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Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Defining Japan

When I was recently asked to describe one Japanese item that could possibly define the country, I froze. I wasn't allowed to offer flags or anthems... just a single item that would be uniquely Japanese.

How do I do that?

As a Canadian, it could be ice hockey (though we just call it 'hockey'), maple syrup, Anne of Green Gables, salmon... but a lot of countries have what we have, and most people probably have not read Anne of Green Gables to even mention it as being Canadian. Hmmm... maybe the RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police)... our national police force... the Mounties... but would a person in the Ukraine look at a Mountie and say - Canada? Maybe... maybe not.  

The truth is, no one thing can define a country, no matter how hard one tries... though I suppose a cedar tree could describe Lebanon, a bald eagle the U.S., and maybe a beaver for Canada. Everybody loves beaver. But, when I see these beautiful examples of nature, I also realize that it's just nature and don't think country. Though I might think kangaroo and Australia.

There are many things in Japan that fascinate me - hence this blog. Things that on the surface appear to be singular to Japan, but are not: kimono; rice; chopsticks... are still defining elements by the Japanese themselves.

How many times have you heard a Japanese person describe, in English, hashi (chopsticks), as Japanese chopsticks? Japanese rice? Japanese kimono. You might think it's because they want you to know it's a Japanese product and that they are proud of their culture, but there are Korean kimono, Chinese chopsticks and Indian rice.

So... how to best describe Japan?

Geisha, perhaps... everyone seems to know that geisha are all over Japan... but truthfully, I only saw one, maybe two in three years there... while a fine representative, the geisha are hardly widespread enough to be representative of a country. And besides... while people might know what a geisha looks like, they have a misconceived notion of what a geisha is. Read HERE for more information.

Mt. Fuji? Much as I hate to admit it, probably. I never saw the damn so-called symbol of Japan in three whole years of trying. I'm not convinced it even exists. But let's suppose it does... would someone - anyone - in another country look at a photo of Mt. Fuji, and know it was a Japanese mountain? No.

Food! Everybody wants to eat food - especially those that don't have any - but we are able to define things as Italian food, French cuisine, Greek food, Indian food, Chinese food (not the stuff from the take-out joint!), Japanese food et al, right?

Food helps define a country! Some of them, anyways.

While there are many great Canadian foods - Cod Tongue, Poutine, Butter Tarts or Sugar Pie - Most Canadians would be hard-pressed to define them as being Canadian.

Thanks to some great Chevrolet commercials, hot dogs and apple pie are ingrained in the American psyche.I kid, but Americans do know all about how American those foods are - despite the fact that Canadians love'em too.

So, what do you like Japanese food?

Pardon my syntax, but my first year junior high students all learned the English phrase: "What (blank) do you like?", but some of them get the word placement wrong. This is not a knock on my teaching skills, but is a phenomenon known to exist across the whole country. Sometimes they figure it out, and sometimes they do not.

What Japanese food best defines Japan? Sushi, of course!

That's raw fish, right?

Uh, no. There might be raw fish in sushi, but it's not a necessity. It could have egg or vegetables as the focal point of the sushi. Cooked vinegared rice (shari) and other ingredients (neta) are the two defining elements of sushi.    

Here's a blog I wrote back in 2010 describing some of the various styles of sushi: SUSHI

Some people would say rice defines the Japanese way of life for the Japanese - perhaps once upon a time, but that time is long since past. Besides... all Asian nations, I believe, use rice as a staple. China, and India... there's 2.5 billion people right there!

Want more proof? Look at the kanji for rice: 米 (bei)

Now look at the kanji for the U.S of A: 米 (bei)
America is the rice nation? Sounds like a bit of miscommunication occurred during that first meeting of countries. Hardly looks like a Japanese definer.

That's why I am going to say that sushi is the global definer of Japan.  

That's just my own opinion, but I would love to hear yours: What one thing defines Japan?

Other examples could be:
Godzilla (still Japan's biggest international star)
Earthquakes
Tsunami (no one uses the word tidal wave any more because it is incorrect)
Volcanoes
TEPCO (owners of the nuclear plant in Fukushima)
Tokyo (but I'm betting the rest of the country disagrees)
 Mt. Fuji
Getting atomic bombs dropped on them
Manga (comic books)
Anime (animation)
Hentai (sexual artwork)
Umeboshi (sour plum)
Ukuiyo-e (the dreaming world)
Sumo (wrestling)
Gaijin (foreigners)
Shinkansen (bullet train)
The Hokusai wave (36 Views of Mt. Fuji Ukiyo-e - the image at the very top)
Cherry blossoms
Inane television showing people getting hit in the nuts
Sake (fermented Japanese rice wine)
Architecture (roofs, in particular)
Ninja
Samurai
Geisha
Shogun
Automobiles
Electronics
Pottery
Haiku (poetry)
Torii (temple gates)
Jo (castles)
Ji (temples)
Kimono 
The people (Nihonjin)

I know there are more, but I would like to hear what you think.    

Cheers,
Andrew Joseph
PS: And that whole raw fish thing... well, raw fish, heck raw meat, that is the awesome delicacy known as sashimi. It melts in your mouth, and is also delicious!

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