Lucky Tentacle Penetration Pops
These frozen treats are named after the Lucky Tentacle children’s anime, about an ice cream store whose fortunes are turned around by a magical shapeshifting squid girl. The “penetration” in question is the act of putting the pop in one’s mouth. A disastrous test marketing in Seattle circa 1991 convinced Oksuka Pharmaceuticals that the product was best left in Japan.

Cuko Cucumber Breakfast Chips
Shaved, dehydrated and cut cucumber slices in milk. In the abstract, no different from corn flakes, especially since manufacturer Cuko created them as a way to use up excess product. The #1 breakfast cereal in Hokkaido for many years due to its low cost and sponsorship of the manga Ezo Kyōwakoku No Monogatari. Cuko tried to bring the cereal to the US in 1999, but rather than pitching it to health food stores, they attempted to sell it to children. They found few takers.

OctOK Stuffed Cepho Balls
Matsumura Fishworks turned octopus bycatch into an essential menu item for pasta, topping for pizza, and ingredient in kebabs. Shredded octopus meat stuffed into octopus-skin casings in the manner of sausages, Cepho Balls drew enthusiastic reviews from westerners in Japan, but the resulting attempt to introduce them stateside was stillborn. Rather than setting up a factory in the USA, Matsumura simply froze their balls for shipment, leading to many complaints of food poisoning and destroying the already limited market for minced mollusk.

Panda Nuts
A mixed nut snack primarily notable for sweet rather than savory flavors (like custard, caramel, and French vanilla), the adorable Padi Panda mascot helped boost domestic sales of this treat. A planned release in English speaking territories was canned when executives learned that “nut” was also slang for “testacle” in vernacular English after printing 500,000 labels for “fresh-cut, fresh-roasted, sweet, roll-around-in-your mouth Panda Nuts.”

Curry Kimchi Choco Nubs
A rather standard bar chocolate, Choco Nubs prided itself on spicy flavors like Korean kinchi, Indian curry, and pad Thai. A partnership with Cadbury to import the sweets to the UK in 1985 became an expensive disaster after the English-language labels simply listed the Choco Nubs as “savoury” with their actual flavor denoted only by color. Londoners were quite put out to find that the red-packaged “savoury” Choco Nubs had a strong taste of boiled cabbage about them.

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Kenji “JIPI” Yamasaki smiled. “Let me guess,” he said with a soft voice and light backcountry Hokkaido accent. “You are a Musjido fan?”

“Yes I am, JIPI-san,” said Mitsuko. “I grew up with it. Mother bought it for my older brother and it was mine when he tired of it. I credit that machine for helping me to become a databasse programmer.”

“Come in, come in,” said Yamasaki. “I always enjoy visitors, and I am always happy to talk about video games.”

The apartment was clean, if sparsely furnished. Original artwork from Musjido video games and posters decorted the walls, but most of the acoutrements were analog, save for an old Amiga humming in a corner. Someone–a daughter or son, perhaps–was watching a game show on a television in one of the bedrooms.

Mitsuko took a seat at the small kitchen table while Yamasaki made tea. His back was stooped and his fingers curled in from arthritis, but he still moved quickly and spoke clearly. For a man of 90, he seemed in excellent shape.

“You were one of the oldest people working at Musjido, weren’t you?” Mitsuko asked once the tea had brewed and was steeping in front of her.

Yamasaki lowered himself into the hard chair with a grunt. “Yes, I was in my late 50s when I started with them. Bunch of young kids, they always called me ‘grandfather.’ But I loved it all the same.”

Mitsuko leaned forward. “What was it about programming for video games that attracted you, JIPI-san?”

The old man clutched at his cup. “The order,” he said. “Absolute order. Everything in its place, everything following directions. Even the music I wrote. Sawtoothed sine waves without any ambiguity in their bits.”

“Order?” said Mitsuko.

“Order,” repeated Yamasaki.

Mitsuko reached into her backpack. “It is funny that you mention this, JIPI-san,” she said, “as it segues into the reason for my visit.” She removed a manila folder and laid it on the tabletop.

“What is this?” said Yamasaki.

“Something I discovered in my database work,” said Mitsuko. “I wonder if you’re familiar with the story of Kiyoshi Yamaguchi, the Beast of Borneo, who inherited command of a battallion when his superior was killed and orchestrated the massacre of 2000 Dutch prisoners of war and their families.”

Yamasaki said nothing.

“When asked why he did it–before he fled and disappeared, naturally–Yamaguchi was asked why he did it. ‘Order,’ he said. ‘Beasts of the old order, there was no place for them in the new.'”

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The pizzas were bubbling and browning in the brick oven Shokunin had spent the previous day building. Fired by his own special mix of wood and kuso, they would soon be ready to feed the starving villagers. But as Shokunin took up his ancestral pizza peel to paddle the pies onto plates, he was stopped by the flat of a hostile ken slapped onto its handle.

“Halt!” said the ken‘s bearer, an unkempt bandit wearing the mon of Clan Sutoronbori. “These pies belong to us, in place of the tribute these miserable peasants have failed to provide!”

Shokunin bowed. “You have shown me the error of my ways,” he said. “I shall take up my pizza peel and use it to deliver your rightful reward.”

Leering, the bandit allowed Shokunin to take up his peel. A moment later, he gasped in pain from a blow that had come too swiftly to see; he then slid apart at the waist, his innards like toppings upon the grass.

“I am Pizza Chef Shokunin!” cried the pie chef, hefting his sharpened paddle. “My peel was forged by Anchobi the swordsmith from the same pig iron furnace that birthed the Fudo Masamune with a handle carved from the same trunk that furnished the mount for The Forceful Cutter. Who will stand before me and receive the just reward for their insults and lack of honor toward pizzas?”

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Atsui Mojiretsu was a chef at Mentoshi Noodle City, the most prestigious noodletorium in Kyoto. Locals, gaijin, and visiting dignitaries alike would often go out of their way to stop by Mentoshi Noodle City for a sample of the famous lo mein, the gourmet ramen, the spaghetti al dente, the linguini al perfecto.

But even though Mojiretsu was second only to Alto Chef Ōmugi, he was not–and indeed could not be–satisfied with his culinary creations. Mojiretsu was dissatisfied with his spaghetti in particular, and would feverishly cook and recook it whenever he had a spare moment.

In time, Mojiretsu’s obsession was too much and he was fired from Mentoshi Noodle City with regret. And yet he still cooked and cooked, brushing off those who said he made too much spaghetti. Eventually, his small home was filled to the brim with noodles and Mojiretsu was not heard from again.

Some years later, census takers entered the Mojiretsu home to find that he had made so much spaghetti that the giant mass of pasta was almost large enough to be officially classified as its own state. Entering it, they found vast rolling spaghetti plains and impenetrable fortresses of al dente noodlery.

And all throughout the noodly land there were great tales of the mysterious man who had come from they knew not where to become the king of the new spaghetti country.

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During the Warring States period, the Sengoku Jidai, when many heroes rose and even more heroes fell, the samurai Kasabuke Daihatsu served the noble daimyō Matsumura-Tamarubuchi. Never far from his daimyō‘s side, Kasabuke was sworn by a blood oath to never let a single drop of rain touch Matsumura-Tamarubuchi. As an umbrella-bearer, he was perhaps the most important member of the daimyō‘s retinue, and as was often the case in those days, many conspired to wet him.

Though Kasabuke would be spared the fate of the umbrella-bearer Matsuoka Akira, who was famously torn apart by wild dogs for plotting to spill tea on Oda Nobunaga, he nevertheless was unable to perform his duty. By treachery, an enemy of Matsumura-Tamarubuchi was able to divert the daimyō into the famous Ame Pass and trap him there during a rainstorm. Drawing his kumbrellatana and his smaller umbrella-to–which could not be returned to their scabbards without being wetted–Kasabuke protected his daimyō from every drop of the ferocious storm. But an enemy umbrella-bearer, sent by the shadowy daimyō Shiame, attacked at that very moment.

The contest was an epic one, the sound of bamboo on bamboo echoing from the mountainside for many hours. But in time, Kasabuke tired and the assassin was able to deflect his aim just enough that a single drop of rain touched the hem of the daimyō‘s kimono.

His honor stained, his master wet, Kasabuke was a broken man–until he swore vengeance. He would not rest until Shiame was not only wet but soaking, and his quest would resound through five hundred years of Japanese history as that of the Umbrella Samurai.

Inspired by this.

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As has been known since time immemorial, the reikon—the soul—departs the body upon death. If disturbed, or if it was a violent and unsettled death, the reikon may become a yūrei—a ghost—doomed to wander and haunt until the cause of its woes is addressed.

There are myriad categories of yūrei, from the noble goryō to the motherly ubume, but none is more dangerous or more misunderstood than the tsuihō, the banished. They are living reikon stripped from their bodies without death, for the purpose of filling the soulless bodies with demons to form a supernaturally efficient fighting force and binding the souls to power dark constructs.

It is typically a fate worse than death. The soulless bodies are consumed in battle or eaten from within by corrupting demonic influence, while the expelled souls are consumed as fuel in the bellies of mechanical horrors. If they escape that fate, the enraged and confused reikon turn on whatever is nearest, ripping it apart in an orgy of destruction. Only the truly mad or the truly desperate sorcerer or daimyō has ever attempted to create tsuihō, and they have been feared and reviled throughout the home islands as a result.

One can easily recognize a tsuihō; unlike most yūrei, they are not white but black, a deep and impenetrable black that absorbs all light and all warmth. No features save the outline of a humanoid body may be discerned, and due to their untimely separation from their mortal shells, they have full use of their arms and legs.

Towering above all other tsuihō in legend is the Wandering Daimyō of Kyūshū. Once daimyō of a small clan, he and every man, woman, and child in his realm became tsuihō as the result of a rival’s machinations. With the soulless army thus created, this evil man sought to wipe out one of his enemies and create a force that could march on Kyoto and install himself as shōgun. Instead, he was torn to pieces by the forces that he hoped to marshall, his wailing reikon carried off to parts unknown by infernal powers.

The tsuihō thus released ravaged the countryside for a year and a day before gradually dissipating…save one. The Wandering Daimyō alone among his family, courtiers, and clansmen was able to retain his will. Fashioning a suit of armor in the likeness of his former face, with plates reflecting the visages of those he had known and loved, he took to the wilds of Kyūshū.

His mercurial rage became well-known among the farmers and peasants there. If the mood strikes him, the Wandering Daimyō will aid passersby. If it does not, he will slay them without mercy and consume their soul to extend his time in this world. It is said that if he approaches with his mask down, revealing the likeness of his former self, he will deliver aid; if he approaches with his mask up, revealing the indecipherable depths of darkness that truly make up his form, he will deliver destruction.

One man met the Wandering Daimyō when his mask was half-raised, revealing only the barest glimpse of the horror below. This is his story.

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The sect, which flourished in Saikyo between the wars, was based on Shigeyama’s idiosyncratic reading of Japanese history and Buddhist metaphysics. Shigeyama taught that there were two worlds: the Floating World of earthly pleasure and delight, and the Sorrowful World, which overlaid, veiled, and hid the former. It’s clear that the Edo-era culture of Yoshiwara, barely a generation removed from Shigeyama’s lifetime, was the inspiration for his “Floating World” just as the Buddhist cycle of death and rebirth inspired his “Sorrowful World.”

Shigeyama preached a sort of prosperity gospel to his followers, promising them that their dedication to pleasures of the flesh and rejection of the “Sorrowful World” and its denizens would bring unprecedented prosperity. It was a philosophy that found many takers, since the postwar prosperity in Japan had given way to the Depression and austere militarism was on the rise. To be fair, Shigeyama preached a very Japanese message in Saikyo, and the things he and his followers engaged in were versions of older art forms like kabuki, geisha, and the like (albeit generally racy, sexualized versions strongly influenced by Jazz Age debauchery).

Japanese authorities tolerated Shigeyama at first, largely because of the wealth and power of his followers. However, as his movement grew, the military grew nervous over reports that the sect was stockpiling captured weapons from China and attempting to extend its power into Saikyo’s government infrastructure. When the city moved to a mayor and council form of government, all of the new positions were dominated by Shigeyama men. This was enough for the Army to begin an investigation; the mysterious deaths of the investigators two weeks later caused the General Staff Office to deploy a regiment of troops to the city to “restore order.”

Shigeyama declared that “the forces of the Sorrowful World were at the doorstep” and his followers resisted the incursion with the very weapons they had been suspected of possessing. The incident was strongly censored in the Japanese press, who referred to it only as the “Saiko Anti-Gangsterism Police Operation.” Casualties are difficult to estimate thanks to the destruction of most major archival sources, but material compiled by American occupation forces after the war indicated that as many as 1000 people may have died in intense urban combat, with military casualties being assigned to units in Manchuria and China to cover up their loss. They also uncovered evidence of an extensive tunnel network beneath the much-reduced city of Saikyo, and evidence to suggest that an armed uprising against “the forces of the Sorrowful World” was in the early planning stages.

The sect leader Shigeyama was never located. A number of tunnels had been sealed from the outside by Japanese Army Engineers during the fighting using high-explosive charges, and it’s thought that Shigeyama remains there, entombed with his most loyal followers in an eerie preview of the fate that befell many of his attackers just a few years later.

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“Ho there. We seek Hamasaki-San on behalf of the Daimyō Tokatsu, for it is said that his lands abut the Canyons of Kyōkoku and that none know the land like he and his family.”

“I am the Hamasaki-san you seek, in that case,” said the older man, “and these are my lands. I am happy to serve the servants of the Daimyō Tokatsu, whatever they might require, if only I might know their purpose.”

“We seek the Ryūsei,” said Nakano Shoji. “Our sages have determined that its resting place is in the Canyons of Kyōkoku, and we seek to discover it and deliver it to its proper owner.” The rider left the latter statement purposely ambiguous, though the gleam in Hamasaki-san’s eyes was one of immediate comprehension.

“That old legend? If you’ll forgive my saying so, I have always found it to be beneath serious consideration.”

“Then surely you’ll have no objection to providing us a guide, since we will pay you for nothing.” Nakano Shoji had taken an instant dislike to the old man, but his continued politeness was necessary. The haughty courtiers of the other daimyō retainers searching the Canyons of Kyōkoku would no doubt proceed on their own, and therein lay their disadvantage.

“You may take my niece, Hamasaki Moriko,” said Hamasaki-san. “She is a burden left to me by my departed elder brother, and were it not for the familial obligation I bear him, I would long since have rid myself of the extra mouth I have to feed and the extra lip I have to endure.”

“The men of the daimyō will not accept such a guide,” said Nakano Shoji. “We demand the best that your valley has to offer.”

“Surely your daimyō did not send his best men on such a trivial errand,” said Hamasaki-san cunningly, “since I know him to be a wise and sober man who puts little stock in rumor and legend. And surely it behooves me not to send my best son to guide them, as the cost would be ruinous should the endeavor fail.”

Nakano Shoji might have struck Hamasaki-san for his insolence, but he was ostensibly a guest in those lands, and any disturbance would bring the attention of the local daimyō. The daimyōs were on good terms, but not so good as to strike a landowner whose tongue had to draw blood before it was sheathed.

“What have you to say for yourself?” Nakano Shoji demanded when Hamasaki Moriko was offered up, a sensibly-dressed but plain woman of indeterminate age.

“I know the Canyons of Kyōkoku as I know the folds of my own kimono,” Hamasaki Moriko responded, “and I bear my departed father’s sharpened kaiken dagger. Should you or your men have any dishonorable ideas, I will not hesitate to assist them in reclaiming their honor through seppuku before redeeming my own through jigai.”

Nakano Shoji looked to Hamasaki-san, his gaze sharp, as the first words out of their guide’s mouth concerned ritual disembowelment. The old man responded by throwing up his hands; “see what I have to deal with?” was the essential thrust of the gesture.

“We are off to an auspicious start, to be sure,” Nakano Shoji griped. There was no time to waste, though: the Ryūsei awaited, the prize of ten thousand lifetimes. Other retainers sought it, and it was far better for him and his men to be jewels shattered in the attempt than intact clay tiles dishonored by their failure.

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“We have turned up new evidence, in the form of public records, that conclusively show Matsushita Shiori was born in 1908, not 1898. The Matsushita Shiori who was born in 1898 died in 1923, during the Great Kantō earthquake, which also flattened the hall of records and led to the two being conflated.”

“You are sure of this?”

“We discovered records that had been removed for administrative purposes before the quake and never returned, including a birth certificate that mentions Matsushita Shiori’s port wine stain birthmark. The the lightest ink is better than the sharpest memory, as they say. I am afraid Matsushita Shiori is another Izumi Shigechiyo and must be stricken from the public longevity records.”

“Do you think the mistake was deliberate?”

“It is difficult to say. He may have exaggerated for the sake of a pension, or simply forgotten. His adoption at a young age complicates things, and his service in His Majesty’s navy was another reason to exaggerate or misremember his age. In either case, the task of informing him has been delegated to you.”

“Need he be informed? Matsushita Shiori is an old man, even if not so old as we had previously thought. Can we not let him live out his remaining days, which are surely few, with his illusion?”

“This revelation means that he will no longer be feted at his upcoming birthday by His Majesty, and that he will lose a portion of his pension as provided by the Diet, as it is reserved by statute for the oldest man in the country. He is old, but he is not entirely senile, and he will know that these circumstances have changed. Would you rather he be informed that he will lose his pension, fail to meet His Majesty, and lose his longevity claim all at the same time?”

“No, I suppose not.”

“Then you will fulfill your duty, distasteful though it may be. Your taxi will be here in an hour.”

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“It’s not my fault if you don’t like what you find,” Sōgen wheezed from his chair. “I told you not to contact me in person.”

“Well, what else was I supposed to do?” I snapped. “You’re the only person who has the data I need, and I’m being tracked online.”

“I let you in, didn’t I?” said Sōgen, throwing his pale and tubby arms wide. “You’re the first person who’s been in here aside from me in 15 years. Don’t abuse my hospitality.”

I glanced out the half-drawn shade at the vast empty streets and apartment buildings below, each with only a few dozen tenants thanks to Japan’s decades-old and increasing sub-replacement fertility. “How do you manage that?” I asked. “Surely you must have a job, and need to go out for food.”

“I have food delivered and trash collected,” replied Sōgen. “People practically beg for my business so they can keep their credit, since their companies were founded in the 1960s when the country hadn’t lost 50 million people to geezerhood without descendents.”

I looked at the massive bank of computer equipment that filled 90% of the apartment, and the disarrayed twin-size mattress parked under the window.

“Well, I can see that’s not enough for you,” Sōgen said. “You’re wondering how I pay for the electric bill and everything else despite no job and making a career out of giving away things online for free.”

“More or less.”

“If you’re sure you want to know, the answer is in the bedroom,” said Sōgen. “But if I hear one word of judgement or complaint from you, I’ll erase that data and make you watch before throwing you out on your ass.”

Another odd look from me.

“Information wants to be free. That’s the creed I live by, and I’m too fat and lazy to try and stop you. But freeing information means living with its consequences. I practice what I preach.”

There was no letting the thing go, not after a speech like that. I approached the bedroom door, its knob coated with dust, and opened it. Second later, I slammed it shut and stumbled backwards, retching. “What the hell?” I cried. “Are those…?”

“Yes, of course they are,” Sōgen said dismissively. “There are no jobs for someone like me in this country anymore, so I lived off my grandfather’s pension, and my parents’. When they fell ill…well, they had always talked about becoming Sokushinbutsu, suicide monks, practicing holy self-mummification. So I let them do it.”

“You mean you…you locked them up in there when they were dying?”

“I cared for them in their final illness like any dutiful son would,” snapped Sōgen. “And I have let their pension checks keep coming in to pay the bills. Don’t think I’m the only one who’s done this, either. The government can’t handle the record keeping of a nation of geezers, and they’re 50% of the electorate so tampering with benefits is a good way to exit the Diet in a hurry. Grandpa will be 123 this January, and nobody cares. My friend down the block has a 215-year-old still collection a pension.”

Struggling to avoid laying into the disgusting blob in front of me for his vile rationalizations, I instead found myself retching.

“Toilet’s down the hall,” Sōgen said drily, turning back toward his monitors. “We’ll talk after you’ve composed yourself.”

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