The Japanese way of saying “I love you”


Act 1 of this week’s episode of This American Life is about a makeshift phone booth in Japan where people go to “talk” to relatives who died in the 2011 tsunami. It’s a total tear jerker—especially, I think, for those of us who resonate with the Japanese way of expressing deeply felt emotions, like love and loss and mourning: “He never says I love you directly. Real feelings are communicated through small gestures, especially ones of concern. Like when he asked his wife, are you staying warm?”

Listen to the episode

Hiro Fujita’s plea to allow human trials for ALS @ TEDxTokyo

This is my friend from high school, Hiro. He has been living with ALS for a few years now. The last time I saw him in person, he was able to move a finger and speak. Not anymore. He speaks by typing into a computer by moving his eyes, with the help of his incredible network of friends and colleagues, some of whom appear in this video (shot at TEDxTokyo last month). Hiro has turned his fight into a successful campaign to raise awareness about ALS and to urge the medical field to allow human trials on people like him who are close to death and willing to risk it in order to place their bets on survival.

“My voice is louder now since ALS took it away.”

Yes, it is. And the world is listening. Love you Hiro!

The Tofu Festival, an event that helps you “break open”

If you’re in Tokyo on Tuesday, please join us for our The Tofu Festival, an afternoon of inspiring fun talks by our most creative, eccentric friends in Japan. Tomo and I are teaching a workshop on storytelling and design from 1pm, which you can sign up for here. Then, we’ll be joined by awesome human beings like Fumio Nanjo, the Director of the Mori Art Museum; Chiaki Hayashi, CEO of Loftwork; Sputniko! artist/performer/now a MIT Media Lab professor; and Novmichi Tosa of Maywa Denki.

The theme is 打開 (dakai) – the idea that you can break open and live life the way you want to, creatively, fully, and successfully.

See you there!

日本人として自分らしさを思い切り表現し、社会を尊重しながらも独自の世界観を切り開き、成功し続けるアーティスト、起業家らのスピーチ、ワークショップに参加し、共に「打開的」なクリエイティブ思考と体験を祝福しましょう! そして、当日参加できない方もビデオコンテストを通して参加する機会も!


13時 : ワークショップ
17時 : トークセッション


Hiroo Onoda, soldier who fought for almost 30 years after the war ended, has died

There’s an obituary in last week’s issue of the Economist about a Japanese soldier named Hiroo Onoda who continued to believe he was still serving his duty as a spy on an island in the Philippines for nearly three decades after the end of the World War 2. He stayed in hiding, stealing food from farmers, killing farmers, believing he was still under command to wait for his colleagues to return. Finally, in 1974, Japan sent his former commanding officer to the Philippines to give Onoda new orders in person to cease fighting. (A Japanese hiker had discovered him in the mountains and found out that this was the only way he was going to come back out.)

Perhaps not surprisingly, Onoda was super disappointed that the war was over and that Japan had lost, and that Japan had turned soft. A year after his homecoming he moved to Brazil to become a cattle rancher; he later moved back to Japan and started a survival school for herbivorous Japanese young men.

He died January 16 of heart failure.

Wait… what happened to the blog TokyoMango?

One Sunday afternoon more than seven years ago, I decided to start a blog. Because I am from Tokyo and I love to eat mangoes, I called it TokyoMango. There was nothing well thought out or profound about the title of the blog or the intention for it. At the time I was a starting-to-be-really-prolific online and magazine writer, and there were so many amazing tidbits of research that never made it into print… also, in perusing the Japan-themed blogs out there I realized that there were no native, female voices out there.

TokyoMango took off in ways that I never expected — I had a quarter million monthly views a year in; my posts were being linked to by serious news outlets and super important revenue-generating blogs much bigger than mine; and I was soon being called by the likes of NPR and Gourmet Magazine and the BBC to comment on Japanese culture and produce more stories. It was such a cool little surprise and the greatest catalyst for my journalism career. In 2008, I published a book. In 2011, I co-produced and directed my first film. Also in 2011, I started my own non-profit called The Tofu Project. In 2012, I started working for Joi Ito at the MIT Media Lab.

I got busy. And my writing tapered off into just a few magazine articles here and there every few months… TokyoMango took the greatest hit of all, dwindling down to a whopping 10 posts the entire year of 2013. Yes, this is a little bit sad, particularly if you were a long-standing TokyoMango fan or if you are me, and you have a little bit of writer’s pride left and you actually really enjoy writing but just haven’t found the time do to it anymore, and the blogosphere is saturated with so much amazingness that jumping back in seems both daunting and unnecessary. But it’s really more wonderful than sad. I don’t live on the Internet full-time anymore. I am taking all the magical things I learned from being here — how to inspire people, how to tell great stories, how to make sense out of unlikely connections — and applying them in the real world. My current projects have longer lead times, but they have me traveling the world and getting out of my pajamas before 10am, and I love that.

So… if you’re wondering what happened to the blog TokyoMango… the archives are still here, check out that menu on the right that time-warps you aaaaaall the way back to September 2006 if you feel inclined. There is some really great timeless content there. And please leave me a comment here or email me at mango [at] tokyomango [dot] com if you feel inspired to do so.

Also, finally, and most importantly, Merry Christmas! To prove that I still love you, I’ve embedded in this post a video from our favorite comedian Ken Shimura who proves he’s still got his pervy humor in check. Yes, that’s right, it’s entirely possible to be pro-women and to think this is funny. Happy holidays!

Dots and Lines, a live calligraphy – music – art event in SF next weekend

Hi guys! Long time no chat. As most of you who still visit this site have probably realized, I’ve taken a hiatus from writing full-time and have been building things in San Francisco and Cambridge, MA.

One project I’m working on:

Digital Garage is opening up a brand new coworking-incubator-event space in downtown San Francisco next month, and I’m hosting a pre-opening event in this space next Saturday, 10/26: a fabulous celebration of art, music, and technology at the intersection of Japan and the Bay Area called Dots and Lines.

Yes, that’s right. And that means:

– open bar sake cocktails all night
– live calligrapher Aoi Yamaguchi
– sound and light artist Christopher Willits
– a surprise cinematic installation from the MIT Media Lab

You should be there. It’s gonna be a blast and it’s Saturday night! Tickets are on sale here:

New Yorker article highlights the culture of suicide in Japan

There’s a great article in the New Yorker this week about a Buddhist monk named Nemoto who has dedicated his life to supporting suicidal people in Japan. More fascinating than the statistics about suicide in Japan (2x the suicide rate of the US, 9th in the world after places like Lithuania, Greenland, Belarus, and China) is the cultural landscape by which killing yourself (and even bringing your children or spouse into the afterlife with you) is considered okay or even honorable. I don’t know how true this still is, or how prevalent among the entire population, but the writer gives several examples to support her case:

When a cabinet minister under investigation for financial impropriety killed himself, in 2007, the governor of Tokyo called him a true samurai for preserving his honor.


Suicidal parents have killed their children, so as not to abandon them to an orphan’s life; by tradition, a mother who killed herself but not her children was thought to be truly wicked.

My favorite part of the article is when Nemoto realizes that the best way to help those who really want help is to encourage them to not just call in for help, but to visit his temple. For some, it turns out, just making the journey from their depressing reality to his safe haven is enough of a picker-upper to change their minds about taking their own lives.

Listen to a podcast about the article here.

Ad campaign to end ALS delivers important messages via friends and celebrities

My high school friend Hiro Fujita was diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) in late 2010, and ever since then he has quickly lost the ability to control his entire body, with the exception of one finger. When Hiro became sick he was working as a strategic planner at the Japan branch of the ad agency McCann Erickson. Throughout his battle, the agency has been supporting him by launching a pretty comprehensive campaign to raise awareness around ALS with Hiro as a willing and determined poster child, designing t-shirts and launching a video series featuring some famous friends of ours — this one features the guitarist Char — speaking on behalf of Hiro.

When Hiro was healthy he played football and had many friends and partied like a rock star. Clearly, even with this debilitating disease, he hasn’t lost his rock star status — it’s the first time since football games and prom that I’ve seen all of our wonderful friends from Tokyo rally around a cause with such fervor, and he’s triggered a successful and impact-filled campaign against a very poorly understood disease with the support of some of the most high-profile, compassionate people in our community.

Oldest woman alive provides clues to longevity

Demographically, as a Japanese woman, I’m likely to live pretty much forever — average life expectancy of 87.

Longevity researchers have zeroed in on three characteristics that people who live a long time seem to share: a strong will, curiosity, and outgoingness. Pictured above is Misao Okawa, who is — at 115 years old — the oldest person alive right now. She’s a sweet old lady living in Osaka who fits two of the three characteristics — she’s strong-willed and curious but not very outgoing.


People competing to get the thinnest shaving of wood possible

Kezuroukai (a play on words meaning “let’s shave, shall we?” and “Wood Planing Competition”) is held every year in a different region of Japan. Wood shaving enthusiasts from all over the country gather in an effort to beat the next guy in getting the thinnest wood shavings possible. I imagine these are some of the best artisans and craftspeople in the world. In some cases they are able to get the wood down to 9 microns thick — according to Kottke that is one-thousandth of a millimeter, less than 1/10th of the thickness of a piece of human hair.

This is totally unrelated but in the random competition category, it reminds me of extreme ironing.

(Thanks, Sheel!)

Janitor secretly draws intricate maze over seven years

Check out this crazy intricate maze created by an anonymous Japanese man – actually, a janitor who happens to be the father of a Twitter user who casually posted a photo on her feed one day. He had drawn it purely for fun nearly 30 years ago, over the course of seven years. Can you imagine? This is the kind of secret genius obsessive talent that I think a lot of Japanese people possess, but don’t ever imagine could warrant global fame or a career. Had he been of a different generation or geography, he may have chosen a career path as a graphic designer instead.

via Spoon and Tamago

Aloe full body mud mask for dogs

Of all the crazy pampering shenanigans that Japanese pet owners can indulge in, a full body aloe extract mud mask is definitely the strangest. I found this along Komazawa Dori in the Ebisu-Daikanyama neighborhood today.

More animal posts here.

The simplicity and design of MUJI makes a debut in San Francisco

I’m excited to hear about the opening of MUJI USA’s flagship store in San Francisco. During Reverse Tofu in October, I had the incredible opportunity of talking to Mr. MUJI himself — the original designer for some of MUJI’s staple products. (Pic below)

Contrary to its competitor Uniqlo, which also opened up shop in SF a couple months ago, MUJI has a strong philosophy of no branding + no advertising — of course, this is a tremendous challenge when entering a new market, especially one that is so ad-driven. But hey. MUJI stuff is awesome. I use their notebooks and business card holders and headbands every single day. And it has a tremendous philosophy rooted in simplicity, efficiency, and good design.

Wired takes a stab at explaining Japanese torture humor

The December issue of Wired has an article about Japanese humor and the painfully hilarious batsu game culture.

Much has been written about Japan’s gross national cool—the worldwide demand for the country’s fashion, cuisine, anime, manga, videogames, and consumer electronics. But less attention has been paid to the country’s gross national gross—unscripted TV shows focused on imaginatively disgusting and cruel physical challenges—even though they’re just as popular and influential.

You might remember that way back in the day I posted about Nasubi, the guy who was stuck in a tiny apartment for over a year writing letters to sweepstakes in the hopes of putting some clothes on his back and maybe feed himself something more than uncooked rice. I also taught you how to do the kancho (very important if you want to prove your know-how in Japanese culture.) And you can always tell a real Japanese person from a fake one by whether they think this Shimura Ken Thriller parody is ridiculous or funny. (A real Japanese person would think both, of course, and the two are never mutually exclusive.)

The kicker of the Wired article really takes home the idea that Japanese and American humor are truly very different:

Yoshimoto CEO Osaki is cautiously optimistic. “It might take a thousand years for us to reach Hollywood, but I think we have a shot at it,” he says as he puffs on a Lucky Strike. But he’s not betting on Louis CK and Sarah Silverman performing batsu game challenges. And he isn’t sure that different humor styles always mix. “I personally don’t find American stand-up that funny,” Osaki says. “Maybe it’s lost in translation.”

Japanese Comedy: So Funny, It Hurts [Wired]