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Shaping the Evolution of Multilingual Speech Translation Technology

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 VoiceTra is a multilingual speech translation app capable of instant translation between thirty-one languages, developed by the National Institute of Information and Communications Technology (NICT). Speech translation systems are being developed elsewhere in the world, with several well-known web services already in existence. However, one of the biggest advantages VoiceTra has is that it does not use English as an intermediate step in the translation process. Instead, the app translates directly from Japanese into thirty other languages, allowing for a much higher level of accuracy.

Taking into account the wide range of tourists in Japan, it supports major European languages and Asian languages as well, which is also one of its unique selling points.

“VoiceTra is currently the only app that supports two-way speech translation between Japanese and Myanmarese,” states Kiyotaka Uchimoto, director of the Planning Office at the Advanced Speech Translation Research and Development Promotion Center of NICT.The number of visitors to Japan is expected to keep increasing as the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games approach. To create a society where visitors would not have to worry about language barriers, the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications announced its Global Communication Plan in 2014. Since then, many private enterprises have joined this nationwide initiative, speeding up NICT’s research and development to the point where they were able to carry out field experiments of their multilingual speech translation technology in real-world settings, such as hospitals, shops, restaurants and tourist destinations.

VoiceTra is available for free to individual users. It offers a simple and easy-to-use interface, and accurately recognizes the differences between various speakers such as their inflections and speaking styles. Moreover, the translation process is nearly instantaneous. The system utilizes a neural network (deep learning) based on human neural pathways to accelerate its learning process. The accuracy increases as the number of users rises with more information at the disposal of machine learning algorithms, leading to a natural and nonliteral translation. Emergency services, railway operators, taxi companies and hospitals have customized the VoiceTra technology and are using it to communicate with visitors from abroad. The smartphone app has also marked a total of three million downloads.

This wonder of technology is the culmination of nearly three decades of study, despite a rocky start due to skepticism regarding the merits of such research. “Nevertheless, we were convinced that this speech translation technology was necessary for the future of Japan,” says Uchimoto, thinking back over the road that led him to this point. NICT’s speech recognition technology has held up well against rival technologies from prestigious universities and noted research labs around the world at the International Workshop on Spoken Language Translation (IWSLT), an international competition, placing first in the world for three years in a row.

Besides being used in train stations and other public transport, medical facilities and in other situations in Japan, VoiceTra is now going beyond just a smartphone app in the hands of private enterprises. For instance, a hands-free ID card-sized device developed by one company targets doctors and nurses in hospitals. The device translates voices detected from the front (i.e., the patient’s voice) into Japanese, and voices detected from the top of the device (i.e., the doctor or nurse’s voice) into a designated language. Further research is being done at NICT on technologies that detect and translate multiple languages simultaneously. “The ultimate goal of our research is simultaneous interpretation that gives the most appropriate translation according to the context. To help us build the necessary database, we hope that as many people as possible will try out VoiceTra when they visit Japan,” says Uchimoto.

VoiceTra official site: http://voicetra.nict.go.jp/en/index.html

By Tamaki Kawasaki

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https://www.gov-online.go.jp/eng/publicity/book/hlj/html/201805/201805_09_en.html

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Powdered Green Gold

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 Recognized and appreciated worldwide, fine matcha is gaining fans in the West and elsewhere in Asia. Ministry of Finance trade statistics reveal that exports of matcha rose 24.3 percent in 2017, and were worth nearly 14.36 billion yen (US$ 129 million)—the highest it’s been since 1988. Greater health consciousness worldwide has virtually every country drinking more green tea, with many becoming prime export markets. The USA is currently the major export destination for Japan’s matcha, followed by Taiwan, Germany and Singapore.

Shizuoka Prefecture and the city of Uji in Kyoto Prefecture are often considered Japan’s “tea capitals.” And yet the company that boasts the largest share of production both within Japan and globally is located in Nishio, Aichi Prefecture. AIYA was established in 1888, and was one of the “Global Niche Top Companies Selection 100” singled out by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.

Nishio’s temperate climate, rich fertile soil and abundant water resources by Yahagi River, and relatively sheltered environment are keys to its matcha dominance, and historically nearby castle towns such as Nagoya and Okazaki were major consumption areas.

Unlike many other tea production centers that produce all types of tea, Nishio is more focused. Over 96 percent of the area cultivated in Nishio is devoted to producing tencha, the raw tea leaves used for matcha. Tencha is relatively unknown because most of it is shipped out for processing. In 2017, the high-quality tea created from those leaves, Nishio Matcha, was registered under the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries’ (see here). The GI mark inspires trust in product quality, and should lead to greater exports.

The development of tea ceremony culture means that Japan’s people have drunk matcha since ancient times. However, common folk tended to favor sencha green tea, which came into fashion because it was cheaper and easier to prepare, and didn’t involve the intimidating as the complexities and customs of the tea ceremony.

“The tea ceremony has survived because it is a meaningful practice, and I’m sure it will continue to exist,” says Takeo Sugita, AIYA’s president. “But many people avoided drinking matcha because they didn’t know the etiquette. If it had been drunk like coffee or Western tea, matcha might have developed into something more casual.”

Since the 1960s, AIYA has sought new markets, and also worked to overturn the stereotype that matcha is only for drinking. They began selling matcha as a raw ingredient to be used in processed foods, and in 1978 began growing it organically, long before that became fashionable. During the 1980s, matcha companies shifted away from marketing it as a raw ingredient. Instead, they used it to flavor various foodstuffs, such as sweets and ice cream, which established its place in Japan’s food culture.

The overseas market for matcha also expanded during the 2000s. Packed with antioxidants and rich in fiber, chlorophyll and vitamins, it gained acceptance as a health food in the United States. It’s also a luxury grocery item in cafés and homes in Europe. AIYA established local subsidiaries in the United States in 2001 and Austria in 2003. By 2017, international shipments had reached approximately the same level as domestic shipments.

Lately a movement has emerged in Japan determined to define the country’s matcha, as a way to differentiate it from powdered green tea produced in other countries.

“It’s meaningless if matcha is only used to gain prestige as a high-quality product made in Japan,” argues Sugita. “We may claim that a product is real Japanese matcha, but we can’t sell it overseas if it does not meet the needs of the country it is being exported to, which is the most important thing. Competition will only grow fiercer. We need to deeply understand the characteristics of each market, construct systems to generate tangible benefits and export everything from high-quality matcha to inexpensive products that can compete with the green teas produced relatively cheaply overseas. If we can’t, we won’t survive.”

Having a flexible approach to each country—such as whether to focus on quality or affordability, or whether to push tea for drinking or processing—leads to the expansion of overseas market shares. AIYA’s next strategies for expanding exports of its powdered green gold are the focus of a great deal of attention.

By Tomoko Nishikawa

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The Rise of Karaoke

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Microphone, lyrics, melody—the key elements for karaoke are simple enough. But in just half a century karaoke has become a ubiquitous part of Japanese culture and morphed into a high-tech industry with global presence. Indeed, the word “karaoke”—a compound of the Japanese words kara, or “empty,” and oke, or “orchestra”—has been adopted into English and other languages around the globe.

Karaoke has clearly come a long way, yet this new form of entertainment did not emerge overnight. According to Shiro Kataoka, the managing director of the All-Japan Karaoke Industrialist Association, it was a logical advancement in the world of entertainment following key developments in audio technology.

Toshiharu Yamashita, the founder of Taiyo Record, started selling eight-track* accompaniment tapes in 1970– the first “karaoke software,” so to speak. Japanese musician Daisuke Inoue then incorporated these accompaniment tapes when he invented the first karaoke machine “8JUKE” in 1971.

Karaoke started as a primitive system that combined microphones with an eight-track cassette player, Inoue’s device stocked ten cassettes for a total of forty songs. He rented this out to bars and clubs, which in turn charged customers 100 yen (about 330 yen in 2018, US$3) per song, and the karaoke industry was born. Kataoka says bars quickly adopted karaoke systems after discovering they offered a winning combination: an additional income stream while reducing staff.

Sophisticated as it was, karaoke still made aficionados rely on lyrics printed in special books. Thankfully the early 1980s saw the addition of TV screens, allowing singers to follow timed lyrics superimposed over pictures and then later videos. The underlying technology advanced as well, as karaoke machines began utilizing new recorded media including laser discs, CDs and DVDs.

Singing in public motivated people to practice, and the market quickly adapted to meet this need. Private karaoke booths were created in the mid 1980s. The first were made out of modified shipping containers–and tucked away in remote locations to minimize disturbance. When the concept proved to be a hit with the younger generation, karaoke booths started to spring up in urban centers.

One of the most significant technological changes to karaoke occurred in the early 1990s with the advent of online karaoke. Although data connection speeds were slow, karaoke machines no longer were constrained by the limits of recorded media and continuous updates became possible. Today, high-speed broadband allows Japan’s state-of-the-art facilities to stream audio and visual data for hundreds of thousands of songs.

According to Kataoka, karaoke equipment is finding new life these days, for instance being brought into welfare facilities to help prevent dementia in the elderly. The future applications of karaoke may play a different but still valuable role.

* Eight-track refers to a magnetic tape sound-recording technology that was common in the U.S. from the mid-1960s to the early 1980s.

By Noam Katz / © DAIICHIKOSHO CO., LTD

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Stopping Disastrous Diseases at the Border

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 As an island nation, Japan has built-in advantages in controlling epidemics. Japan has some of the world’s finest quarantine systems, and has earned the top score in the animal quarantine category in the World Organization for animal health evaluation. For example, Japan has had no outbreaks of rabies since 1958, and is one of the few countries entirely free of the disease.

However, Kazuo Ito, the director general of the Animal Quarantine Service of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, raises an alarm. “We are on high alert, because there have been hoof-and-mouth disease and African swine fever outbreaks overseas, particularly in neighboring countries,” he reports.

The Animal Quarantine Service has a comprehensive quarantine system designed to prevent the spread of such infectious diseases. “At the moment, no animal products are allowed in from countries that have had cases of hoof-and-mouth disease, African swine fever or avian influenza, not even as a souvenir or for personal consumption,” says Ito. “Even from safe countries, any type of meat [including ham, sausages and bacon] requires an inspection certificate issued by the government authorities of the exporting country, or the product will not be allowed into Japan. Those who fail to satisfy this requirement may be subject to punishment. In 2017, we placed twenty-nine detection dogs at major airports and international post offices and logged 43,968 cases of banned animal products.”

The Animal Quarantine Service has also taken various other measures to safeguard Japan, including distributing multilingual posters and pamphlets, announcements on aircrafts, questioning people entering the country at immigration and installing sole disinfection mats at more than sixty-six major international airports and seaports. Their guidance for travelers carrying animals and animal products is available in multiple languages on their website as well as on YouTube, and is included in apps aimed at visitors to Japan. Airlines inbound from nearby regions are asked to pass this information on to their passengers at departure.

The Animal Quarantine Service are also enhancing their anti-epidemic efforts through joint activities with prefectural governments. “We’re using detection dogs to conduct inspections not only on luggage but also on airmail from regions reported to have malignant animal infectious disease outbreaks. We’re also intensifying inspections on cruise ships,” he says.

However, Japan will have a huge surge in its number of visitors while hosting the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics in 2020. “Along with economic globalization and changes in industrial structure, the channels and possibilities of invasion for pathogens will only increase,” Ito states. “We’re preparing to face epidemic prevention at the border even more strictly.”

Ito strongly urges visitors to consult with the animal quarantine office at major Japanese airports and seaports in advance if they want to bring animal products into Japan, are traveling with pets or were in contact with livestock in their home country before their departure.

In particular, for rabies prevention, dogs and cats must be microchipped, have received the required vaccinations and antibody tests and obtained the proper certificate after a waiting period of at least 180 days before being allowed into Japan. This process takes at least seven months.

“If your pet fails to meet these requirements, it may be quarantined at our detention facility for up to 180 days, so please be careful,” he emphasizes.

The Animal Quarantine Service also monitors outbound travelers. “You can now buy meat products approved for export to Singapore at souvenir shops in Haneda and Chubu airports,” Ito says. “You can go through the procedure to take meat products out of Japan at the animal quarantine counter. Since it may take time to make necessary adjustments and confirm information, please contact us as soon as possible if you need assistance.”

By Katsumi Yasukura

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Tasting event with jumbo 780,000 kcal instant noodles breaks world record

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 A gigantic box of instant noodles 1,500 times its normal size was cooked and served to hundreds of people on Sunday in Isesaki, Gunma Prefecture just north of Tokyo, breaking the Guinness World Record for the “largest instant noodles tasting event” as a total of 579 participants managed to finish the required servings of tasting samples.

About 160 kilograms of instant “yakisoba” stir-fry noodles were prepared in just minutes by pouring 480 liters of hot water over it in a 1.3-meter by 1.8-meter metallic container that resembled the package of the popular Peyoung brand. The cooked noodles totalled over 780,000 kilocalories.

“I came for the Guinness World Record,” said 15-year-old Takato Kurosawa, who came from neighboring Maebashi with some friends. “The tastiness of yakisoba sauce filled my mouth.”

At the event, hosted by Isesaki-headquartered noodle maker Maruka Foods, instant noodle samples in two other flavors were also served. Coinciding with Children’s Day in Japan, Sunday’s event attracted over 5,000 participants in total.

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History of Sake

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History of Sake

 Sake has played a central role in Japanese life and culture for the past 2,000 years while the knowledge and techniques involved in sake brewing have spread to every corner of the country. In fact, sake is such an integral part of the Japanese diet that having some knowledge of it can add to one’s understanding of Japanese history, culture, and society. This website gives you everything you need to know to raise a glass (or cup) of Japanese sake. Made primarily from rice, sake is a fermented beverage. It is brewed using a microorganism called koji along with yeast. Sake’s alcohol content varies from 13% to 16%. It takes pristine water to make sake, and brewers take advantage of the various kinds of natural water available in Japan to make only the best. There are many different varieties of sake, and it can be enjoyed either warm or chilled, depending on the season. Sake might be just about the best medicine for whatever ails you, as long as it’s consumed in moderation. So say, “Kampai!”

If we view the history of sake as the story of Japanese liquor, or at least rice-based liquor, we would see roots that stretch back as far as 2,500 years to a period when rice cultivation began to dominate Japanese agriculture. The oldest writings on Japanese sake can be found in some third-century annals of Chinese history. These records state that the Japanese have a “fondness for sake” and are “in the habit of gathering to drink sake when mourning the dead.” There are also several stories about sake, some mythical, noted in the historical records compiled by the eighth century Japanese imperial court. The Fudoki, an ancient record of provincial history during this era makes reference to sake brewed using mold and provides a unique glimpse into how sake made with rice and koji was once produced. Then there is the tenth century law book entitled Engishiki which details ancient sake-making methods used at a time when sake was produced mainly at the imperial court, either to be drunk by the emperor or for ceremonial use.

Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples began brewing sake in the 12th to 15th centuries and it is from this period that we get the techniques for modern day sake brewing. One production technique that sake-brewers are justly proud of is multiple parallel fermentation. It’s a sophisticated production method that combines the processes of saccharization and fermentation to boost the alcoholic content to 20%. Sake is the only fermented alcohol in the world for which this is done. Records from the Muromachi period (approx. 1337 to 1573) show that a pasteurization process dubbed hi-ire was being used in the sake making process long before Louis Pasteur was even born. During this process, pressed sake is heated to 64 degrees Celsius before being stored in containers. The heat kills any bacteria and halts all enzyme activity to bring out a more mature flavor in the sake.

~Spring~

Momo-no-sekku, “the peach festival”(March 3rd)

Elaborate displays of special dolls are set up on this day in honor of little girls who are toasted with momozake (peach sake) in hopes that they grow to be healthy adults. In recent years shirozake (cloudy sake) or amazake (sweet sake) has been gaining in popularity over the traditional momozake.

Tango-no-sekku(May 5th)

Custom calls for flying carp-shaped streamers called koinobori, displaying special dolls outfitted in ancient armor, soaking in bathwater with iris stalks (shobuyu), and drinking sake containing iris petals (shobuzake).

~Summer~

Natsugoshi-no-sake(June 30th)

This sake is drunk on the last day of June to wash away the impurities that have accumulated during the first half of the year. Having finished planting their rice fields, farmers in Japan traditionally take a break at this time of the year. They drink sake wishing for a gentle summer and bountiful fall harvest.

~Autumn~

Choyo-no-sekku, “Chrysanthemum Festival”(September 9th)

In China, where this festival originated, it was believed that climbing to high ground and drinking chrysanthemum wine on this day would keep one free from calamity. Although in Japan this tradition is no longer observed, the custom of drinking sake garnished with a chrysanthemum blossom still lives on.

National Sake Day(October 1st)

The twelve signs of the Chinese zodiac, each representing an animal, were traditionally used in Japan to signify the twelve months of the year. The tenth symbol, the tori, or chicken, stood for the month of October. The written character assigned to this animal (酉) was originally made to resemble a jar and was also used to indicate the word “sake.”October is also the month when rice is harvested and when sake brewing begins, hence the first of the month was designated National Sake Day in 1978.

~Winter~

Toso(January 1st)

Members of the family customarily gather together, wish one another a happy New Year, and then drink a special sake called toso.

Coming of age day(Second Monday in January)

The legal drinking age in Japan is twenty. Once a person turns twenty, he or she is considered an adult and can drink sake. Coming of Age Day traces its roots back to the ancient ceremony known as genpuku. On this occasion the sons of nobles or samurais between the ages of 11 and 17 were given their first adult clothing, hairstyle, and name to mark their passage into adulthood. Today people celebrate this day with Japanese sake.

Yukimizake

Drinking sake while gazing upon an inspiring snowy landscape is an elegant custom believed to date back to the tenth century

http://www.japansake.or.jp/sake/english/howto/appeal.htmlhttps://youtu.be/Yq70RKP5E2I

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How Kanji Capture Meaning and Emotion in a Single Character

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 Kanji characters originated in China and spread to East Asian countries, with Japan assimilating the writing system by the fifth century. Hiragana and katakana—two simpler syllabic alphabets based on Kanji—were created in the ninth century. At first intellectuals read documents in Chinese and Korean, and only used kanji as a written language. According to Professor Hiroyuki Sasahara of Waseda University’s School of Social Sciences, however, Kanji began to evolve as people shaped the system to suit the Japanese language and pronunciation.

“Individual letters in the Roman alphabet basically only have one pronunciation, whereas Japanese kanji characters can be read in multiple ways,” Sasahara notes. “Since Kanji originally come from a different language, Japanese people had to match the equivalent sound with a similar meaning in Japanese. For instance, the character for mountain (山) was originally pronounced ‘san,’while in Japanese it was changed to ‘yama.’The character for life (生) also contains many meanings, and depending on the usage can be read as sei, shou, i, ha, u, nama or ki.”

Some characters were altered to suit the Japanese language, and others were created. For instance, in ancient times the character for “beech tree”was originally written as 橿. While retaining the tree (木) radical on the left-hand side, they replaced the other character with one that meant “firm”(堅) to represent the hardness of the wood, and so it became 樫. By the eighth century, it is clear from documents such as Muromachi Period (1336-1573) courtiers’journals that other original Japanese Kanji also came into use. For instance, sardines are known as a fish (魚)that needs to swim in a school for protection and spoils easily, so they added the character for weak (弱) to the fish character to represent sardines (鰯). On the other hand, the codfish is known as a fish that is white as snow and delicious during the winter, so the character for cod (鱈) incorporates the character for snow (雪).

“Kanji in Japan are not just phonetic symbols—they portray a specific meaning or feeling through the character,” Sasahara explains. “Even when creating Kanji, the Japanese people preferred to combine characters to create new meanings—as demonstrated by the original characters for ‘beech tree’ and ‘cod.’ To describe the meaning of each character, people added their own way of reading characters that originated in China.”

Sasahara points out that Kanji also help express emotions. For instance, both 思and 想are read as omo, and mean “thought”or “thinking.”However, the latter is most frequently used when expressing thoughts of faraway family and lovers or when reminiscing about old times, loneliness and love.

“It’s common in literary works to use different Kanji to reflect emotion,” he adds. “There are also cases in which non-Japanese words are written out in kanji as well. The famous novelist Natsume Soseki was the first to create a kanji-fied word for romance, 浪漫(roman). These characters create the impression of romance by using 浪for the ‘waves’of emotions and 漫to describe how they spread,”Sasahara explains.

Japanese is a complex language in which characters can be read in various ways, and is also combined with hiragana or katakana. Sasahara states that it is fascinating how this written language that began well over a thousand years ago still maintains its basic principles while continuing to evolve.

“I believe the evolution of kanji is driven by the thoughts and intentions behind each writer’s work and how they wish to express their feelings on paper. For instance, simply changing the character for ‘thought’(思and 想) can change the weight of the words, and replacing certain kanji with hiragana can make a phrase less formal or easier to understand,” the researcher muses.

New ways of using kanji and new readings continue to appear. Those adopted by the majority survive and help the language thrive. Kanji reflect the changes in Japanese people’s hearts and lifestyles.

By Takayoshi Yamabe

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The Little Robot Still Enchanting Fans Worldwide

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Nobita Nobi is a boy who struggles with everything from schoolwork to sports and friendships. Naturally this is a source of frustration for his mother, who scolds Nobita daily. But one day Doraemon—an earless robot cat traveling back in a time machine from the twenty-second century—jumps out of Nobita’s desk drawer and changes his life.

A science-fiction manga series for children, Doraemon is the representative work of Japanese manga artist Fujiko F Fujio (the pen name of Hiroshi Fujimoto). The manga storyline follows Nobita and his friends, who overcome challenges in their everyday lives aided by the amazing futuristic gadgets that Doraemon pulls out of his “four-dimensional pocket.” Since it was first published in 1970, the series has been adapted into an anime series as well as films. Over the past five decades, Doraemon has gained numerous fans both within and outside Japan. The series has been translated into twelve different languages and published in seventeen countries, and the anime series has been broadcast in fifty-five countries.

Translated Doraemon manga are particularly popular in Asia. “In particular, Vietnamese fans’ love of Doraemon is unprecedented,” says Mitsuru Saito, chief producer of international media at publisher house Shogakukan. Even before Shogakukan and their counterpart in Vietnam concluded the official licensing contract, Doraemon was already famous in Vietnam due to unauthorized copies. Fujio opted not to receive royalties accrued from this official licensing, requesting instead that the money be spent on promoting education for children who wish to learn. The Doraemon Scholarship Fund, founded to honor Fujio’s wishes, has allowed over ten thousand Vietnamese children to pursue their education.

When Doraemon—now a traffic safety mascot throughout Vietnam—appears at schools, children welcome him enthusiastically. The Doraemon series occupies a third of the manga section in local bookstores.

“The Doraemon manga series was originally created for magazines that Shogakukan used to publish for school-aged children, so the character is like a friend to young readers,” says Saito, explaining the reason for the character’s celebrity and popularity. “The simple and easy-to-understand artwork, the fun plots where Doraemon makes children’s innocent wishes and dreams come true using his gadgets, and the gentle and encouraging worldview that encompasses the characters are universally appreciated, going beyond generations and national borders.”

As the publisher responsible for preserving the original artwork from the manga series, “it is Shogakukan’s wish to preserve the manga’s form and value as it is, and continue to pass it on to future generations,” Saito says. However, they continue to improve the quality of their publication. For instance, in pursuit of better picture quality, they renewed the printing films for the original volumes of the series.

“We’ll keep sharing Doraemon manga with the world,” Saito says. “While it may have a long history, we want to continue to emphasize the appeal of this wonderful, timeless work.” Thanks to the efforts of the publisher that took over Fujio’s creative philosophy, through the pages of manga Doraemon will continue to be a trusted friend to children for generations while staying true to himself.

By Tamaki Kawasaki

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The Pillow Book and the Japanese Mindset

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“The charm of The Pillow Book derives from beautiful depictions of the four seasons by Lady Sei Shonagon, who wrote over a thousand years ago in the Heian Period (794-1185),” explains professor Etsuko Akama of Jumonji University. “Starting with the famous opening line, ‘In spring, the dawn—when the slowly paling mountain rim is tinged with red…’ she incorporates seasonality by showcasing the highlights of each season, which are carefully depicted and blended in her prose.”

In the first paragraph that starts with the above line, the writer describes how the sky of Higashiyama in Kyoto changes color as the sun rises, along with the fireflies that illuminate the summer night. “Her descriptions convey a sense of movement, almost like a video posted on social media,” says Akama. Shonagon’s prose allows the reader to visualize the scene, and the distinctive characterizations through the senses—the chirps of the insects, the fragrance of irises and the drenching storm against the face—enthrall readers.

As her writing progresses, you can also spot many noteworthy plays on words and witty ideas. For instance, “near yet far” is used to describe the last day of the year and the New Year, as well as relationships with family members one doesn’t get along with, while “far yet near” is used to portray the Buddhist paradise and relationships between men and women. Her words are similar to those of modern women, mixing humor and sarcasm: the pleasure she finds when a hated person has a bad experience, noting that there is nothing more interesting than gossiping about others, or pointing out that sermons are better when the lecturer is a handsome man. “Sei Shonagon was talented at expressing people’s honest feelings through her writing,” Akama states.

It’s been said that female writers first appeared in Japan during the Heian Period and women’s literature flourished. Prior to that time, Japan’s written language was entirely based on kanji (Chinese characters), and it was considered vulgar for women to learn to write in this “men’s language.” However, during the Heian Period a new and simpler form of writing called hiragana was devised. This made it possible to print an anthology of poetry called the Kokin Wakashu in native Japanese instead of the classic Chinese characters. This sparked a revival in Japanese literature.

According to Akama, women became leading figures in literary studies during this time, with a focus on intricate descriptions derived from observation and emotions. Even in the modern dictionary of classic Japanese words, explanations for emotional adjectives are referenced from women’s literature.

Sei Shonagon’s father, Kiyohara no Motosuke, was a famous poet, so she grew up surrounded by books, reading, studying kanji characters and gaining wonderful writing skills. At the time, upper-class women were hidden away from society once they married. However, Shonagon thought that women should know more about the world. At court, she met Empress Teishi, which resulted in the birth of “seraglio literature” and The Pillow Book.

“Although Empress Teishi’s family soon fell to ruin and she died shortly afterward, thanks to Sei Shonagon this florid seraglio literature was preserved for posterity,” Akama notes.

The Heian Period was the longest in Japanese history, lasting for over four hundred years. Although there were political issues, it was a peaceful time without any wars. It was also an age of imperial aristocracy, and through complex human relationships and romantic emotions, many forms of expressions were born through self-reflection, suffering, weakness, craftiness and fear.

“Chirps of insects not being considered noise but rather something soothing is an aesthetic specific to Japanese people,” Akama says. “It’s likely that this form of emotional expression derives from the Shinto belief that trees, insects and even words contain a soul, and that we are surrounded by eight million kami (gods).”

These and other emotions of Heian people from over a thousand years ago still live within the hearts and minds of modern Japanese.

By Tamaki Kawasaki

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The Importance of Tradition, Research and Family

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The Importance of Tradition, Research and Family

A highly valued tradition in the Imperial Family is waka, a form of Japanese poetry, and Their Majesties the Emperor and Empress compose waka poems on various occasions. Every year in January, Utakai Hajime, the Imperial New Year’s Poetry Reading Ceremony, a ceremony said to date back to the mid-Kamakura Period (1185-1333), takes place at the Imperial Palace. Ten waka poems selected from across Japan are presented on that occasion, along with the waka poems composed by Their Majesties and other members of the Imperial Family.

Since the cultivation of rice is central to the agriculture culture of Japan, His Majesty the Emperor has continued the practice of rice cultivation passed on from Emperor Showa. He sows the seeds, plants the seedlings and harvests the crops Himself. Her Majesty the Empress carries on the sericulture tradition passed down from Empress Dowager Shoken by raising silkworms, which She feeds with mulberry leaves, at the Sericulture Center on the Imperial Palace Grounds.

His Majesty the Emperor has engaged in taxonomic research about gobiid fishes for many years. He has discovered eight new species of gobies and published more than thirty papers for academic journals as a member of the Ichthyological Society of Japan. Based on these achievements, He was elected as one of the foreign members, limited to fifty, of the Linnean Society of London in 1980, and was later elected as an honorary member of the Society in 1986. His Majesty is also a research associate of the Australian Museum, as well as an honorary member of the Zoological Society of London and a lifetime honorary member of the Research Institute for Natural Science of Argentina. In 1998, He became the first recipient of the King Charles the Second Medal from the Royal Society of London, an award established to honor those heads of state who have made outstanding contributions to the advancement of science.

Her Majesty the Empress finds time in between Her official duties to enjoy literature and music. She has written the text for My First Mountain, a children’s picture book that has been published in Japanese and several other languages. She also translated eighty poems by Michio Mado into English, which led to the poet receiving the Hans Christian Andersen Author’s Award in 1994. Her Majesty also plays the piano, sometimes performing in ensembles with world-class artists.

Their Majesties also play tennis in addition to taking early morning walks around the palace grounds to enjoy the changes of the seasons.

Their Majesties value family bonds deeply and raised Their three children close to Them at home. His Imperial Highness the Crown Prince married Masako Owada in 1993 and welcomed the arrival of Princess Aiko in 2001. Prince Fumihito married Kiko Kawashima in 1990 and they have three children, Princess Mako, Princess Kako, and Prince Hisahito. Princess Sayako married Yoshiki Kuroda in 2005 and left the Imperial Family.

As of April 2019, Their Majesties will have been married for sixty years.

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