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PERCEPTIONS A LA CARTE

Food for thought in our ways of seeing

by Rowan Hooper

W hen the famed Michelin food guide belatedly reached Asia recently, it seemed to make up for lost time, awarding more of its coveted stars to restaurants in Tokyo than are held by restaurants in New York and Paris combined. About time, too.

Whenever I’m in Tokyo, I spend most of my time eating. The restaurants really are exceptional — world class. In fact I’m remembering now an oyster that I ate last time, lightly cooked in a clear seaweed-style konbu-flavored soup with shallots, a few kinoko (mushrooms) and a ponzu (soy sauce and vinegar) sauce. Delicious!

But this is not a food column, and I must tear myself away from the memory of that little oyster. In any case, what do I know? I’m only a foreigner. Here’s what a celebrated Tokyo chef, Toshiya Kadowaki, said when the Michelin results were announced:

“Japanese food was created here, and only Japanese know it. How can a bunch of foreigners show up and tell us what is good or bad?”

Well, how indeed?

Kadowaki says he turned down the chance to get a Michelin star. After all, how can a poor foreigner hope to grasp the complexities of Japanese food and culture?

The governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, added his skepticism to Michelin’s Tokyo guide, but his nationalistic leanings, and his racist comments, are well known and I won’t give them more publicity by condemning them here.

We all know how we are influenced by our cultural background. But are there really differences between Japanese and foreigners?

I came across a study this week that, while not supporting in any way Ishihara’s ideas, does show how Eastern culture has its own special influence, and leads to differences in the way Japanese people’s brains work.

In the study, Japanese and North American volunteers viewed images consisting of a face in the center of the image, surrounded by four faces in the background. The images were manipulated so that a facial emotion (happy, angry, sad) appeared either in the central image or in the background images.

The participants were then asked to determine the dominant emotion of the central figure.

The majority of Japanese participants (72 percent) reported that their judgments of the center person’s emotions were influenced by the emotions of the background figures, while most North Americans (also 72 percent) reported they were not influenced by the background figures at all.

The North Americans simply reported the emotion on the face of the central image.

“What we found is quite interesting,” said psychologist Takahiko Masuda, from the University of Alberta, Canada. “Our results demonstrate that when North Americans are trying to figure out how a person is feeling, they selectively focus on that particular person’s facial expression, whereas Japanese consider the emotions of the other people in the situation.”

This supports the well-known idea that Japanese attention is not concentrated on the individual but includes everyone in the group, Masuda said. Hence the Japanese phrase, deru kui wa utareru (the nail that sticks up gets hammered down).

Masuda had also monitored the eye movements of the participants as they were making their decisions.

Interestingly, the results showed that the Japanese looked at the surrounding people more than the Westerners when judging the situation.

While both the Japanese and Westerners looked to the central figure during the first second of viewing the photo, the Japanese looked to the background figures in the very next second, while Westerners continued to focus on the central figure. The results are published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

“East Asians seem to have a more holistic pattern of attention, perceiving people in terms of the relationships to others,” said Masuda. “People raised in the North American tradition often find it easy to isolate a person from their surroundings, while East Asians are accustomed to “reading the air” (kuki wo yomu in Japanese) of a situation through their cultural practices.”

So what does all this tell us about the Michelin guide to Tokyo?

Perhaps not much. For a start, there are more than 160,000 restaurants in Tokyo, compared with 25,000 in New York City and 13,000 in Paris. So, arithmetically, it’s no wonder that Tokyo gets more stars.

But does it explain the reaction of some Tokyo chefs — and Gov. Ishihara?

I don’t think so. It seems to me that their rejection of foreigners is simply down to tribalism and a misguided sense of patriotism that says that to love your country you have to denigrate others.

And while it seems that being more “holistic” could be a “better” way of behaving, it in no way means the Japanese are therefore “better” people — or that foreigners are worse. It simply means that there are differences in the ways we consider a situation. It’s how we behave after we’ve considered a situation that can be judged good or bad — and it certainly doesn’t mean we are automatically one or the other.

The second volume of Natural Selections columns translated into Japanese is published by Shinchosha at ¥1,500. The title is “Hito wa ima mo shinka shiteru (The Evolving Human: How New Biology Explains Your Journey Through Life).”