David Notkin's and Cathy Tuttle's "Japan Stories" (1990-91)

Japan Stories #15: Pocky's and Other Food for Thought

Valentine's Day is a pretty important holiday in the US. You give cute little valentines to your friends and hope for chocolate. In Japan, you get chocolate and more chocolate. If you're a man, that is. That's right. On Valentine's Day in Japan, women give men chocolate. Not only friends and sweeties, but bosses and (whoopie!) teachers. I only got three boxes, but men who work in places with lots of office ladies get enough to stock a Godiva chocolatier. Late February is the season of zits.

What about the women? Don't feel sorry for them. Their day comes a month later, on White Day. It used to be that only white chocolate was given in return by the men to the women, and this is still not uncommon. But the gift-giving spirit has been extended to include some new and unusual White Day gifts. Our favorite was the glow-in-the-dark panties, which, while not as ubiquitous as chocolate, was apparently a very big seller this year. Surprising to us, this gift was not necessarily given only to sweethearts. Of course, I gave chocolate; I suspect this made Matsumoto-san and my other valentines happier than if I had chosen otherwise.

We had such a good time at our first sumo match in Tokyo that we bought tickets for the Osaka tournament. The big day for sumo finally arrived. We had a four-person box that we shared with our host's son, Hiroo, and a graduate student. Inoue-san was in the adjacent box with his family. On our way in, Cathy and I stopped at the case displaying the trophies to be awarded to the winner at the end of the tournament. It was filled with two or three dozen big trophies donated by various companies, in addition to the giant Emperor's Cup. Our favorites included: the big Coke bottle, the keg of sake, the large glass jar of strange dried mushrooms mounted on a gold base, and the large glass jar of pickled sour plums (called ume) also mounted on a gold base. Where these go in a Japanese house, we have no idea.

Although it was only the fourth day, the tournament itself was very exciting. Akebono, one of the two top-ranked Hawaiian wrestlers, turned in a dashing performance by beating the yokozuna (grand champion) who ended up winning the tournament. When a lower ranked wrestler beats a yokozuna, they win a "kinboshi" or gold star. Not only does this have prestige, but it means that every tournament from then on, the winner of the kinboshi gets an extra 25,000 yen or so; this amounts to roughly $1000/year extra for the rest of their career. One wrestler has over 10 kinboshi.

The highlight of the day was when Cathy and I fought our way to the main floor where we got to see some of these superstar wrestlers up-close-and-personal. They are big. Really, really big. We're talking big. After seeing a couple of the "small" guys, escorted by two lower-ranked, but sometimes even bigger, "bodyguards", we saw the biggest wrestler in the world. Konishiki, the other Hawaiian, is ranked just below yokozuna. He weighs in at about 240 kilos (over 520 pounds). A lot of that is muscle, but let's be honest folks, the man has more blubber than your average Hawaiian. When we were close (say three or four feet away), he was bending and stretching, warming up for the fight. Cathy was upset because she had forgotten to bring her wide-angle lens. Still, she managed to get some shots that we can't wait to see developed.

Our host's son had come to sumo as literally the first break he'd had in three years of studying. He's been trying to pass his college entrance examination all that time. He finally passed on his third try, gaining entrance to Osaka University. When his mother told me about his success this time, she was the happiest and the most relieved person I've ever seen. It's a bigger deal in Japan than in the US, for several reasons. First, the exams are nothing like the SATs. For instance, they might include incredibly detailed geography questions such as, "In what province of France does the Rhine River first enter?" Second, the examinations are the sole criterion for college entrance. So you had better be pretty damn knowledgeable about the Rhine River. (While writing this, Cathy and I spent a few minutes remembering which continent the Rhine River was actually on.) Third, the idea of going to work first and then later coming back to college is essentially unheard of in Japan. So once you miss the college track, you're off it forever. (In this case, our host's son had applied to a number of lower-ranked private universities as a backup. He was accepted into them, but the public Osaka University is much more prestigious and cheaper to boot.)

As another way to compare American and Japanese universities, we were talking to a friend of ours who is here on a Fulbright Fellowship, representing the finest of American scholars. We were telling her how amazed we were at how unwilling the Japanese were in general to talk about the Gulf War. She said, "Golf? But the Japanese love golf. I just don't understand why they won't talk about it." Nevermind.

How did the Gulf War play in the media here? Since almost all of our Japanese friends really were unwilling to discuss the war in any depth, we got most of our information from reading The Japan Times, the nationwide English language newspaper. Here are some not-so-deep observations. One, the Japanese government and culture are not set up for quick decision-making in the face of crisis. Decisions are made by consensus, which require lots of meetings and negotiations. Two, the issues of self-determination, oil independence, and so forth were hardly discussed. What we read and heard about most was how Japan was perceived by the international community. Three, the issue of Japan's constitutional injunction against non-defensive military action is real here. Both the far-right and left-wing parties were adamantly against involvement of any kind. More moderate groups were generally willing to send money, although the limits of sending non-combat personnel were, of course, a matter of great discussion. (Now, in late April, there is significant protest against sending minesweepers to the Gulf. We were woken out of a sound sleep in the middle of the afternoon by a caravan of trucks blaring music and messages against this action. There were several bombings in Tokyo, also in protest.)

The other day Cathy was biking along in Kyoto and got a fierce thirst. So she pulled up at the nearest vending machine and perused the selections. Her eye was immediately caught by the attractive khaki camouflage can of "Desert Storm." Being so patriotic, she decided she'd try it, especially after reading the teaser on the can: "New carbonated beverage for active people with fighting spirit."

With the exception of "Desert Storm", Coke is it (except for a few strange sodas like Yogurina, Peach Squash, and Jolt---yes, Jolt). But Pepsi is trying to get a bigger share of the market; Coke earns more from selling liquids in Japan than they do in the US, in part because they sell lots of canned coffee and tea. As part of this effort, Pepsi sponsored a concert tour by MC Hammer. Hammer also appears in a number of Pepsi commercials. (It is remarkable to see celebrities who peddle products here---George Lucas sells for Pioneer, Frank Sinatra says "ANA [All Nippon Airways] does things 'My Way'", and Arnold Schwartznegger slurps ramen noodles.) What is most interesting about the Pepsi commercials is that it is the first time in Japanese TV history that a name-brand comparison was done. Essentially, Hammer got thirsty during a number and was given Coke, which caused him to fade out; when given a Pepsi instead, he roared back to life. Since many Japanese commercials don't even shown their own product, knocking a competitor's product is quite controversial.

Advertising in Japan comes in lots of forms. One that we really detest is the Godzilla-sized vending machine that sells Godzilla-sized Pocky's. Pocky's are inedible: they are thin, not-quite-pretzel sticks half-dipped in not-quite-chocolate. Usually Pocky's are sold in 100 yen packages a little smaller than a Crackerjacks box. But the Godzilla-sized Pocky's are about a foot-long in a box to match. When you purchase them, the vending plays a special bonus: "It's a Small World After All," in it's entirety. This bonus makes Cathy and me run the other direction, but it does seem to do the job, since there are often as many as 30 people ready and willing to spend 1000 yen (about $7) and a half-hour listening to their favorite tune over and over and over and over again. What a treat.

Pepsi and Pocky's are not really the most traditional Japanese foods. (Yet.) Indeed, a month or so ago we went to a party at my Aikido school. The party was actually held in the adjacent Buddhist temple (the Aikido instructor holds two other jobs, junior high school social studies teacher and Buddhist priest). All the food was made by women in our teacher's wife's yoga class. There was the usual sushi, pickles, rice balls, beer, and such. But there were at least two special treats. The first was sake. The sake itself was just sake, as far as we can tell. But it was served from a four-foot long, green bamboo flask with leaves still attached. We drank from smaller, similar bamboo cups using the leaves as handles. The other treat was oden (a winter stew consisting of tofu, potatoes, vegetables, and weird stuff like devil's tongue and occasionally whale). But this oden was Greenpeace-approved. The oden cooked in a big iron cauldron on the veranda. Not only was the whale absent, but there were whole apples and unpeeled bananas floating in it. You just went out and speared your favorite piece of tofu and banana, washing it down with more sake. Get your minds and stomaches ready, since it's a party idea we may be trying.

A family invited us out to spend a night at a house they had recently bought. The house is in a New Town, consisting of about 2000 big (in the Japanese sense) houses located in a completely isolated community. New Towns in Japan are constructed by placing the houses and people first, hoping that stores and services will follow. Right now, there are the schools (which are required in advance) and one convenience mart run by the company that built and manages the entire development.

Our friends had entered many lotteries over many years, hoping to get the change to buy such a place. They finally won the opportunity to buy land and build. Their lot is about 215 square meters (about 50x40 feet). Most of it is house. They decided to place the house as close to the road as possible, leaving a backyard of about 10x40 feet. The house behind them opted to put their house at the back of their lot, so it's right at the edge of our friend's yard. (We don't know the price of this house, but there are new houses being sold just up the way in the same development for well over 100,000,000 yen, or between $800,000 and $1,000,000. The entire development will ultimately have 2200 homes.)

Our friends were deeply involved in the design of the house, and it has a couple of interesting features. For instance, Japanese circumvent building codes just like Americans. In this case, the attic was only permitted to be a crawl space, since the total square-footage was limited by code; so, after getting approval for the crawl space, the builders raised the ceiling to the roof and created a real room on the third floor. Also, there's no basement or garage for storage (although there is a one-car covered parking space). They do have several unique storage areas. There are two or three doors on the kitchen floor (covered by rugs), which open to cold-storage. One is large enough to hold the whole family of five, and provides a ladder for them to escape after they've chilled out. The tatami mat room also has two storage areas hidden under the floor. They are each the size of one mat, about 3x5 feet, and are opened electronically. Although they seem high-tech, the (Japanese) manufacturer didn't think it through perfectly. The batteries that control the opening mechanism are located inside the storage areas, so if the batteries wear out the compartments have to be opened using old-fashioned methods.

There are some other high-tech features in the house. The kitchen houses a video-intercom-security panel that seems a little excessive in a country where crime rates are so low. We guess it's to everyone's benefit to see the sushi delivery arrive at the front door on video. The panel also has a remote control for the ofuro (Japanese bath). Without leaving the kitchen, you can start filling the bath, controlling the temperature. When the bath is filled, the remote beeps so you know it's bath time. The bath itself is pretty advanced, including not only a nice Jacuzzi (which makes enough noise that our friends are worried that the neighbors will complain---the houses are that close together) but also an automatic system that filters, refills, and heats the bath. Remember, every night the whole family uses the same bath water. It has been traditional for the father to bathe first, when the water is hottest and cleanest, followed by sons and then mothers and daughters. With this new technology, all baths are equal. Talk about a revolution.

When Japanese move, foreigners become scavengers. Japanese seem to throw away perfectly good stuff (even when they aren't moving). Right out on the street you see bookcases, dishes, and lots of electrical appliances. We've mostly ignored it, but we have many friends who have furnished entire apartments from what is called "sodai gomi" (big garbage). A couple of weeks ago, Cathy joined the scavangers, finding a huge brass teapot in a gomi pile. She had to carry it all over Kyoto on crowded trains, but she finally got it to Osaka, where it is sitting on the balcony as a watering can. Our friend Maggie found a color TV just last week; now she can now watch Sesame Street in Japanese. A foreigner who has lived in Japan for a long time says that when he first arrived, he used to call the garbage collection company to find out which days were sodai gomi days. It turns out that this question was pretty common, and they had a prepared speech for foreigners about the topic. Basically, people are welcome to scavenge. Japan has even more of a garbage problem than the US. Japanese consume a lot, overpackage like you wouldn't believe, and burn (not recycle) most waste. Osaka and Tokyo are about to be swallowed by garbage. Places for landfill will be exhausted in two or three years. Is this a change for the US to change the balance of trade?