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A country of consumers who salivate over swank

by Roger Pulvers

Does any country have as many food programs on television as Japan?

It’s a simple format: Send some aspiring young actress to a restaurant and watch her place morsels of one dish or another on her tongue. Her eyes light up. Her cheeks becomes taut. Nostrils flare. Invariably, the linguistic response comes in two words.

First word: Uwaaa! (Ohhhh!).

Second word: Yaa—rakai! (a casual form of yawarakai; “Oh, so tender!”)

Global surveys repeatedly show that Japan is the most sexless of modernized societies. Perhaps people here are getting their thrills by watching pretty young women experiencing intense oral gratification on TV.

Japanese food may be the tenderest in the world, but these days it is under attack, particularly at the high end. Last month police searched the offices of Senba Kitcho, a company that runs exclusive restaurants and delis. The outfit has allegedly been labeling beef as coming from the top-rated Tajima and Sanda districts, worth as much as ¥30,000 a kilo, while substituting meat from elsewhere.

Japanese cakes made by certain shinise (traditional shops of long standing) have been shown to contain ingredients past their use-by date; and ordinary chickens have been sold at a premium as high-quality Hinai fowl.

Not only the taste, but the trust has gone out of some Japanese gourmet brands. This is a minor calamity in Japan, where the myth of the brand has been as important as — if not more important than — the taste of the food item itself. Remember: When eating in Japan, you are not consuming a food, you are absorbing an aesthetic.

At least that’s the way it has been with the rich. Even in a humble tea ceremony in Kyoto — a ceremony based on an aesthetic of asceticism and paucity — the brand of wagashi (traditional cake) served can be critical. You could impress your guest by getting, say, a misomatsukaze (a wagashi sweetened with miso and sugars) from such-and-such a shinise. The brand was the message.

Reflected sophistication

This goes a long way toward explaining the current Japanese obsession with brand names in fashion. Reflected sophistication is derived from knowing which brand is on top — though your little brush with elegance inevitably comes at a price. This phenomenon certainly exists outside Japan as well, but I’d venture that nowhere else does it reach down so far into the middle and working classes as it does here.

In many senses, this obsession with brands leads its subjects into miscalculation, as we can see with the Senba Kitcho and Hinai chicken scandals. Yet, this, too, is not new in this country.

Many will know the rakugo (comic storytelling) yarn “The Sanma (mackerel pike) at Meguro.”

This tells how a feudal lord who is out hunting stops off at a farmhouse in Meguro for a bite to eat. (In the Edo Period [1603-1867], presently inner-city Meguro was on the outskirts of the city that is now Tokyo.) He is fed sanma, made in the country style, and me kara uroko ga ochiru (the scales drop off his eyes, or, he suddenly realizes a great truth). He returns home raving about how wonderful the sanma are at Meguro — not appreciating the fact that it was the preparation by the farmer’s wife that made the fish delicious.

All in all, there may be no other country where the rich eat as badly as they do in Japan, and gladly pay through the nose for the experience.

I had a friend in the 1980s who was an expert in Japanese cuisine. He lived in Nagano and traveled around the country writing about food for magazines. He once told me about a time he went to an exclusive kaiseki restaurant. A kaiseki meal consists of many delicate courses served in an elegant, traditional manner, and he recounted how, on that occasion, when his table was covered with the various dishes, he asked the proprietor for a large bowl. He then tipped all the dishes on the table into the bowl and mixed them around with his chopsticks, as the proprietor stood by with his jaw in his lap. In a matter of a minute, my friend had shoveled the lot into his mouth, proving that, in Japan, you can spend ¥20,000 a minute on a traditional meal.

In fact, as the story of the sanma at Meguro shows, the most delicious food in Japan may not be the high-class emblematic dishes served at exclusive restaurants, but those at ordinary eateries where homemade fare is served.

Gourmet of the Greasy Spoon

The culinary capital of Japan, if there is one, is probably Osaka, where the people are said to love food so much that they will gorge to the point of kuidaore (literally, “eating until your finances collapse”). And one only has to turn to the great Osaka wit, novelist Sakunosuke Oda, to find out why. Oda was the self-styled Gourmet of the Greasy Spoon, and here are his favorite Osaka delicacies:

Doteyaki (pork skin and flesh cooked in miso); kasumanju (bean-jam buns made from lees); dojojiru (loach soup); tako (octopus, which is eaten all over Japan); mamushi (literally, the native poisonous snake of Japan, but in Osaka the word describes locally cooked eel); and kayakuhan (rice with fish and vegetables).

Oda describes such food as getemono ryori, meaning “bizarre dishes.” But in Osaka, they are simple fare for ordinary diners.

Before the summer Olympic Games in Tokyo in 1964, Japanese people rarely ate out as a family, and the gourmet boom did not overtake the country until the 1980s, when the surging economy seemingly enriched one and all. It was in the ’80s that a new myth of sophistication started to permeate Japanese cuisine; and it is interesting to see that some of the misrepresentation of high-brand foods appears to date back to that decade.

The Japanese people, newly empowered as they were financially, and eager to believe that theirs was the most sophisticated palate in the world, were easily sucked into the sham. Many middle-class people, even in the ’80s, couldn’t afford to buy an elegant home or a luxury European car — but they did have the money, and the will, to splash out on purportedly gourmet nosh. Some of these people have been shelling out ever since to satisfy their brand-obsessions without getting the real thing . . . and, I dare say, they would have been blissfully unaware of it had it not been for the recent scandals.

But back to that daily glut of food programs on TV. If you can’t enjoy eating the food yourself, at least you can derive vicarious pleasure from watching others worshipfully ingesting it. It gives new meaning to that phrase from the Jerzy Kosinski novel (and 1979 Hal Ashby film) “Being There.” When Chance, the gardener, played in the film by Peter Sellers, is asked what kind of sex he prefers, he replies: “I like to watch.”