Tag Archives: Japan

Tattoos & Real Meaning


I enjoy suturing, not only for the joy of practicing the skill (minor, though it may be), but also for the chance to talk to the patient. One of my recent patients, about 30 years-old, sported the above tattoo. And as I wrote here, since I am one of those people who does not hesitate to ask a stranger about their tattoos and I knew what his tattoo meant, I said to my patient, “So, you are into the I Ching, I see.”

“Huh”, he replied.

“Your tattoo!” I said, “Why do you have that tattoo?”

“Oh, that is from GI Joe.” he said as I tilted my head in puzzlement.

You see, I was not in the USA in the 1980s, so I missed both the GI Joe comics and the GI Joe TV shows and thus never saw the GI Joe Ninja warrior who had this tattoo as the mark of his Ninja clan.

To my patient, this tattoo meant power, stealth, bravery and more. To me, it was ChiChi, the 63rd hexagram of the I Ching; water over fire; “The superior man ponders danger and takes precautions against it.” It brought back memories of my acupuncture teacher in Japan, of learning the divination method in China and much more. (see this post)

Well, I will let you read on your own about the I Ching or Snake Eyes (the GI Joe guy), but the point of this post is to illustrate the obvious:  “meaning” changes and “real meaning” is fictional.


My patient was excited to learn about the ancient meaning of his tattoo, and I was excited to learn about his meaning — one apparently embraced by many young men who grew up on GI Joe.

Question to reader:  So, what do you think about the “real” meaning of something?



Filed under Philosophy & Religion

Onegaishimasu: A Traveler’s Superstition

OnegaiIn Japanese, “onegaishimasu” literally means “honorable-favor-will-do”. A better translation may be: “You are about to do me a great favor and I want to thank you ahead of time.” I love the word because there is no real short, succinct, standard equivalent of politeness and humility in English for the situations where onegaishimasu is used.  Consider these situations for instance:

  • Someone offers to help you edit your paper for you, as you gratefully hand them the paper, in Japanese, you say, “Onegaishimasu”.  What would you say in English? “Here, thanks.”
  • You are at a post office and you hand the clerk a package to be weighed, stamped and sent on its way. As you had it, in Japanese you say, “Onegaishimasu”. What would you say in English? “Please”?  (yawn)

Well, I live in the USA now and miss the word, but I do use it in one situation — right before leaving my home on a long trip.  Just before driving off in my car, I will put my hands together in gassho and say, “Onegaishimasu”.   I could imagine a Shinto animist saying this to call forth helpful spirits for the favor of protection — sort of a good luck prayer.  But for me, in my head, I am thanking ahead of time those who will be on my path and myself for our efforts to make the trip safe.  It is a reminder to me to be aware, careful and grateful.

Questions to readers:  So, am I being superstitious in a stupid way and just rationalizing it?  Share thought you have before long trips that verge on being superstitious — or religious.


Click here for more of my posts on superstition.


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

“Departures”: a Japanese film

Departures” (Okuribito — The Sending-Off-Person) is an award winning 2008 Japanese film about a young Cello player who loses his orchestra job and out of financial necessity returns with his wife to his rural home town where he accidentally finds a job for a funeral company.  The story involves learning deep love, forgiveness, the healing of childhood loss and cultivating artful En in one’s profession.

Seeing this last film night, it is now one of my top favorite movies. How can I help but not recommend a film that made me tear up several times?  However, I am not sure if it was the film or my personal experiences in Japan (and life) that made this film so powerful for me.  I am sure the following helped me appreciate this film:

  • Speaking Japanese and long, rich experiences with the complexity of Japanese relationships
  • Having been an acupuncture apprentice with wonderful, enigmatic teachers much like the teacher in this film
  • Wrestling with Japanese spirituality and cultural values about death.  It will help you to read about Japanese funerals before seeing this film.
  • Understanding rural vs. urban Japan
  • Lots of wonderful experiences at Japanese public baths (sentō)

But I think perhaps anyone can enjoy it.  So if you see it, please let me know if it struck a chord with you.  Meanwhile, here are some more links:

  • To see one of my related Japanese experiences, read my story of possession by a dead Japanese woman — my first Japanese funeral.
  • For a similar theme, see the excellent 1999 Chinese comedy-drama, “Shower” (Xǐzǎo=”to bathe”).  A man returns to his family public bathhouse and begins to understand himself and family.
  • For a very different, funny film which pokes fun at Japanese funerals, see Ososhiki (The Funeral, 1984).


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

The Counsel of Many

The following quotes are from The Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai (1700s):

And in large part we make our logic according to what we like. (p17)

People think that they can clear up profound matters if they consider them deeply, but they exercise perverse thoughts and come to no good because they do their reflecting with only self-interest at the center. (p18)

We learn about the sayings and deed of the men of old in order to entrust ourselves to their wisdom and prevent selfishness.  When we throw off our own bias, follow the sayings of the ancients, and confer with other people, matters should go well and without mishap. (p19)

These reminded me of the psychology studies showing the pervasiveness of self-deception and also reminded me of a Bible saying that I have often quoted: “In the counsel of many is much wisdom.”  But when I tried to look up the Bible passage, I could not find it.  Nonetheless, I found many Christian sites which, like me, felt it was a direct Biblical quote.  Though phrased differently, here are some verses from the book of  Proverbs which relay the same wisdom:

A wise man will hear and increase learning, and a man of understanding will attain wise counsel.
–Proverbs 1:5

The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, But he who heeds counsel is wise.
— Proverbs 12:15

Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed.
— Proverbs 15:22

List to counsel and receive instructions, that you may be wise in your latter days.
— Proverbs 19:20

Surely you need guidance to wage war, and victory is won through many advisers.
— Proverbs 24:6

Question to Readers:

  • Bible Misquote: Any Bible geeks reading this?  Does anyone know where that wording came from and how it got changed?  I’d be curious.  I must be from a famous movie, novel or sermon.    Hmmmmm?
  • Blogger Disease:  Do you think bloggers are more prone or less prone to staying outside the counsel of many?
  • Shared Wisdom:  What do you feel about quoting similar passages from widely different traditions?


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

The Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai

The Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai (wiki)
was written by Yamamoto Tsunetomo in the early 1700’s.  Yamamoto was a famous samurai who wrote down his thoughts after retiring as a Buddhist monk.

I was given the Hagakure in 1985 by my Scottish friend John Craig.  John was my first acupuncture teacher and a 5th Dan Kyūdō (Zen Archery) practitioner when we both lived in Japan. The book is filled with memories for me — for at that time I was doing a martial art in a Zen temple and studying acupuncture.  My life had recently been thrown into confusion (after leaving India) and everything appeared fresh with dangerous, inviting, and promising potential.

The Hagakure is a short book of compiled aphorisms — an easy read.  This is an index for my upcoming posts related to The Hagakure.  Grab one and read along if you’d like.

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Filed under Philosophy & Religion

My Magical Introduction to Acupuncture

The following is the continuation of my autobiographical posts concerning my experiences in acupuncture. See Part One here.

So, was my introduction to Acupuncture “magical”? I will let the reader decide.


I was excited to visit Dave McClean, the eccentric guy I had met at IBM who offered to show me some acupuncture.  My girlfriend, Amy, came with me for the evening tea visit.  We were both relatively new to Japan and were looking forward to seeing how another foreigner had eked out an existence in the land of Wa.  Amy was a bit hesitant about the get-together; first because she was not excited about meeting a strange, itinerant elderly bachelor and second because she was still a Christian who was a bit suspicious about non-orthodox medicine.  But she had been raised as a missionary kid in India and was certainly no stranger to odd experiences.  So she had decided to observe but warned me that she would not participate.

Dave lived in a traditional Japanese house: tatami floors, sliding wooden doors, a tokonoma and a cute inner court yard. He had done well for himself for only a year in Japan and he shared some of his Japan-survival tricks with us during the first hour of our visit: how to look for houses, how to find cheap furniture, job opportunities and more.

Later we discussed the beautiful art work he had collected and his meditation spot in his tokonoma. We compared our meditation experiences and thoughts on religion. By then,  I had transitioned out of Christianity, explored Buddhism and Hinduism/Yoga and was now pretty much a very disillusioned cynical materialist. Nonetheless, I was still oddly drawn to people who claimed to have experienced the unusual. Tonight’s acupuncture introduction was, in my mind, an anthropological adventure.  But I was also sincere – my pursuit was a complex mix of motivations – but in the end, curiosity and gregariousness were the main motivators.

Dave was intense about everything he pursued and his knowledge was deep and sophisticated – it was a joy listening to him. After an hour of tea our conversation finally landed on the reason for our visit: acupuncture.

Dave said, “Well, are you ready to try the needles?”

I was a little nervous but not hesitant. “Sure!” I said and Dave brought out a beautiful metal case with the needles neatly aligned and explained how he sterilized them (a concern of mine). Then he said, “Rather than talk about this, why don’t I get you to experience it first?” I agreed–for I had always valued experience more than pure theory.

He asked me to assume a comfortable posture so he could place a needle gently into my right hand.  Since we were sitting on the tatami, I asked if I could borrow his meditation pillow. I assumed the half-lotus position with my hands on my thighs and closed my eyes briefly to relax in the manner I would in my meditations. (The pic is not me, I borrow it — forgot the source, sorry.)

When I opened my eyes Dave said, “Ah, that is a good idea. Why don’t you keep your eyes closed while I put the needle in.”

“But,” I inquired “before I close my eyes, may I ask what is the needle suppose to do when put in my hand?”

“Hmmm,” he said, “I don’t want to bias your impressions.  Instead, let’s just see. But I can tell you that the Chinese name for the point is ‘hegu’ (“the meeting valley”), Japanese call it gōkoku but English speakers, avoiding the complexity of the classical names, simply call the point “Large Intestine 4″ because it is the 4th on the large intestine meridian (more on that later).

Well, that explanation did not help, so though a little nervous about closing my eyes, I agreed. Dave then gently massaged the point.  “Here we go.” he said softly, “You will only feel a little pinch.” And indeed, he slipped the needle in with no pain.

I was surprised.”Did you feel anything?” Dave asked.

“No, not really.” I responded showing my surprise.

Since my deconversion from Christianity and my experiences in India, I had become not only skeptical of any religion, but of any unusual experiences altogether.  So I came to learn about Dave’s acupuncture with a skeptic’s mind.  But Dave’s introduction was sane, rational, gentle and not unusual — well, up to this point.

“Well,” he said, “let’s move your Qi a little.”

Saying that, he slowly started twisting the needle and moving it down a little deeper (I was told this later — remember, my eyes were closed). Suddenly I had a strong sensation run from that acupuncture point on my hand, up my arm across my neck and down to the same spot on the other arm.

The buzzing river around my arms also caused me to drop into a deep quiet relaxed state.  Entering that level of relaxation usually took me about 40 minutes of meditation but Dave’s needle just did it to me in a few seconds — I was surprised again.

After about a minute (which felt like ten minutes), Dave said, “What do you feel?”

I describe the arc of sensation. But as we spoke, the buzzing feeling faded and I could only slightly feel the needle in its original position.  Dave was a little surprised.  He told me to open my eyes, and we talked for a second (with the needle still in my hand).

“It seems you are ‘channel-sensitive’ — Only about 5% of the population can actually feel Qi move along the actual channels,” Dave explained, “And an even smaller percent of people can feel the whole channel across to the other side.”

The next two pics illustrates the “Small Intestine channel” on which the acupuncture point layed. The feeling went up that channel to the back of my neck and jumped over to the same channel on the other side and down to my other hand.

“If you don’t mind,” Dave continued, “I’d like to try a little experiment with you?”

Amy was sitting nearby and she looked pretty interested even though I could tell that the situation was making her a bit cautious. But she appeared to be patiently watching, so I agreed, “Sure, what is next?”

“Well,” Dave described, “I’d like you close your eyes again and tell me what you feel.”

I agree and again closed my eyes again and relaxed.

“Ok, I don’t feel anything.”  A little time passed, “Still nothing” I said impatiently.

“OH! You must be twirling the needle. There goes that sensation again — up my arm to my other hand. Now it is fading. Ooops, there it is again.”

This pattern of an on-and-off sensation repeated itself about four times. And finally Dave told me to open my eyes.

Amy had her mouth open in surprise. I asked Dave what he had done but instead Amy blurted out in surprise, “All he did was hold his hand about 6 inches over the needle. And every time he did, you felt the sensation going up and down your arms. And everytime he moved his hand away from the needle, you said it faded.”

“I am impressed too,” Dave said, “Not many people have that degree of sensitivity.”

“Hmmm”, I thought out loud in my surprise.

I did not believe that energy could flow outside the body, yet alone from one body to another. But even this experience I was still extremely skeptical and objected saying, “It was probably just the heat of his hand triggering the same sensation.”

“OK,” Dave replied, “I have another experiment that may test your objection.  Would you like to try?”

I agreed and we set up experiment the same way with my eyes closed and the needle in.

Just like the previous experiment, I reported my sensations.  Over the next five minutes the buzzing sensation went up and down my arms.  It came and went in an irregular pattern.

Finally Dave told me to open my eyes again.  But this time, Dave was not sitting next to me.  Instead, both Amy and Dave were sitting across the room.

“This time,” Amy informed me,”you felt the sensation every time Dave pointed his fingers at the needle from over here. And when he pointed away, you reported the sensation dimmed each time.  Each time!

OK, I was pretty shocked. And I had skeptical, religious, anti-acupuncture Amy as a witness adding to the credibility.

To top off the night, Dave wanted to show us one more related phenomena. He felt I probably had the ability to feel the energy surrounding a person’s body. So to set up the experiment. He asked a-now-willing Amy lay prone on the tatami floor and relax. He then asked me to hold my hand above Amy’s body.

Dave then asked me if I could feel a sensation in my palm that was similar to the needle’s buzzing sensation. I did. In fact it was clearly present for the first foot or so off her body but then quickly faded at about two feet above her.  The fading felt like the fading of the buzz of the needle, albeit it more subtle.

I thought it was her body heat but she had clothes on and when I put my hand near the bare skin on her arms I could feel a little heat but I had to be very close to her body. The sensation of heat and the subtle buzz where very different.

Eventually it was time for us to leave Dave’s gracious company.  It had been a unique evening. We thanked Dave for everything and started off on our slow walk along the gorgeous, moon-lit Kamo River back to our small home.

On the way home, Amy noticed my silence and said, “You are being unusually quiet. What are you thinking about?”

“Well, it is like I saw God!”

I said that for shock value knowing that though Amy had practically given up on my ever becoming a Christian again, though she still hoped I’d return to the flock.  Her and I had long standing tensions since I had left Christianity about 4 years earlier.

“I mean, look,” I continued, “tonight I saw something that I had not thought was possible.  I could have sworn such a possibility did not exist. It was as if I saw a god. Because up to now, whenever I heard people talking about energy in and around the body, I thought they were talking hocus-pocus woo-woo.  But tonight I experienced that energy even when I was trying not to.  And you verified it. That sort of experience is enough to even shut me up.”

Amy nodded.

Well, I have tried to tell this story as I experienced it at that time without any post-hoc analysis.  Go ahead, let me know your questions and your speculations.  My acupuncture stories after this event abound, but this was the pivotal experience that made me pursue acupuncture.


My other related posts:


Filed under Medicine

Responses to Strangeness

We all respond to strangeness or foreignness in different ways. Below are some personal stories of how my family has responded to strangeness.

My Parents Visit Japan

My parents had the exact opposite temperaments in many ways.  My dad was a party-animal, fraternity-boy from a big city who became a salesman. My mom was a quiet country girl who became a school teacher.  Being divorced, they each came and visited me separately during my time in Japan.  And both had very different responses to the foreignness of Japan.

My father was often angry and frustrated with Japan.  He didn’t understand why more Japanese people didn’t speak English.  He wanted his coffee served the same way it was back in Ohio.  He resisted taking his shoes off when entering a home.  Japan barely touched my dad — he wouldn’t let it.

My mother visited the year after my father.  She arrived at the airport all smiles and excited.  But the next morning, after our first day, I woke up to find that she had been up for a few hours crying alone in my ‘living room’.  She said she was scared.  She sobbed saying she did not understand the language, the money, or the signs and she felt she stood out and looked awkward.  I realized I had thrown her into the foreignness too quickly.  So I sat and taught her the money, taught her a few words, drew a little map of my neighborhood and we set out for 1/2 hour of shopping.  After little outings like this, within 3 days I could send her out to buy our tofu and vegetables on her own.  After that we went on long trips and had great experiences.  My mother was ecstatically happy and loved Japan and my Japanese friends loved her.

One parent kept strangeness always at a far distance, the other let it affect her deeply and personally.  I am like my mother, I love new cultures, but fortunately I don’t have one ounce of the sad reflex when confronted by the unusual.

My Son in NYC

One summer, when my son was only 7 years-old, he and I did a day trip to New York City.  He loved running in Central Park, staring up at skyscrapers and chasing pigeons.  For lunch we went to Chinatown.  The world changed.  I spoke some Chinese to store owners, we ate very unique food in a restaurant with almost only Chinese clients.  My son started to cry during the meal. “What’s wrong?” I inquired, expecting him to love these new experiences.  He said he was sad that he could not understand the language and felt lost.  So after the meal we walked 3 blocks and left the Chinese behind.  His mood picked up right away.   He is now 11 years-old and loves new, strange experiences, but I remember, like my mom, I did not pay attention to slow introductions.

Questions to Readers:  Tell me a short story to illustrate how you have observed response-to-strangeness in your life?  Put it on your blog and link here if you want — or just leave a nice long comment.


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

Divination (占)

I had only been in Japan for nine months and had recently broke up with my long-term American girlfriend.  It was my birthday and I was pretty much alone in Japan: No girlfriend, no close friends, and no neighbors I knew because I just move into a new apartment.  Further, my Japanese was terrible.  So I went out to celebrate my birthday alone — first time in decades.

I sat by myself at the bar at Studio 54 on Karasuma-dori in Kyoto. A Japanese guy came and sat next to me and soon after, struck up a conversation to practice his English. “Harro ! I am Jiro” he said, in the same drone I had heard hundreds of times before.

“Hi”, I replied curtly, not excited to have yet another generic conversation on this evening. “What is your blood type?” was his next surprising question.

I would run into that question several times in the coming months before I actually made an effort to understand the reason for the question.  Other intro questions common to Japanese in a bar had been: “Nice weather, eh?” or “The Sumo match tonight sucked, didn’t it ?”  I was to find out that this question was like an American asking “What is your [astrological] sign?” as a way to share a conversation about each other’s personality types.

“Urani”, in Japanese, means “divination” but it is broader — it refers of ways to obtain information beyond the obvious means of the vehicle of inspection.  Here are some examples.

  • 手相占い  – Palmistry
  • 人相占い  – Body-Shape Divination
  • 血液型占い – Blood-Type Divination
  • 夢占い    – Dream Divination
  • 風水      – FengSui (arranging our environment to maximize fortune)

The character used is: 占  which is composed of the top pare: 卜 (which is the divination rod, and actually means the same) plus the bottom part: which means “mouth” –> Speaking what is divined.

Back to the chap at the bar:  He was trying to open a conversation about “blood-type divination” which neatly divides all people into 4 convenient personality types: A, B, AB, and O types.  I actually just found a fun blog post that explains it well — see Maggie Sensei’s cute post.

Well, back to my conversation with that Japanese guy at the bar:  “I am A-type”. I told the stranger. “Naruhoodoo (I get it).  Yappari (as I expected).” he replied showing that we had already exceeded his English. The conversation died because neither of us spoke the other’s language well enough and I went back to my beer.  The night ended lonelier than it began.

Every country loves divination — and the simpler, the better. Superficial Western Astrology types divide the world into 12 personality types — all the people born in March, for example, have the same personality.  Some Americans will use this newspaper-column astrology mentality to start a conversation about personalities — well, only if they feel their sign matches their personality.

Real Astrologists of course claim that at minimum, in addition to the sun sign (available by just knowing the date of birth) they need to the rising sign and the houses of all the planets for which you need the time of birth.  Without that, a real Astrologist would say, you can’t even begin to really understand a person’s personality and the how to help navigate the future to increase fortune. Never mind that all research shows that is bunk.

So, on-the-street astrology of friends who read the newspaper astrology columns divide people into only 12 types — essentially, people born in the same month have the same personality.  Yeah, right!  But if you think that is audacious, the on-the-street astrology in China sees everyone born in the same year as having the same personality!  They have 12 year cycles with each year given an animal name: 12 Animals, 12 personalities.  They have a more elaborate model with 5 elements and thus 5 X 12 = 60 personality types.  But it is a similar easy way to divide make personalities easy to talk about.

On an important side note: In Chinese astrology, girls born in the year of the “Fire Horse” are suppose to become rebellious, proud women which are hard to marry off.  Consequently, Chinese history is full of stories of infanticide of girls born in that year.  Ouch!  False beliefs can have horrible consequences.

Are there Scientific ways to categorize personalities?   “Science” enters and we have the dearly loved MBTI (Myers-Briggs Type Indicator) — a personality test revealing 16 types of people on the planet. It was all the fad of the administrators at the State University where I was a graduate school professor. And when I questioned the sacred cow of these academics, I met with no small disdain. Read this Wiki article and be sure to read the “Reliability” section.

Humans love “urani” (divination).  We all want to know all about ourselves and others.  We all want to gain fortune and avoid misfortune if possible.  It is no wonder such a huge number of systems evolved.


Filed under Events, Philosophy & Religion

The I-Ching and Tofu

I-ChingDo you believe in the I-Ching?
32% of readers do (March 2013)
Poll Below !

After graduating from Oriental Medical School in Osaka, Japan, I took up an apprenticeship with one of the most famous Oriental Medical Doctors in my home town of Kyoto.  My teacher was very successful, highly respected and well-loved by his patients.  Though he was 40 years my elder, we became good friends and shared hours in conversation like college friends.

His favorite conversation was on the philosophy surrounding the I-Ching.  The I-Ching is an ancient classic Chinese text of divination — an oracle, a guidebook.  To access the divination, one throws coins or sticks to decide which of its 64 chapters to read and how to read them. Each chapter was based on one of 64 hexagrams derived from Ying Yang philosophy and is meant to help one answer questions he or she has in their life.  People spend lifetimes studying the text and it has been used for millennium to answer difficult questions.

Mapo TofuMy teacher lived and breathed the I-Ching. His enthusiasm was contagious. We would talk about it on our long strolls in Japanese gardens or even at Geisha parties to which he’d invite me.

He explained to me that to benefit from the I-Ching, one reads the vague passages with an open heart. Another friend likened it to Tofu — it has no flavor of its own but picks up the flavor of those who read it.

I read the I Ching for about 2 years, and often threw coins and contemplated the text. But it was difficult for me. I was a Westerner and had not been immersed since a child in this culture.  Thus the philosophy behind it was more intellectually inspiring and less emotionally stirring. I can’t say I made any amazingly good decisions using the I Ching, but the time spent was fun.

i-ching-coinsI’ve seen many Christians read their Bible in a similar way:  When troubled, the open it  up and read — looking for guidance, strength, insight or inspiration.  People do this other literature too.   My experience has told me that no god speaks through text, there is not magic.  Well, unless one understands that our minds are complex, we are not who we think we are and a text can act as tofu, drawing in a hidden flavor of many ourselves, helping us to see life more fully.  Heck — that is magic, eh?


Filed under Philosophy & Religion