Friday, November 28, 2008

Japanese Curry vs. Indian Curry

The Japanese have a love affair with all things foreign: movies, fashion, sports and most especially food. And just as the Japanese took baseball and made it uniquely their own, they similarly took the Indian staple of curry and transformed into an instant classic know as Japanese curry.

The first thing you'll notice is how different Japanese curry looks from Indian curry; instead of the yellow or red curry sauce at an Indian restaurant, Japanese curry is thick and brown, resembling beef stew more than anything and is made from a curry paste. The second thing you'll notice is that Japanese curry isn't hot and spicy - it's about as mild as a plate of catchup.

And this smooth and mild flavor probably explains why it's a real kid's favorite in Japan, on par with grilled cheese and pizza for American children. And it is a truism of Japanese culture that you can go to ten japanese homes and be sure to experience ten unique variations on this classic dish. And, of course, every Japanese child grows up preferring the way his mother made it!

Your average Japanese mom buys little brown blocks of curry powder that resemble bullion cubes, which she adds to boiled water to create a curry paste. Japanese curry is always served with sticky white rice (of course) and then depending on who is the chef, the curry will contain either beef or pork, and then usually potatoes, carrots and/or onions. Each Japanese mom will have her own private Japanese curry recipe.

The meal is so popular that one can easily find Japanese restaurants called "Curry Houses" that specialize in this dish for the common man (or child), all over Japan and even in Japanese communities of Southern California.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Religion of Japan

Ask a Japanese person what there religion is and you'll certainly get a puzzled look - Since the end of Word War II, Japanese culture has embraced all things Western (at least outwardly) and there is really no more religion of Japan.

One of the chief victims of this social revolution has been the religious life of the Japanese. And certainly if there is to be a future for Japanese culture, there must be a reconciliation with its rich and colorful past.

Prior to the second World War Japan had two major japanese religions/philosophies: Buddhism, which was an import to Japanese Culture from China and Korea, and then the native Shinto religion, which is a pagan religion not unlike the kind of seen in Classical Rome and Greece with multiple Gods.

Many in the west think of Japanese Buddhism and Zen, but there the number of people in Japan who practice japanese Buddhism is quite small.

During the War, the Japanese military establishment co-opted many of the Shinto leaders and shrines, turning them into vehicles for nationalism. These efforts, followed by the catastrophic end to the war, left many Japanese disillusioned with formal religion, and made a the religion of Japan a kind of "cafeteria" religion.

Today Japan is arguable one of the most secular (non-religious) countries in the world. And while the Japanese love all things Western, religious imports from the west - namely Christianity - has not fared so well. It's estimated that Christians make up just 1-5% of the population.

Yet buried in this reality is a tale of religious bravery from the first Christians in Japan - Catholics baptized by the efforts of the great St. Francis Xavier in the 1500s; many of these early Catholics were martyred for refusing to denounce their faith.

On Nov. 24 at a ceremony in Japan, the Roman Catholic Church declared 188 of these men and women "blessed" which is step on the way to sainthood. Here is an article on the martyrs and early Japanese Catholics: The Samurai with the Cross. From the Acts of the Martyrs of Japan.

These days only the outer forms of Japanese religion seem to have survived in Japanese culture. There is a famous saying in Japan that one is born Shinto, married Christian (i.e. a wedding in a chapel) and buried Buddhist.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Japanese Culture and the School Uniform

Many people know that Japanese public schools require children to wear a school uniform. If you have ever been on a train in Japan when school lets out, you've experienced the throngs of uniformed adolescents that trudge in, giving you a distinct experience of Japanese group behavior.

Many westerners notice that the girl's uniforms resemble sailor uniforms; while less obvious is that many of the boy's school uniforms are military tunics reminiscent of 19th Prussia. The uniforms are different from school to school, and it's not an exaggeration to say that some kids choose their high school based on how fashionable the school's uniform is.

Here is an excellent article on the the development of the Japanese school uniforms.

'Japlish' and the Japanese Language

What happens when the Japanese language, developed in isolation over the centuries, meets globalization and satellite TV? You get Japlish, which is not so much a hybrid of English and Japanese language, but a shortening and strange combining of English words.

Now Japlish is not something you can study at a Japanese language school; and learning Japlish is not the surest way to learn Japanese, but it is increasingly part of the Japanese language.

Sprinkling their lives with English is a way for the Japanese to signal that they're cosmopolitan and well traveled; which is important in a country that consists of four small islands where almost everyone shares the same ethnic Japanese background. English is plastered on advertisements, store fronts and T-Shirts giving the ordinary a touch of international sophistication.

A recent Japanese TV show titled "Around 40" explored the difficulty Japanese women over 35 have in finding husbands. One of the characters used the word ara-four to describe this unfortunate group of women in Japanese culture, and it has since entered the language as a new Japlish word.

While most people who travel to Japan are not interested in attending a Japanese school or learning Japanese, a basic familiary with japlish certainly makes things fun. Other examples of this new form of the Japanese language include:
  • Seku-hara - Sexual harassment
  • Para-Single -This word in itself comes from the Japlish phrase parasite single, which is an adult (usually in their 20s) who lives at home without paying rent, and therefore can use their salary on fun things like trips to Hawaii, brand name clothing and trips to hot springs
  • OL - Office lady; a young women who works in a corporate office setting as a kind of secretary/hostess who serves tea to executives and greets visiting businessmen; the societal understanding is that she is waiting to meet a man, get married, quit her job and have a baby
And like slang among teenagers in the U.S., Japlish is constantly renewing itself and adding new "words" to the Japanese language and the Japanese culture.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Japanese Food Culture - The Dinner Snapshot

If you're with a Japanese woman traveling outside of Japan and you go out to eat, it's almost certain that she'll snap a photo of the food before she digs in. Now this does not mean that she finds her plate of ribs more noteworthy than the Grand Canyon or the Empire State Building, but simply that the portion size is so unbelievable that a photo will be a great conversation piece back home - this is Japanese food culture at its best.

The Japanese, unlike Americans, view eating and food as an integral part of Japanese culture. In this respect, they have much in common with the French. Now this doesn't mean that the Japanese are snobbish about the quality of American food - they are content to let hamburgers be hamburgers and steak be steak - but the absolute over-the-top, heaping mounds of food one receives at an American restaurant is legendary in Japan, and only a good snapshot will suffice as proof of this reality.

It's also worth mentioning that the Japanese view modern Japanese food and even traditional japanese food as being unequaled the world over. It's not arrogance exactly, but more like acknowledging that the sky is blue.

In addition to capturing the portion size, a good snapshot will also reveal the close-up textures, colors and culinary nuances of the food. It's not uncommon for Japanese women to browse endless blogs and websites filled with nothing more than closeups of japanese foods: desserts, soups and entrees. Western cookbooks with paragraphs of texts, illustrations and then perhaps a color photo every two or three pages, are incomprehensible to Japanese women.

The next time you are in an American restaurant and an Asian lady pulls out a camera phone and snaps a shot of her lamb chops, you may want to ask: "Excuse me, are you from Japan by any chance?"