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Friday, Jan. 12, 2001


Not just weight at stake in watching what you eat

You wouldn't think it by looking at us today, but until recently most Japanese were all too familiar with the feeling of going around on a sukippara (empty stomach).

Even now, remnants of that desperation linger. Some people of my grandmother's generation would rather exchange blows than see food go to waste.

My grandmother has probably used the word mottainai (waste not, want not) more than any other in her vocabulary. We're talking about a woman who saved bottle caps (the bottles themselves were sold back to the shops for 10 yen each), nursing the hope that someday someone would find a use for 5,000 caps.

When it came to dealing with edibles, she was like a hardened cop who refuses retirement and keeps patrolling the beat, night after night.

"Me ga tsubureru yo!" ("Your eyes will be crushed and blinded!") was her battle cry whenever she caught a family member attempting to leave the table with food on their plate or sneaking some into the trash bin.

She didn't tolerate overeating, either. According to her theory, food is energy and it must be converted into productive activity, otherwise what is consumed is consumed in vain.

Mudameshi-gui (one who wastefully consumes food) is a popular phrase from her generation and one that I heard often. Another one was mugei taishoku (nonskilled big eater), which later became my nickname.

On the other hand, she urged us all to rest five minutes after meals, to ensure good digestion. "Oya ga shinde mo shokuyasumi" ("One must rest after eating, even if one's parent is dying"), is what she said to drive home the importance of postmeal breaks.

But resting too long was also taboo -- "Ushi ni naru" ("You'll turn into a cow"), was directed toward those who lingered at the table for no good reason or went to lie on the sofa.

All of this reveals Japanese attitudes toward food, which are a complicated blend of desire and guilt. As the language testifies.

The kanji for shoku (to eat) shows up in almost every gastronomic term and the words are often illuminating. They range from simple ones, like shokumotsu (food) and shokuji (affairs of food, like meals), to descriptive words like shokujinki (people-eating ogre, such as a cannibal) and gaki (starving, thirsting ogre, or a rotten kid).

A person who boards in a household and eats with the family is a shokkaku (eating guest), which is a polite word for "pest." Hopefully the shokkaku will be shoshoku (small of appetite) and will settle for soshoku (coarse food): rice and miso soup.

Soshoku, to give it its due, is not all bad. In the Zen/Buddhist scheme of things, simple fare in small portions is what makes up sound minds and healthy bodies.

The bishokuka (gourmand, or one who eats beautiful food), however, is in for a high cholesterol count and other things bad, aside from being suspected of philandering and pilfering. Now you see how much a person's shokuseikatsu (eating habits) are believed to reflect their personality.

And the fact remains that the Japanese still feel a little uneasy about being able to eat three solid meals a day.

During the '70s, housewives were referred to as "sanshoku hirune tsuki (three meals a day, plus nap)" in a mixture of deprecation and envy. Those were the days when jobs were still called "kuchi (mouth)," and when a well-paying opportunity came along, that was a yoi kuchi (good mouth).

Hoshoku (to eat until one is fatigued) has become a dirty word, but there's no getting away from its reality.

With so much food around, the difficulty nowadays is to find something that will shokushi ga ugoku (stimulate the appetite), which explains why certain Tokyo bakeries now fly in French bread straight out of Parisian ovens.

The Japanese have long believed that food scarcity accounted for much of the evil in the world and have held that "ishoku tarite reisetsu o shiru" ("honorable behavior is known by people with full stomachs and clothes on their back").

The falseness of this statement has been proved many times over.

So now we lean the other way. As new restaurants open everyday and sweets displays get bigger and more elaborate, the most en vogue facilities are the danjiki dojo (temples of fasting) where no food of any kind is allowed on the premises.

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