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Like Japanese food? Try a spaghetti sandwich

The image most people have of Japanese food is sushi, a dish rarely prepared correctly in Japan and almost never overseas. Maybe they should try a spaghetti sandwich instead.

Sandwiches do not immediately leap to mind as a typical Japanese food. For that matter, neither do hamburgers, spaghetti or curry, which a recent survey of Japanese grade school children found to be their favorite foods. Hamburgers, spaghetti and curry came in tied for first, while sushi trailed a distinct second. Japan probably has more McDonald's restaurants than any other place on earth, with the possible exception of the USA. Homespun imitations like Lotteria and the unappetizingly named Mos Burger dog their steps up and down the Japanese Islands. Other American fast-food chains such as Kentucky Fried Chicken are major presences in Japan. Indian and French restaurants are everywhere and lately there has been a wave of so-called "Mediterranean" restaurants putting tomato sauce on everything. And then there are the pan-ya.

Down almost every shopping street in Japan is a pan-ya or bakery shop. The foreign influence is obvious even in their name. The Japanese word for bread, pan, is a loan word from Portuguese. In countries like the United States, fresh bread baked daily has long been a thing of the past. With the exception of a few pastry makers, bakeries have vanished from most American neighborhoods. The French still cling to their tradition of fresh bread daily, but this too is under assault from hypermarkets and discount bakeries. But in Japan, every morning thousands of bakers rise early to fire up their ovens and bake fresh bread. "I know a few Japanese bakeries that make better French bread than the finest bakeries in Paris," says Genvieve Matheson, a lecturer in Japanese at a French university. "It's amazing the dedication they show."

The Yonekura brothers, who are in their late thirties, run a small bakery located on a side street near Waseda station in Tokyo. They are assisted by their mother at the counter and occasionally by their wives when it gets busy. From morning till night there is a steady stream of customers from the neighborhood, and at lunch the store is packed with customers from nearby offices and building sites.

"I don't see what's so odd about spaghetti sandwiches," says Hachihiro, the older of the Yonekura brothers. "Japanese like them," he says, eyeing a pile of left-over spaghetti sandwiches from the lunch rush. "Well, at least, some Japanese like them."

The Yonekura brothers have been up since dawn baking sandwiches and are now taking a break behind the counter. Most Japanese sandwiches are actually rolls or buns with the filling baked in them. As well as spaghetti sandwiches, they make corn sandwiches, mashed potato sandwiches, mashed potato and corn sandwiches — for the adventurous, perhaps — green salad sandwiches, curry sandwiches and anko sandwiches, which use sweetened bean paste. Lately they have also been experimenting very successfully with more Western types of sandwiches and in anticipation of the lunch rush, make piles of hamburgers, beef teriyaki sandwiches, tuna salad and their latest innovation, the kimchi beef sandwich, made with kimchi, a fiery Korean pickled cabbage.

Lately a new convenience store in the neighborhood has been trying to lure customers away from them by offering obento, a type of box lunch to go popular with harried office workers and construction crews alike. The Yonekuras have retaliated by hauling their family rice cooker out to the front counter and making obento themselves. Mrs. Yonekura confides without ever referring to their competitor that "The Japanese like to eat rice with their lunch. We tried a rice sandwich but it didn't sell too well, so we think obento are a good idea."

The Yonekura shop is one small part of a gigantic change that has affected Japanese nutrition and eating habits since the end of WW II. With it has come an almost unimaginable change in the Japanese body and an improvement in health. The elder Mrs. Yonekura is typical of the pre-WW II generation. Because of severe calcium deficiency in her youth, she is bent nearly double and walks with a cane, the top of her body almost parallel to the ground. Before the war the Japanese diet lacked even the most basic vitamins, proteins and minerals, including, of course, calcium. The Japanese grew up short and stocky, and most older Japanese are sickly compared to their American and European counterparts.

Kimiyoshi Kano, a retired financial officer, stands tall and straight despite his almost 80 years. "When I was a child, whenever we had fish, my father made me eat all the bones. I hated it at the time, but I'm very grateful to him now. He wasn't a doctor or anything, but he knew a thing or two about nutrition." The famous Japanese novel "The Makioka Sisters" opens with a scene of the girls giving each other injections of vitamin B to ward off beriberi. Despite much talk in the West about the so-called health-giving benefits of Japanese food, malnutrition was common in Japan, even in the wealthiest families.

The food revolution that occurred after WW II was a double-barreled revolution. Many items of both Chinese and Western food became common in the diet of all Japanese. Chinese food with its heavy emphasis on fresh greens and high carbohydrate noodles, along with the meat and dairy products from the Western diet, supplemented and in many instances supplanted traditional Japanese foods. Traditional Japanese foods of all sorts also dropped in price and increased in abundance, while more money than ever got back to the farmer due to MacArthur's agricultural reforms during the Occupation. As the years passed and Japan rebuilt and skyrocketed to prosperity, the variety and quality of food on Japanese tables increased. Japanese nutrition became as good as anywhere in the world. The effects were soon very noticeable.

"When I got into importing clothing from the USA 20 years ago, it was really difficult. I don't mean selling it, I mean getting the American manufacturers to modify the clothing to fit the Japanese," says Yasuhiro Nonaga, a clothing importer. "People over there would look at me like I was really odd when I brought them the patterns. They just couldn't believe how short and stubby Japanese legs were or what short arms people had. Now," he says with a smile, "I don't have to bother. The Japanese body has changed so much, I just order one size smaller and everything fits perfectly. The Japanese have grown every bit as tall as the Americans, though they are generally much slimmer."

With improved nutrition have come ailments that were at one time virtually unknown among the Japanese, such as heart disease, obesity and arterial sclerosis. Eating disorders such as bulimia are also widespread, and doctors will tell anyone willing to listen to them that young Japanese women in their never-ending pursuit of thin, willowy figures are seriously underweight for their height and size.

Western food and the way it has changed the Japanese, and then in turn been changed out of all recognition by the Japanese, is a metaphor for Japan's interaction with the West. This goes hand-in-hand with amazing contradictions. Despite Japanese rice consumption falling by more than half since the end of the war, and continuing to fall, Japanese protectionism of its rice market borders at times on hysteria, while totally ignoring the bread Japanese bakers bake each morning which is made entirely of imported grain. Japan grows little or no wheat that can be used to make bread, but this fact is rarely if ever mentioned.

Japan has a distinct approach/avoidance complex with the rest of the world, and like it or not, it is getting pulled closer and closer to the rest of the world, even if the synthesis turns out a bit like the spaghetti sandwich.

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Editor's note: Bill Stonehill hails from Chicago, Illinois. Trained as an engineer and China specialist, he has now been living in Tokyo for well over 20 years. He imports Swiss watches, is expert at taking them apart, and if anyone knows what makes Japan tick too then he does. From 1999 until 2001 he wrote a regular Japan column for the Morrock News Service (sadly discontinued), which was enjoyed by Web-surfers around the world. We greatly appreciate the author's allowing us to republish some of his very best articles here in Japan Perspectives.