• 日本語を学習してホテルで働く

    [From December Issue 2013]

    Both from China, Urgenbayar and LIU Sichen work for Tokyo Business Hotel (Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo). Urgenbayar comes from Chifeng in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. Lui was born in Mudanjiang, Heilongjiang.
    Urgenbayar came to Japan in 2004. After graduating from college in China, he spent two years searching for a job but was unable to find one. Thinking that as Japan was an economic powerhouse there’d be work, he enrolled in a Japanese language school in Hohhot for half a year. His nomad parents approved and gave him money after selling about a third of the livestock they owned.
    After coming to Japan, he studied for a year at a Japanese language school and then went on to study at the Faculty of International Development in Takushoku University. His major was Japanese culture and language. The university alone cost 800,000 yen a year, and he struggled economically. One of the ways he saved money was to share the rent of a four-and-a-half-tatami room with a shared bathing room and toilet, with a student friend of Mongolian descent, reducing his rent to 22,000 yen a month.
    “I worked at an izakaya (Japanese pub / restaurant) to pay for part of my living expenses. Teachers spoke slowly to me, but patrons spoke rapidly and were hard to understand. I had difficulties with honorific language, too,” says Urgenbayar. After graduation, HASHIMOTO Taiitsu, President of the Tokyo Business Hotel and the father of a friend, gave him a job on the basis of his good character. He first worked at the front desk. Now he’s a cook.
    “I want to work in Japan for the foreseeable future because there’s no work in the countryside in China and the pollution is awful. In Japan, your salary is always paid and the food and water are safe. But I intend to return to China eventually to inherit my father’s job,” says Urgenbayar.


    LIU Sichen

    Liu came to Japan because she had studied Japanese in high school. “Japanese and English were compulsory. Teachers of the Japanese language were usually serious, but at parties they would liven things up with karaoke,” she recalls. She majored in Japanese at college and became an interpreter for a Japanese company.
    The salary, however, wasn’t very good for a recent graduate. “Besides, while I was working with Japanese people, I felt my Japanese wasn’t good enough. So I came to Japan in 2010 and went to a language school for a year and then studied business Japanese at a post-graduate course at Musashino University,” says Liu.
    The school and her living expenses of a little less than 100,000 yen a month were paid for with money sent by her parents and with her salary from her job at a convenience store. “My parents approved of my studies in Japan at first, but after the Great East Japan Earthquake, they suggested I return. But I had just been admitted to a post-graduate course. I wanted to further improve my Japanese after graduation, so I got a job at this hotel. Besides, Japan is a convenient place to live.”
    “At first, sushi disgusted me because it is raw, but I love it now. There was a period when I was obsessed by ramen, too,” laughs Liu. After starting to work at the hotel’s front desk, she began dreaming of having a shop or a hotel of her own in the future. “One day, a Chinese guest fell ill and I went to the hospital with him as an interpreter. That made him so happy that I was glad, too. In the future I’d like to do work that makes people happy. I’d also like to act as a bridge between Japan and China.”
    Tokyo Business Hotel
    Text: SAZAKI Ryo[2013年12月号掲載記事]



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  • 心はすっかり日本人

    [From November Issue 2013]

    Ousmane Youla SANKHON
    “Forty years have passed since I arrived in Japan. I’ve been to all 47 prefectures. Japanese people praise me saying, ‘You know Japan better than I,’” says Ousmane Youla SANKHON in fluent Japanese. He became famous appearing in variety shows and in commercials on TV. Nowadays he is busy travelling all over Japan for events and lectures.
    Sankhon was born in 1949 in the state of Bofa, Guinea. Watching planes fly overhead, as a young boy he dreamed of becoming a pilot. In those days, most children in Guinea didn’t go on to higher education. Sankhon, however, went on to study in the capital at the University of Conakry at the suggestion of his parents who attached great importance to education. Coming top in an exam taken by some 10,000 people, he won a state-sponsored scholarship to study in France.
    After studying economic politics at the Paris-Sorbonne University, Sankhon returned to Guinea to become a diplomat. He was then ordered to “go to Japan.” Sankhon’s studies had focused on Europe and he had no knowledge whatsoever of Asia nor Japan. “I saw Burma and Vietnam in transit and got worried thinking, ‘These countries are less developed than Guinea. Japan is even further away. Just how backward can it be?’” Sankhon says, laughing.


    When he was diplomat

    However, what waited for Sankhon in Japan was streets lined with skyscrapers and roads thronged with cars. “I was stunned when the car I was in got on a highway. The car was rushing along at the same height as the third floor of a building,” says Sankhon. “In Marunouchi, even in the middle of the night, there were always some lighted windows. I understood that Japan was a success because Japanese are such hard workers.”
    Sankhon was in a hurry to study Japanese in order to perform his duties as a diplomat. “I decided I didn’t have enough time to learn kanji, as I was to be transferred to another country in a few years. So, using the Roman alphabet, I listened to everything very carefully, pronouncing it exactly as I had heard it.” Also, by writing down words he’d been taught, he made his own dictionary and memorized two words each day.
    He was later transferred to the US before returning to Guinea. But before his first son was born, he took a leave of absence from the Foreign Service to come back to Japan. “At 64, I’m still on my leave of absence,” says Sankhon, laughing.
    Because even though he had intended to stay for just a short while until his son was born, he became popular on TV. “I didn’t know that it was an audition,” says Sankhon. He was told by someone from the Japan-Guinea Friendship Association to go to a TV station to do some PR for Guinea. There were many non-Japanese there. Unaware of the circumstances, he spoke frankly about a variety of things. Then someone said “What an interesting man!” And with that, he was hired for a variety show.


    When he was on TV

    “My office had always been lively; a place where people gathered together.” He started to make frequent appearances on TV, attracting attention because of the contrast between his cheerful, humorous speech and his intelligence as a speaker of six languages, including Japanese. “I stood out because there were no other black TV personalities in those days.”
    Some programs made a joke out of his black skin, for example, “Searching for Sankhon in a dark place.” “Some said it was discriminatory and questioned whether a diplomat should appear in such programs,” says Sankhon. “But I didn’t mind a bit because I didn’t have an inferiority complex about my black skin. Besides, everyone’s jokes were so full of affection that I enjoyed the shows myself.”
    Sankhon’s success opened doors to other TV personalities from Africa. African TV personalities aren’t rare anymore today. Sankhon himself doesn’t appear so much on TV these days. He puts his energies into giving lectures and into social welfare activities.
    “Education in Guinea is still very backward,” says Sankhon. “Some children must walk half a day to get to their elementary school. That’s why I built one in Bofa. I also donate stationery to orphans. The children get really excited,” says Sankhon. With help from local Japanese government and other organizations, he has also donated fire engines and farming machinery to Guinea.
    Sankhon became interested in the welfare of others because of a personal experience. “I broke my leg when I was a child. The treatment I received from my Guinean doctor was inadequate, so this leg became permanently damaged. My mother massaged me everyday for years, but it didn’t help.” When she got old, Sankhon took care of her, inviting her to Japan to have her eyes operated on.


    Visiting a nursing home

    Meanwhile one of his acquaintances, an administrator for a nursing home, said to him, “Why don’t you study nursing and obtain a license as a caregiver?” So he trained in the nursing home by pushing wheelchairs and bathing the elderly. “I spent a night in a diaper. Kanji was the hardest part of studying for the exams.” After a concerted effort, he successfully gained a second grade qualification. Now he visits nursing homes, entertaining the elderly by doing things like singing enka ballads.
    After the Great East Japan Earthquake, he went as a volunteer to areas affected by the disaster. “I was impressed to see victims queuing up properly to receive food.” His welfare activities in Guinea and Japan over the years have been recognized and this July, Sankhon received an award from the Minister of Foreign Affairs. “My skin is black, but in my soul I’m completely Japanese,” he says humorously. “Japanese values of duty and empathy are really fantastic. Because I feel that these have been on the decline over the last 40 years, I continue to emphasize their importance in my lectures.”
    Ousmane Sankhon Official Website
    Text: SAZAKI Ryo[2013年11月号掲載記事]





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  • 京都から発信する無言のパフォーマンス







    無言劇ですが、観客はユーモラスな動きに笑ったり、感動する場面では涙を流したりします。主催するART COMPLEXプロデューサーの小原啓渡さんは話します。「2010年にギアを制作しました。グローバルな催しをしたいと考えたとき、言葉の壁が一番大きいと思い、この形になりました。世代や国籍を超えて楽しめるものを目指しています」。









    [From November Issue 2013]



    “Gear,” a show performed at Nakagyo Ward, Kyoto City, is becoming popular by word of mouth. Once you enter the small theatre located within a building, a set that resembles a genuine factory appears before you. Before long, five performers appear on stage and express the story through various movements. Not a single word is used.

    The story is set in a tempestuous and desolate future society. A former toy factory, where humanoid “Roboroid” robots continue to labor, is visited by “Doll,” a former product of this factory. As they interact they experience curiosity and play, gradually becoming more like human beings. Meanwhile, an accident occurs and the Roboroids have to deal with a crisis. The story takes a dramatic turn when, left all alone, a change appears in Doll.

    Although the play is silent, the audience laughs at the slapstick comedy and sheds tears during the emotional scenes. KOHARA Keito, the producer of ART COMPLEX – an organization that sponsors the show – says, “I created Gear in 2010. The show took this form because I wanted to produce a global event, but believed that the language barrier would be my greatest challenge. The aim was to create something that could be enjoyed regardless of age or nationality.”

    Gear utilizes the latest technologies, including something called projection mapping, projecting an image or lighting up an object by adapting itself to that object’s shape. The choreography was created by KONDO Ryohei who is also known as the leader of the dance company “Condors.”

    Numerous world championship winning dancers and mime artists make an appearance. However, Gear demands movements and expressions that have never before been experienced. At first the performers had concerns, saying, “Why do we have to do something like this?” They also went through a tough period when there would only be about ten people in the audience.

    Kohara continued to make steady progress by taking into account the opinions given on questionnaires about the show. The cast themselves began to put forward their own ideas. Here, the crew, cast and audience all direct the show. Because of their hard work, the show, which was first performed in 2012, was performed for the 400th time in September, 2013, and more than 20,000 people have been to see it.

    Audience members have commented that: “I could enjoy it even without dialogue. In fact, it is more interesting because there are no words.” “While the tricks and devices are effective, in the end, it was the ‘people’ who moved me.” A non-Japanese tourist commented that: “I’ve never seen a performance like it.” Kid’s Day – when children under the age of three can attend – was created after they received a comment saying that, “Our three year old child was able to concentrate and watch it until the end.”

    “I would be delighted if many more small theatres were created in Kyoto,” says Kohara. “In the future I want to do a long running performance on the real Broadway. There’s no precedent for Japanese people performing a long run yet, so I’d like to set myself this challenge.” Kohara’s dreams are growing bigger.


    Text: KAWARATANI Tokiko


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  • シェアハウスは日本語の勉強に最適

    [From November Issue 2013]


    Melodie ALRIC

    “It’s been exactly a month since I came to Japan. I can’t speak Japanese yet and it’s frustrating. But at the same time, it also gives me an incentive to study harder,” Melodie ALRIC from France says cheerfully. Melodie is 20 years old and a student at the University of Lyons. She’s been studying the Japanese language for two years. “In my college, the emphasis was on reading and writing. So even if I can communicate with my Japanese friends on Facebook, I can’t talk to them face to face,” she laughs.

    Melodie became interested in Japan and the Japanese language through Japanese anime and manga which she became familiar with from a young age. “Naturally I saw and read them in French. I loved a manga called ‘NANA.’ I also found “MONSTER” interesting because it’s set in Germany and has scenes where the main character, who’s Japanese, prepares Japanese dishes for Germans.”

    Melodie also gradually became interested in Japanese culture and history. “Japan’s culture and history are completely different from France’s. That’s why I wanted to know more and took Japanese language classes. There’s a student exchange program between the University of Lyon’s and Japan’s Musashi University. I used it and came to Japan with a plan to stay for a year.”

    Because of the exchange program between the universities, there’s no need to pay tuition at Musashi. For a place to live, she chose a shared house near the university after consulting with Tulip Estate, an organization that manages many women-only shared houses and actively welcomes non-Japanese. The living room and kitchen are shared. The rent including utilities is 59,000 yen a month.

    “The room is small but private. As we are all women, I feel safe. Another good thing is I can walk to the university and have no transportation expenses. We’re now six or seven in the house and everyone else is Japanese, so it’s the best environment for studying Japanese. When there’s some word I don’t understand, they all explain it to me by writing kanji or drawing images.”

    “Because I’ve just arrived in Japan, I needed an extra 1,000 euros this month. I had to pay some insurance fees,” says Melodie. “From now on, I think I’ll only need from 800 to 900 euros a month. It’s for the rent, eating expenses, money to go out with friends and what have you.” She has saved about 4,000 euros because she wants to travel. Her parents gave her 3,500 euros for expenses for September through to December.

    In Japan, she strolls around visiting different neighborhoods or museums. “Unlike France where shops are closed on Sunday, convenience stores are always open and handy,” says Melodie.

    Melodie likes traveling and wants to work in the travel industry in the future. “I’d like to plan out trips for leisure and business people and organize events.” She intends to travel around and see a lot of Japan in her one year here. “I’m now planning a trip to Kyoto. I want to travel around Japan from Hokkaido to Okinawa.”

    Tulip Real Estate Co., Ltd.

    Text: SAZAKI Ryo














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  • 横綱をめざすエジプト人力士

    [From October Issue 2013]


    Real name: Abdelrahman SHALAN

    “I was very happy when I qualified as a ranking wrestler (sekitori),” says OOSUNAARASHI Kintarou. Oosunaarashi is a sumo wrestler. Sumo is a traditional martial art in Japan. There are about 700 professional sumo wrestlers, but only 8% of them are recognized as sekitori (fully-fledged wrestlers). Oosunaarashi is now 21. He was promoted to juuryou (the second highest division) only two years after making his debut.

    Even though the history of sumo in Japan’s stretches back over 1,000 years, there has never been a wrestler like Oosunaarashi until now. Oosunaarashi is the first Egyptian, the first African and the first Muslim. Moreover, he’s risen through the ranks so quickly that he’s famous enough to be invited to the Japanese Prime Minister’s parties.

    Oosunaarashi was born in 1992 in the Dakahlia Governorate of northern Egypt. His father was a professional soccer player, but because he didn’t like soccer, Oosunaarashi trained as a bodybuilder since childhood.

    When he was 14, he met someone at a bodybuilding gym who was into sumo. He was invited to have a go himself. Sumo is not widely practiced in Egypt. There are only about 50 enthusiasts. “Two overweight men were pushing each other; they looked just like jostling elephants,” says Oosunaarashi candidly.

    Oosunaarashi weighed around 120kg then. He challenged a wrestler who weighed 75kg. He thought he could “win easily,” but lost every time. Shocked, he thought, “What kind of a sport is this?” As soon as he got home he did some research on the Internet. He was impressed when he watched the famous wrestler Takanohana in a bout.


    Oosunaarashi went to the gym the following day and told his trainer, “I want to be a pro wrestler in Japan.” Of course, he wasn’t taken seriously, so he practiced everyday by watching footage on the Internet. As a result he came second place at the Egyptian championships a month later and took first place the next year. He performed exceptionally well at the World Championships, too. However, when he posted that he wanted “to go to Japan to be a sumo wrestler” on a sumo chat site, he was mocked. He wrote letters to people involved in sumo in Japan, too, but got few answers.

    However, his enthusiasm was eventually recognized, and he was able to go to Japan in September 2011. Since it was soon after the Great East Japan Earthquake, his mother was vehemently opposed to the idea. Oosunaarashi was able to come to Japan by persuading her that, “I’ve been dreaming of going to Japan for five whole years. I’ll do my best for you, too.”

    There are considerable cultural differences between Japan and Egypt. For example, when a problem occurs, Egyptians make their opinions known, whereas Japanese immediately apologize. Men walk hand in hand in Egypt, but not in Japan. Japanese are used to the sight of near-naked wrestlers, but Egyptians are uncomfortable with this. This is because, according to Islamic doctrine, men must also cover their midriffs.

    “In Egypt, everyone wore sport shorts under their loincloths. I was ashamed, too, at first, but I soon began to joke about it. Mawashi (loincloth) means cow in Arabic.” Oosunaarashi says bellowing like a cow. “I’m already used to it. This is my formal attire now,” he laughs.

    Oosunaarashi is a positive person, but he often experiences culture shock. “Egypt and Japan are worlds apart. Moreover, the culture of sumo isn’t exactly the culture of Japan.” Sumo has a strict hierarchy with elders giving orders to their juniors. Newcomers can’t come and go as they please because they have to do chores like cleaning, laundry and dishwashing. Such customs in sumo seem quite conservative even to Japanese eyes.

    “When I was new, I lived in a room for six and did a lot of chores,” says Oosunaarashi. In sumo, there are other peculiar customs, such as being given a wrestling name like “Oosunaarashi Kintarou,” having an old samurai hairstyle, and wearing a kimono as part of your everyday routine. There are unique words like “heya” which means a stable for sumo wrestlers.


    Right: master, OOTAKE Tadahiro


    Even Japanese quit if they can’t adapt to the world of sumo. “Quite honestly, I haven’t overcome my culture shock yet. The food, the people and the culture are all really different. I encounter problems every day. I’m learning Japanese by listening to others talking around me, but I can’t speak well yet,” he says with a sad look on his face. “But I’m training hard every day and studying the culture. All I can do is my best,” he says.

    In the world of sumo, sekitori wrestlers get special treatment. They are allowed to wear high quality kimono and have someone to look after them. They also customarily perform a ceremony before each bout in a spectacular apron-like loincloth. “I felt good, but I was nervous.” Non-ranking wrestlers only get six payments a year of 70,000 to 150,000 yen each. Ranking wrestlers (sekitori) get more than a million yen a month.

    But Oosunaarashi says, “Money isn’t everything. You can’t buy health with money.” During sumo bouts wrestlers shove each other violently and quite a few get injured. “My mother tells me ‘You don’t have to buy anything to bring back from Japan. Just stay well.’ It’s a great thing being a ranking wrestler, but it’s also tough. I feel I have a duty to remain in the sekitori (above juuryou division).”

    During Ramadan, Oosunaarashi won despite not having eaten anything since the morning. Although Islamic diet and customs are often controversial, he swears that, “Religion isn’t a barrier. I haven’t been a victim of any prejudice, either. There’s pressure from being in the spotlight, but I try not to think about it too much.” Oosunaarashi’s dream is to become yokozuna (champion). “My idol is Takanohana. He’s a man with a good heart. I too would like to be a wrestler loved by family and friends, who everyone is proud of.”

    In cooperation with: Embassy of Egypt Tourism Office
    Nihon Sumo Kyokai

    Text: SAZAKI Ryo
    Photos: HAMANO Yutaka























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  • 性同一性障害者に希望を与える性転換者

    [From October Issue 2013]


    INOUE Kento,
    Representative of G-pit Networks

    It is believed that currently approximately 7% of the population of Japan belongs to a sexual minority. These people are also referred to as LGBT: L stands for lesbian, G stands for gay, B stands for bisexual, and T for transgender.

    However, there are many troubled people who are not able to be open about being LGBT. Particularly of concern are transgender people: women by birth who identify themselves mentally as men, or men by birth who identify themselves mentally as women. At G-pit Networks, an organization that provides support for these people, approximately 170 people per month come in for a consultation. Through his blog and other mediums, their representative, INOUE Kento, organizes mixers twice a month.

    Inoue says, “Everyone is afraid to let it be known that they feel uncomfortable in their own bodies. Things get lively when they are able to exchange opinions with others who suffer from the same disorder.” G-pit also offers a service to introduce those suffering from gender identity disorder who wish to undergo a sex change to Thai specialists. The reason why Inoue enthusiastically tackles this problem is because he has suffered from gender identity disorder himself.

    Inoue explains, “From around the age of four, I hated wearing red clothes and skirts. When I was in high school I had a crush on a girl, and everyone around me thought I was homosexual. It was tough not being able to talk about it with my parents.” After consulting a doctor, he was diagnosed with gender identity disorder.

    At the age of 24, in order to become a man, he had an operation in Thailand to remove his breasts and uterus. He chose Thailand because people there are tolerant and do not have any prejudices against transgender people. Another factor was the low cost of the operation and the advanced medical technology there. The operation was carried out without complications, and Inoue’s body became that of a man’s. After this he fell in love with a Thai woman and one day went to her apartment for the first time.

    She thought Inoue was a normal man. Although he had become a man, Inoue couldn’t give her a child. He had to tell her this. She couldn’t understand either English or Japanese. Thai was their only means of communication, but Inoue only had basic Thai. When his girlfriend finally understood what he was trying to say, she was so surprised that she dropped the plate she was holding.

    Then, using a dictionary, Inoue desperately explained how much he loved her until she finally understood. In fact, she had a secret. She had lied about her age and was actually a single mom with a child. Overcoming these obstacles, the two got married. In 2004, a special law was introduced, allowing a person with gender identity disorder who has undergone a sex change operation to change their name in the family register and to get married.

    Approximately 3,500 Japanese people have undergone sex change operations, and approximately 70% of these operations were from female to male. People who have had a sex change hope to have families and children. In order to do this they consider fostering or adopting. Inoue is open about his own experiences and, by helping troubled people, broadens the understanding of the general public.

    G-pit Networks













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  • 学んできた日本文化を体験できた

    [From October Issue 2013]


    Maria REYES

    “As a matter of fact, I was in Japan from the age of four to eight for my father’s job,” says American Maria REYES. Growing up, she began to miss Japan and joined a Japanese culture club in college. “I began to read books on Japanese culture and took up tea ceremony as a hobby.”

    She made a lot of Japanese friends through these club activities. After one of them told her about the International Cross-cultural Committee, an organization that arranges internships in Japan, she applied. “I was in my second year of Japanese language studies, so my speaking ability was limited. My knowledge of the language, however, compared to other applicants, was an advantage.”

    As part of the ICC program, the intern works for two months in Japan and is able to have the experience of going on two trips within the country. The cost, including rent and a 24-hour phone support service, is US$5,500. Maria passed the selection process, but her parents didn’t approve of the idea. Her father had concerns about the cost and whether the program would really be useful for Maria’s studies. Her mother was worried about her safety.

    Maria says, “So I persuaded my father by saying, ‘This is a wonderful opportunity.’ I told my mother that ‘Japan is safe and I’ll have some support.’ My family isn’t rich, but they put up the money in the end, saying, ‘If it’s for Maria…’”

    Maria arrived in Japan on June 25 and settled into a shared house in Ota Ward, Tokyo. The other residents there besides Maria, are two Japanese, one Malaysian and one American. Maria’s bedroom is about 20 square meters in size. The living room and the kitchen are shared. She’s doing her internship at Takaso Inc., a company based in Akihabara with links to the fashion industry. She sometimes goes to their office in Shibuya, too. Her hours are from ten am to four pm.

    “I’ve been lucky,” says Maria. “Some companies only give simple tasks to interns, but I’ve been put in charge of a project. Also, when they learned my major was international marketing, I was asked to ‘Please do a presentation on how this company’s marketing should be done.’”

    “The best thing about this internship is I’m actually using knowledge of Japanese culture I acquired from books,” says Maria. “For example, when I made my presentation, I asked if there were ‘Any questions?’ However, no one said anything. I anticipated this, so I made eye contact with my boss. He then encouraged questions by saying, ‘Does anybody have any questions?’ Then they all began to ask questions.”

    “The difficulty of Japanese is that people don’t voice their opinions. You have to read the atmosphere,” says Maria. “But if you are in trouble, people sense this and come to your rescue. One day four or five people came to my help.” On her days off, she wanders around searching for nice cafes. “Japanese sweets aren’t too sweet and that’s what’s great about them. I love matcha and tea so much that I’m thinking of opening a cafe one day to introduce the custom of tea drinking to the US.”

    International Cross-cultural Committee

    Text: SAZAKI Ryo














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  • 100年使ってもらえる木のおもちゃ作りへかける思い

    [From September Issue 2013]


    Hokuju Co., Ltd.

    In 1989, KAN Yoshinori founded Hokuju Co., Ltd. in his home town, Kitami City, Hokkaido. It was in the latter years of the economic bubble and a lot of money was circulating in society. Constructing studios and stereos, Hokuji were specialists in audio equipment made of wood. At this time, there was a person named ITO Eiji, who was promoting the merits of carpentry to children.

    Ito, who was once Kan’s junior high school teacher, established his own private workshop and invited children there so they could have an opportunity to get a feel for carpentry. Kan’s children also visited Ito’s workshop. Kan says that in those days, “I believed that wooden toys were not a viable business proposition.” But seeing how dedicated Ito was about getting children to have more opportunities to work with wood, Kan began to think that he would support his efforts.

    “I would like it if he was better known in society.” He began to give Ito the backing of his company. Hokuju’s support made it possible for Ito to create some large scale playground equipment, thus widening the scope of Ito’s activities. He began to hold events all around Japan.

    The collapse of the bubble economy was a turning point for Hokuju, however Hokuju’s wooden toys had become well known through these events. This perfect timing allowed the company to weather the crisis. One of their most popular products from that period is their “wooden ball pool.” A wooden frame is filled with wooden “kikkoro” balls of a diameter of approximately three centimeters. In March 2013, the product was installed at nursery schools and the like in 121 locations around Japan.

    Each of the handmade kikkoro, has a slightly different shape and size and is pleasant to the touch. Lying down on them, your body is buoyed up, giving you a wonderful sense of stability and security. Enchanted by this sensation, some people have specially ordered beds filled with kikkoro.

    Most of the toys made at Hokuju are made from broadleaf trees. Although coniferous trees are easier to process, they easily splinter or break. It became clear that they were not suitable as a material for children’s toys. It takes 100 to 200 years for a broadleaf tree to grow thick enough to be used. That means you have to make toys that will last for a hundred years. This is the philosophy that Kan has always held about toys.

    Since forestry is one of the main industries in Hokkaido, they are committed to using trees grown in the area, but that means higher prices. Some people are surprised when they see the price of large scale playground equipment and comment, “You can buy an expensive imported car with this money!” Nevertheless, Kan is reluctant to rely on imported material just because it is cheaper. He is worried that the skills of forestry and woodworking, which once thrived in the area, are now being lost because the number of people active in the industry is now decreasing. For this reason he continues to run his business using local resources, thus keeping people employed.

    A few years ago, Kan bought a mountain covered with broadleaf trees. He is looking forward to the day he can make products using those trees. “I’ve been part of this industry for 46 years. I have always dealt in wooden items and have been able to live in my local area. Being able to contribute to the development of local industry has given me great satisfaction,” says Kan, looking back on what he has achieved up to now. Although Ito passed away last year, his dedication to carpentry continues to live on in Kan.

    Hokuju Co., Ltd.

    Text: ICHIMURA Masayo














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  • 日本語がうまくなるコツは「好きになること」


    [From September Issue 2013]

    Fredrik NYBERG

    Fredrik NYBERG has been studying the Japanese language for just ten months. Arriving from Norway in October 2012 at the age of 23, he enrolled in a Japanese language school called Yokohama International Education Academy. “Japan is fun because it’s so different from Norway,” he says, his eyes lighting up.

    It was manga that piqued his interest in Japan. “In Norway, English translations of Japanese manga are sold in bookstores. I started reading them when I was about 20 and began dreaming of coming to Japan.” Worried about the aftermath of the nuclear power plant disaster, his mother tried to dissuade him, but he managed to convince her by explaining that “it is safe now.”

    Working as a car mechanic since the age of 17, Fredrik had savings of 2.5 million yen. Though he isn’t currently employed, he gets by on his savings and a monthly scholarship of 48,000 yen from the Japan Scholarship Foundation, an independent administrative corporation. He lives in a one room apartment in the school’s dormitories.

    “I need about 120,000 yen a month,” says Fredrik. “My rent is around 60,000 yen. Other than that, I spend roughly 60,000 yen on leisure and eating. I almost always eat out, so it ends up costing a little bit too much.” However, since he found himself a Japanese girlfriend he’s been cooking more frequently. “She comes to my place on weekends. I cook Norwegian, she does Japanese and we eat together.”

    Fredrik lives in Yokohama, but he often spends his free time in Tokyo. “In Tokyo, I like places such as Ueno, Akihabara and Shibuya. I like Minato-Mirai in Yokohama. There are many other places I like.” He’s been on domestic trips, too: to Matsumoto (Nagano Prefecture) and Atagawa (Shizuoka Prefecture).

    He’s enjoying his life in Japan, but even so, there are some things that bother him. “Japanese dishes often have seafood in them. I can’t eat them because I am allergic.” Also, when he wasn’t familiar with Japanese customs, he was shocked to see Japanese slurping ramen. In addition, he was reprimanded at a hot spring resort for breaking one of the rules.

    How did he make such rapid progress in Japanese in only ten months? “I have four hours of class a day at school. Recently we’re mainly preparing for exams. I also study for about an hour at home,” says Fredrik. His hobbies have been useful for his studies. “I learned kanji reading novels and manga. I like TEZUKA Osamu and ‘Ashita no Joe’ manga, and I love MURAKAMI Haruki’s novels. As for anime, I love works by Studio Ghibli. I love and often watch variety programs on TV. I have difficulties with grammar, honorifics and especially the difference in particles between, “は, が, を, に,” so I’m listening to recordings on my iPod.”

    In the future, Fredrik says he wants to study game or web design. “I’d like to obtain the N1 level of the JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test) before graduating from my Japanese language school, but it’s unlikely,” he says, scratching his head.

    Yokohama International Education Academy

    Text: SAZAKI Ryo














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  • ゲームやサムライに興味を持って来日

    [From August Issue 2013]


    Alberto SESTI
    Giulia VALENTI

    Alberto SESTI and Giulia VALENTI came to Japan in March and are studying Japanese at TOPA 21st Century Language School in Koenji, Tokyo. Alberto and Giulia are both from Rome, Italy. Alberto played Japanese games as a child and this led to his interest in Japanese culture. He studied Japanese language and history in college.

    Giulia was interested in Japan’s samurai, and she studied karate for more than ten years in Italy. After developing a fondness for Japanese pop culture, including fashion and visual-kei bands, she decided to go to Japan to study. Both share an interest in cosplay. They often cosplay as characters from the popular game “Final Fantasy.”

    “Before coming to Japan, my family and I were worried because the Italian media had reported that the water in Tokyo was contaminated after the Great East Japan Earthquake. But I was relieved to hear from a Japanese friend that these news reports were exaggerated and I didn’t change my resolve to go to Japan,” says Alberto.

    The two of them study at school every day from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Giulia says kanji is the hardest to study. Alberto says kanji is his forte, but he has a hard time studying sentence patterns. In addition to studying at school, they also learn a lot of Japanese by watching Japanese dramas. “I’ve recently been watching ‘Last Cinderella’ and ‘35-year-old High School Student,’” says Alberto.

    Alberto and Giulia live together in Toshima Ward. They spend a lot of time together watching TV and going to their local Book Off (a store selling used books and CDs). “Japanese houses are small. We quarrel from time to time, maybe because we are in the same room most of the time,” they say, half joking.

    On her days off, Giulia often goes to Harajuku and Shibuya. “In Japan there are many people who enjoy all kinds of fashions. I like that it’s acceptable for people to dye their hair all kinds of colors,” she says. Giulia cooks both Italian and Japanese food. “I like things like curry rice, soba, omuraisu (omelet with rice) and oyako-don (chicken and egg on rice).”

    Alberto says he often goes to Akihabara on his days off. “Wherever you go in Italy, the landscape looks the same, but Japan has all kinds of scenery, old towns, new towns. I never get bored.” Alberto says he wants to get a job with a Japanese game developer in the future. Giulia wants to find a job in Japan related to fashion.

    TOPA 21st Century Language School

    Text: TSUCHIYA Emi













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