Rhythm in Japanese Language

Japanese language, on its own terms, isn’t that difficult a language to learn I believe, but it does have some things that are pretty different from English, and require re-learning. One of them, surprisingly, is rhythm and lack of stress accents. I’ve talked about the “flat” sound of Japanese, but I haven’t really talked about its rhythm before.

Since Japanese is usually written using hiragana syllabary, it’s important to note that each kana “letter” is actually a self-contained syllable, and represents one “beat”. So, if you take a word like the city of Yokohama, it has four beats:


Once you grasp this concept, and get familiar with hiragana, Japanese is fairly easy to spell. However, there is one wrinkle that’s really important to pay attention to.

In Japanese the letters ō and o are not the same. They both sound like “oh”, but one of them is two beats, and the other is a single beat. In Romanization, the sound ō is actually two beats, comprising of o, followed by u “ooh”. Many words in Japanese use this combination. For example, the city of Tokyo, is actually Tōkyō. If pronounced correctly, it actually has 4 beats, not 2:


It really helps if you clap to the beat to help you adjust to this. For a native English speaker, it’s really hard to tell the difference between ō and o in conversation, but a native Japanese speaker can and does. A good example is the word ryokō (旅行, “travel”) which has both:


The “ryo” is pronounced as a single beat (not 2, as in English), while the kō is pronounced as two beats.

In Japanese, the ū and u, both pronounced as “ooh” as in “soup” similarly are distinguished by two beats vs. one. The word for shumi (趣味, “hobby”) has only two beats:


But compare with shūmatsu (週末, “weekend”) which has two beats for shū (4 total):


This is also why relying on Romanization of Japanese is a bad idea: it’s hard to convey this. IF you can read hiragana, then the pronunciation is super obvious because it’s a WYSIWYG writing system: what you see is what you get. Take this book cover for example (which I talk about in my other blog):

I’ve highlighted in green the interesting characters. The word 百 is pronounced as ひゃく which is two beats:


And the word 道 in this context is pronounced as しゅ (shu) which is a single beat, like English “shoe”. Romanization can convey this, but if you can read hiragana, it is just so much easier.

Slight tangent, but Korean Hangeul works much the same way: Romanization doesn’t convey the sounds very well, but like Japanese hiragana, native Hangeul is also a WYSIWYG system. My wife and I have a children’s book in Korean from a friend:

I’ve highlighted each Hangeul syllable, but as you can see, Hangeul neatly divides each syllable by blocks anyway. Thus, you can easily tell who to read each one:


If you try to write the title in Romanized Korean: seonraedonghwa, it’s hard to distinguish syllables. Is “seon” actually “se” and “on”, or is it one syllable? If you write with spaces in between words, it’s still hard to tell what’s what.

Also, this need to learn the native script isn’t limited to Asian languages. Ukrainian is much easier to read and learn once you grasp the Cyrillic alphabet. It is a pain upfront due to overlap with English, but it also makes it much easier to read words like the surname of the current president: Зеленський. In Ukrainian, there is only one way to read/pronounce Зеленський, but in Romanized Ukrainian it is written as Zelenskyy, Zelensky or Zelenskiy. Close, but not quite. The same goes with reading Greek (both modern and ancient), and so on.

Think of learning Hiragana, Hangeul, Cyrillic, Devanagari, or Greek as a one-time investment. It seems like a hassle upfront, but once you get past that barrier, a whole new world opens up.

Anyhow, back to the original point of this post. When it comes to learning Japanese, it’s important to pay attention to rhythm, because your pronunciation will sound much better, and you’re likely to reduce your foreign “stress” accent in the process. It’s perfectly fine to have some lingering accent (that’s life as a foreigner in any country), but your ability to clearly convey what you want to say to native speakers will go a lot smoother, and be less tiring to the listener.

Good luck!

New Pilgrimage Books

Hello readers,

A while back, I talked about something in Japanese culture called a goshuinchō (ご朱印帳), or pilgrimage book. This is a tradition that started in the late-medieval Edo period, when life in Japan finally stabilized and people could afford to travel the countryside on Buddhist pilgrimages, or just sight-seeing. People would get a “seal” (shuin 朱印) at the site to prove they were there, brag to friends, build up merit for the afterlife, etc. The tradition of collecting stamps still carries on today in various forms.

When I last wrote about it, I had a single book for all my visits to both Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. I learned later that these are traditionally kept in separate books. Since mine had filled up anyway, I had planned to buy two new books on my next visit, but then the Pandemic happened and I couldn’t visit Japan for 3 years.

Finally, on our latest trip, I was able to get some fresh, new books. This first one comes from the famous Buddhist temple of Asakusa (a major tourist spot in Tokyo), also known as Sensōji:

Sensoji sold two pilgrimage books: the basic option, and the deluxe book. I went with the deluxe option which was about ¥1000. It came with a fresh, new seal from Sensoji as well (the one on the right):

Later, when I visited the Great Buddha in Kamakura, I also got a second seal (on the left).

During that same trip to Kamakura, I also got a pilgrimage book for Shinto shrines as well from the famous Tsurugaoka-Hachimangū Shrine, which also had a really neat custom cover:

Tsurugaoka-Hachimangū Shrine has major historical significance due to its association with the old Kamakura Shogunate (mentioned here, here and here), as well as the death of Minamoto no Sanetomo. It’s a gorgeous cover, and I got a seal for this book as well:

The ticket shown here is from the museum which the family and I visited. It was neat to see real relics from the Shogunate, but that is a story for another day.

However, it turns out two books wasn’t quite enough. So, when we visited the NHK museum for the Thirteen Lords of the Shogun, the historical drama I loved to watch, I got a third book:

This one features the famous “triforce” logo of the Hojo family crest. I have noticed that pilgrimage books aren’t limited to just religious sites, people get stamps for all kinds of places they visit (many cities will have campaigns for kids to visit sites and get stamps too), so I decided to use this one for miscellaneous touristy sites I visit. At the gift shop, I got a couple stamps related to the Hojo clan and Hojo no Yoshitoki in particular:

Sometimes, when you visit a site, they will have pre-made “seals” rather than hand-written ones. The Great Buddha of Kamakura sold pre-made ones to avoid contact due to Covid-19, as did the gift shop. When you get such seals, you can simply glue them on. I use my kids’ Elmer’s glue sticks which do a nice job of adhering to the page without wrinkling the paper due to moisture.

Since I have three books, not one, I expected it to take much longer to fill them out. The last book I had, purchased at Todaiji Temple in Nara, took about 14 years (2005-2019) to fill out since I could only visit Japan on a sporadic basis. However, I remember my late mother-in-law carrying a well-worn book around whenever we visited Buddhist temples together. A pilgrimage is something very personal, and may last a long time if taken care of.

So, if you visit a famous site in Japan, especially temples or shrines, look for a ご朱印帳 sign nearby, and chances are you can pick up a pilgrimage book for a reasonable price and start collecting seals.

The Shōshinge Hymn

While in Japan, my wife, kids and I attended the 49-day memorial service (details here) for my mother in law. This service was held at a neighborhood Jodo Shinshu-sect temple which my mother in law frequently volunteered, and our kids have grown up together for generations. 😌

This was the first Jodo Shinshu Buddhist service that I had attended in almost five years. The Pandemic was a large reason, but also there are personal reasons too.

Anyhow, the memorial service included an important hymn in the Jodo Shinshu tradition called the Shōshinge (正信偈). This is a hymn composed in the 13th century by the founder Shinran, and lays down the basics of Jodo Shinshu teachings, and the “lineage” of one Dharma master to another, starting in India, through China, to Shinran’s teacher, Honen.1

The hymn is quite long (20 minutes), but it frequently used in formal services. When I was training to be a minister years ago, I practiced this hymn over and over with my minister, so hearing it brought back a lot of memories. I could still remember some of the verses, the rhythm, etc. It’s interesting how music stays in your memory like that. Also, I am very tone-dead so during my training days, I sang it terrible, but my minister was quite good at it, yet also very patient with me. Reverend Castro, thank you.

The above YouTube video is a good example of the Shōshinge when sang properly. I definitely did not sound like this, no matter how much I practiced. Also, there are other styles to singing the Shōshinge, a flatter style and a more melodic style, but that’s a long subject. Anyhow, the style above is the “default” and the one you hear most often. It starts off somewhat flat, but then gradually builds as the song goes along.

One other note is that the Shōshinge often ends with a set of 6 shorter hymns called Wasan (和讃). Shinran wrote quite a few of these little hymns, but these 6 in particular are most commonly included at the end. I remember singing these too (poorly).

By the way, you can find a full translation of the Shoshinge including the 6 Wasan hymns here.

One thing that always struck me as unusual about Jodo Shinshu as a sect was its heavy reliance on hymns more than chanting the Buddhist sutras, as other sects do. My guess is that using music and hymnals, especially in vernacular Japanese, made the teachings more accessible to Japanese lay people. This is similar to the medieval Christian debate between using Latin vs vernacular language, perhaps.

However, Jodo Shinshu does recite some Buddhist sutras too, such as the Juseige and Sanbutsuge, both excerpts from the Immeasurable Life Sutra. Also, the Shoshinge is written in Sino-Japanse, not vernacular (like the Wasan hymns), so the answer is maybe not clear-cut. Maybe Shinran was just a musically-inclined person. I am not sure.

In any case, for the 100th day memorial for my mother in law, I will probably sing the Shoshinge hymn as a tribute to her, so I have been brushing up a bit lately. We’ll see how it goes. But, I hope she enjoys nonetheless.

1 The concept of lineage in Pure Land Buddhism is a bit fuzzy, compared to Zen, Shingon or Tendai Buddhism in that there is no physical “handover” from master to student. The patriachs all lived in different times and places, but each contributed new ideas or innovations to Pure Land Buddhism, hence there is a steady evolution.

Happy Year of the Rabbit

A set of figurines for the Japanese zodiac we purchased in our recent trip.

Hello Readers and Happy New Year! In Japanese, people greet each other for the first time using the stock phrase akemashite omedetō gozaimasu (明けましておめでとうございます) which means something like “congrats on the opening of a new year”.

Note that Japanese New Year is based on Chinese New Year, but since early industrialization period, the Meiji Period, Japan moved away from the lunar calendar to the Western solar calendar.

The traditions inherited from Chinese culture still persist, even if the calendar changed, thus the original zodiac is still in place, and the new year is still frequently referred to as “spring” even if it is no longer anywhere close to meteorological spring.

In any case, it might sound a bit early but Happy Year of the Rabbit!

Awesome Historical Totebag

Speaking of the famous “nun warlord” Hojo no Masako, I wanted to share something really great that I picked up in Japan in Kamakura (still uploading pics from that trip, blog post coming later):

This totebag features the famous speech by Hojo no Masako shortly before the Jokyu War of 1221, when the retainers of the new Kamakura government (shown above) balked at taking up arms against Emperor Gotoba:

その恩[故右大将軍, 源頼朝に]はすでに山よりも高く、海よりも深い。

“The obligation we bear to the late Udaishogun (Minamoto no Yoritomo, Masako’s husband) is higher than a mountain, and deeper than the sea.”

from the “Azuma Kagami” (吾妻鏡, “Mirror of the East”), dated to , made in the 19th day of 5th month of the 3rd year of JOKYU era

The totebag is really cute, and represents a really great moment in Japanese history. I have been proudly using it for shopping and such since I came back to the US. The bag is made by Samurai Kibun (homepage here), which makes a lot of great products featuring famous figures in Japanese history. It appears they are focused on domestic, Japanese audiences, so there is no English site, and it states that it cannot ship overseas. So, chances are, you’re more likely to see Samurai Kibun goods in local shops in Japan.

So, if you are in Japan and you do find some of their goods, definitely show some support and pick something up!

The Man Who Held It All Together: Hojo no Yoshitoki

I’ve talked about several aspects (and people) of a fascinating by tumultuous period of Japanese history from the late 12th to the early 13th centuries. The climatic battle between the Genji (Minamoto) and Heike (Taira) clans led to the establishment of Japan’s first military government (a Shogunate) away from the aristocratic Imperial court. This new “Kamakura Shogunate” was a fragile set of alliances, punctuated by more than a few shady murders by rivals.

So for today, I wanted to focus on the one man who, in spite of everything, managed to hold this house of cards together: Hōjō no Yoshitoki (北条義時, 1163 – 1224).1

Cover for “北条義時 歴史を変えた人物伝” (“Yoshitoki: Biographies of Figures Who Changed History”), available through Kodansha Press. I happened to buy this book early in 2022 and have been reading it from time to time.

Hojo no Yoshitoki was the younger brother of the famous “Nun Warlord” Hojo no Masako, and later became head of the Hojo clan after his older brother died in war, and his father was exiled by Masako.

Yoshitoki served as the “regent” of the Shoguns, eventually becoming the de facto ruler. I watched the NHK “Taiga Drama” series, The 13 Lords of the Shogun,2 and was super excited to visit the city of Kamakura once again (more on that in a later post) when we visited in December. One of the first things I noticed was how prominent the drama, and in particular Hojo no Yoshitoki were. His visage was everywhere:

Hojo no Yoshitoki in the center, surrounded by the other 13 lords on a box of chocolate mochi. The mochi was excellent, by the way.
A billboard in Kamakura featuring the museum exhibit for the show. Note the “triforce” in the background, the symbol of the Hojo clan.

The drama portrays Hojo no Yoshitoki as a somewhat tragic, but stalwart figure. He serves the new Shoguns as their close advisor and ally, but also they force his hand sometimes to do the dirty work necessary to keep the Shogunate functioning. As he gets older, and the subsequent Shoguns are increasingly ineffective, he steps in his role as shikken (執権) and asserts control along with his sister Masako. Thus, the Shogunate centered in the city of Kamakura was effectively run by the Hojo clan and Yoshitoki in particular.

A poster for The 13 Lords of the Shogun, portraying Hojo no Yoshitoki (played by Oguri Shun). All rights held by NHK.

Yoshitoki’s story, like his sister Masako’s, is pretty dramatic. His father, Hojo no Tokimasa, allied himself with Minamoto no Yoritomo who later led the Genji clan as they rallied back and destroyed the Heike. This was a big deal since the Hojo were descended from the Heike, but for various reasons had fallen out with them. The Hojo’s alliance also convinced other local warlords to side with the Genji as well. The Hojo were the glue that made it all happen.

The trouble was was that after the war was over, the shoguns weren’t particularly great rulers. Yoritomo, the first shogun, was mercurial and had many of his rivals killed including his various half-brothers (often forcing Yoshitoki to get involved). He also slept around a lot, infuriating his wife Hojo no Masako. The second shogun, Yoriie,3 was combative and had little patience for the subtleties of government, and was eventually stripped of his power by his retainers. He plotted to overthrow the Hojo, but failed. Yoriie’s younger brother Minamoto no Sanetomo was a more gentle figure, but had little power or force of will, and by this point the shogun’s power was so diminished that it was little more than a fancy title. Then, Sanetomo was killed by his nephew (Yoriie’s second son) Kugyo, ending the Minamoto line.

And that was all before the Emperor Gotoba attempted to restore the power of the Imperial Court through the Jokyu War. Hojo no Masako’s role in rallying the troops has been covered in other posts, but Yoshitoki had a strong hand in this too.

In fact, while brother and sister frequently clashed with one another, they still worked together to keep everything functioning. Yoshitoki often functioned as the administrator, while Masako was the “spirit” behind everything, especially after her husband died, and especially when they had to exile their own father Hojo no Tokimasa for his autocratic tendencies.

Sadly, due to holiday schedule, and traveling, I missed the final episodes of the NHK drama, so I don’t know how it ended (I have already pre-ordered the DVDs), but it’s clear that Yoshitoki and his sister Masako held the government together under very difficult circumstances.

The manga above is just one of several published over the years that I found covering the life of Hojo no Yoshitoki. He is a figure regarded in Japanese history as an able leader, a loyal retainer to the Shogun, and while his hands weren’t clean, he still came out of it all with a good reputation. Given how much backstabbing and plotting went on by his family, his allies, and his enemies, that no small feat.

Yoshitoki was, to put it mildly, the man who held it all together.

P.S. Japanese family names precede given names, hence Hojo the family name comes first. Also, in Japanese antiquity, the “no” was used by people of pedigree, implying they were from an important clan or house. Hence, Minamoto no Yoritomo would, roughly translated into English, mean “Yoritomo of the House of Minamoto”.

1 In Japanese ō and o are pronounced the same (e.g. as “oh”), but ō is two beats, while o is just one beat. This may seem odd to English speakers, and to us it sounds the same, but it makes a big difference in pronouncing Japanese correctly. More on that in a latter post. For the purposes of this post, Hojo and Hōjō are basically the same.

2 I originally mistranslated 鎌倉殿の13人 as The 13 Lords of Kamakura in earlier posts … oops.

3 Pronounced like Yo-ri-i-e (it’s easier to parse in Japanese than in Romanized script).

Getting Around Japan: Suica Cards

Visiting Japan means using trains, and if you are visiting Japan or living there, it really really helps to get a train pass. If you are traveling across many prefectures or the countryside, then it makes sense to get a JR train pass, however, if you are staying within the inner-city Tokyo area, then you might better off getting a Suica card instead.

Suica cards are extremely useful for getting around town, and also for making purchases at vending machines and convenience stores. They’re easy to setup, easy to reload, and they have no expiration. This important because I travel to Japan with the family yearly, and it’s nice to be able to reload my Suica card as soon as I get there and resume traveling.

JR provides a pretty handy video how to get and use a Suica card:

The video, I think, is filmed at Narita airport (where most international travel happens), because I recognize much of the background scenery. I can attest that once you get to the airport, go to the basement where the trains are, the Suica terminals are right there. The terminals are available in English and other languages, so they’re pretty easy to use too.

Also, as the video points out, transferring between train lines operated by different companies is pretty seamless.

When you want to use your Suica to pay for train fare, you simply go to the appropriate ticket gates, and tape the little scanner:

Ichinoseki Station west exit, photo by ぺ有家音, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

When you tap at your starting point, it will activate the card, and when you get to your destination and tap the card again, it will deduct the difference. Trains fares are based on distance from one station to another, so they vary.

Also, note that for children, the fare is half of what adults pay, but you can’t get a Suica card like above. You have to go to a JR office and present ID (e.g. a passport) for the child to get one.

Anyhow, I have had my Suica card for maybe 10+ years, and it’s always very handy. I highly recommend getting one no matter you go in Japan, though in western Japan, you might see the equivalent Pasmo more often. They both work great, and will work just about everywhere. It mainly comes down to preference.

Good luck and happy traveling!

Back Home

Hello Dear Readers,

The family trip to Japan concluded as of yesterday. We safely returned home, and are settling back in, dealing with jet lag, unpacking countless goods we bought, and of course missing our time there. It was a great time to reconnect with family, especially for my youngest who hasn’t spent as much time in Japan (especially due to Pandemic), finally say goodbye to the dearly departed, and of course to enjoy Japanese New Year.

As I have many things to unpack, photos to process, and sleep to catch up on, it will take a bit of time, but you’ll probably see a flood of posts coming up in the next few weeks. Hope you enjoy. 🙂

Omiyage At A Glance

It’s been years since we’ve traveled to Japan (despite previously going every summer) thanks to the Pandemic, but we’re heading out soon, and so my wife has been super busy preparing omiyagé (お土産) for all the friends and relatives at home.

Just some of the bags of stuff my wife has collected for bringing back to Japan

Tofugu has an excellent article on omiyage, especially from the standpoint of a foreigner, and how to do it right. The suggestions about making lists and such are true. My wife does this too. Why?

Because at its heart, omiyage is about re-affiriming relationships with others. When you go on a trip, or if you come back from living abroad (as my wife does), you bring back something small and tasteful as a way of showing you thought of them. In the same vein, people will remember what you did, and bring you omiyage at some point too.

I used to work in a large e-commerce company, and when I would go to Japan, I’d usually spent half a day in the Japan office for this company, and would bring some local Pacific Northwest chocolates or something. When my coworker in Japan would come to the home office here, he would also bring something from Japan. The reciprocal natures helps reaffirm our friendships, while also getting some nice treats from time to time.

Even if I stay home one day working, and my wife and kids go out for the day, they will still bring back a little something for me (bubble tea, a snack, whatever) because it’s about showing you care.

When we bring things to Japan, we typically bring goods from the Pacific Northwest, that people in Japan might not easily obtain. To us, they’re easy to get, but obviously it’s a treat over there. When we get omiyage, it’s oftentimes local goods from Japan. One of my wife’s friends brought some treats recently, which I wrote about in my other blog. If you are in Japan, many train statations, tourist sites and such will all have omiyage available because it’s such an integral part of Japanese culture.

Also, the key with omiyage is to not overdo it either. IF you bring back an expensive gift, it puts the other person under a sense of obligation to give back in kind (and since it’s expensive, that puts more burden on them). If it’s someone you’re not super close with, bringing back a small, generic treat is fine too. My wife often brings back local coffee, Pringles (since the flavors in the US are different), and simple candy. Small, tasteful gifts work best.

When should you not bring omiyage to someone? Based on my limited experience, if someone’s not reciprocating, you can probably forgo any gifts for them. Sometimes you’re just not that close to someone and they forget, or just don’t feel like bringing something. Of course, if you bring someone out of the blue to someone, they may feel obligated to do the same for you at least once (more to wipe the slate clean than anything). With time, you’ll get a feel for who to bring gifts to, and who not to, and what makes a good gift.

This tradition of reciprocation isn’t limited to Japan either. When I was much younger, I studied abroad in Hanoi, Vietnam and it became clear early on that the key to getting anything done in Vietnam was building relationships with others around you. I don’t mean this in a duplicitous way, either. It was about people helping people, and this included bringing a small gift when you visit someone’s house, etc.

Anyhow, if you would like to know more, read Tofugu’s article, especially the etiquette section, and good luck!

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