Why is it okay for a man to ride a shopping bike? Second attempt

Or indeed for a trendy teenage male to be on a “mama chari”?

I just noticed that there are in fact some gender differences when I saw a man on an electric bike with a baby seat and realised that I’d never seen such a thing in Japan before. I think the big difference between practical cycling and sports cycling that I mentioned in the last post might also be a factor.

Why is it okay to cycle with an umbrella?

First of all, the Japanese are (like the rest of us, or possibly more) not as “law-abiding” as they are “social norm abiding”. Cycling holding an umbrella certainly has the critical mass of people doing it that makes it perfectly okay to do so, even in front of exactly the same policeman outside his koban (police box) who shouted at me last week for crossing an empty one-way street when the pedestrian light was red.

One factor is that breaking the law and ignoring safety seems to particularly go together with bicycles in Japan. There are plenty of laws which are broken all the time, such as the (almost unknown) one against cycling on the pavement. Then there are laws which seem to have scant regard for the safety of cyclists, such as it being okay to cycle the wrong way down a one-way street. Then there are the ones that are broken and protested against until they have to go back on them, like the attempt to stop mothers cycling along with two small children on their bikes. Very few cycling helmets here either.

I also wonder whether waterproof trousers here has a really blue collar connection. Alternatively, there seems to be a real division between sports cycling and practical cycling, with no equipment but umbrella okay being very much the latter.

Why did pot noodles and toilet paper run out first?

When panic buying started here in Tokyo I went straight for tinned meat, fruit, fish and vegetables, peanuts, peanut butter, and chocolate bars. Looking around for other more Japanese survival foods, I also stocked up on boil in the bag curry, beef jerky and dried squid. At home, I probably would have gone for baked beans and Kendal Mint Cake. Luckily I wasn’t battling anyone for any of the things I aimed for, as everyone else had baskets full of pot noodles, natto, milk, bread and water. Breakfast cereals also ran out fairly quickly, as did some brands of bottled tea, along with nappies, toilet paper, tissues, battery-powered mobile phone chargers, and other non-food items.

Of all of those, pot noodles is probably the most surprising to me, if only because the predicted power cuts would have left many people without the hot water to make them, as indeed has been the case in the worst hit areas (although I know from my own board school days that chewing on raw pot noodles and dipping your finger into the various powders does have its own strange appeal, a bit like the cookie dough fetish that some people have). My first thought was that it is a comfort food, which is why I would have had a basket full of baked beans back in the UK, but I’ve read elsewhere that “curry rice” is the baked beans of Japanese cuisine, and that didn’t seem to run out in any shops. Perhaps it is that pot noodles can easily be made from just hot water, e.g. (nearly) boiled on top of the paraffin stove, whereas most Japanese nowadays have no idea how to make rice without a rice cooker. I have a feeling it wasn’t such a logical reaction though.

I think my own choices of survival foods come from my camping and hiking days, including some ideas of what you need if you get stuck on top of a mountain that probably came from someone else’s half-remembered boy scout skills. I wonder if pot noodles have a similar back to basics feeling for Japanese people.

I do also wonder why anyone needed to buy eighteen rolls of toilet roll. Could they all rely on their washlettes so much that the idea of the electricity to run them puts them in an irrational panic and leaves them with no clear idea of how much toilet paper one would need when left without a spray function??

Natto is also a strange one (as well as a strange thing to eat in general, in my humble opinion). It doesn’t keep long, especially if the fridge went off during a power cut. Again, could be a comfort food. It could also be the connection to breakfast, a meal which panics us or if it seems we will lack a proper one.

Why the girly men? 4th attempt

I’ve generally stuck up for young Japanese guys with their hairspray and whathaveyou, including reminding disapproving Westerners of New Romantics and Glam Rock. I’ve always been, however, quite sceptical that women can really, truly find “new men” (of any kind) attractive, even if they think that is what they want.

A science programme on Radio 4, however, proves me wrong. With made up computer generated faces they proved that, unsurprisingly, men are basically predictable and we all like the same thing (I should remind you that we are talking about faces here!) Women, however, were clearly divided into those who liked and disliked macho, square-jawed men. Whether that could be culturally determined or change over time didn’t get a mention, but interesting none the less…

Should you be wondering, theories one and two were about reacting against their gruff but actually quite weak fathers and the influence of in the closet gay fashion leaders (similar to 1970s UK). Can’t remember what number three was…

Why did sushi become so popular in Japan?

Similar foods exist in parts of China and SE Asia, but it only really took off in Japan.

“By the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries Tokyo, then called Edo, had usurped Kyoto as the capital of Japan, becoming the largest, most populous city on earth in the process. A series of fires, however, threatened the future of the world’s first conurbation, and so open flames were banned in restaurants and the city’s burgeoning fast food industry was virtually wiped out overnight. To the rescue came sushi, which could be assembled without the need of a flame” Sushi and Beyond page 172

Sounds too convenient an explanation to really be true. Any other ideas?

Why wasabi with sushi?

As with many things associated with sushi, it was originally there to tame the germs associated with pre-refrigeration eating of raw fish. The same is true of soy sauce and pickled ginger, and the vinegar in the rice is supposed to reproduce the taste of the fermentation process that preserved the raw fish.

Why is Japanese bread so soft and sweet?

“In Japan we had to learn to like bread. At the start we used to sweeten it with bean paste, we thought French bread was too crispy, so we made it softer to suit our palates”

Chef Yoshihiro Murata, quoted in Sushi and Beyond

Certainly seems to make sense as a historical explanation, as you can now find far more authentic French bread in Tokyo than you can in London. I do think there are other factors, though. One thing is that bread (and the other things that “pan” mean, such as pastries, and in fact most Western food) are still a mainly for females. I’ve written elsewhere on why I think this explains the soft and fluffy bagels.

Another thing is that “localised” bread is the same over most of Asia, e.g. Korea and Thailand. In Korea, for example, garlic toast has icing on it (!) As well as matching local tastes, I have a feeling it had something to do with the people they were getting it from, being sailors coming off long sea journeys. I’m thinking something like the story of how IPA has the taste it has because it was made to travel, but still have to do some work on that theory I reckon…

Why are there banks in all the new buildings?

Often they are the first or only thing there. You’d think with all the rationalisation with Japanese banks that they’d be cutting down on the number of branches.

Actually, I think the mergers and rationalisations of Japanese banks might be the reason. They are finally closing the branches which are two doors down from the other branch of the same bank (because it used to be a different bank before they merged), and in typical Japanese style that isn’t actually leading to any redundancies, so I guess they have to stick them somewhere else. The charges for using cashpoints and the number of old people with huge savings also can’t make it difficult to make money out of them.

Why is the fattiest part of the tuna the most expensive?

The fact that o-toro used be thrown to the cats is quite famous, but I’d always wondered why the switch happened. According to the (often unreliable) book Sushi and Beyond, it was a combination of getting a taste for fattier foods due to a more Western diet, and us fat-loving and more and more sushi-loving Westerners giving o-toro a status that came back to Japan. Then again, it could just be a case of the Japanese eating absolutely anything before, during and after the war and then getting a taste for it, like chicken cartilage and stomach yaki niku, and like powdered eggs and chicory coffee in the UK.

Why are there no female sushi chefs?

“Their make-up and perfume taint the fish and rice. They also have a higher body temperature, which warms the fish.” Chef Eiji Hayashi, quoted in Sushi and Beyond page 99

Even sexist opinions are welcome on JapanExplained, but in fact I think it has more to do with the atmosphere of sushi being particularly masculine/ laddish. One sign of this is the loud shouts of “Irrashai” (and definitely not “Irrashaimase”) from the kitchen. In the same way, a female greengrocer or fishmonger just couldn’t manage the right kind of masculine and matey “Mai dou” (literally “Thanks for your custom”, but more like “Cheers love” in effect) and general market chit-chat. In sushi, there is the same matey chitchat, along with a trainspotterish respect for those who know every silly little detail of fish and sushi etiquette, being a particularly male mix I would say.