Tag Archives: history

Japan Word of the Day #112 – Sharp Pencil

Today’s Word is: Sharp Pencil (シャープペンシル)

Sharp pencil or shāpu penshiru (シャープペンシル) is a Japanese-coined English word that refers to a mechanical pencil. It’s also called shāpen (シャーペン) in short form.


Mechanical pencil used to be called kuridashi enpitsu (meaning “roll-out pencil”). In 1916, Tokuji Hayawa, the founder of Hayakawa Metal Industries who invented the first metal-cased mechanical pencil in Japan, called it “Ever Ready Sharp Pencil (エバーレディシャープペンシル).” This name was once patented, but Hayakawa had to sell the patent in order to pay off the debt from Great Kanto Earthquake. Later on, Hayakawa’s friend Fukui Shōjiro imported mechanical pencils from abroad and sold it as “Sharp Pencil” based on Ever Ready Sharp Pencil.

Hayakawa Metal Industries has since became today’s electronics company SHARP. SHARP’s name was actually derived from Ever Ready Sharp Pencil. Fukui Shōjiro’s shop, on the other hand, became today’s LION Office Products, a stationery company.

Image source: Go! Go! Sago


Japan Word of the Day #103 – Amidakuji

Toady’s Word is: Amiadkuji (あみだくじ)

Amidakuji (あみだくじ) is a common lottery system used in Japan to randomly generate pairings from a group of participants to a set of outcomes. The rule is simple.


1) Let’s say we have 7 participants (represented by colorful cows above). We draw 7 vertical lines, and each participant chooses one starting point. On the other ends, we write down 7 lottery outcomes (中吉/小吉//大吉/中吉/大吉/小吉).

2) Each participant draw horizontal lines between any of the vertical lines. Horizons must be staggered, meaning no one horizontal line can go across more than two vertical lines.

3) After everyone’s drawn horizontal lines, you’ll trace a line from the staring point you chose to another end, but at each horizontal line you meet, you must take a turn to the connected vertical line.


In this case, the blue cow ended up on .
The other participants will do the same, and each will end up with one of the outcomes on the other ends.
Mathematically, this method will never allow two participants to end up on the same outcome. It’d be useful in situations such as: when deciding different house chores for each family member, when deciding which person goes first on school presentations, when pairing up a person from one group to a person from another group as partners in team building exercise, etc.

The origin of the word came from Amida Nyorai, the name of celestial Buddha in Pure Land also known as Amitābha.



The original amidakuji in the past was circular rather than vertical, which resembled the halo depicted in many Amitābha paintings and sculptures, hence the name. Today, amidakuji no longer looks like the original, but the same name remained.

Image sources: Weblog for BW, Kouyu

Japan Word of the Day #97 – Viking (All you can eat buffet)


Today’s Word is: Viking (バイキング)

Viking, or baikingu (バイキング), in Japanese doesn’t necessarily mean those warriors who plundered villages and traveled sea in the Old Norse history. In most cases, it refers to an all-you-can-eat style buffet restaurant. At baikingu, just like western buffet system, diners serve themselves by taking what they want from food placed in public space, and take it to their own tables to eat.

Why the name? One might ask.
The first person in Japan who brought back culture of buffet dining from the west was Tetsuzo Inumaru, the Manager of Imperial Hotel. In 1957, he traveled to Denmark and saw smorgasbord, a type of Scandinavian meal served buffet-style. He saw business potential in introducing this style of dining to Japan. However, “smorgasbord” was too difficult to pronounce or remember for Japanese people. So he came up with a new name for it, “viking,” inspired by Scandinavian historic icons. Thus, the name stuck around till today.

If your Japanese friends invite you to go to “viking,” don’t be alarmed. You don’t need to bring an axe or wear big beard!

Image source: Hotel Osaka Garden Palace

Japan Word of the Day #87 – Randoseru (school backpack)


Today’s Word is: Randoseru (ランドセル)

Have you ever seen those firm-sided, leather-made (or faux leather), red and black backpacks carried by Japanese elementary school kids? They are called randoseru, designed specifically for kids in 1-6th grades to carry their study materials between home and school.

The history of randoseru goes all the way back to late Edo period (around 1853-1869). Western-style backpack made of leather was first introduced by Dutch to Japanese military. In Dutch, backpack was called “ransel,” and as a result of mispronunciation, Japanese people at the time named it randoseru. It wasn’t until 1885 that randoseru was used for children’s school backpacks.

Traditionally, girls carried red randoseru, and boys carried black randoseru. This tradition is no longer the case these days. Today, randoseru comes in a variety of colors and designs. Randoseru companies compete by offering options of cheaper material (artificial leather) or high-end material (real leather), using cartoon characters in their designs, and offering practical, ergonomic designs for children.


Image source: Randoseru ranking, Only Being

Japan Word of the Day #76 – Koinobori

Today’s Word is: Koinobori (こいのぼり)

May 5th is Children’s Day (also known as Boy’s Day) in Japan.
Traditionally, families raise koinobori, carp-shaped flags, to celebrate the well being of their children.



Custom of raising koinobori was originally started by wealthy samurai families of Edo period.
Carps, according to Chinese legend, are believed to become dragons when they swim upstream in Yellow River. Thus, families prayed for their boys’ strength, health, and success in their career by raising flags that symbolize swimming carps.

Koinobori is also featured in Hiroshige Utagawa’s ukiyo-e print One Hundred Famous Views of Edo. At the time, colorful carps like nishiki goi (or simply a koi) seen today were not prevalent. Thus, only a black, common carp is drawn here.




Image sources: Jinya, Wikipedia

Japan Word of the Day #75 – Snack (Night Life in Japan)


Today’s Word is: Snack (スナック)

Snack, or sunakku (スナック) in Japanese pronunciation, means the same as snack (food) in English in most cases.
However, you’ll notice when you are walking around on streets there are a lot of places with signs saying “snack,” usually closed up and looking kind of like a pub.


Indeed, snack bar is a type of alcohol-serving service that are common in Japan.

Snack is different from typical bars, pubs, and izakaya though.
You can think of it as something in between hostess clubs and izakaya (tapa bar).
Here’s characteristics of a snack:

  • At a snack, you can order alcohol and light food, hang out with female employees, and sing karaoke.
  • It’s usually ran by a “mama,” a female owner of the snack. Commonly mama is a middle-age to older lady.
  • What’s different from hostess clubs is that a snack operates under food and beverage service license. Therefore, “settai (接待),”  or entertainment by girls, is not the major part of the service. You get to hang out with girls who work there, but they are extended versions of waitresses. They don’t get extra money off of hanging out with customers like hostess clubs (and you can’t appoint a specific girl to dedicate to one customer either).
  • Generally, cost of going to a snack is a lot cheaper than going to hostess clubs. It depends on the place, but 3000-5000 yen per a couple of hours of all-you-can-drink is normal range.
  • You can also choose “bottle keep” option, to reserve a bottle of hard alcohol to be kept at the bar instead of hourly charge. Once you buy a bottle, you can drink from it from next time and don’t have to order other drinks. Additional “set charge” including table fee, appetizers, and ice cubes, mixers, could be charged (2000-5000 yen). So bottle keep option is only worth it if you intend to stay there for more than a couple of hours.
  • When you become regulars, “mama” will usually give you arbitrary discount when you pay. It’s very much of an old-style, less systemized type of bar where relationship with the owner affects your experience significantly.
  • Younger people in Japan are no longer familiar with snack culture, so the range of customers at a snack is usually higher. They seek places they can feel at home and drink alcohol with familiar employees and regulars.

Many foreign visitors wonder what these mysterious snack bars are like. So this is what it is. Pricing could be a little unclear at first, but don’t hesitate to ask employees before entering. If it’s not within your budget, you can say thank you and go to somewhere else. It’s definitely an unique venue that’s been part of Japanese culture for a long time.


Image sources: Roadside Diaries,

Japan Word of the Day #74 – Sentou (Communal Bath)

Today’s Word is: Sentou (銭湯)

Tired of small bath and shower space? If you are comfortable sharing bath with others, sentou might be a good place to visit. Sentou is a communal bathhouse that has a large bath tub for several people to use at a time. Even though the number of sentou has been decreasing over years, there are still approximately 5500 sentou in Japan today. (Excluding onsen, which uses natural hot spring water)

In Edo period (17th-19th centuries), communal bathhouses were popular, but they were different from today’s sentou. A bathhouse at the time was sectioned by a heavy, decorative gate called “zakuroguchi” to keep steam inside the room. A shallow bathtub was placed inside this steamy room (similar to sauna), so people would soak their bottom half of bodies in bath, and use steam for upper bodies.


Past the red gate, you can see there is a pool of hot water inside (you have to climb up the edge first to get in). Inside of the room looks like this.


In the drawing it seems like there’s good lighting, but in reality, there was no light, no window to keep steam inside as much as possible. Therefore some petty crimes and inappropriate conduct (it was co-ed, and it’s dark, so you can guess what was gonna happen!) were often to take place here.

Today’s sentou is a lot more spacious and clean.


Modern sentou usually has separate rooms for men and women. People usually go in naked (no swimming suits!) The general rules of using sentou is the same as using onsen, and you can look up onsen etiquette pretty easily online!

Image sources: Wikipedia, Edo no Yuya, Mizore Matsumoto

Japan Word of the Day #71 – Saboru (Ditching a class, work…)


Today’s Word is: Saboru (サボる)

Saboru is an old Japanese slang term originated in 1919.
Sabo” is derived from French word “sabotage,” and “-ru” makes it a verb.

At first, the word sabotage was used as it is (in Japanese katakana rendition) during a big strike by employees of Kawasaki Shipbuilding Corporation in 1919 (today’s subsidiary of Kawasaki Heavy Industry). As a result of the strike, employees were able to convince the company to raise their wage. The incident was reported on news, and the word sabotage became known to Japanese people.

Eventually, sabotage was shortened and made into a Japanese term “saboru,” with a slight change in its meaning. Today’ saboru just means to intentionally not participating in school, work, activities due to laziness (meaning they aren’t doing it for a cause).

In manga and anime, a typical place for students to saboru is on the rooftop of school.


Image source: Craphlex, Kinimeka

Japan Word of the Day #64 – Futokoro


Today’s Word is: Futokoro (懐)

Futokoro refers to the inner side of a kimono’s chest area. It also means the chest/breast area of the body itself. The word is used in several Japanese idioms.

For instance, futokoro is often associated with someone’s current money status.

  • “Futokoro ga samui (chest area is cold)” means you are currently short on money.
  • On the other hand, “futokoro ga atatakai (chest area is warm)” means you currently have lots of or at least comfortable amount of money.
  • Futokoro ni ireru (put [money] in chest)” means you are taking someone’s money and making it your own.

This is because futokoro area of a kimono is where people keep their wallets when they don’t have bags. As you can see, designs of kimonos usually don’t have pockets, so wallets have to either go in futokoro (inside the collar), tamoto (baggy sleeves), or stick them in obi belts.


Futokoro can also mean someone’s heart in emotional way.

  • Futokoro ni hairu (entering one’s chest)” describes a situation where someone becomes close to you and earns trust from you.
  • Futokoro ga fukai (deep chest)” describes someone who has great compassion, generosity, and respect to others.

These are just a few examples I can come up with right now, but you can see how versatile the word is!

Image source: Oharibako, 2

Japan Word of the Day #31 – Kareshi/Kanojo (lover)


Today’s Word is: Kareshi/Kanojo (彼氏/彼女)

Kareshi means boyfriend, and kanojo means girlfriend in Japanese.
They are pretty simple words to remember, but it could sometimes confuse non-native speakers because kare and kanojo could also mean simply “he/him” and “she/her”. Not many people know that these are fairly recent words in Japanese history.

Up until Edo-period, there was only one word, “kare,” to describe both “he” and “she.” There was no differentiation between male and female. However, in Meiji-period, western culture started coming in the country, and in order to translate English books, a new word was necessary to differentiate “he” and “she.” Thus the word “kanojo” was created to make a clear difference from “kare.”

Eventually, the term “kanojo” also began to mean “girlfriend.” It is unclear how this transition happened. The term “kareshi” was coined in early Showa-period by Musei Tokugawa, a popular TV/radio personality of the time. Because “kanojo” was being used to mean girlfriend by this time, Tokugawa made up a new word “kareshi” to pair with it (combination of kare + shi where shi basically means “Mr.”).

Image source: Cajun Samurai