Doraemon: The Robot Cat from the Future

As mentioned previously, while we were in Japan, we saw lots of promotions for the latest Doraemon movie, “STAND BY ME ドラえもん”, you can see here. In Tokyo, we found a “park” full of Doraemon statues like so:

Doraemon 5

Including this “satanic” Doraemon:1 ;)


But what is Doraemon?

Doraemon is a very popular cartoon character from Japan. He is from the 27th Century, and comes back to the 20th Century to live with his creator’s ancestor named Nobita のび太. Nobita is a selfish, whiny, lazy kid who never does his homework, and gets scolded by his mom often. He has a big crush on a girl in his neighborhood named Shizuka (静香). Shizuka and Nobita are friends, but because Nobita is such a slob, Shizuka isn’t really interested in him.

Nobita is also bullied by two other kids in the neighborhood: the huge and tempermental Jaian (ジャイアン) and the short, but arrogant Suneo (スネ夫). Sometimes they play together, but sometimes Jaian also beats up Nobita.

So, Nobita is kind of a loser, and Doraemon’s job was to live with him, help him get through troubles and sometimes set him straight. What makes Doraemon so fun is that he has lots and lots of gadgets he stores in the pouch on his tummy. These gadgets do all kinds of amazing and futuristic things like the dokodemodoa (どこでもドア) or “Anywhere Door” which lets Doraemon and Nobita go wherever they want, or beanie hats that let them fly when they wear. Some gadgets have amusing names that are word-play in Japanese. Anyhow, the park display above shows many of the famous gadgets Doraemon had.

Doraemon often uses the gadgets to help Nobita, but then Nobita often uses and abuses the same gadget for his own selfish reasons, and then gets into trouble later. Doraemon gets frustrated with Nobita sometimes, but he always helps him in the end. Nobita also has a few moments of maturity, and Doraemon and Nobita are good friends. The new movie (linked above) has a touching scene in it where Nobita gets beat-up by Jaian again, but Doraemon tearfully runs to help him after the fight.

My family and I like Doraemon a lot. Sometimes it’s a bit naughty, but I like how all the kids remain friends (even Jaian and Suneo) and Doraemon is faithful to Nobita. My wife and daughter saw the movie in Japan and liked it a lot. I had to babysit Little Guy, but I got to see a different movie the next day (more on that in a later post). My daughter owns a stack of Doraemon comics in Japanese and reads them almost every night in bed. Doraemon comics have really helped her Japanese reading skills, which is impressive since she lives in the US, not Japan. However, she forgets to clean up her room sometimes, so you can find Doraemon comics all over the place. ;)

But I like reading Doraemon too. The comics are somewhat easier for me to read, but not too easy, so I still learn lots of useful, everyday Japanese vocabulary. Plus I do enjoy the stories.

I even own a couple Doraemon comics in Korean now, thanks to my visit to Incheon Airport:

Doraemon in Korean

Doraemon in Korean is Doraemong (도라에몽) if you’re curious. ;) I like reading the Korean comics more than other Korean books I was trying to read (which were a little boring), so I have made better progress in my Korean studies and my Japanese studies. :)

Anyhow, Doraemon is a great cartoon, and a great character. If you can read some Japanese (or are studying it), I definitely recommend getting some Doraemon comics, which are popular and easy to find and pretty useful.

1 What’s up with Satan’s Passport? The Japanese text read 悪魔パスポート (akuma pasupōto) which reads as “Demon’s Passport”. This is definitely a bad translation. A demon, in the generic, Japanese sense, is somewhat different than Satan, who is explicitly a figure in Christianity, Judaism and Islam. “Satan” has a lot of cultural meaning to Westerners, but Japanese translators would not know this. It’s a reminder that translation isn’t just about grammar, culture has to be considered too.

Posted in Japan, Japanese, Language, Manga, Travel | Tagged | Leave a comment

No Room For Doubt


For the weekend, I wanted to share this clip from the game Final Fantasy XIII.

This is a scene between two characters, Lightning and Snow. Lightning is trying to save her sister, Serah, while Snow wants to save her too so that he can marry her. Lightning doesn’t trust Snow at first, but through the story, they work together and she learns to trust him more.

The reason why I posted this was something Lightning says in this scene to Snow, who wonders if they’ll ever see Serah again:

Don’t go there. No room for doubt.

Lightning is a strong and determined woman, and although she has her doubts, she focuses on her goal to save Serah. She has doubts, but she doesn’t listen to them. Thus, in the end, she saves her sister.

I think that’s true with a lot of things in life: if you want to accomplish something important to you, you can’t leave any room for doubt in your mind. Once you start to doubt, you will start to give up.

A good lesson from Lightning, I think. :-)

Posted in Language, Religion | Leave a comment

The Pure Land and Nichiren Debate in Buddhism

Coincidentally, a few days before this post, I was reading a debate in 1272 between the Buddhist monk, Nichiren, and a local Pure Land priest named Benjō.1 Nichiren is known for his strong criticism of the Pure Land teaching, some of which reflect Jokei’s criticisms, but also some of which are uniquely arguments by Nichiren himself, who maintained the Tendai tradition that the Lotus Sutra was the highest teaching.

Nichiren provides two arguments overall attacking Benjō’s belief that it’s beneficial to set aside all other Buddhist teachings, and focus on rebirth in the Pure Land:

  1. There’s nothing in the Buddhist scripture to suggest that one should set other teachings aside just for the sake of rebirth in the Pure Land.
  2. Chronoligically, the Buddha taught Lotus Sutra after the Pure Land sutras, and thus it supersedes them.

If you’re interested in the debate, it’s well-worth reading. Nichiren is a pretty sharp fellow, and a good debater, so you can see how he undermines Benjo’s argument. Apparently, they both signed the document at the end, which demonstrates the accuracy of the contents of the debate. Whether Benjo was won over by Nichiren is not clear from this document.

Anyhow, #2 is interesting because it reflects a very real belief at the time that all sutras in the Mahayana canon were preached by Shakyamuni Buddha, and in a certain order. The idea was started by the Chinese Tian-tai master, Zhiyi (智顗, 538–597). Zhiyi was one of many early Chinese Buddhists who had inhereted a huge volume of Buddhist sutras, freshly translated from India, but had no idea how the teachings related to one another: which were the earliest teachings, which were the later teachings, which were the highest teachings? So, early Chinese Buddhist schools developed competing theories about the order and hierarchy of the sutras, Zhiyi’s was the most accepted and the one most frequently cited by Buddhists in East Asia.

Zhiyi’s system had five stages of teachings (cited here):

  1. The Flower Garland period – taught immediately after the Buddha attained Enlightenment, lasting 3 weeks. No one understood the teaching and so Shakyamuni Buddha had to start over with more “basic” teachings.
  2. The Agama Period – taught at Deer Park, and lasting 12 years. This is equivalent to the Pali Canon in the Theravada tradition.
  3. The Correct and Equal Period – lasting 8 years. This includes some “fundamental” Mahayana sutras such as the Virmalakiri Sutra.
  4. The Wisdom Period – lasting 22 years. This includes such Mahayana Sutras as the Heart Sutra, Diamond Sutra, Pure Land sutras and many others.
  5. The Lotus and Nirvana Period – lasting 8 years. These are supposed to be the highest, and most final teachings.

Modern archeology and historiography has totally debunked this system because we now know that the Mahayana Sutras were written 400+ years after Shakyamuni Buddha.2 In some cases, such as the Heart Sutra and the Meditation of Amitabha Sutra, they were composed in China, not India. Also, in the case of the Lotus Sutra, the chapters were not written all at the same time, with later author adding tacking on additional chapters at the end. So, Zhiyi’s system (or any medieval) system for the sutras is pretty suspect.

But of course, Nichiren wouldn’t have possibly known that, so he was using the best arguments he could at the time.

However, #1 is still a reasonable argument. Nichiren points out that nothing in the Sutras suggests that one abandon all other teachings and practices to focus only on the Pure Land, and this is true. From what I’ve read, there’s nothing in the sutras to suggest this. In fact the opposite. For example, the Immeasureable Life Sutra, one of three foundation sutras, implies that the more you can do to be reborn in the Pure Land, the better.

The concept of “exclusive” focus on the Pure Land was devised by Honen a generation earlier, but was shaped by a persistent belief at the time of Dharma Decline (mappō in Japanese 末法) which taught that after 2,000, the Buddha’s teachings would be so obscure, and society so corrupt, that no one could put them into practice anymore. So, for Honen, the last resort is rebirth in the Pure Land of Amitabha Buddha. Nichiren also subscribed to this idea of Dharma Decline, but his solution was to focus on devotion to the Lotus Sutra instead. Both the Immeasure Life Sutra (Pure Land) and the Lotus Sutra both imply that someday the the Buddhist teachings will be obscure and society will crumble, but the specific, formulaic chronology is mentioned in neither one. It’s mentioned in a more obscure sutra called the Mahasamnipata Sutra (大集經).

But anyway, the notion of Dharma Decline is pretty subjective, and the major Mahayana sutras don’t state that after 2,000 years, no one will be able to practice Buddhism anymore. Also, when you look at modern examples like the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh, among others, it’s pretty hard to take Dharma Decline seriously. Yes, Buddhism has changed and evolved since the time of the Buddha, and maybe isn’t “pristine” anymore,3 but it’s hard to say no one can practice it anymore. Also, when I hear Buddhists say “I am too foolish to put the teachings into practice”, I disagree.

It’s like learning a language. Westerners say Japanese is too difficult, Chinese characters are too hard to learn, etc. But the problem isn’t the language or the person. They just don’t know how to learn a language. Once you know that part, the language learning is straightforward. In the same way, if you struggle to put Buddhist teachings into practice, it’s not Buddhism’s fault, and it’s not because you’re stupid. Either you’re not in a good environment, or you haven’t learned how learn.

So, looking at this debate as a 21st century Buddhist from a Western culture, I think neither side entirely won. I think Nichiren was closer to what we would consider “orthodox” Buddhism (from our 21st-century, subjective perspective) though and won the debate mainly on from argument #1, but argument #2 shows that he was product of his time too just like Benjo. ;)

Interesting debate though.

P.S. Not every Buddhist at the time agreed with Dharma Decline. The founder of Soto Zen, Dogen, acknowledged the theory in such documents as the Eihei Kōroku (永平廣録) but felt it was no excuse not to practice Buddhism anyway because it was such privilege to even encounter the Dharma, no matter what the circumstance.

P.P.S. Another long post. ;p

P.P.P.S. Another criticism that Nichiren had in general toward Pure Land Buddhism was that it replaced Shakyamuni Buddha with Amitabha Buddha. Nichiren was critical of Shingon Buddhism for the same reason because they replaced Shakyamuni with Vairocana. There’s arguments for and against this, and it’s much to large to get into here. Shan-tao’s parable of the White Path is a clarification of how Shakyamuni and Amitabha relate in a Pure Land context, if you’re curious though. Also, the argument where Nichiren says Pure Land Buddhists will be reborn in Hell isn’t as controversial as one might think. A number of Buddhist writers at the time, including Zen masters, frequently threatened their opponents with being reborn in Hell. Nowadays, this seems pretty harsh, but back then the religious was very competitive and a schools’ survival dependended on government endorsement.

1 Not to be confused with Honen’s disciple, Benjō who was the 2nd patriarch of Jodo Shu. Apparently Benjō was a popular monastic name at the time. :p

2 To be fair, the Theravada Pali Canon was also written down centuries later. The text closely matches the Mahayana Agamas though, so we can be fairly certain that both reflect what the Buddha said and taught. Sadly, the Agamas are not translated into English, so it’s difficult to compare and contrast with the Pali Canon. The point is, the Mahayana sutras that came after the Agamas are purely within the Mahayana tradition only. My take on it, having read a number of them, is that they were often attempts to re-hash or summarize earlier teachings into a single narrative that was more contemporary and pertinent to the times. But because of the writing style (Buddha as narrator), this lead to confusion in different cultures and time periods so people believed these were the authentic words of the Buddha and had to reconcile them, hence they greater variety of schools and traditions in the Mahayana branch.

3 A lot of modern purists are obsessed with so-called “Pure Buddhism”, but good luck finding it. Also, as a reminder you are not a 5th-century BC Indian person, so even if you find it, you may not like what you find.

Posted in Buddhism, Jodo Shinshu, Jodo Shu, Nichiren, Shingon, Zen | 5 Comments

There are Nichiren Buddhists, and then there are Nichiren Buddhists

This past Saturday, my family attended the yearly Japanese “Aki Matsuri” festival in Bellevue, Washington (my hometown!), which is always a fun event. It’s amazing how many friends we run into there.1

The Aki Matsuri festival has a lot of groups from around the area: businesses, merchants, non-profit groups, religious groups, etc. I found one stall for a Nichiren-shu Buddhist group here in Seattle, and I started talking to the priest, who was a fellow Buddhist convert. We had a good conversation as two Buddhist-nerds. ;)

But the encounter also made me realize that Nichiren Buddhism is more complex than I thought. The priest frequently explained that what a certain controversial group named Soka Gakkai does is different than other Buddhist groups. But most westeners (like myself) only know Soka Gakkai, so this gives people a false-impression of what Nichiren Buddhism is. I visited another Nichiren group, Rissho Kosei Kai, a few times in July, and had a good impression, but meeting a Nichiren-shu priest also confirmed that many Buddhists have a skewed understanding of what Nichiren Buddhist is all about.

So, I did a little research online, and here’s what I’ve learned about Nichiren Buddhism.

When Nichiren died in 1282, he had 6 major disciples:

  • Nisshō (日昭, 1221-1323)
  • Nichirō (日朗, 1245-1320)
  • Nikkō (日興, 1246-1333)
  • Nikō (日向, 1253-1314)
  • Nitchō (日頂, 1252-1317), and
  • Nichiji (日持, 1250-1305?)

You can read more about it here. Out of these 6 disciples, two basic lineages developed:

  • The Icchi (一致派) lineage, which studies and chants all chapters of the Lotus Sutra, but the 2nd and 16th chapters are treated as the most important.
  • The Shōrestu (勝劣派) lineage, which tends to only read and chant the 2nd and 16th chapters of the Lotus Sutra.

Over time, these two lineages became dozens of schools and lineages in Japan, similar to how Pure Land, Shingon and Zen schools evolved in medieval Japan. There was geographic isolation, politics, and also people developed slightly different rituals, liturgies, and ways of doing things depending on which disciple of Nichiren they had descended from. For the most part, these different schools treated one another as brothers in Nichiren Buddhism although they did compete with one another over “authenticity”. Again, Zen, Pure Land and Shingon schools did the same kind of stuff.

However, during the Warring States period (sengoku jidai 戦国時代) Nichiren and Pure Land schools were both attacked again and again by monastic-armies (sōhei 僧兵) from the Tendai school. In order to survive, the different Nichiren schools (22 at the time) had to protect and support one another. Each school had their differences, but through this period they maintained a sense of community and support.

One particular temple, named Taisekiji (homepage here), stood out from the others though. Taisekiji was descended from the Shoretsu Lineage, and in particular a sub-branch called the Fuji Monryū (富士門流) which was descended from the senior disciple Nikkō mentioned above. Not all Shoretsu schools are part of the Fuji Monryu branch, but all “Fuji schools” are from the Shoretsu lineage. Starting around in the 1400’s and especially after the 1600’s, Taisekiji adopted a new position that Nichiren was the True Buddha, not Shakyamuni, and that only they possessed the true teachings. Practices started to change, and Taisekiji became more and more independent from the rest of the Nichiren schools while claiming the others were heretics. Further they claimed that only their gohonzon altar images are valid because they descended from a special image at their temple.

Finally in 1912, Taisekiji officially became its own lineage called Nichiren Shōshū (日蓮正宗), or “Orthodox Nichiren”, and in the 1930 it created a lay-organization called Soka Gakkai (創価学会). However, the relationship soured, and by 1991, Nichiren Shoshu and Soka Gakkai parted ways and became independent organizations, though maintaining similar practices and teachings. These two groups are what most Westerners know as “Nichiren Buddhism” today.

But what happened to the rest of the schools in Japan? Although Taisekiji temple distanced itself further and further from the other schools, most other schools gradually formed together to become Nichiren-Shū (日蓮宗) during the Edo Period and Meiji Period. Others became independent schools even though their “network” might only be a few temples. The term “Nichiren-shu” is actually kind of umbrella term because many of the temples that are Nichiren-shu come from various lineages from Nichiren’s original 6 disciples, but generally teach the same thing. The only variations are usually local differences in liturgy and practice. Even some of the other Fuji branch temples (not from Taisekiji) became Nichiren-shu temples over time. In other words, the general trend in Nichiren Buddhist history was the formation of a larger, general school called Nichiren-Shu, except for Taisekiji and a few other temples which formed independent groups.

But things didn’t stop there. From Nichiren-shu, a number of modern organizations developed, such as Reiyūkai (homepage) and Risshō Kōsei Kai which I visited previously. These groups did not break away from Nichiren-shu nor were they kicked out, but instead were purely lay-based organizations that are based on Nichiren-shu but add their own nuances and teachings with it.

….so the point of all this is that Nichiren Buddhism isn’t just a particular organization (especially one with such a dubious reputation), but in fact is a large, complex series of groups and lineages all devoted to the 13th century monk Nichiren, the Lotus Sutra, Shakyamuni Buddha and reciting the Odaimoku: namu myoho renge kyo. Most modern Nichiren groups are ecumenical, and maintain positive relationships with other Buddhist groups and generally do not criticize one another. For them, Nichiren is either a bodhisattva, or a reincarnation of bodhisattva. He is often viewed as a reformer of the Tendai tradition, and a disciple of the Buddha, not a replacement of the Buddha. Finally, the central image, the gohonzon (ご本尊) is not a living entity and object of worship, but is a expression of the truths taught by the Lotus Sutra.

Coincidentally though, the kinds of Nichiren Buddhism most Westerners are familiar with are the aggressive off-shoots that are not part of this community. This has caused a great deal of confusion for people, and will probably continue for some time.

*Phew* that was a long post. If you made it this far, I hope it proved useful. I hope to learn more about Nichiren Buddhism, if for other reason than to clarify any misconceptions. ;-)

1 All the Japanese-housewives in the area know each other. It’s a small community, but bigger than you might think! ;)

Posted in Buddhism, Nichiren | 2 Comments


Every year, when we visit Japan, we often pay respect to my wife’s deceased relatives and ancestors. This is a common practice in Japan called ohakamairi (お墓参り) where ohaka just means a grave, while mairu is the humble version of “to go” or “to come”. People in Japan, like other Confucian cultures,1 will often visit their ancestors graves at certain times a year such as Ohigan and Obon. But, since my wife lives overseas, we do ohakamairi when we visit Japan.

Compared to Western culture, ohakamairi is more formal, more ritualized so if you married into Japanese culture, or just want to pay respects to someone, it’s good to know how to do this properly.

I am not an expert, but I’ve seen this done a several times, so I am a bit familiar.

Japanese graves are larger and more elaborate than the simple “headstone” used in American culture:

Bethel Cemetery (222324347)

Instead, Japanese graves look more like obelisks:


A typical Japanese grave will have:

  • An obelisk with the persons name.
  • Two metal flower vases, one on each side.
  • A small box in the front for putting incense.

So, when you visit the ancestor’s grave, it’s important to clean up a bit. My wife’s family will often bring a bucket of water with a ladle. First, we clean any debris from the gravesite, remove old, dead flowers and put in fresh, new ones. Then, using the water and ladle, we pour it on top of the obelisk and the surrounding area to clean off any dirt and grime. Graves can get dirty pretty quick, especially when they’re under trees where dead leaves fall. So, it’s the family’s obligation (in a Confucian sense) to honor the dead by keeping their grave neat and tidy.

Once the grave is cleaned off, we take a box of incense (available at any temple) and divide it up. We each get a small handful of incense sticks, and we take turns lighting them, and putting them in the small box in the front. The box has a metal grill in it so the burning incense is not touching the ground (and doesn’t get extinguished).

As we offer the incense, we also put our hands together in gassho which is a generic, Buddhist gesture of respect and bow our heads for a moment.

Another blogger, Heenai Heenai (which hasn’t been updated lately), has a nice post with photos to explain this.

Anyhow, ohakamairi is not difficult to do, but is more ritualistic than what we do in Western culture2 so it’s good to get familiar if have married into the culture,3 or just want to pay respects.

P.S. Speaking of Obon….

1 Korea, for example, does this around Chuseok among other times.

2 I kind of feel bad because I haven’t visited my grandparents’ graves in years, even though I can get there by car within one hour.

3 Something that really annoys me is Western men who marry Japanese women (or Asian in general), but are completely clueless about the culture and language, and are too lazy, or too prideful to learn. I’m not an expert, but since I married my wife, I feel it was fair to make a good effort to learn the culture and language. I am glad I did.

Posted in Buddhism, Family, Japan, Religion | Leave a comment

Doraemon Shogi

I’ve been playing Japanese chess, or shogi for about 7-8 years, though I don’t play very often (and I’m not very good). However, while in Japan recently, we found this Shogi set:

Doraemon Shogi

This is a special edition Doraemon shogi board. Because there is a new Doraemon movie in theaters right now, they are promoting Doraemon a lot, and we found a special Doraemon store in the Roppongi district of Tokyo where we could buy snacks and other goods. The reason why I bought this set is that the pieces have red-arrows printed on them so children can remember the movements more easily. For example, the silver-general (銀将) and gold-general (金将) have similar moves and players can get confused. I’ve even seen Japanese adults get confused sometimes!

My daughter, “Princess”, loves it. We play shogi about once a week, and she can easily remember where to put the pieces now, but she still doesn’t really know strategy yet. She will learn that in time.

The other reason I bought this set is that it has suggestions for other, simpler games that children can play with Shogi pieces:

Doraemon Shogi, easy version

This is a game where you pile pieces together and you take turns removing pieces from the pile. If you make any noise, you lose your turn, but if not, you can take more and more pieces. Princess loves this game too.

Princess loves to play video games with Daddy, but I want to encourage her to play more intelligent games like Shogi or Western Chess, so I am glad I bought this. It wasn’t very expensive (¥3000 I think), but I hope she becomes a good shogi player. As a woman and half-Japanese, I think it would be interesting if she becomes a Shogi champion someday, but I don’t want to push her either. It’s more important for her to have fun. :)

Posted in Japan, Shogi, Travel | Tagged | Leave a comment


Heroes from the Soviet era or American pop-icons? Photo courtesy of soho42 on Flickr.

Heroes from the Soviet era or American pop-icons?
Photo courtesy of soho42 on Flickr.

I found this article from the Moscow Times online recently and couldn’t stop laughing. It shows a Communist-era mural being painted to look like American comic-book characters and mascots. I can recognize:

  • The Joker
  • Wolverine from X-Men
  • Santa Claus
  • Superman
  • Ronald McDonald
  • Captain America
  • Wonder Woman
  • Robin (from Batman)?

I always enjoy seeing these kinds of clever forms of defiance. I am not sure what the message means though: is that that American capitalism has triumphed (and if so, is that better than Soviet Communism to the artist?), or is it just making fun of old Soviet Communism.

According to this article, the caption below reads (in English): “In step with the times!” So, I assume it’s not meant to be a compliment to the US. ;)

What do you think?

Pretty brilliant, though, I think. :)

Posted in Politics | 2 Comments