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Saturday, July 7, 2007


Jawing over Japanese jaws

"Let's talk," says my wife. Her euphemism for, "Shut up and listen."

"Do you know the latest threat to Japanese health and happiness?"

My thoughts fly to Pyongyang. But before I can suggest, "Scud missile?" she launches an unexpected answer.

"It's rice crackers, that's what. Japanese sembei. People aren't eating enough. The result is that Japanese don't have the chewing power of the past. Jaws are flabby. Mouths are drooping apart. And teeth don't have the same bite that they used to."

My jaw drops — from incredulity. Which she mistakes for concern.

"Wait. It gets worse. When people don't chew properly, their entire system suffers. They don't digest well. They become more susceptible to cancer and dementia. They fail to enjoy the flavor of what they eat and tend to swallow their meals faster — then zoom straight back to work. Not chewing right thus makes people grumpier and less social. It destroys the fabric of the family!"

I would have said, "Gosh" but she didn't give me time.

"Of course," she rolls on, "The impact of all this has been worse on younger generations. The postwar Japanese jaw is puny when compared with that of the war years and before. And all from not eating enough sembei!"

My image of history suddenly twists. Instead of Japanese armies marching into battle with tanks and machine guns, I now picture infantry rushing forward with open mouths and gnashing teeth — every soldier primed to pounce upon the enemy and bite them into submission.

"Where'd you hear this from? The Rice Cracker Marketer's Guild?"

She frowns. "Everyone knows this — all the TV talk show hosts and every hair dresser in the land. It's an epidemic and the only one who hasn't heard is you. And it's not just sembei. It's unpolished rice, burdock root, Japanese pickles and more. It's all those yummy Japanese foods that we used to chew and chew and chew . . . until the Western diet arrived."

Oh, I think, so there it is. Yet another evil vested upon Japan by the sinister West. Japan usually equals good. The West — outside of brand apparel and Audrey Hepburn — usually equals bad.

"Joke as much as you want," she says. "But it's true. It's all that hamburger and lasagna and pilaf. It's cornflakes with milk, apple pie a la mode and pudding in a tub. None of that food requires a decent chew. It goes down with just a roll of the tongue and a smack of the lips. And it's ruining Japanese jaws!"

"Excuse me," I rap on the table. "I admit I am not as erudite as a talk show host or a beautician, but I have no memories of my American countrymen running around with their mouths sagging open and their jaws dragging on the pavement. How come they can handle the diet and Japanese can't?"

She blinks this off. "Oh they're used to it, that's why. It resonates with their DNA. But Japanese DNA hungers for sembei."

So saying, she slides some my way — soy-sauced sembei the size of a saucer.

Now I am not a sembei fan, but I do bow to the variety — sembei with soy sauce, sembei with sugar, sembei with seaweed, sembei with cheese, sembei with peanuts, and much, much more, ranging in size from Chicklets to Frisbees and some with texture so delicate it will melt in your mouth.

Alas, the kind my wife has presented is the one that needs to be cracked apart with a hammer. Besides — outside of soy sembei fresh off the grill — I would just as soon pass on the entire lot. It all makes me thirsty. And not potato-chip-style thirsty either. More like lost-in-the-desert-style thirsty.

"Sorry," I tell her. "My DNA is craving beef jerky. Or perhaps a T-bone steak."

Good for the mandible, she acknowledges, but bad for the pocketbook. "You're in Japan now so your DNA has to adjust. I won't have any husband of mine walking about slack-jawed. So eat your sembei."

I surrender to her wisdom on chewing, but sense the national concern over weakening Japanese jaw power is but another case of the media having too much time and not enough topics. And as for exercising my jaw on this sembei . . .

"C'mon. There must be something else I can do."

It turns out there is.

The jaw — so her sources say — can also be kept in shape by hearty laughter.

"Ha, ha, ha," I tell her. ". . . You're kidding."

"No, when it comes to jaws, laughter is the best medicine."

"Perhaps that's the problem then. Perhaps Japan isn't laughing enough."

"Nonsense," she says. "We Japanese laugh all the time."

Then she takes a bite of sembei and almost breaks a tooth.

And when I laugh like hell, I find sembei can be good for the legs too.

For I must now run and dodge missiles within my very own house.

To contact Thomas Dillon, send e-mail to marriedtojapan@yahoo.com

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