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In the West, the heart is the seat of the emotions. Here it’s the hara (stomach).

A scheming man is a hara ni ichimotsu aru otoko (literally, “a man with an ulterior motive in his stomach”). A man’s trusted friends are his fukushin (center of the stomach). People have dark stomachs (haraguroi) instead of dark hearts. When a person is angry the stomach stands up (hara ga tatsu). An injured mind takes its revenge with an act of haraise (soothing or healing the stomach). A serious decision is made with the belly (hara o kimeru). In lieu of heart-to-heart talks, we have hara o watta discussions, which literally “split open the stomach.”

And if you really want to get graphic, there’s harawata wa nashi (no intestines), a way of saying that there is no bad intention behind some careless or cruel remark.

The stomach is also the place of hilarity. In the Japanese anatomy, there’s no such thing as a funny bone since laughter always comes from the midriff, as illustrated in the phrase hara o kakaete warau (laugh by clutching the stomach). When a man wants to display his sense of humor at a company party (enkai), he draws a face on his bare stomach, strips off his shirt and belly dances with total abandon: haraodori.

A ventriloquist is called fukuwajutsu-shi (artist of stomach dialogue). In the theater, haragei (stomach art) is when actors cut the dialogue to rely on facial expressions.

The samurai suicide ritual involved stabbing the stomach (seppuku or harakiri) since it contained not only the vital organs but the soul of the warrior as well. A most horribly painful way to die, the ceremony did however leave one small consolation: The samurai was entitled to a kaishakunin (assistant) who stood ready with a sword of his own, to behead the samurai as soon as the seppuku was driven home. This was a gesture of mercy, to spare the agonies of a long and excruciating death.

Playing the crucial role it does, bellies are watched over and guarded as a prize appendage. My grandmother, for example, was on the verge of a massive coronary every time she spied a younger member of the family wearing a midriff top. She’d draw herself up to her full height of 142 cm and holler: “Chotto! Onaka ga hieteru yo! (Hey you! You’re chilling your stomach!)” She believed stomach trouble was the root of all sickness, and went so far as to say that baldness was caused by indigestion. Someone would be lying down with a headache and she’d rush over with a hot compress for the stomach.

My grandparents wore woolen haramaki (stomach bands) in the hottest weather (yes, Tora-san isn’t the only one) — they both said that dampness was the worst thing for a belly and in Japan it was damp all year round. My grandfather was known to stash everything in his haramaki, from his wallet to whiskey flasks, which were supposedly secret but everyone knew about anyway. The man always slept with his hands crossed over his stomach which he said had become a habit, “in case of enemy invasion,” whatever that meant.

In his day, masculine virtues all resided in a man’s belly. A generous man who was always ready to pick up the tab, who forgave offenses and remembered kindnesses, was described with the single phrase futtopara (fat stomach) — and not only metaphorically. A man with a flat belly implied shiftlessness and impoverished circumstances, but he who had a couple of spare tires exuded prosperity and fun times.

Such a personage spoke in a booming voice — hara kara dasu koe — one that resounded from the pit of his well-nourished stomach. He also never panicked in the face of disaster, since he was the possessor of a sitting belly (hara ga suwatta), with its ingrained sense of calm.

And finally, the hara as Gastronomy Control is by no means overlooked. There is that time-honored phrase: “Hara ga hette wa ikusa ga dekinu (No man can do battle on an empty stomach),” which shows that appeasing the belly had always been a top priority. Any important task first called for a haragoshirae (preparing the stomach) — to fortify the stomach in preparation for action. Preferably rice, since bread is widely believed to be OK for digestion but notoriously haramochi ga warui (doesn’t last long in the stomach).

Still, it’s inadvisable to overdo it. Any doctor will tell you the ideal state is hara hachibunme (eight parts full) as opposed to a full stomach. And it’s also good to exercise and haragonashi after meals, or to break the belly down into little fragments.

Does all this put you off your food or what?

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