Food penetrates all aspects of life in Japan

by Kris Kosaka

Autumn enters like a coy mistress. The nights no longer require closed windows and an air-con timer; a gentle breeze tiptoes through the screen with the grace of a lullaby. Hydrangea no longer paint the landscape in vivid blues and pinks; anemones now gently accessorize the green of late summer.

Food, however, ushers in the season like nothing else in Japan and the most telling sign of autumn’s imminent arrival smiles down from the displays in my local supermarket. Nashi (Japanese pears) have replaced grapes, corn has been regulated to the back to make room for the Japanese pumpkin squash or matsutake mushrooms, tomatoes cool their heels closer to the counter while the sanma (Pacific saury) at the fish counter now take center stage.

Japan’s reputation for its food culture extends throughout the world, yet the culture of food penetrates deeper than just physical consumption. Food grows into a metaphor for all aspects of life in Japan, slicing through the mundane, serving philosophical portions for the soul along with subsistence for the belly.

My friend tried to warn me nearly 12 years ago, after my first heady dates with my future husband: “The currency of love in Western countries is sex. In Japan, it’s food. Make sure you understand that difference, if you marry him.”

She was an expert, but I scoffed at her observation. With her 32 years married to a Japanese salaried worker, perhaps I owed her some respect, but at the giddy-inebriation stage of love, I said, laughing: “Food? What does love have to do with food?”

Everything, it seems in Japan, and for every kind of love that exists. I eat my words, now, in a sort of lingering, low-grade hangover. It shows in a child’s lunchbox; in gifts of thank-you and congratulations to neighbors; my husband brings tomatoes, not flowers, at our anniversary, and above all, the meals I create become his barometer of my affections.

I have learned to worry about sausages shaped like octopus and crab, to carve airplanes or flowers out of carrots; his lunchbox, too, can not merely contain the remains of last night’s dinner or he’ll feel like a leftover; I know to give half of whatever delicacy I receive to my closest neighbor and to keep the cupboards stocked with expensive cookies in case of a surprise gift, so that I can instantly return the gesture; I smile at the fresh tomatoes, and celebrate another year.

My husband is not the only Japanese who uses food as a barometer of emotion or personality. A good friend recently visited the Basque region of Spain and France. Page after page, his travel album shows, not the stunning landscape nor the interesting new friends he acquired, but beautifully arranged meals. His method to chronicle the trip, to best recall happy memories, insisted he capture every meal in pixel perfection, lovingly preserved in his travel album.

Another friend can remember every single meal of her honeymoon. My next-door neighbor brings cake home to his wife after an argument, instead of an apology or discussion. Elementary schools in Japan use school lunch to teach many important lessons: to know your own limits, to avoid waste, to clean up after yourself and your classmates, to share an identical meal as a group.

These lessons apply far beyond mealtime, in building good Japanese citizens. Expensive Dutch chocolate, fresh crab and blood-red orange juice currently stock my kitchen, expressing thank-you, gratitude or something more complicated from the neighbors.

In America, where I was born and raised, the attitude differs slightly. There food lurks, waiting for the unwary, an enemy to be conquered and controlled. Food can ambush you with its double-sized faux-friendliness, its cheerful “no-fat” facade hiding extra calories or dangerous additives. Many of my friends in the States see food as fuel, necessary but potentially lethal, an entity best outwitted with a regiment of diets trooped out yearly as strategy.

Japan, too, shares some of this Western animosity with food, as the recent banana diet craze or the boom in expensive and dangerous diet pills attests. Still, most Japanese measure food with a depth outsiders can not completely fathom.

I appreciate this deep food culture, but a bit of romance would be more enjoyable and much less time consuming. I should have known when my husband and I joined a pre-nuptial couples conversation class, and every single participant talked about how food influenced their choice of marriage partner.

At the time I squirmed in my seat, positive my Japanese was failing me and there was some deeper attribute each person referred to, guised in opaque statements like, “She ate everything on her plate,” or “He always wanted to try new foods.”

I was wrong. Food indicates everything about you in Japan, from flexibility to flightiness, marks you as a liberal or conservative, indicates your character and your beliefs. Wish I knew that when I first arrived, and my lunches consisted of the same apple and cheese with bread every day.

If you are thinking of making a life in Japan, especially with a Japanese, learn the culture of food, and how to make payments in love. There are some advantages to this system. My husband barely notices a ¥10,000 new haircut. You don’t need the little black dress or perfume. Just slip on your most casual jeans — Japanese appreciate the understated — and spend some extra time in the kitchen.

For me, pork ginger with diced cabbage will do; my husband prefers simple favorites. I pour his beer, get the children to bed early, and truly listen. I stand up quicker than usual and offer to refill his rice bowl. I have learned to appreciate the subtlety of Japanese arts. With a delicious meal and attentive listening, that’s all it takes; he’ll be pudding in your hands.