It’s that history that first draws many people into learning more about the country. Clichéd stories of stealthy ninjas, honourable samurai, epic battles and flashing swords tend to be the first points of reference when we think about Japanese history. It’s exciting, romantic and full of readymade heroes and villains. What’s not to love?
A place’s history is made up of the stories of what has happened there; anachronistic stories concerning people who are long gone. It’s all already finished. It is, by its very definition, in the past. For me, what’s more fascinating than history is culture. Culture takes all of what makes history grand, and supercharges it with currency. It’s history made relevant.
Food is the ultimate embodiment of culture. It combines history with geography, religion, politics, economics and time, and makes them all tangible and personal. Even if you can’t speak the language of a country and you don’t know the history or the customs, you can still experience real culture through eating.
There’s so much history in the food we eat you can taste it. The exalted status of wagyu beef in modern Japan has its roots in the nationwide decrees against eating meat that was in effect in Japan for nearly a thousand years. The only beef allowed to be eaten in that time was from the beef cattle of Tajima where the leather hides were used to make ceremonial drums.
A plate of tempura might seem “traditionally” Japanese – and it is – but it’s a tradition that was first imported by Portuguese Jesuits who came to Japan more than 500 years ago. The name itself comes from the Latin name for the holy Catholic Ember Days – the four seasons or quattor tempora.
Even something as modern as a dish of abalone cooked in a rice cooker and served to me by the diving women of the Ama in Mie Prefecture has come from a culture that goes back more than 2000 years to when the traditions of abalone diving among the Ama first arose. That a practice so ancient can continue today is nothing short of remarkable.
But the most fascinating thing about it all is that, for all its history, culture is something that can only be current. We hear a lot about “preserving” culture but culture is not so much preserved as it is practised.
In Episode 4 we meet Kiyoe Noda, a thoroughly modern man who makes miso just the way his ancestors did, fermented in giant wooden barrels weighted with river stones. He does it not as some reenactment of ancient times or as a curiosity or affectation, but as a thriving business that operates every day with payroll, employees and end-of-year parties. It’s as modern and current as any other business, and it’s that modernity that keeps Japanese culture alive.
If it wasn’t for a teenage girl who decided to keep diving like her mother and grandmother have done, a culture that stretches back a millennium might have come to an end.
No matter how old or how interesting the stories may be of these foods and the ways they are made or gathered, it is only through modern-day decisions made by modern-day people that they remain a part of the culture. When those decisions stop, so do cultures and they instead fall away into silent history – remembered today but perhaps tomorrow forgotten.