Mount Fuji

When cultures clash — 'sizing' up the opposition


(This article, which first appeared in the Japan Times of Oct. 1st, 2005, is
reproduced here in Japan Perspectives by kind permission of the author.)

In our global village — or at least in the Japan/U.S. corner of that village — culture can clash over differences in values, interpretations of history, who makes better cars, how best to play baseball, or even over which national leaders are the more incompetent.

Yet in my own international family, the clash often centers on food. And not just on what we eat, but how much of it. Japanese, you see, serve food in eensie-beansie portions, often chopped up into even smaller segments that can be served in tiny boxes presented on dainty trays that will rest on a decorative table that will then balance on your kneecap.

"Yes, but isn't it all so cute?" says my wife.

"Yes, but isn't it also nuts?" says her husband.

In America, meanwhile, portions tend to be, uh, supersize. A Japanese business friend recently remarked about his first trip to the States, when his host invited him and two other salesmen to a steak restaurant for lunch. The host ordered for everyone, while the Japanese fellow sat and mopped his forehead with his hankie. He had heard Americans ate a lot. What would his host think if he couldn't finish?

Sure enough, 15 minutes later the waitress staggered to their table under the weight of an immense slab of grilled beef.

"It's all right," the Japanese gentleman thought. "There are four of us and we have the entire afternoon free. If we plug away, and the other guys can help me some, we just might finish that in time for supper."

With her knees about to buckle, the waitress set the tray before him and said: "OK, here's yours. I'll be back with the other three in a moment."

I can remember my mother protesting at a Japanese restaurant on one of her trips here, "I ordered a large." In her hand she held a drink cup.

"That's what you got."

"No, I didn't. I got a child's size. Or maybe a doll's size. Or maybe a child doll's size. So either get me a large or get me two dozen more of these."

Of course, in America drink sizes start with Super Jumbo Extra Enormous and then escalate from there. Someday soon, instead of cups, the soft drink firms will start marketing long hoses that lead directly to tanker trucks. Purchasers will then waddle around the mall with the hoses in their mouths. Hoses that they will only remove to ward off critics with statements like "Diet soda has zero calories, so back off — or I'll piss you right through the wall!"

In Japan, only beer is served in monster-size containers, but imbibers can thank product packaging for helping them keep off calories. For some munchies are triple-wrapped. You have the outer package and the inner package, and then each item may be packaged one by one. By the time you have ripped through all that plastic, you need a beer. Guzzle enough beer and you might even find the energy to open more munchies. Thank goodness Japanese companies have yet to package peanuts or potato chips individually. Hopefully they will not read this and get ideas.

Insect-size portions and ornate servings are part of Japanese culture, which aims to feed the eyes as much as the stomach. Since eyes are rarely hungry, quantity doesn't matter much. My wife, for example, used to serve her bedridden mother a tray full of delicate delights at each meal, using more dishes for her mother than for the rest of the family combined. Most of the food Grandma left untouched, although I am sure she enjoyed the view.

We Americans, however, will just slop things together on one plate, leaving the eyes aghast but the stomach revved for a challenge. A challenge that my own stomach rises to meet each chance it gets.

Similar to her mother, my wife is thrilled by Japanese "kaiseki"-style dinner trays, with each item nestled into individual compartments barely wide enough to insert a spoon. The total volume wouldn't fill a mouse, but that's OK because the price is high enough to feed a mastodon — including the cost of hacking one out of a glacier and cloning it. In the case of kaiseki, you pay for what you don't get.

To me, the American opposite of kaiseki is chili. You grab a fistful of soda crackers and crumble them up over the bowl, slap on some shredded cheese and fresh onion and then shovel it all in, using a real shovel if you can find one. So what if it looks disgraceful? So what if when you're done you could light a match with your breath? And then do the same from your other end too? That bottom-line message is simple. The food was plentiful and yummy. 'Nuff said.

The other critical bottom line is that Japanese Thumbelina servings are surely healthier than American Jack-in-the-Beanstalk servings.

"Wait a minute," says an American friend. "I'm a big man and I need a big meal."

Which in turn makes him a bigger man, necessitating an even bigger meal. It's a vicious circle, one that many Americans try to tame by feeding the beast cookies. Or candy. Or ice cream. Or all of the above.

Unfortunately, Japan often learns from America, and Ronald Macdonald, Colonel Sanders and others have taught the Japanese how to eat fast. So these days even this slenderish nation is turning tubby. It used to be that the only truly fat Japanese wrestled in the sumo ring. Nowadays they wrestle their way down the street, onto the trains and everywhere — but especially into restaurants and supermarkets.

None of this bodes so well for that global village, which still has numerous starving neighborhoods. Should rich feed poor? Should fat feed thin? Should have feed have not?

Well . . . duh . . . yeah. And there you have a fair serving of my mind.

Editor's note: Sincere thanks to the author for his kind permission to republish the above article, which first appeared in his regular Japan Times column "When East Marries West".