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A taste of Japan.

I personally have a lot of issues with eating. In my family, eating was always treated as some sort of cure-all medication: if I was having any kind of problem or felt any particular way it was always because I was hungry. Meals were always unpleasant screaming contests for who could talk loudest and most continually. Naturally when the focus is being loud and continuous, the content of the conversations is usually forgone, hell its antithetical to talking continuously. When it was topical it was gushing over whatever brand of stirfry we were having that night with a full mouth. I generally withdrew. Consequently, I dont like being offered food, discussing food, or even having social meals. By extension, I particularly dont like work-related social gatherings revolving around eating or a meal if even the slightest bit of formality is involved (these are all compound consequences of my myriad other issues).

Unfortunately, I live in Japan, where all conversations and exclamations are exaggerated in hopes of sounding more like cartoon characters. Japanese people are really into food, and for the life of me I dont understand why. Of all the varieties of asian cuisine, Japanese is consistently the most overarranged and underflavored, but sitting with a group of Japanese people, you would think that they were suckling the teat of ambrosia in an unending ecstacy dream. Continuous exclamation, ebulliation, hell, even elation at each bite, shyly covering their mouths to accentuate their raised eyebrows and widened eyes.

So here's the rub: I work in an office where my generous (read: eccentric) boss subscribes to a bento service. A bento is a "Japanese Lunch Box" or "Japanese Box Lunch" depending on the awkwardness of the describers english. Like everything else with the "Japanese-" prefix, it bears only a passing resemblance. Lunch boxes conjur up two images to me: being a child with a large plastic case that I could drag my fingertips across and make an atrocious squeaking noise, and a bunch of construction workers in hardhats sitting on a scaffolding in some anonymous cityscape, throwing crumbs on the people walking below. Bento are neither. They are small plastic boxes with subdivisions to keep each cold, salty, amorphous blob from leaking its texture to the next piece. So as a job benefit, I am offered one of these culinary delights for free, the exchange is that I have to sit with my coworkers (who have as much in common as any group of people you might pull off the street), and listen to them talk. In Japanese, of course. To give you a window in to the sheer fascination of everyday conversation, I figured I would give a transcript of my lunch time each day, in the style of english that I spend my time correcting.

To preserve anonymity (though it doesnt matter, this is not specific to me), the people will be listed as A, B, and C. Words in parenthesis are words with a non-isomorphic mapping to english (two words in english have one word in Japanese).

A: This is good head of "the fish".
B: Yes, it looks the natural blue, doesnt it?
A: It does.
C: Yes, it is, and it is delicious too, isnt it?
B: Isnt it?
A: Yes, it is.
B: It is wonderful the way that the cut and cook head of "the fish" in such pleasing style and size.
A: That is so, isnt it?
B: That is so.
C: So it is, isnt it?
B: This fermented soybean is a delicious, isnt it?
A: It is. It is the sliminess that is so delicious, isnt it?
C: It is, isnt it?
B: It is. The foreign person is able to eat? I dont remember what foreign person said yesterday when we asked it. Lets ask.
Foreign Person: I do not like the fermented soybean.
A: (Actually/Really)? That is (interesting/funny), isnt it?
C: That is so, isnt it?
B: It is. Maybe that is reason all foreign person are fat and sweaty?
A: Maybe, isnt it?
C: The foreign person should try the genitals of the sea vegetable. The genitals of the sea vegetable is why we Japanese person smell nice. Also it make for pleasing feces and movement, isnt it?
B: It is, isnt it?
A: Is that so? I find it pleasing because of (salty/dry/spicy) flavor.
C: It is fresh and delicious, like slurping it from top of pond.
...

It continues like that. Occasionally instead of the fermented soybeans, the question will be "you can get miso soup in Amerika?" or "you have rice with food?" The implicit assumption is that people everywhere have miso soup with every meal. If you explain that you have rice, but not with every meal, the followup question, invariably is "so, you have bread?" squinting and scratching their head struggling to comprehend how you would eat bread with chopsticks picturing a bento in one hand and a small box of bread instead of rice.

The Japanese take great pride in their food, and in the variety that they strive to offer with each meal. In this, though, they miss the fact that it is always Japanese food or some Japanese bastardization of food that they do not comprehend. Spaghetti is served next to curry, cold, and eaten with chopsticks; sandwhiches are stuffed with noodles, potatoes, or strawberries. Corn dogs are called AmerikaDogs.

If there was one thing you might have missed in the above dialog is there is no real mention of flavor. Texture and presentation are used as substitutes. While thai, korean, szechuan, chinese and about any variety of southeast asian food is packed with enough spices to give you flaming gas ass for a week, the effort in Japanese food goes in to providing a variety of texture and making sure that it is arranged precisely on the plate. If special care is not taken to do this, it is within the receivers right to challenge them to a samurai match in the tall bamboo glades, and the server has to provide the wooden shoes.

Forgoing flavor for texture and hundreds of years of inbreeding on a small mountain with no refrigeration has led to a culture of people who will eat anything that moves, raw, and anything that doesnt move, they let rot until its slimy and call that delicious. Apparently, all those biology classes I took were wrong along with the Jews and Muslims, according to Japan, it is perfectly all right to have raw eggs, chicken and pork. You see, in Japan, they are clean, and they keep clean farms. So its OK to have anything raw.

The diet revolves around seafood. While the american diet grew from the large farms in the breadbasket and the south, and revolves around meat, dairy and grain, Japan is a tiny island, and the most abundant food comes from the ocean. There is, of course chicken, beef, pork, and horse, but usually it is simply grouped as 'meat', while every different fish has a very specific name (except shrimp and lobster, which share a name). Where americans "clean" fish before eating, there is nothing that japanese people like more than wolfing down a bowl of fish organs, the whiter the intestines, the better. You see, organs are like a magic grab bag when you eat a fish, not only do you get the fish, but you get all the yummy things the fish was still digesting when it was caught. They also eat the bones, the heads, the skin and anything else they can fit in their mouths.

It should be no surprise, then, that the ideal japanese flavor is something resembling salted backwash. This is to the extent that, during the winter, convenience stores have buckets of Oden, a salty fish broth that they leave in a large kettle, boiling various things (usually seafood) until they are stained brown and soaked with the flavor of Davey Jones' Locker. This is ideal for the Japanese diet, because everything has the same uniform flavor and they dont have to discuss the taste, but can still get a variety of textures, from rough, to smooth, to chewy, to slimy.

Which is the ultimate rub. Japanese people love slimy food. Bland, slimy, rotten beans and vegetables. While I understand people finding kimchee disagreeable, and certain fermented hot sauces being too pungent, imagine these things without the spice. Without any noticeable characteristic other than having the consistency of shredded slug, and the scent of garbage.

Anybody who thinks they like Japanese food and has not spent any time here is mistaken. In the U.S. japanese food consists purely of tempura, sashimi (sushi), yakitori, teriyaki, and the occasional yakisoba (yaki means fried, if you noticed a pattern in what the american diet prefers). In reality, these are the minority of dishes, and wholly ignore the day to day staples that people live on.

I wont even get started on the chicken knuckles.

Im skipping the company lunch today.


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