If nothing else, the Japanese are food snobs.
The food culture here is vast and deep, spawning such professions as “food coordinators,” “table specialists” and even “konamono kenkyuka (specialists of flour-related foods)” — not to mention the obsessive “Ryori no Tetsujin (Iron Chef)” folks.
The long-standing feud between Kanto (eastern Japan) and Kansai (western Japan) dwells largely on the subject of food — Kansai folks hold that Kanto-style cooking is too coarse and has no subtlety, while the easterners say Kyoto cuisine is too bland and unnourishing.
This is why mixed marriages between Kanto and Kansai people are still a relative rarity: People believe that a stable union is based upon having the same mikaku (taste buds) and once that is established, everything else will fall into place.
A friend of mine once split up with his girlfriend upon discovering that she was — gasp! — a mayoraa (a person who squeezes mayonnaise on most anything). In describing his utter disgust, he said, “When I saw her poised with that mayonnaise tube over a bowl of nikujyaga (boiled meat, veggies and potatoes), the light in my heart went out. It was a case of hyakunen no koimo sameta (the love of a hundred years went cold).” Gosh.
Food snobbery extends to the language, and Japanese will gauge a person’s background and personality by what they call certain foods. In some circles, calling a rice ball onigiri is considered low class — the correct term should be omusubi. The logic? The verb nigiru (to grip) just doesn’t sound as genteel as the verb musubu (to connect).
In the same way, putting the honorific “o” in front of soba, niku (meat), sashimi and many other foods is considered a fundamental part of the Japanese female vocabulary and pity the woman who omits it. Men, on the other hand, can strut their machismo by deleting the “o” from everything and saying things like meshi (rice, or meals) instead of gohan (rice, or food in general). It’s also the mark of Japanese manhood to prefer rice to bread, and many a newlywed husband has ordered the famed shiromeshi no asagohan (a white-rice breakfast with the traditional trimmings of miso soup and pickled veggies) to demonstrate that he is indeed master of the house.
When the wife no longer gets up to make that white-rice breakfast, however, it could be an indication that the relationship has soured — in Japan, the prelude to kateinai bekkyo (in-home separation) is often panshoku (bread meals) and demae (delivery meals).
Food language also links to sex and the verb taberu (to eat) is used to describe the sexual act. The old adage “Suezen kuwanuwa otoko-no haji (A man who does not eat what is laid in front of him will embarrass himself)” alludes not just to meals but to love — when a woman shows herself willing, a man must partake of what she has to offer, regardless of how he feels about it.
A lot of guys still say things like “Tabechaitai hodo kawaii (You’re so cute I could eat you)” to express their overwhelming love. Interestingly, when it comes to sex, it’s men who say taberu and women who tend to say (defiantly) ku. The two are the same kanji, but the latter is old working-class slang, meaning more to gobble than to eat. “Kuchatta” (I gobbled him up)” is a phrase popular among high-school girls. Both men and women will describe transitory affairs as tsumamigui (snacking between meals) and alluring prey as oishiso (looks delicious).
In many cases, food becomes a substitute for language itself. The Japanese woman of old, who was perpetually toiling in the kitchen, held that the preparation of meals was superior to all other forms of communication. She cooked the meals and kept everyone fed — why should she need to talk as well?
Her culinary repertoire changed with the seasons, reflected her moods and the goings-on of the household. When someone was ill, she made o-kayu (rice porridge). For celebrations, she grilled an okashira-tsuki (red snapper with head and tail attached) among other festive dishes. In the winter, she made soups and boiled beans, sending clouds of warm steam billowing through the house, heating rooms as well as hearts.
This is why Japanese family members aren’t really good at talking to each other during mealtimes: It’s enough that the food has been prepared and everyone is present. “Itadakimasu (I will now partake of this meal with appreciation)” says it all.