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Tuesday, Aug. 26, 2008

Today we itadaku, for tomorrow we die

Special to The Japan Times

The Bible (in both testaments!) commands us to "eat, drink and be merry," but I think the wise individuals who thought up this pithy phrase meant it as a warning. To them there was more to life than endless imbibing and gluttony, though I can think of only one other thing.

The human race is divided into people who are shōshoku (少食, those who eat like a bird) and ōgui (大食い, those who eat like a horse). Both groups boast those who wolf down their food. These are people who gatsu-gatsu kuu (がつがつ食う, eat like pigs).

But what if you just want to eat eiyō no aru tabemono (栄養のある食べ物, nourishing food), here in Japan. Well, here are a few hints to help you get through a meal.

Before taking your first bite, it is customary to say itadakimasu (いただきます). This is a humble form of a verb that means, among other things, "to eat." It expresses gratitude for the food set before you. It is entirely untranslatable, so it doesn't really belong in a column about bilingualism. But everybody here says it, and so should you.

The food may be chō umai (超うまい, very yummy, out of this world) or it may be chō mazui (超まずい, revolting, not fit for human consumption). But if your hara (腹, tummy) is peko-peko (ぺこぺこ, crying out for something to fill it), you probably either won't mind or won't be able to tell the difference.

The human race is also divided between kuishinbo (食いしん坊, gluttons) and people who are picky about what they eat, namely those who practice kuidōraku, (食い道楽, i.e. epicureanism). Whichever you are, you will want your fish pichi-pichi (ぴちぴち). This means "ultra-fresh." Pichi-pichi is also applied to young women, but not fresh ones; rather, animated, lively young ones. A pichi-pichi gāru (ピチピチガール, girl) is a real "peach."

Now, the Japanese people generally entertain outside of the home, but if you stay here long enough, say, 38 or 39 years, you might get invited once into a Japanese home.

During the meal, make sure to tell your hosts that the meal is a subarashii gochisō (素晴らしいご馳走, a real feast). But also make sure not to ōgui suru (大食いする, eat until the food is coming out of your gills, eat as if there is no tomorrow). The rule of thumb in Japan is harahachibu (腹八分, always leaving room in your stomach for more, in the case of this expression, 20 percent of your stomach's capacity).

Many years ago I saw some American tourists dip their oshibori (おしぼり, rolled wet hand towel) into the soy sauce. The man took a bite and said, "I heard that squid was chewy, but this is ridiculous." If you do mistake your towel for a squid in front of Japanese people you are trying to impress, my advice to you is to bite off a piece and swallow it down like a samurai. Smile big and say, Kore wa puri-puri desu ne (これはプリプリですね, this is nice and chewy) and wash it down with a cold beer.

If you put a little chopstick rest, either wooden or ceramic, in your mouth, thinking it a rare form of pickle, for goodness sake don't remove it in front of your Japanese hosts! Just crunch down on it, smile with your teeth showing and say, Kore wa pari-pari desu ne (これはパリパリですね, this is nice and crunchy) and, making sure not to burn your throat, down a whole cup of hot green tea.

It is, of course, okay to drink alcohol in Japan, and you can even geiin suru (鯨飲する, drink like a fish).

But, don't mention the word geiin to your Japanese hosts. The gei of geiin is the character kujira (鯨), or whale. This is a sensitive topic in Japan, and you may find that the evening would be atoaji ga warui (後味が悪い, leave a bad taste in the mouth).

These initiation rites into the esoterica of the Japanese table may come at a cost to your stomach, throat and teeth. But in the end you will be accepted in this country: Certain rites of passage entail physiological consequences the next day. Maybe that's why they're called rites of passage.

Finally, if you are still alive and able to speak at the end of the meal, say Gochisōsama deshita (御馳走さまでした, thank you for the meal) and suggest that next time you meet you go out either for a pizza, a hamburger or a curry, all of which are now traditional Japanese foods.

The Bible tells us that we should eat, drink and be merry "for tomorrow we die." If you do eat, drink and overdo the merriment, you may be hidoku kibun ga warui (ひどく気分が悪い, feel like hell, feel sick), but at least you'll live to see another day.

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