talk to Thu more about a longform piece she just wrote on sitting, which poses the question, “Are we doing it wrong?” Or more precisely, “Is Japan doing it right?”
Thu-Huong Ha 01:21
Shaun McKenna 01:22
Yukana Inoue 01:23
Shaun McKenna 01:24
So you both wrote about this Otaku Dictionary, and I think there's a chance of some generational divides in this conversation. Yukana, you’re Gen Z. So what would you define as an otaku, and why would they need their own dictionary?
Yukana Inoue 01:40
I think in simplest terms otaku can be defined as someone who has something or someone that they're really, really passionate about, and enjoys spending a lot of money or time investing in whatever this target of their obsession may be, whether it be like idols or games, any kind of media content. And I'd say in the past, there was somewhat of a negative connotation against the term otaku where you'd usually imagine, like, men with greasy hair who don't shower that often, like cooped up in their homes watching animated girls and such. But I would say over the past decade or so, the definition of otaku has shifted to become a little bit more widely accepted. Where growing up, a lot of my friends would wear it almost as a badge of honor of being part of this community where they would identify as Oh, I'm a K-pop otaku or I'm a Disneyland otaku or, you know, Johnny's or, you know, Smile-Up otaku. As someone who never had that I was almost jealous because it seemed so fun to be part of this community. And I think this idea of being part of a community is what makes the experience of being an otaku very unique, and the reason why they also needed a dictionary because these communities are so niche and specific that they have generated their own terms and, you know, words, culture, tradition, that they wanted to find a way to catalog them in a way that other people could also get to know.
Shaun McKenna 03:13
So you both went to Nagoya to interview Yoshiko Koide, who kind of led the group that compiled this dictionary. Thu, how did Koide come to find herself immersed in the world of otaku.
Thu-Huong Ha 03:25
So Koide was teaching a class at Nagoya College about Japanese language, and she didn't find her students very responsive in class, they were very quiet and didn't seem very engaged. But she noticed that outside of class, they were like fonts of information and passion, about, you know, stuff that they were obsessed about the things that they were otaku for so like K-pop and games and boys’ love and things that she just like, didn't really know about. And she was like, well, there's this kind of baked-in enthusiasm that they have, and it does have its own language, so could she combine the two and she ended up making the focus of their thesis project, this Otaku Dictionary. It's actually important to clarify that it's not like all the internet's otaku got together, and they were like, “We need a dictionary.” And it's not that even the publisher Sanseido was like, “Oh, we need a dictionary.” This wasn't originally commissioned as an academic reference material. What happened was Koide had this seminar with five, originally, students, they made the dictionary they published it, they self-published it for their college fair. And they had such success that she repeated it with her 2023 class, which had seven women in it. And they were approached by Sanseido to publish it as a dictionary and as a published piece of work. So it was never intended to be an authoritative reference book. And the categories are not supposed to be representative of all otaku stuff. They were chosen by the students from their own genuine passions and their own enthusiasms.
Shaun McKenna 04:56
So what were some of the terms that were in the dictionary to either of you have any favorites?
Yukana Inoue 05:00
Yeah, some of the ones that really stood out to me, there were some words that were used in English in, you know, regular slang conversation that was otaku-fied, you could say? One that I thought was interesting is “TMI,” which you know, is the abbreviation of “too much information,” but in the Japanese otaku language, according to the dictionary, is used within K-pop fandoms, when idols share about their personal life in their day-to-day livestreams, which I thought was interesting. There was also “ATM,” which, as everyone knows, is the machine where you draw money and you could call yourself or someone and ATM as the person to spend a lot of money toward supporting someone or something. So you can call yourself like, “I want to be an ATM for my oshi, which is your bias or the person that you support?
Thu-Huong Ha 05:53
So you could be like the ATM for this K-pop idol or something?
Yukana Inoue 05:56
Oh, yeah, exactly.
Thu-Huong Ha 05:47
Is that a good thing?
Yukana Inoue 05:58
I mean, yeah, some people take it as such, where you want, it's like a badge of honor. Yeah, it's like, you know, the example that's used in the dictionary, the example sentence, is I want to be the ATM for my bias.
Shaun McKenna 06:10
Oh right, so you boast about it kind of ... I’m a superfan.
Yukana Inoue 06:14
Yeah, you like express your desire to want to support your, you know, bias in a way.
Thu-Huong Ha 06:20
That’s a big part of a talk about identity, right, is like being proud that you're spending money on X on your, the thing that you're a fan of?
Yukana Inoue 06:27
Right, right. Because you want to support them, you want them to do good. And you show that through money, or time.
Thu-Huong Ha 06:33
I really liked “Bacon Lettuce,” which is a great sandwich, like Bacon Lettuce. And as far as I know, doesn't have anything to do with a literal sandwich. But because of the “B” and the “L” it’s used as a euphemism for “boys’ love,” which are gay male stories.
Shaun McKenna 06:53
Is there a term for bacon, lettuce and tomato?
Thu-Huong Ha 06:56
Shaun, don’t get us canceled.
Yukana Inoue 06:57
Oh, another term that I was familiar with because I was within this niche community of being or having done dance my entire life. The word “shinmei,” which is short for “symmetry,” is used within dance communities to illustrate the positioning of people on the stage. And I knew this because I did dance my entire life. But the otaku-fied meaning of it I was unfamiliar with because it points to certain members of idol groups that take on that kind of role for each other where they either complement each other or they have some rivalry relationship to each other within the group. And I thought it was so interesting that it had its own unique otaku-fied, meaning.
Shaun McKenna 07:38
Huh, kind of like Jordan and Jonathan Knight from the New Kids.
Yukana Inoue 07:40
Yeah, that, I'm, sorry.
Shaun McKenna 7:39
That's my generation. So the seminar was successful enough to catch the interest of the major publisher Sanseido. And when it was promoting the release of the dictionary, there was a bit of a backlash among some otaku communities. Yukana, can you tell us what happened?
Yukana Inoue 08:01
Yeah. So, basically, when Sanseido released a couple of pages in October in order to promote the release of the book, people on the internet found it and they were not happy about some of the entries, specifically one that people were not happy about was the definition and example for the term “kao kapu.” And so “kao” stands for “face,” and “kapu” stands for “coupling” or “shipping,” you could say. So the term itself means when fandoms, certain fandoms, ship to characters together purely based on how they look, regardless of if they have any connection to each other. In the actual storyline.
Thu-Huong Ha 08:43
Can we give like a “Harry Potter” or like a “Star Wars” example here?
Yukana Inoue 08:43
Oh, it would be like shipping Ron Weasley from “Harry Potter” with Cedric Diggory — like they have no connection in the actual storyline just because you want them to be. Yeah, just because they look good together, I guess, hypothetically. So in the dictionary as an example, they used an existing kao kapu, and I say existing as in there's a fan base that supports or is a fan of this specific coupling on the internet, between the protagonist of “Jujutsu Kaisen,” Yuji Itadori and another character, Toji Fushiguro, and people were not happy about the usage of this example, because they felt as though this specific kao kapu that only existed in the corner of the internet was exposed to the public by publishing it on a published book.
Shaun McKenna 09:41
So it's like this group of otaku kind of this small community had come up with this couple arrangement. And then all of a sudden they see it published in like an official dictionary, and that's kind of like one of their secrets being exposed or something like that.
Yukana Inoue 10:00
A little bit. Some people weren’t happy because of that reasons. Other people were unhappy because they felt like the definition of the term “kao kapu” itself was off from what they thought was the definition of the term. And so they received a lot of backlash. And understandably, the students were terrified by it, because some of the people were saying that they were going to come after them, and they were identifying them and stuff. So because of the backlash before the publishing of the book, they ended up taking out the names of the students. And now, so only the professor is credited, which I think is a little bit of a bummer, because it'll be cool to have, as a college student, cool to have a book that's published under your name.
Shaun McKenna 10:35
Why is this such a big problem for otaku communities?
Thu-Huong Ha 10:39
Well, what Koide said when we spoke with her is that the thing that seemed to get people most upset is when they saw words being used in ways that they just didn't use them. So, I think it gets to this larger thing of otaku being, people feeling like they're, it's a part of their identity. And language is also a part of yourself and your identity. And I think those two things together, made people feel surprisingly emotional — or maybe not that surprising — but surprisingly emotional, about seeing words just, quote, defined in ways that didn't match their understanding of the words.
Shaun McKenna 11:11
That’s interesting, because I don't actually think that's, you know, a uniquely Japanese problem, either. I think that's something that you know, people overseas in any kind of subculture would be able to relate to.
Thu-Huong Ha 11:21
Yeah, the way I see it is that something happened in between the original intent of the project, and the book that we now are seeing on bookshelves across Japan, which is that, for the students, this was a student-led project, a kind of ground up sort of very subjective, it was intended to be a recording of their subjective uses of these words and a commemoration of like their work in the class. And that was, that was the intention with the self-published version of the dictionary. But with Sanseido coming in, and publishing it as a, you know, a very official-looking bound book, as Yukana said, from a publisher known for dictionaries and mass distributing it, I think that it does give it this sheen of authority, and it almost could be interpreted as a form of gatekeeping. Instead of something really organic and really fan-led, it looks a lot more top-down than it was originally intended. And I think in that shift of platform, it significantly changes the purpose of the book.
Shaun McKenna 12:27
Right, so there are two articles online related to the Otaku Dictionary, and I'll put links to those in the show notes. Thu, Yukana, stay seated, because after the break, I want to talk about a piece Thu wrote recently on sitting.
Thu, a few weeks ago, we published a story by you titled “Has Japan mastered sitting?” The story is a truly in depth look at the history of sitting, primarily in Japan, but with mentions of other countries too. It also dives into the psychology of sitting, its impact on Japanese culture and even the political aspects of what's really something we do every day and often don't give another thought to. I remember you coming to me and pitching this piece a few months ago. What gave you the idea to write about sitting in the first place?
Thu-Huong Ha 13:22
I mean, you let me do it.
Shaun McKenna 13:24
It's a weird thing, because you pitched, sitting, I think you just said sitting.
Thu-Huong Ha 13:30
And then we were just calling it the sitting story for a while. And you're like, “And then Thu will publish ... sitting.”
Shaun McKenna 13:36
I think listeners have to understand that whenever anyone got into a conversation with you about sitting, soon, they would start talking a lot. They actually wanted to know a lot about sitting.
Thu-Huong Ha 13:47
Yes. Working on the story confirmed that it needed to be written, which is not necessarily the order you want to go. But yeah, I found that the more I would talk to people about sitting the more I would get more ideas because everyone's had something to say. So I'm curious, what kind of sitting situations do you guys have at home?
Shaun McKenna 14:06
I've got sofas.
Yukana Inoue 14:08
I'm such a floor person. I always sit on the floor. That's my go to position.
Thu-Huong Ha 14:13
Do you have above floor seating at home?
Yukana Inoue 14:16
I mean yes, I do. I do. We have like dining table chairs and I my desk as a chair but even then I opt to sit on the floor usually when I'm relaxing.
Thu-Huong Ha 14:28
Like and does it work for you because like I would say I have a seating situation that is not ideal, but I just work with one I have. I have this backless chair. I don't understand this chair. It has a back and then it has a butt and then in the place where you would expect it to have the support for your back there is a hole. And it's a very popular Nitori chair. It has literally the opposite of support. It has empty space where you expect something to be supporting you.
Yukana Inoue 15:02
Well, during the winter because it's cold, our family has the kotatsu table where there's, you know, a blanket around there where you can like sit inside, and it warms you up. And that one, like you have to sit on the floor at a 90 degree angle to use the table. So it can be a little bit uncomfortable. But no back pain so far. But that could also be because I'm pretty young. So...
Thu-Huong Ha 15:23
For now, or now. ... So you grew up in Japan but you went to college in the U.S.?
Yukana Inoue 15:31
Yes, so I think this will become important in my sitting journey. I was born here and then I briefly lived in the States when I was young, like when I was like 5 or 6, and then and then I grew up most of my life in Japan and then went to college in California.
Thu-Huong Ha 15:50
What happened to the story of Yukana sitting?
Yukana Inoue 15:52
Yeah, well, I think one thing was when I went to like kindergarten and first grade in America, they told me to sit you know, crisscross applesauce hands in your basket, or whatever that is. So I was told in school that was the way you were supposed to sit. And then I come back to Japan and go to elementary school here and I sit like that and I'm scolded because crisscross applesauce is rude. Yeah, so that was that was a big I guess reverse culture shock when I came back and then I was told to sit in sankaku zuwari, which is when you sit with your, like, knees up...
Thu-Huong Ha 16:29
Knees together, to get your arms to fit around your legs.
Yukana Inoue 16:33
Yeah. I guess when I went to college, my most natural sitting position is when my legs are like out sideways, you know, bum on the floor. And I was told by so many people that I sit weird, which I had never noticed that about myself. But everyone was like, “how do you sit like that?”
Thu-Huong Ha 16:51
So you sit directly on the floor with your butt on the floor, your knees kind of together-ish. And then your ankles like outside? That sounds uncomfortable, but it looks comfortable when you do it. But no one in Japan told you that was weird.
Yukana Inoue 17:06
I mean, I know other people who sit like this, maybe not everyone, but like, I was definitely, it was the first time I was explicitly told that I sit weird. And I guess it also plays in were like, in the states, like a lot of people don't take their shoes off when they enter arms and stuff. So people would beeline for chairs. And I guess this is unhygienic maybe, but I would just sit on the floor because that's what I was most comfortable with. Just naturally.
Thu-Huong Ha 17:33
I grew up in the U.S., but I've lived very briefly in Turkey, India and Vietnam, which all have very different sitting cultures from the place I grew up. And now of course, I live in Japan, which also has a very different sitting culture. And I think that, I mean, just in hearing you talk Yukana, it's reminding me of the original impetus for this story, which is that in the Japanese language, there's all these words, different words for sitting. I think in English, we have a kind of poverty of sitting words. We have lots of words for different kinds of chairs, which is telling, but not actually for different sitting styles.
Yukana Inoue 18:06
Oh, yeah, like, seiza, agura or sankaku zuwari or things like that. Right?
Thu-Huong Ha 18:12
Right. Like, agura is crisscross applesauce. Yeah, and seiza, can you explain what seiza is?
Yukana Inoue 18:16
Seiza is, I feel like, what you imagine like the Japanese way of sitting when you sit with your legs folded over, common in like kendo, ikebana, the the formal Japanese way of sitting.
Thu-Huong Ha 18:29
The characters, for listeners who don't know, for saiza are actually like, the character for like, correct, and sitting. So it has this connotation of being the, quote, correct way of sitting. And I also, in my work, I really like to look at these different, small things that we probably don't think a lot about, and how they're informed by our upbringing, or education and our culture. And I thought, yes, sitting definitely falls into this category. And because Japan has such an interesting relationship with sitting, I thought that was worth looking into.
Shaun McKenna 19:04
I mean, this must have been, especially like, significant topic during the pandemic, right? Like before the work from home guidelines came around, I went to an IKEA and I bought a standing desk. I bought a new stool to go with it as well. But I just, I was kind of dreading that idea of having to sit at a low table to do my work for eight hours a day.
Thu-Huong Ha 19:26
Yeah, I think this comes up a lot for people who move to Japan from countries where they don't have a strong floor sitting culture. So like you and I, you're from Canada, I'm from the U.S. and the idea of sitting for a long time without a backrest on the floor gives me a lot of stress. It's not what I'm used to. I'm used to these like highly these kind of almost grotesque, like office ergonomic office chairs with like all these like wheels and levers and 12 ways of adjusting it. That's just kind of what I'm used to. And I associate that with comfort in a weird way. Especially for sitting for a long time and working. But yeah, I think that the pandemic for people who spend long periods of time sitting for their work, the pandemic really brought out this stress that people felt about how much time they spend a day sitting. And then we have this kind of added dimension here in Japan, which is that for some people, it was like, oh no, I'm gonna have to sit on the floor without a backrest all day. Obviously, not the worst problem that the pandemic brought out.
Shaun McKenna 20:28
It's interesting that you say stress, because that's actually one of the reasons why I got the standing desk. And I like, I kind of splurged and got a good one because I was really concerned about what sitting for so long would do to my health. There's been a lot of stories about how sitting’s not the best thing for you. I think you even mentioned it in your story, like sitting was the new smoking.
Thu-Huong Ha 20:51
That's like a tagline that's been going around for, I don't know, probably last 10, 15 years. But it's like, it's not actually the act of sitting, that's bad for you, right? It's sedentary behavior, which means like sitting for a long time, right? So it's not like sitting down is automatically about as bad for your health. But yeah, so of course, I think most people know that sedentary behavior is associated with, I mean, all kinds of problems like insomnia, depression, obesity, heart problems, and death. And I think because of that, there's been a lot of people trying to find solutions, such as standing desks, I've heard of exercise-ball desks, I've heard of treadmill desks or biking desks, I had a co-worker who rigged together his own treadmill desk. And it would be very distracting to be in meetings with him. But actually, yeah, amd Japan sits a lot. A paper from 2011 of almost 50,000 adults from 20 countries found that it was Japan and Saudi Arabia who spent the most time sitting with a weighted median of about 420 minutes per weekday. And so I think that all these things led me to a kind of surprising place, I ended up talking to an ergonomics expert. But I found that the most rewarding resources were actually historical resources and things about the relationship between Japan's floor sitting, its architecture, its beauty standards and then a kind of how this was all affected by rapid modernization. And then after the war, rapid westernization.
Shaun McKenna 22:38
Is the Western the minority when it comes to chair sitting?
Thu-Huong Ha 22:41
I mean, for a long time, a lot of civilizations sat on the floor, even after chairs had been invented. So Islamic cultures in the Middle East and North Africa. Like I mentioned, I lived in Turkey, and there was a lot of flour sitting in Turkey. Obviously, native tribes across the Americas, people in India, people in Korea sit on the floor. I mean, I haven't counted, but I think that the default is not necessarily chairs. And actually chairs were not invented by Europe, even though we have that sort of image. Yeah. It's actually Ancient Egypt which is credited with world's first chairs, going back to 2,600 BCE, scholars believed that it denoted social status, and so you know, the king sat in a chair and that sort of set him apart from his subjects. And then by the second century AD, China had developed a folding stool, and by the 10th century, it had the actual chair that we know had, had appeared and really quickly spread across like, sort of mainstream life. And I think scholars say it was kind of a surprising, quick adoption of chairs that was not brought about by colonization, which was kind of rare in the history of chairs. And yeah, I mean, Japan did have chairs as far back as 500 AD. But they weren't actually ... like they were sort of niche, sort of a niche piece of furniture. It was not until the 1960s and ’70s, actually, that scholars say that chairs really became a big thing in Japan, right, which is pretty shocking, if you think about it. So there was a moment in which it seems like Japan might start adopting stools in order to keep their kind of dirty clothes from outside off of the ground in the house. But then instead, what happened was they started to build the floor of their homes raised so as listeners might know, like, there's that kind of step when you enter a home and along with that people started just treating the floor as its own piece of furniture. And so kind of floor became a chair. And then you would just sort of take your shoes off and your dirty stuff off before you even get into the house and then everything could just sort of sat on and be clean.
Yukana Inoue 25:00
Which makes sense. That's why I feel I'm just sitting on the floor, which I probably wouldn't do the same in a dirty dorm room in LA. Yeah, that makes sense.
Shaun McKenna 25:10
Was there any impact by not having a chair culture?
Thu-Huong Ha 25:13
Yeah, in many ways that came to define Japanese aesthetics, or particularly in design and architecture. There's this idea that gardens and rooms and spaces are designed to be looked at from eye level if you're sitting on the floor, or if you're kneeling. People who are familiar with one of the most kind of famously distinctive Japanese film directors, Yasujiro Ozu, he's famous for shooting from a super low angle. There are people who say that this creates the kind of intimacy of sitting in a Japanese home because you're, it's coming from so close to the ground. And for the article, I spoke with chair designer and body technique researcher Hidemassa Yatabe, he's actually written several books about sitting, and how the Japanese in particular sit, he has a book, “A Civilizational Theory of Sitting,” which I love. But he actually argues that body postures and fashion and beauty standards and our aesthetic values, are all related. So he talks about how people would convey, like people in power, especially men in power, would sit a certain way to convey that power. He contrasts this with paintings of, you know, Western European kings, who would be standing straight up with one straight leg out as a show of, as like, that was their beauty standard of like, this is how I'm looking regal and royal. But emperors, samurai, like the way that they're depicted in Japan is sitting. They're always in that big, wide legged stance. I think we might call it like butterflies stance today, like when you're actually putting your feet together. I think that some people might find it's hard to do today, but like, and then we've always had like a really tall or really wide hat because this kind of stockiness was a way of like, the sturdy stockiness was a way of showing power and kind of like coolness.
Shaun McKenna 27:23
So when I was on the JET Programme, I taught at Tsukuihama High School in Yokosuka, and the tea ceremony club wanted to conduct their club in English, so I was recruited to join that one. And I learned everything to do with tea ceremony, or sado, as they call it in Japan. One of those things was sitting in seiza.
Thu-Huong Ha 2===
how'd that go for you?
Shaun McKenna 27:45
I was OK with it, actually. Yeah, I think growing up, I often would sit on my knees, I was corrected not to when I was at school, you know, they kind of told us we should be sitting cross-legged, it was bad for your knees to sit in seiza. And more recently, I've been noticing. A friend of mine is a health instructor, kind of like a health expert back home in Canada, and he's been recommending that older people sit stays off for a little bit at a time to try to like kind of fix their joints or to keep their joints moving or something.
Thu-Huong Ha 28:17
Right, so yeah, we talked a little bit about seiza before, but it is obviously like very important and these different kind of traditional arts as Yukana said — kendo, sado, ikebana — we very much had this kind of stereotypical image of like, a Japanese tatami room with people sitting in seiza kind of neatly inside of it. There is a study in 2022 of 132 Japanese university students who looked at pictures of people sitting in different sitting positions. And they were asked questions about how they perceive those people. And they actually perceive people to be more moral and clean if they were sitting upright, or if they were in their chair, or if they were sitting in seiza — as compared to if they were slouching in their chair, or if they were slumped over. Those people were rated less moral than people sitting in seiza and sitting up.
Yukana Inoue 29:13
That's interesting, because I think of seiza as punishment. My parents were pretty old school so whenever I would get in trouble, they would tell me to go to the other room and sit in seiza and think about what I did. And also, yeah, there was a, I don't know if it's true, but when I was a kid, everyone would just say we would get short legs if we did too much seiza and so I blamed my parents for making me do that for the fact that I was short and had short legs, you know?
Thu-Huong Ha 29:40
Yeah, I haven't read anything about the height thing but I do know that seiza has been linked to bow-leggedness. I've heard people speculate that that's why bow-leggedness is a thing in Japan but I actually have heard from a doctor that it is associated with if you sit in seiza for too long. So yeah, I mean, I think seiza brings up like a lot for people. I mean it there are kind of fierce defendants of it and it's very linked to these traditional arts. But there's also, you know, people have strong reactions to it as well, like in the opposite way. I think people are surprised, actually. But seiza as like, the correct way of sitting is relatively new. It's not actually a very, very old tradition in the, in the sort of scheme of Japanese history. Yukana, did you know that? If you had to guess when it became like a codified thing you have any, any ideas?
Yukana Inoue 30:31
I don't know, maybe like, you said “new,” so like, Meiji Era?
Thu-Huong Ha 30:39
Ping pong! So yeah, it was Meiji. During this time, there was like a lot of government-mandated, like modernization strategies — laws, tactics — and part of that was education. And part of education was how to be polite in society, how to eat your bento neatly, how to greet other people, how to bow and — how to sit. And so at that time in, it started to kind of crop up in like etiquette textbooks was this way of sitting, which we now call seiza. So it was during this time that it became institutionalized as this kind of enforced way of sitting. But before that, there were all these other kinds of sitting styles that were common and popular and even cool-looking. And as many of the kind of seiza opponents will point out, Sen no Rikyu, who's seen as the the father of modern Japanese tea, himself, sat in agura,
Yukana Inoue 31:31
Really, he sat cross-legged?
Thu-Huong Ha 31:34
Yeah, he didn't sit in seiza in the depictions of him. And this is like, a major part of the story of sitting, is that during this era, people underwent all this, like body training in schools and their bodies got really used to it as, I mean, I think Yukana your experiences of having to go like to certain body training, then undo that body training, go to no new body training, come back from that body training, you know, I think that all sort of stays in the body. And so that was, that was one kind of major event in the story of sitting in Japan. And then the other big one was that, after World War II, there was a big push for chairs. At that time, there was this demand for Scandinavian chairs and modern chair design. Tatami started to fade from people's, especially in their city apartments, and this kind of long-established way of living directly on the floor, you know, including sleeping on the floor started to be replaced by chairs and by beds and things, you know, off the floor.
Yukana Inoue 32:34
Yeah, no, that's interesting, because at my grandparents house, you know, it's most, a lot of it is tatami and we always sit on the floor and sit on the floor at low-rise tables to like watch TV and stuff. But I feel like comparatively to that my like family house where I live with my parents, it's more hardwood floor. There's no tatami. My parents actually used to sleep on futons, but I was the one who asked to get a bed because I was like, I don't know, I see all these people sleeping on beds, and it looks really comfortable. So yeah, I definitely, I feel like I've seen the progression of that floor living all the way to the current more, you know, Ikea-inspired rooms to sleep and sit in.
Thu-Huong Ha 33:19
Yeah, and I think that what you're saying, like illustrates kind of one of the problems in the story of sitting in Japan, which is that it happened so quickly. It's not like this happened over like, hundreds of years, we're talking about, like, 50 years, right? Sixty years? And so like, in the span of like, one generation, people are going from a long tradition of floor life to like, chair and bed life. And that is causing actual pains in people's bodies, because they're used to one way, and they're quickly having to adapt to another way. I think that Yatabe, the researcher that I spoke with, he likened this to trying to get used to high heels overnight. It's like, you're you have this long history of no high heels, you know, you have geta you have zori, and there's not this, like, really strong arch, which in Europe has been going on for centuries. So it's not to say that one is better than the other, but it just the body doesn't really necessarily get used to it just in one generation.
Shaun McKenna 34:15
So are we going to be uncomfortable for like 100 more years?
Thu-Huong Ha 34:20
So I think you know, he also argues that it's possible to kind of like practice it doesn't mean like that everything will just overhaul overnight, but you, the body is kind of is pliable and flexible. And so he talks about being “body bilingual,” he's referring specifically to being able to sit in the Japanese way, and to sit in the chair way. And so if you're used to growing up in a floor-sitting culture, you can find ways for your body to adjust the chairs. Primarily, you do that by looking for better chairs. And then if you're used to chairs you can get used to floor-sitting by, by stretching, basically stretching.
Shaun McKenna 35:04
Stretching? I want an immediate answer, Thu. I just want the perfect chair now.
Yukana Inoue 35:08
No Shaun, you have to stretch.
Thu-Huong Ha 35:10
You can work on your flexibility. I think that I mean, I do think that like it can be, I'm not a tall foreign man. But I see lots of tall foreign men who try to adjust to life in Japan and they look very uncomfortable. And I feel kind of bad for them, I've seen, I once watched a very, very tall foreign man, like try to sit through a very long musical performance in Kyoto and he was sitting on the floor. He looked so uncomfortable. He was just like switching his legs. I assume they were like asleep. I felt very sad for him. But I think that Yatabe would say that it's possible through just like, kind of like a positive attitude and some stretching, basically. Yeah.
Yukana Inoue 35:54
A positive attitude and some stretching.
Thu-Huong Ha 35:55
Optimism and stretching.
Shaun McKenna 35:59
Well, the piece on sitting is very in depth and while it doesn't give us the perfect chair, I think it can lead you to think more about an act that we're all doing for long periods of time every day. Thanks very much, Thu, thanks Yukana.
Yukana Inoue 36:12
Thu-Huong Ha 36:15
Shaun McKenna 36:18
My thanks again to Thu and Yukana for joining me on this week's show. Check out more of their work at japantimes.co.jp. Elsewhere in the news, the controversial American diplomat Henry Kissinger died on Wednesday at his home in Connecticut. He was 100 years old. Kissinger served under two U.S. presidents and left an indelible mark on U.S. foreign policy. His legacy will no doubt be examined over the next few days in the press. Closer to home, Japan began a trial of sales for emergency contraceptives, or morning after pills, with the health ministry allowing 145 stores nationwide to sell them. This brings Japan closer in line with the more than 90 countries that already allow sales of such drugs at pharmacies. Only individuals age 16 or older can purchase the pills with those who are 16 or 17 years old required to have their guardian accompany them. Women must present identification and take the contraceptive in the presence of the pharmacist. Based on the outcome of the trial, the health ministry may approve a full scale rollout of over-the-counter sales in the future. Some doctors in Japan interviewed on the subject have said they would like to see this go ahead along with improved sex education that promotes condom use for the prevention of any unwanted pregnancies. Sticking with health news, my colleague Karin Kaneko reports that there have been no known cases of bedbugs in Japan, but with reports of the little bloodsuckers popping up in China and South Korea, Japanese experts think it's only a matter of time before we see them here. So check the mattresses and pillows for bloodstains, shed skin or droppings. Make sure to hang up your clothes and when traveling, keep your things in your suitcase to be extra careful. If you're returning from any travels, wash your clothes and make sure to put them in a hot dryer. Deep Dive is produced by Dave Cortez. Our outgoing music is by Oscar Boyd. And our theme song is by the Japanese artist LLLL. I'm Shaun McKenna, podtsukaresama.