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Natto on Rice and Shaved Flavoured Ice…These Are a Few of My Favourite Things

Brian R Wood in Tokyo

Many foreigners are just frightened by the sight of natto and many Japanese love natto. Differences like that are something to be celebrated...

Anywhere in the world someone living in a foreign country tends to have his/her favourites and not so favourites about the culture. Japan and myself are no exception. I try to be as culturally sensitive as possible since that is part of my training in graduate school and beyond, but sometimes I just have to lash out at the things that I just do not like. It is hard for me sometimes to say negative things about a particular culture – in public anyway. I do not really know if that is good or bad. Mostly it is good but, in order to keep my own identity, which means expressing my likes and dislikes, I feel that I must express what bothers me about other places. It is like my cultural background telling me that I am still what I am – an American wether I like it or not. It is mostly "not" with me.

Natto in the raw

When someone asks me what I like about Japan, I usually draw a blank. It is not because I do not like anything here, but because it is much easier to think of the negative aspects – especially after living here for a couple years and leaving soon onto a new exciting phase in my life. I have had enough experience to know that this "negative" phenomenon is pretty normal but it can be very detrimental to the cultural experience. I believe it is important to keep a mental list of the things that are good in a country. A good rule is for every negative think of something positive – if I try hard enough I will have an equal number. It is fine to have a thousand negative things, but there should be somewhere another thousand positive things to take with me from this overseas experience.

One negative/ positive category that I want to focus on is food. Over time, I have become very opinionated about Japanese food. I have always been the least culturally sensitive when it comes to nourishment and my morals about it. The main reason is that I am a vegetarian – been one since the age of 14, over half my life. I have been to every continent, save Antarctica, and I count myself as lucky by never being forced to compromise myself as a vegetarian.

I have always had people telling me stories of some Third World country where vegetarians cannot be vegetarians either because of cultural sensitivity or availability. Everywhere I have lived or travelled, I have never had to eat meat out of respect for the culture. I have been to places that consider vegetarianism strange, but not looked at as insulting if one does not eat meat while supping in homes. The problem in Japan is not insulting someone, but just the availability and diversity of food which conflicts with my self-imposed restrictions.

Being a vegetarian is very difficult here in Japan – the most difficult than anywhere else I have been to in the world and Japan is not a Third World country. Any kind of animal flesh is an absolute necessity it seems in Japanese dishes. It is odd in a society that was almost vegetarian, with the exception of seafood, before Western influence forcibly knocked at Japan’s doorstep in the late nineteenth century. Now, I cannot go out to a Japanese style restaurant and feel satisfied. I usually end up nibbling on some sorry salad that consists of just shredded cabbage or soggy iceberg lettuce and…well, only soggy iceberg lettuce. The price of that salad is of course much higher than the quality. You would not want to know what a good salad costs here in Tokyo.

The same problem again is at the grocery store as in a restaurant, very little selection – but worlds better than a restaurant. The base of my diet consisted of rice and pasta a very easy trap to fall into here. Eating this everyday just bloated me outwards plus my work schedule made it so that I had to eat dinner late at night – a double whammy! Finally I told myself I would go on a very low carbohydrate diet – which means, being a vegetarian, eating like a swallow. It is working, and I have lost a noticeable amount of weight in the two months since I started. It is not fun but for me eating in Japan has never been fun or enjoyable so why get fat in the process?

There is one food that I do like that most foreigners here absolutely despise. The infamous dish is called 'natto'. The taste is not the reason why it is one of my favourites, but it is not as offensive as it is to my fellow expatriates. Natto is basically fermented soybeans, so naturally it is not a very "fresh" product. It is the texture that puts people off I believe. The beans are awash in their own slime so it is like eating chunky mucus. The smell is not so great either. The taste of natto is rather bland so one mixes some mustard and soy sauce that comes with it. It goes well on rice or even as an omelette filling.

The great thing about natto is how the Japanese introduce it to their unsuspecting foreign victims. They love to introduce the famous victual to ones fresh from Narita airport – rather like an initiation rite. The Japanese acquaintance would first ask the naïve traveller if he/she had ever had natto. Then the sentence that scares us all follows; "It is very healthy for you." The facial expression is important here on the acquaintance’s face. The eyes turn a bit sadistic and the smile to an almost evil smirk. They are very well aware of the reverse gastronomic reflexes natto causes many a foreigner upon looking at its aromatic slime trails over the rice in front of them. The thing is that natto is very good for you and the taste is not as bad as the sight or the smell, and it is totally vegetarian!

Natto is one of my favourite things, not because of the taste but because of the cultural reactions it stirs up in people. Natto, like many other kinds of food, is a great cultural icebreaker. It is special because it is an icebreaker that I can participate in. Natto is such a strange food, the Japanese know it too, that the two parties are more relaxed with each other after the "natto experience" – it allows people to laugh with each other and especially at oneself. Many foreigners are just frightened by the sight of natto and many Japanese love natto. Differences like that are something to be celebrated and have fun with. I am not a common participant in this because of my dietary restrictions

I also like natto because it is something that many foreigners, excluding myself, don’t like. I am rarely in that position here and it makes me feel connected to something Japanese, particularly something I hardly ever feel connected to - Japanese food. Japanese are always so surprised when I tell them I like natto, they almost cannot believe it and often ask me again just to make sure. It allows me to be an active participant where I am always an outsider.

My vegetarianism does not cause cultural sensitivity problems with others necessarily, but within me. I always argue that culture is conflict, not warlike conflict but mostly conflict in oneself and among one’s many other cultural identities. Being a vegetarian is part of my personal and broader culture and thus my baggage -- but I still do not like Japanese food, though shaved flavoured ice is pretty darn good.

© Brian R Wood July 2002
Brian is now on his way to Australia so expect some reactions from there soon.
More of his Japanese cultural experiences here

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