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FOOD&DRINK March 18, 2019

Exploring the Traditional Japanese Diet

Rooted in simplicity and seasonality, the traditional Japanese diet is regarded as one of the healthiest in the world. From oily fish to protein-packed tofu, traditional meals are full of fresh, unprocessed ingredients. Vegetables, grains, rice, fish, and fermented foods are all eaten in moderate amounts. And the result is a well-balanced diet that’s low in fat and high in nutrition.

Not only do the Japanese have one of the longest life expectancies in the world, but they also have some of the lowest rates of obesity and cardiovascular disease. This is due, in part, to what they eat on a daily basis. But it also has something to do with Japanese attitudes towards food. In Okinawa, for example, the phrase “hara hachi bu” translates roughly into English as “eat until you are 8 parts full”. Unlike many countries in the western world, avoiding overeating is part of the Okinawan way of life.

Although the traditional Japanese diet still exists, particularly among older generations, it has evolved over the years. Political, economic, and social changes have all influenced the type of food consumed in Japan. Wheat-based products are now eaten regularly, while rice consumption is declining. But the roots of the traditional diet are still apparent in Japanese restaurants and homes and much-loved staple ingredients are as important as ever.

Japanese Historical Food Traditions

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The traditional Japanese diet revolves around rice, fresh vegetables, pickled vegetables, fish, and miso. In its origins, Japanese cuisine was heavily influenced by Chinese cooking. But Japan is a fishing nation, consisting of 6, 582 islands. And so its citizens consume far more fish and seafood than other Asian countries. This is still true today – as well as grilled fish, the Japanese eat lots of raw fish in the form of sushi and sashimi.

Meanwhile, red meat was kept to a minimum in the traditional Japanese diet. With the arrival of Buddhism in Japan, eating red meat was seen as taboo and its popularity fell even further. But things changed significantly, starting in 1871, with the legalization of beef as a food item. Meat-based restaurants started to pop up around the country and meaty dishes gradually became more popular. Yakiniku, a dish from the late 1800s, is a Japanese-style barbecue that involves grilling bite-size pieces of meat alongside vegetables. Tonkatsu, another popular meat dish that’s been around for a century, consists of breaded and deep-fried cutlets of pork.

Staples of the Traditional Japanese Diet

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Soybeans, usually in the form of tofu or edamame, are a prominent staple of the Japanese diet. Fermented soybeans are basis of miso soup, an important part of most Japanese meals. Miso recipes vary according to the region, so you can expect to enjoy a few kinds if you travel around the country. Full of good bacteria, antioxidants, and amino acids, fermented soybeans are one reason why the Japanese diet offers so many health benefits.

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Green tea was, and still is, a daily elixir for many Japanese people. The tea is thought to lower blood pressure, help digestion, and prevent some cancers. So traditionally, Japanese people drank green tea for medicinal purposes. Meanwhile, matcha tea powder is a superior grade of green tea that’s whisked with hot water to create a frothy drink. Used for centuries in tea ceremonies, matcha is also an important part of Japanese cultural identity.

Photo by Ken Hawkins via Flickr

Seaweed is everywhere in Japanese cuisine. Take yourself on a food tour of any Japanese city and you’ll notice seaweed salads sprinkled with sesame seeds, sushi wrapped in nori sheets, and kombu in bowls of miso soup. Flavorful and high in essential minerals, seaweed has been a Japanese staple for centuries. Today, you can wander into any Japanese convenience store and pick up packets of salted or spicy nori sheets to eat as a crispy snack.

Photo by Jiří 伊日 via Flickr

It would be difficult to travel around Japan and not eat a bowl of rice at some point. An everyday staple and a base for many traditional meals, rice holds a hugely significant place in Japanese food traditions. Once seen as the country’s main food source, rice is typically eate in small portions alongside other dishes. And although its popularity is declining, as people consume more wheat products, rice will always be an important part of Japanese cuisine.

Modern Food Innovation in Japan

art of Japan’s culinary culture. Over the course of history, the influence of Western cuisine on Japanese food traditions has resulted in deliciously unique dishes. Incorporating elements of Western cooking, the Japanese created new regional recipes that now hold an important place in Japanese cuisine.

Photo by hirotomo t via Flickr

Okonomiyaki, for example, is a savoury pancake that typically consists of flour, eggs, and cabbage. Topped with meat, vegetables, and sauce, okonomiyaki is sometimes called “Japanese Pizza”. Curry also became part of Japanese cuisine, when the British introduced it to the nation after the Meiji Period. Curries with a Japanese twist, such as udon curry and katsukarē, are now popular throughout the country.

Japanese chefs are continuously adapting and creating recipes in creative ways. This is particularly apparent in the cutting-edge capital of Tokyo. For the past 11 years, Tokyo has had more Michelin-starred restaurants than any other city in the world. Using the highest-quality ingredients in a thoughtful way, while drawing on an impressive culinary tradition, allows Japanese chefs to stay ahead of the game.

Dining at the new Kigi restaurant in Tokyo is a wonderful opportunity to experience this fusion of tradition and innovation for yourself. With a major emphasis on seasonality, Kigi takes inspiration from the ways in which ingredients were used by previous generations. By focusing on locally-sourced ingredients, Kigi ensures that every dish is as fresh and flavorful as possible.  

At Kigi, the team combines fresh ingredients in creative ways, but with as little interference as possible. This ensures that the nutritional value remains high, harking back to the unprocessed nature of traditional Japanese cooking. A stylishly minimalist Japanese restaurant, Kigi is all about beautifully presentation and high-quality food.

Strong traditions, simple ingredients, and an emphasis on nutrition are what make the traditional Japanese diet so special. Although Japanese cuisine has changed significantly over the years, the original diet is still highly valued both in Japan and abroad. Home to many varieties of meal preparation and the highest-quality ingredients, there’s no better place to immerse yourself in Japanese cuisine than in Japan itself.

FOOD&DRINK February 26, 2019

Farm to Hashi in Japan

Photo by sk via Flickr

Anyone who has traveled around Japan has likely marveled at how many farm plots dot all but the most urban areas. A trip on any shinkansen will offer the passenger fleeting glimpses of rice paddies and gardens that lie, green and lush, amidst Japan’s office towers, houses and apartment blocks.

Gardening and farming are integrated into modern Japanese cities and suburbs because they have always been there; it is the cities that have grown up around them. Besides the fact that the Japanese love cultivating plants in general – not to mention eating them – the country’s arable land is extremely limited, no more than about 15 percent of the archipelago. Farming must be done wherever it is possible.

Photo by spinster cardigan via Flickr

Add to this the Japanese attitude, often based on more than mere chauvinism, that foreign-grown food is not as good as home-grown, and the desire for locally-grown produce makes perfect sense in Japan. The current vogue for what has been dubbed farm-to-table, or farm-to-fork, would seem to be a perfect fit for Japan. Call it farm-to-hachi (chopsticks). Or use the Japanese local name chisan-chisho, which roughly means “local production for local consumption.”

That said, Japan, as a modern country with a passion for quality as well as convenience and food safety, has its own industrial farming chain, a well-established series of steps along the chain of food production that make farm-to-table dining a rarity even here. But a handful of restaurants in Tokyo and Kyoto are beginning to do what Americans would call “cutting out the middle man,” eliminating as many steps as possible from the farm – or, rarely, from the sea – to the restaurant table.

Photo by spinster cardigan via Flickr

Most prominent is in the town of Tsuruoka, Yamagata Prefecture, on the west coast of Tohoku, four hours from Tokyo. Tsuruoka has been designated by UNESCO as one of only 18 Creative Cities of Gastronomy worldwide, and the only one in Japan. Here, the city encourages farmers and chefs to work in concert to preserve and promote indigenous crops and their use in gastronomy.

Farm-to-table restaurants in Japan include Soholm Cafe+Dining in Osaka, known for its daring chefs and devotion to local ingredients, the two We Are the Farm restaurants in Tokyo, and Noz by T.Y. Farm, a more casual eatery that focuses on “exotic” western vegetables like kale and arugula. It recently opened a branch in Shinagawa, Tokyo.

The latest entry on this small list of restaurants is Kigi, which will open next month in Chiyoda, Tokyo. The elegant restaurant, which like the others will focus on fresh vegetables, hopes to make its name by also focusing on fish, which it’s representative says will make it one of only two restaurants in Tokyo that serve fish the same day it was caught. Kigi’s chef is Noriyuki Nakagami, whose passion for freshness comes from his upbringing in his family’s country restaurant.

Another remarkable example is Hiiragitei, an izakaya in Kyoto’s ancient, fashionable Gion district, where the family of three – husband, wife, and grown son – serve a delicacy that’s rare even in Japan. It is, in fact, literally rare: Hiiragitei serves several forms of chicken tartare, a dish that would send restaurant health inspectors around the world into a frenzy of ticket-writing. Salmonella is nothing to be trifled with. But at tiny Hiiragitei, each chicken is selected daily, slaughtered under exacting conditions, and then transported and prepared carefully. This is an extreme example, as virtually no vegetables or even meats carry the dangers of raw chicken; but it shows how careful management of the food supply chain can deliver high-quality ingredients.

Another facet of this farm-to-table trend serves another growing need of the modern gourmand: the desire to feel close to the land, to the sea – to the sources of all food, of all life.

Photo by Mike via Flickr

Some Japanese are bringing those sources of food right into their own lives; not just their home gardens, but even into some offices. A shining example is the Pasona Group, a recruiting firm in which indoor farming is literally integrated into its headquarters. Using proper lighting and advanced irrigation techniques, Pasona’s nine story office tower in Tokyo features 20 percent of its square footage dedicated to farming: A rice paddy in the building’s lobby, with more than 200 different varieties of vegetables and herbs growing in conference rooms and other offices. Even the building itself is sheathed in greenery, giving the entire operation an exceedingly low carbon footprint.

But the most impressive aspect is that the company gives its 1,500 employees some time every day to tend to their crops, which are then harvested and served in the company dining room. The psychological and dietary benefits of this office-to-table farming are clear to nearly everyone at the organization, and is a dazzling demonstration of Japanese ingenuity.

The Japanese have always considered food, and farming, a crucial aspect of Japanese life and society. The 21st century sees the country, and its restauranteurs, taking full advantage of its natural gifts, cultural efficiency and the overarching Japanese passion for quality.

By David Watts Barton

FOOD&DRINK February 17, 2019

Tokyo Food Guide: 8 Traditional Dishes You Must Try

Photo via Flickr CC

Japanese cuisine is unlike any other and Tokyo is one of the best places to try it. Fizzing with relentless energy, Japan’s capital is a feast for the senses. In Tokyo, you can slurp from bowls of steaming hot ramen, delicately savor sashimi, or munch on traditional Japanese sweet treats, all in one afternoon.

From crispy tempura to smooth soba noodles, Tokyo is a city of delicious food. Street vendors whip up local delicacies, while regional restaurants offer dishes from all over Japan. You can dine on a budget by stopping at cheap chains and casual noodle bars, which are easy to find on main streets and in department stores throughout Tokyo. Or take things up a level and enjoy dinner in a Michelin-star restaurant, some of which tower over the city in sleek skyscrapers.

But it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by Tokyo’s seemingly endless restaurants and diverse menus. So to make things easier, we’ve rounded up some of the best traditional dishes to try while you explore the capital.

1. Sushi

Photo by Saigon Time via Flickr

Although sushi is now popular around the world, there’s no better place to eat it than in Japan. There are thousands of sushi spots in Tokyo, ranging from conveyor belt chains to fine dining experiences. The city’s main source of fresh seafood and fish is Tsukijii Market, most of which is delivered directly to the new Toyosu Market. So if you make your way to Toyosu, you can expect to dine on high-quality sushi fish. For a Tokyo twist on sushi, try nigiri-zushi. A local delicacy that’s become popular around Japan, nigiri-zushi consists of a piece of seafood on a ball of rice.

2. Ramen

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In Toyko, you won’t have to go far before coming across a ramen restaurant. A staple in Japanese cuisine, ramen is hot, flavorful broth, that’s packed with noodles and topped with meat or vegetables. Usually cheap and always satisfying, ramen is a wonderfully warming meal on a chilly day. Recipes vary according to the region, but Tokyo-style ramen consists of a chicken broth with thin, curly noodles and a little dashi for extra flavor.

3. Okonomiyaki and Monjayaki

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If you’re looking for more Japanese comfort food, don’t miss the chance to devour okonomiyaki. A savory pancake, okonomiyaki is popular throughout Japan. The flour-based pancake typically contains cabbage, scallions, and slices of pork belly. Meanwhile, Tokyo is one of the best places to sample monjayaki – another savory Japanese-style pancake. Less firm than okonomiyaki, monjayaki is made from softer batter. While exploring the Tokyo Bay area, make your way to Monjo street, which is home to over 60 monjayaki restaurants.

4. Soba

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Among Japan’s best-known noodles, soba is a standout. After gaining popularity during the Edo period, soba is now served all over Japan. Made from buckwheat, these silky smooth noodles can be eaten hot or cold. Soba is typically served with simple toppings, like nori, or alongside heartier dishes, such as tempura. A refreshing soba dish is mori soba, which consists of cold, boiled noodles, served with a soy dipping sauce. And don’t be shy when you eat soba noodles in Tokyo – slurping is expected!

5. Tempura

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Tempura is a crispy, delicious dish that features frequently on Japanese menus. Introduced to 16th-century Japan by Portuguese missionaries, tempura underwent lots of development in Tokyo. Traditionally, Tempura consisted of vegetables fried in a batter made from eggs and flour. But these days, tempura restaurants also offer seafood versions. The best way to enjoy tempura is to go to one of Tokyo’s many tempura restaurants and enjoy it as a freshly-cooked dish.

6. Chankonabe

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Nutritious and satisfying, chankonabe is a hot pot dish. Thanks to its high protein content, chankonabe was originally served to sumo wrestlers. Now, this traditional dish is served at specialized restaurants in Tokyo and it’s an ideal cold-weather meal. Chankonabe is often made up of a chicken-based broth, vegetables, tofu, and/or fish. And if you’re looking to try more traditional but nutritious Japanese food, treat yourself to dinner at Kigi in Tokyo. Kigi’s focus is on using fresh, locally-sourced ingredients and the dishes are beautifully presented.

7. Tokyo Candy

Photo by Evan Blaser via Flickr

Satisfying your sweet tooth is almost too easy in Tokyo. When it comes to traditional Japanese sweets, known as wagashi, the city has endless options. Ningyo-yaki are small cakes that come in a variety of shapes, including dolls, birds, and pagodas. Filled with red bean paste, these sweet cakes make for a delicious snack. Another traditional treat is dorayaki, a pastry that consists of layers of sweet pancakes and bean paste. Or keep it simple and get your hands on some popular mochi. Mochi is made from rice flour and comes in a range of flavors that taste as good as they look.

8. Tsukudani

Photo by Toshiyuki IMAI via Flickr

A Tokyo specialty, Tsukadani hails from Tsukadajma Island in Tokyo Bay. Tsukadani consists of small pieces of food, such as seafood, seaweed, or beef, which are simmered in soy sauce and sweet sake. Tsukadani is often enjoyed as a topping on rice and it’s an adventurous choice for visitors who want to dive deeper into Toyko’s cuisine.

Tokyo is one of the best cities in the world for foodies, so expect to have your mind blown as you explore the cuisine. The blend of traditional and ultra-modern dining keeps things interesting, while high-quality ingredients and an emphasis on perfection takes Tokyo food to the next level.

ARTS&CULTURE January 24, 2019

Japanese Traditions & Celebrations

Traditional Japanese Wedding
Photo by Jeff Carpenter via Flickr

Japan is home to numerous traditions and celebrations, honoring cultural heritage, family, friends and events throughout the year. From weddings and birth celebrations to numerous matsuri’s, seasonal changes and the ringing in of the new year, Japanese traditions and celebrations are a wonderful way to learn about the culture. While many traditional celebrations are usually celebrated with close family, there is an emerging number of festivals and events that can be enjoyed by foreigners as well.


Like many cultures around the world, wedding celebrations in Japan are an elaborate affair, bringing two families together and honoring traditions. Most couples in Japan opt to have either a traditional Shinto wedding, or a “white wedding”, similar to a Protestant Christian wedding held in a hall or large venue. The former is held in a Shinto shrine, with the couple dressed in elegant kimonos, and with the bride also wearing a headdress and geisha-style makeup. The Shinto wedding style was made popular in 1900 when the Crown Prince Yoshihito took a bride, while the “white wedding” gained popularity after the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana. Both wedding styles are elegant affairs, often costing close to a years salary, but unlike most western weddings, they typically involve only immediate relatives and very close friends.

Japanese White Wedding
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Another joyous time, the birth of a child in Japan is also surrounded in celebration. On the child’s 7th day, or oshichiya, they are given a name, and on their 30th or 32nd day, or omiyamairi, the baby will be taken to visit a Shinto shrine. Gifts typically come one to two months after a child is born, as it is considered to be tempting fate if given before birth. As the child ages, birthdays will be celebrated with small parties, but as they enter adulthood, many Japanese chose to only celebrate with their partners.

Japan’s Demographic Time Bomb baby

The final celebration of life, a Japanese funeral, is also a time of tradition for most families. Japanese typically hold a wake, or otsuya, the evening before the funeral, or kokubetsushiki. At the otsuya, typically a Buddhist priest will chant a sutra and immediate family will offer respect to the deceased. To help with the costs of the funeral, guests will bring monetary contributions, depending on their relation to the deceased. The following day is the funeral, and later a cremation occurs.

Yearly Celebrations

Since the adoption of the Gregorian calendar in 1873, New Years, or oshogatsu, in Japan has become a wildly celebrated time. A highlight is osechi ryōri, the traditional food eaten this time of year which is made up of sweet, sour or dried small plates. They keep without refrigeration, as this tradition dates back to the time before homes had electricity and shops would close for the holidays. In the past, families would prepare the meals together, but many now order from shops, making this tradition accessible to visitors across the country.

Japan New Year Sunrise Tradition
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On the first day of the year, it is tradition to watch the sunrise, or hatsuhinode, and to make a wish for the upcoming year. This tradition originates from the Shinto belief that Toshigami, the god of the new year, arrives when the sun rises to grant wishes. Some insist on climbing snowy Mount Fuji on this day, but most will visit various temples, shrines or parks across the country that welcome locals and tourists alike.

The Japanese also celebrate solstices, and equinoxes every year, a traditional time to celebrate the seasons and Eearth. Though all seasonal solstices and equinoxes offer great sights to visitors, a wonderful time to visit is during winter solstice, or Tōji, celebrating the departure of ‘yin’, cold and darkness, and welcome ‘yang’, the upcoming light and warmth. Tōji is celebrated by bathing with yuzu fruit, visiting onsens and enjoying warming foods. For visitors, consider visiting the famous Toji Matsuri at the Issan Shrin in Saitama City, or head to Hokkaido for the Sapporo Festival of Snow in January.

Photo by Charles Lam via Flickr

The Japanese also celebrate many festivals, or matsuri’s, throughout the year. The dates change dates every year, but many occur around traditional holidays like Setsubun, a celebration of seasonal division every spring, and Obon, the celebration of one’s ancestors in August. Typically held by local shrines or communities, they offer traditional food, and entertainment such as games, karaoke and large float displays. Some notable festivals to explore are Gion Matsuri, in July in Kyoto, Kanda Matsuri, in May in Tokyo and Tenjin Matsuti, in July in Osaka.

Tradition and celebration are extremely important to Japanese culture, and as a visitor, witnessing such events is an honor. Taking the time to better understand the highly traditional ways of Japan is extremely important, and whether visiting a widely celebrated festival or being invited into an intimate affair, it will help you gain insight to the uniqueness of Japan.

ARTS&CULTURE January 18, 2019

Japan’s Beloved Heretic/Saint, Ikkyu

By Bokusai – English Wikipedia, Public Domain, Link

Although Japan is a country suffused with rules and traditions meant to instill group harmony, the Japanese have a fascination with outlaws, rule breakers and other iconoclasts. Historically speaking, perhaps the most famous and beloved of these is the 15th-century Zen monk, Ikkyu Sojun, known popularly as Ikkyu, or Ikkyu-san.

A poet, painter, musician, wandering monk and eventually abbot of one of Kyoto’s most important temples, Ikkyu is best known in contemporary Japan for his rebellious spirit and wanton ways, as well as for his impact on Japanese literature and Zen Buddhism itself. From his books of poetry to a popular anime series based loosely on stories about his childhood, Ikkyu-san is beloved by children and adults, rebels and religious Japanese alike.

Born in 1394, the illegitimate son of the Emperor Go-Matsu and a low-ranking woman of the Imperial court, when he was five Ikkyu’s mother sent him to the monastery of Ankoku-ji. There he was raised by the monks, who gave him the name Shuken. Smart and talented, at 13 he was sent to Kyoto’s Kennin-ji temple, where he studied poetry. Many of his poems are still in print:

Like vanishing dew,
a passing apparition
or the sudden flash
of lightning—already gone—
thus should one regard one’s self.

But with a few exceptions, Shuken was not impressed by his fellow monks. Rebellious and opinionated, Ikkyu was irritated by the political nature of the Zen temples and the lack of Zen practice. His young poems mocked all of this, and led to his moving from one temple to another, until he ended up with a teacher on the shores of Lake Biwa, north of Kyoto. But his beloved teacher Ken-o died when Shuken was 21, and, deeply aggrieved, he moved to a new teacher, Kaso, who recognized his understanding of Zen koans, and gave him the name Ikkyu.

At 26, while meditating, Ikkyu heard the sound of a crow, which sparked his achievement of satori, or enlightenment. Despite being recognized by the Zen establishment, Ikkyu had earned a reputation as a drinker and troublemaker, so it was perhaps fitting that when he turned 33, his goal achieved, he began his wanderings. He would not have a home for the next 30 years.

During that violent and unsettled time in Japanese history, which culminated in the Onin War, Ikkyu drew many admirers, especially poets, musicians and other artists who wanted to accompany this kindred spirit. Indeed, he is known in Japan as a crucial contributor to Japanese arts as significant as sumi-e painting, calligraphy, music (he was a master flautist), and even as an influence on the tea ceremony.

By DaderotOwn work, CC0, Link

A keen admirer of women as well as drink, many of Ikkyu’s poems reference brothels and the joys of sex, which he considered to be as fine a way to enlightenment as any, if done with perfect presence and awareness. He would, in fact, wear his monk’s black robes to brothels, since he considered sex a sacrament. In one poem, he wrote:

The narrow path of asceticism is not for me:
My mind runs in the opposite direction.
It is easy to be glib about Zen
I’ll just keep my mouth shut
And rely on love play all the day long.

During his wanderings he earned yet another name, Crazy Cloud, and one of the musicians he spent time with, a blind singer called Mori, became the love of his life. His many odes to her are among Japan’s greatest love poems.

Legends about his travels abound. One says that once, when out begging door-to-door in his mendicant’s rough clothes, a wealthy man gave him a small coin. When he returned later to the same house, wearing his Zen master robes, the rich man invited him in for dinner. But before sitting down at the table, Ikkyu stripped off his robes and left, saying that it was not he who had been invited to eat, but his fine clothes.

Such a delightfully authentic and amusing character was destined to live on. In addition to the many books of his poems still in print, the anime show Ikkyu-san ran on Japanese TV from 1975-82, and is still seen in reruns on DVD; this is how many Japanese remember him. In the show, a young Ikkyu cavorts in cartoon colors, more adorable scamp than rebel, outwitting grownups with glee. There have also been manga, movies and more recently, a video from the popular J-Pop trio Wednesday Campanella, as well as a brand of instant miso soup and even a walker for the elderly named after him.

Despite his lifelong distain for the Zen hierarchy, Ikkyu spent his eighties as the 47th abbot of the Daitoku-ji temple in Kyoto, from which he oversaw the restoration of the war-damaged temple Myosho-ji, located between Kyoto and Nara. The temple has since been renamed Shuon’an Ikkyu-ji, and it is the location of Ikkyu’s mausoleum. The temple happily claims Ikkyu as its own and draws many visitors every year. Ikkyu died in 1481, at the age of 87, but his stories, his poems, his music, his temples and especially his rebellious spirit, live on.

By David Watts Barton

ARTS&CULTURE December 28, 2018

Japan’s 20th Century Literary Titans

Japan’s 20th Century Literary Titans
Photo by Edson Chilundo via Flickr

Japan may not be the first country one thinks of when contemplating the novel, but the country has a thriving and influential literary scene, especially when it comes to modern fiction. Radically different authors such as Banana Yoshimoto, Kenzaburo Oe and especially Haruki Murakami, the literary world’s current Japanese darling, sit on bookshelves around the world.

But the Japanese also have a legitimate claim to having created that literary form – a thousand years ago. The Tale of Genji, written in the first decade of the 11th century, was a fictional account of the adventures of a young prince in the Imperial Palace in Kyoto. Written by Shikibu Murasaki, a noblewoman of the Imperial court, the book is an insider’s look at the courtly manners (and romantic shenanigans) of Japan’s classical Heian period. It is arguably the first example of what we know as the novel.

But the novel didn’t really catch on until European and American novels brought to Japan in the late 19th century inspired the Japanese to try their hand at this “new” form. These days there are hundreds of popular Japanese writers writing novels, in everything from historical fiction to erotica to a recent form, the confessional “I-Novel.”

Many of those writers are forgotten as soon as they are published, but a handful of novelists from the 20th century are regarded as the giants who created modern Japanese fiction – much as Americans honor Hemingway, Faulkner and Fitzgerald. That these writers led similarly dramatic lives only adds to their mystique. Below are six Japanese writers whose works form the basis for contemporary Japanese fiction, and whose lives, often tragic, influenced how the Japanese see their leading literary lights:

Natsume Sōseki (nee Natsume Kin’nosuke, 1867-1916) launched the modern Japanese novel with his satirical book I am a Cat, published in 1905, and he is widely regarded as Japan’s greatest writer. Since Murakami called him his favorite writer in 2014, Soseki has gained new readers around the world, but the Japanese have never lost sight of his greatness. His explorations of the endless conflicts of being Japanese – the tensions between desire and duty, the group and the individual, and Japan’s uniqueness and its place in the world – make him quintessentially Japanese.

Jun'ichirō Tanizaki Japan’s 20th Century Literary Titans

Jun’ichirō Tanizaki (1886-1965) is the author considered closest in stature to Soseki. Tackling then-taboo subjects such as sexuality and violence, Tanizaki was a controversial writer and passionate bohemian who was fascinated by the West as well as by Japan’s place in the world. But his works also explored the psychology of marriage and all manner of personal relations. He was shortlisted for the Nobel Prize in Literature the year before he died. Two novels to start with are The Makioka Sisters or his early Naomi.

Ryunosuke Akutagawa (1892-1927) wrote numerous novels, but he is known to literary history as “the Father of the Japanese short story,” a form favored by many Japanese writers. His story “In a Grove” was the basis for Akira Kurosawa’s classic 1950 movie Rashomon. His name has been given to Japan’s highest literary honor, the Akutagawa Prize. Beset with physical problems and anxieties about his mental health, Akutagawa committed suicide at the age of 35. Sadly, few of his books are currently available in translation; the best bet is the collection Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories.

Yasunari_Kawabata Japan’s 20th Century Literary Titans

Yasunari Kawabata (1899-1972) was one of several writers who helped explain the inner lives of the Japanese, individually and as a people, as the country moved into and through the disaster of World War II. He was the first Japanese to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, in 1968, for work that includes his novels Snow Country (originally published in installments) and Thousand Cranes (1958). His books are widely available in English.

Osamu Dazai (nee Shuji Tsushima in 1909-1948) was born into the upper class, but rebelled ceaselessly against life itself. His story is a long, lurid tale of suicide attempts, addiction (to morphine) and general psychological distress, and his books are autobiographical fictions about life before, during and after World War II. A young a fan of Akutagawa, Dazai made his own (first) suicide attempt in 1929. Fortunately, he was unsuccessful, for he went on to write some of Japan’s greatest novels, including The Setting Sun (about the loss of standing of the aristocracy under the American Occupation), and No Longer Human, a searing self-portrait. But the suicide attempts continued, and he was finally successful in 1948.

Yukio Mishima (nee Kimitake Hiraoka, 1925-70) was a controversial figure in Japan (and abroad) during the post-War period, for his haunting (and haunted) avant-garde novels such as The Temple of the Golden Pavilion and The Sailor Who Fell From Grace with the Sea, as well as for his nationalistic bearings (he founded a right-wing militia the Tatenokai) during the American Occupation. Mishima, a direct descendant of the Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu, wasn’t just a writer: He and the Tatenokai attempted a military coup in 1970, taking over a Japanese military base and, when it failed, committing ritual seppuku (also called hara-kiri). His books are widely available in English and include his semi-autobiographical novels Confessions of a Mask and Forbidden Colors, both about hidden homosexuality.

By David Watts Barton

ARTS&CULTURE December 12, 2018

Differences to Know Between Japanese Weddings and American Weddings

Photo by Jon Connell via Flickr

While Christian-style “white weddings” that are found in western cultures may be becoming more adopted by Japanese couples looking to tie the knot, there still remain many differences between American weddings and their Japanese counterparts. The differences are even more apparent when you look at more traditional Japanese Shinto style weddings.

While weddings in both countries are often expensive affairs that celebrate the love two people share for each other, you will find notable differences when it comes to both wedding ceremonies as well as receptions. Let us look at some of the most prominent disparities that are noticed between the two nations when it comes to weddings.


Wedding Styles

There are four main wedding styles celebrated in Japan of which include Shinto, Christian, Buddist, and secular. The most popular styles include the more traditional Shinto style and the increasingly popular westernized Christian white wedding. The style of wedding a Japanese couple chooses doesn’t necessarily depend on the type of religion they follow.

In America, you find many more varieties of weddings since there are more religions present. Just some of the wedding styles you will find include Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, and Mormon. These weddings take place in a variety of different places of worships such as churches, synagogues, temples, etc. Quite a number of American weddings are also not strictly attached to a religion and may simply be held at a beach, someone’s backyard, City Hall, or even on the Las Vegas Strip getting wed by an Elvis impersonator.

Photo by Matthew Hurst via Flickr

Most Japanese weddings are much more formal and structured than you’ll find in America. American weddings can often be much more unique and personalized, with many opting for a themed wedding or possible destination wedding. Another marked difference is that you generally won’t find the popular American bachelor/bachelorette parties or bridal showers with Japanese weddings.

Arranged marriages were once more common in Japan but have since been phased out considerably. When they do occur, engagement ceremonies known as Yuino are held and involve the two families coming together to exchange gifts.


Ceremony Differences

In Japan, western style weddings are held in churches even though a very small percentage of the population actually considers themselves to be Christian. Often couples choosing to be married in a more western style will get married in so-called fake churches that are simply designed to produce the look and feel of contemporary white weddings.

Photo by Hiroki Kanou via Fickr

While Japanese western style weddings may be more similar to American weddings, you will really begin to notice differences when it comes to the traditional Shinto style ceremonies.

Shinto style weddings take place in a shrine and often involve a ceremonial drinking of sake known as San San Kudo. This drinking from nuptial cups replaces the vows that are exchanged in American weddings. If vows are read during Japanese weddings, they are often directed to the shrine gods as opposed to saying them to your soon to be spouse.

Dress codes for Japanese weddings are much stricter and you often must receive an invitation in your name to attend. It isn’t common to bring a plus one to a ceremony as is often acceptable in America. With Japanese weddings, the ceremony is usually only reserved for the close family of the bride and groom and casual friends and co-workers usually do not attend. You also don’t find the use of bridesmaids or a best man that you would find in American weddings.

There are also differences when it comes to the style of wedding dress worn. Brides that choose to have a Shinto style wedding wear what is known as a shiromuku instead of a big flowing white dress like you’ll see in America. This ensemble consists of a white furisode kimono, a robe-like kimono known as an uchikake, zōri sandals, and often accessories such as a sensu folding fan or a kaiken knife. Instead of wearing a veil like American brides, Japanese brides wear a hood that is referred to as a wataboshi. They may also choose to wear a tsunokakushi hat over a shimada wig instead.

Photo by gwaar via Flickr

Japanese grooms don’t have to dress quite as elaborately but often wear what is called a montsuki haori hakama. This consists of a kimono that may be emblazoned with a family crest, striped trousers, and an overcoat.


Reception Differences

One of the first differences you may notice with Japanese weddings is that the immediate family including the parents of the bride and groom are often seated at the back of the reception as opposed to being front and center. This is done out of respect to the many guests who wish to see the bride and groom and may not have been invited to the ceremony.

Outfit changes, especially when it comes to the bride are common in Japanese weddings. The bride may change into several different kimonos or evening dresses between the ceremony and the reception as well as during the reception.

Photo by JoshBerglund19 via Flickr

Unlike American weddings, out of town guest’s transportation, hotel rooms, and food is often covered by the bride and groom or their family. Although this may sound like a great deal for wedding guests, it is often expected that you gift a considerable amount of money to the bride and groom as a way of paying them back. There is generally no gift registry set up with Japanese weddings and only money presented in a fancy envelope known as a goshugi is given as a gift. It is generally polite for each guest to gift around 30,000 yen or well over 100,000 yen if you are a close family member of the bridal couple.

Unlike the small wedding favors that are given at American weddings, guests attending Japanese weddings often receive more expensive gifts known as hikidemono. Large gift bags filled with substantial gifts may be given or you may be given a gift catalogue where you can choose from a selection of gifts that will be sent directly to your home.

Unlike in America, Japanese wedding receptions usually don’t include dancing. In fact, there is generally not much standing at all and the bride and groom don’t generally roam around the room visiting tables like you find with American wedding receptions. Speeches or letters are read much like in America, but they are often much longer and read by far more people. They are also much more serious in tone and seldom comical in nature.

Photo by Benjamin Ragheb via Flickr

Because Japanese wedding receptions lack dancing and music, they are usually shorter in duration. While receptions in America may run well past midnight, receptions in Japan only last a few hours on average. Japan weddings do, however, often include after parties where you will find music, games, karaoke, and dancing, but the cost of any alcohol or fees to attend such parties is generally not covered by the bride or groom.

When it comes to footing the bill for the wedding ceremony and reception, it is generally the bride’s family that pays in America while in Japan the cost is split between the families of the bride and groom. However, in Japan the groom’s family often gives the young couple a substantial offering for things like household goods or other things the newly married couple may need.

While American and Japanese weddings may differ in many ways, the end result is hopefully two people coming together to share their love for each other until death do they part.

ARTS&CULTURE November 22, 2018

Japan’s Demographic Time Bomb

Japan's Demographic
Photo by Freedom II Andres via Flickr

Underlying Japan’s placid, efficient and affluent surface are some hard realities that do not bode well for the nation in the long run. The economic crisis of the 1990s, combined with the relentless rise of China, has shaken Japan’s dominant economic position in Asia. The economy remains strong, relative to many; but Japan has the largest government debt in the world, and growth remains low.

But a factor that worries most Japanese is connected to economics, but is more fundamental still: The Japanese have one of the lowest birthrates in the world. The country’s population has already begun a decline from its 2008 peak of 128 million, and currently (2018) sits at roughly 126 million. Additionally, the Japanese population is aging rapidly, with the highest life expectancy rate in the world, at nearly 84 years.

Japan’s Demographic Time Bomb baby
Photo by tenaciousme via Flickr

Current estimates are that the population of Japan will continue to fall, plunging to 87 million by 2060, at which point the elderly (those 65 years and older) will comprise 40% of the population (it is currently 28%).

This is potentially catastrophic for a country built on the modern economic model, with its focus on perpetual growth and ever-growing consumption, each generation ultimately supporting the aging generation that came before it. But the Japanese seem at a loss as to what to do about it. The government has taken to offering cash payments for each child produced, but the payments would do nothing to defray the actual costs of raising a child.

Japan’s Demographic Debt
Photo by Richard West

Other schemes have been suggested, but the problem seems to be a matter of psychology as much as of economics. Shaken confidence after the so-called “Bubble Economy” burst in 1991, followed by decades of stagnant economic growth, have been blamed. The rising costs of starting a family have hindered the all-important family and household formation that power modern economies. And academic pressures on the young have dampened the enthusiasm of a whole generation to pursue careers.

But slowing population growth is a common issue in most of the developed world; Japan seems uniquely stymied. This impasse has come to be epitomized in the popular imagination by the distinctive problem of the hikikomori. Literally meaning “pulling inward,” the hikikomori are younger people (now up to 40 years old) who have dropped out of society and decided not to grow up. Avoiding jobs, homeownership, romantic relationships and raising children, the hikikomori stay with their parents through their twenties and even into their thirties, surfing the Internet in the safety of their childhood bedrooms, and otherwise refusing to engage with the adult world.

Rough estimates are that anywhere from a half million to one million hikikomori have withdrawn from society, which in a nation Japan’s size is a slow-moving disaster. Ask any Japanese, and many will have stories of friends’ children, or even their own, who are hikikomori, and who lack the basic skills to survive in the real world – especially once their parents die.

In addition to this, add the pressures of caring for the increasing numbers of the elderly, especially since the Japanese tend to live longer than people of other countries, and many of whom are barely scraping by financially. For a country of Japan’s social self-consciousness, and community-mindedness, the social safety net is relatively thin – and fraying. An ongoing problem is Japan’s enormous national debt, which, at roughly 236% of GDP, is the largest in the world, according to the IMF.

Japan’s Demographic Time Bomb Aging
Photo by hans-johnson via Flickr

This declining population is compounded by the increasing urbanization that is also common around the world, but especially acute in Japan. Tokyo has long been the largest conurbation in the world, at 35 million people, nearly a third of the Japanese population. In 1950, 53 percent of Japan’s population lived in urban areas; by 2014, 93 percent did. But the impact of this urbanization on Japan’s smaller cities and villages is profound, leaving only the elderly to do farm work in towns that younger people abandoned when they moved to the cities. Hundreds of municipalities in Japan are in the process of depopulating, becoming ghost towns.

Photo by halfrain via Flickr

Exacerbating all of this is Japan’s characteristically closed nature. One concrete way in which isolation continues to impact the country is in its resistance to immigration, one way that countries like The United States, Canada and the United Kingdom continue to grow. Nearly two-thirds of Japanese in a recent poll still resist the notion of allowing foreigners to become Japanese citizens. Even those whose families have been in Japan for generations – ethnic Koreans and Chinese – are set apart as different, not real Japanese. And if the Japanese aren’t making enough new “real” Japanese, then Japan’s fate is not just uncertain: It is dire.

Japan’s character has long been defined by its separateness, its uniqueness, and its self-conscious desire to hang on to its identity; it has done so with remarkable success. And the resourcefulness of the Japanese is undeniable: History teaches us to never underestimate what the Japanese can do when they put their collective effort into it. But the demographic drop is a challenge to match any the Japanese have faced before.

Without course corrections that could strike at the very heart of Japanese identity, the country is on the path to becoming a museum piece, and the elements of its culture, which so beguile the world, will become frozen in amber, beautiful but lifeless.

By David Watts Barton

TRAVEL November 8, 2018

Winter in Japan: Things to Do and Everything Else You Need to Know

Winter in Japan often goes overlooked by visitors due to the hype surrounding the spring cherry blossom season and vibrant foliage of autumn. Winter, however, provides an equally incredible Japanese experience where you can witness numerous exciting events and activities that are only offered at this time of year.

Japan’s winter landscapes are magical and fewer crowds mean better enjoyment of key landmarks and attractions. From exciting snow festivals to adventurous winter sports, winter in Japan offers incredible experiences that are not to be missed. Let us look at the many things on offer during the winter season and other things you should know when visiting Japan this time of year.


Mount Fuji - Fujiyoshida, Japan - Travel photography
Photo by Giuseppe Milo via Flickr

From the northern island of Hokkaido to Okinawa in the south, Japan’s winter weather can be drastically different depending on where you are. Winter runs from December through February, with the northern regions and western coast along the Sea of Japan seeing the coldest temperatures and heaviest snowfall. The eastern coast along the Pacific, as well as the south, tends to stay dry, with sunny days that rarely drop below freezing. Japan’s larger cities such as Tokyo and Osaka enjoy mild winters with little snowfall. In addition to colder weather, expect shorter days throughout the winter, with sunset occurring around 4:30-5:30pm. February is the peak time for enjoying winter sports and the beautiful winter landscape.


Japan offers visa exemptions for 68 countries including the United States, Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom. This allows for short stays of up to 90 days for tourism purposes or visiting friends and family.


Otaru Canal
Photo by Reginald Pentinio via Flickr

Traveling to Japan during the winter season equates to far less crowds than are experienced during the three other seasons. The spring hanami, summer holidays, and autumn koyo attract most of the attention from domestic and international tourists. A winter visit allows you to take in most of Japan’s notable sights and attractions with fewer crowds and lines. However, it should be noted that the period around New Year’s is considered one of the busiest travel periods both for domestic and international travelers within Japan. You can expect intense travel activity occurring from December 29 to January 4 when many travelers are visiting family or enjoying time off. Be sure to also check opening times for museums, restaurants, stores, and attractions, as many places may be closed over the holidays.

Things To Do:

Winter Sports

Snowboarding in Nagano
Photo by sean via Flickr

The town of Niseko on Hokkaido Island is home to Japan’s finest skiing and snowboarding. Enjoy four interlinked ski resorts within the Niseko United including Grand Hirafu, An’nupuri, Niseko Village, and Hanazono. The ski season runs from late November through April where you will enjoy great lift systems and well-tended slopes. Other great locations for winter sports include Myoko Kogen, Naeba, Kagura, and Tazawako Those not up for downhill skiing can enjoy snowshoeing, cross country skiing, and ice skating at numerous locations around the country.

Onsen Hot Springs

Shiretoko Kamuiwakka Onsen
Photo by thefriendlyuser via Flickr

Nothing beats taking the chill off winter like a long soak in Japan’s soothing nutrient-rich hot spring baths. Popular throughout Japan, these natural outdoor hot springs can be found in every prefecture. Gunma Prefecture offers the famous onsen resorts of Kusatsu while Takaragawa onsen offers unisex baths where you can enjoy a session with your partner or family members. Check out the Manza Onsen in the Kantō region, Kamuiwakka onsen in Hokkaido, or the many onsen baths of Beppu on the island of Kyushu in the south.

Sapporo Snow Festival

Light show
Photo by Danielle Olson via Flickr

Japan’s most celebrated winter festival, the Sapporo Snow Festival takes place in Sapporo on the island of Hokkaido. Be awestruck by incredible artistic masterpieces crafted from snow and ice that depict things such as anime characters, dinosaurs, famous landmarks, and dragons. In addition to the massive snow sculptures that are created by teams from all around the world, visitors can enjoy sledding, snow mazes, ice bars, music, and regional food. The event takes place in February each year.

Winter Wildlife Experiences

Onsen Day
Photo by azkin via Flickr

Humans aren’t the only ones to enjoy a relaxing onsen bath in winter. Each year, visitors flock to Nagano prefecture to witness the snow monkeys, or Japanese macaques, soak in the winter onsen waters of Jigokudani Yaen-koen. The monkeys are present here year round, but the winter landscape provides the best setting for photography. Another incredible winter wildlife experience is witnessing the red-crowned cranes. The cranes winter in the Tsurui-Ito Tancho Sanctuary, where they perform their elegant mating rituals that are fascinating to watch and capture on camera.

Winter Illuminations

Photo by Marufish via Flickr

Japan’s winters may be lacking the pink cherry blossoms of spring and the red and yellow leaves of autumn, but there is no lack of color thanks to the many winter illuminations that can be found across the country. Large displays of fairy lights can be witnessed in all the major cities including Tokyo and Osaka, as well as smaller towns. Notable displays include Tokyo’s Marunouchi illuminations, Osaka’s Midosuji illuminations, and the famous Kobe Luminarie. The dazzling light displays often begin in November and run through the holidays. Some even extend into late winter.

Yuki-no-Otani Snow Wall

Snow-wall (yuki no otani) at Murodo Tateyama
Phot by Ankur P via Flickr

Located in the Toyama prefecture, visitors to the Tateyama Murodo plateau can walk among towering walls of 20m tall snow walls created by snow removal vehicles clearing the Alpine Route roadway. The massive 500m long snow wall is formed late in the season and extends into spring, with a side of the road being designated for pedestrians to safely walk and admire the walls.

ARTS&CULTURE October 19, 2018

The Great Japanese Empire, 1868-1947

world war two

The period after the Meiji Restoration of 1868 is known as the beginning of modernization in Japan; but what occurred during that period went well beyond men adopting Western-style suits and the introduction of streetcars and factories. That’s because many of those factories also quickly went to work building weapons of war, and in the years between 1868 and the attack by the Japanese on the United States territory of Hawaii in 1941, Japan went from a closed, feudal country to a world power the Japanese called Dai Nippon Teikoku: The Great Japanese Empire.

Japan’s meteoric rise stunned the dominant Western powers (the British, French, German, Russian, Dutch and Americans) that had established global dominance and had been carving up the rest of the world, often fiercely competing for territory, resources and influence. Japan, having just come out of its isolation, quickly realized that the only way it would survive in such shark-infested waters was to become a shark itself.

Thus, from the Japanese historical perspective, the four years we know as World War II were merely the climax of several decades of conflict between Japan and China, Japan and Korea, Japan and Russia, and even Japan and its eventual ally, Germany.

The newly-modern country began creating a strong, outward-facing military soon after the Meiji Restoration began in 1868. In 1894, with what the Japanese conceived as a defensive measure to shore up a vulnerable neighboring peninsula, Japan’s military invaded Korea. This became known to history as the First Sino-Japanese War, since it was actually an attack on Chinese (Sino) dominance in the Korean peninsula. When Japan’s modern military defeated China’s in less than nine months, the humiliation upended the Asian power structure, and among other things, set China on a path to revolution and civil war in the 20th century.

After that first war, and its unsatisfactory treaties, Japan became more aggressive, which led eventually to the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5. That second war was waged over (and in and around) Korea and northeastern China, which Russia itself had invaded in 1900, using the pretext of defeating the so-called “Yellow Peril” of Japan. But Japan’s preemptive 1904 attack on the Russians led quickly to a second victory, making Japan the first Asian nation in modern times to defeat a Western power. By 1910, Japan had fully occupied Korea, and the seeds of the Great Japanese Empire had been established. It would endure and expand for the next 37 years.

Image from page 290 of "New geographies" (1910)

Subsequent conflicts would engage these same states, including newly-powerful Japan, for the next few decades. Japan entered World War I even before the United States, allied with Britain and France against Germany, and many of its warships (and navy) fought as far away from Japan as the Mediterranean. Japan eventually made common cause with its old rival Russia as well. In its home sphere, Japan took control of key Pacific islands until then claimed by Germany: the Caroline, Marshall and Mariana Islands. Japan held these islands until the U.S. took them toward the end of World War II.

The decade after World War I had ended in 1918 was, in Japan as in the Western democracies, a time of relative peace and economic boom times. The vote was expanded, two political parties vied for power, and the Japanese increasingly enjoyed their new position in the world. But the worldwide economic crash at the end of the Twenties came to Japan as well, and Japan entered the Thirties with its military once again politically-empowered. By mid-decade, these conservative military forces had come to envision the recreation of the old shogunate, ruled by the military, and driven by a nationalism that comported nicely with the National Socialism growing in Germany and fascism in Italy.

Adding to that was an old problem the Japanese had long faced: A shortage of raw materials. Now that it was an industrial power, its access to oil, iron and rubber meant it had to buy them from nearby China, eastern Russia and far-away South East Asia. Following the template laid out by the expansionist Western powers, Japan decided to simply take what it needed.

To this end, in 1931, at the start of the Great Depression, Japan launched an invasion of China’s three northeastern provinces, north of Korea. Japan dubbed the conquered territory Manchuria (Manchukuo), after the Manchus who originated there, and installed a puppet regime. A similar puppet state followed in adjacent Inner Mongolia in 1936, and in 1937 Japanese troops entered China proper, taking advantage of the civil war between Mao Zedong’s Communists and Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists.

Thus began what would come to be called the Second Sino-Japanese War, vastly larger than the first, which would, with time, morph into the more familiar conflict known as World War II. Japan’s rapid expansion into British Hong Kong, Malaya and Singapore, as well as the Dutch East Indies (today’s Indonesia), would continue across Asia into the 1940s – eventually leading to total defeat in 1945.

By David Watts Barton