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Saturday, Nov. 20, 2010

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

What's wrong with talking a little turkey?


Japan typically digs in its heels against outside customs. To win acceptance here, such customs must first measure up to Japan's high standards of cultural attainment.

Which means . . . they gotta make money.

Thus, through the years Japan has been trampled over by Western cash cows like Halloween, Christmas and Valentine's Day. Such foreign customs, or rather the Japanese versions of such, have brought smiles to countless young children and romantic couples and, at the same time, have given Japanese merchandisers reason to live. And live well.

So we see Halloween masks being marketed in mid-September, Christmas trees adorning storefronts from late October and Valentine hearts decorating aisles and counters not long after New Year's. If you didn't know better, you might think we were all trapped inside a giant Walmart.

Yet one of the few Western holidays — specifically American holidays — that has never made Japanese inroads just happens to be my very favorite: Thanksgiving Day.

Which is the day Americans offer thanks for all their blessings — usually by eating everything in sight. As if saying, "Thank you for the blessing of obesity."

But even though Japanese are also nuts about eating — and perhaps even nuttier about giving thanks — Thanksgiving Day Japanese-style has never caught on.

Oh, Japan does have a "Labor Thanksgiving Day" on Nov. 23, but busy Japanese see this day the same way they see most other holidays in the jam-packed workaday calendar — as a chance to sleep in.

Meanwhile, American Thanksgiving is a feast! Turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie and more, all packaged in a fuzzy family glow, and then tied together with parades, football games and the starting gong for the race towards Christmas.

Just what do we need to help Japan catch the spirit?

The key, I think, has to do with turkeys.

Most Japanese are unfamiliar with turkeys (outside of politics), and the size of the bird itself is intimidating. They won't fit into most Japanese freezers, let alone ovens, and no one's going to eat one raw slapped on rice. No matter how much wasabi.

The easy solution is to do away with genuine birds and instead make them from chocolate. Chocolate always makes money here, with the trick being to get that cash register ringing.

Sell a few million, bite-sized chocolate gobblers and sooner or later the real birds will get their claws in the door. And in the meantime, there's a bonus: We get more chocolate.

Or, if you are a traditionalist, we can stick with actual birds, but try different stuffings.

To me, turkey stuffing is a culinary delight. But most Japanese hear, "bread crumbs, onions and celery," and think . . . "bird food." Or worse, as celery is perhaps Japan's most despised veggie. Many Japanese would rather eat live sea snails than celery.

OK, we can be creative here. After all, Japan has tinkered with other Western holidays too, like the hot date affair that is now Japanese Christmas Eve. "O Holy Night" is now mostly holy for the hotel business.

So . . . how about red rice stuffing? That's always a holiday hit. Or deep fried octopus stuffing? Or bean paste stuffing? Both light and dark, like the meat.

And in the end, there is always chocolate. Snicker bar stuffing, anyone?

Something is bound to work.

There are other Turkey Day foods that have yet to hit here and one in particular confounds me as to why.

I can understand that cranberry sauce has never found favor, as its pucker power is about as far from the Japanese palate as you can get. Not even chocolate can save it.

And I can also see why baked beans have yet to hit. For most Japanese prefer their beans dripping with sugar.

Yet, I cannot fathom the failure of deviled eggs. Dainty, colorful, tasty — this would seem to have success written all over it. Cholesterol be damned.

But it is not to be. Not yet anyway. Not until some restaurant chain grabs the golden chance. McDevils, perhaps?

In our house, Thanksgiving has always been a bit subdued, despite my holiday passion.

Our table typically features turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy, baked beans, and — yes — even cranberry sauce. Plus the one Thanksgiving Day food that almost all Japanese enjoy — pumpkin pie.

Yet, it is never the same. In the end it is not the food, which is always yummy. Neither is it the absent football, nor the absent parades.

Instead it's the absent family. Most years, my wife and I are lucky if we have one son home for the holiday.

And there is the true reason why Thanksgiving Day has not transferred. Japan has its own special family-feast time at New Year's. One cannot reinvent the wheel.

Besides, when is giving thanks in need of a special day? Here I stand: 30 plus years in Japan, with a warm home, plentiful friends and good health. I have much to be thankful for.

Yet if I had chocolate turkeys, I'd have even more.



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