If Americans are obsessed with money, Japanese national obsession in my view, hands down, is…food.
When I go visit my mom in Tokyo, we watch TV together, and it seems like over 80 percent of what’s on is about food—introducing great restaurants for ramen, curry, tonkatsu, what they eat in a small countryside village, a huge variety of nabe ryori (hot pot)…absolutely endless topics. Celebrities go to places, and inevitable “ahhh, oishii (delicious)!”
I have worked with dozens and dozens of groups from Japan when I worked as an interpreter over the years, and I have met only one or two people who didn’t care about food. Meals were always very important, one of the critical “tanoshimi” (something to enjoy) while they were on their business trip. Some even wrote to me, after they went back to Japan, how much they appreciated that I helped them navigate through the incomprehensible menus in English.
During the Washington State Centennial events in 1989, a state employee drove me and two other Japanese professionals from Seattle to Olympia; one was a business man, the other lady was another interpreter. Unlike Americans, Japanese people tend to be rather introverted with people they never met before. We weren’t talking much and it was a bit awkward. After 15 minutes or so, I said, “Which Chinese restaurants do you go to in Seattle?” One answered, “Shanghai Garden.” “I love that place, too.” Conversation suddenly blossomed and we talked and talked about good places for sushi, Vietnamese, Korean, etc. It became a fun ride and felt like we made new friends.
I used to go to Moses Lake, WA, every year with different groups. I told an American coordinator it’s important to have varieties for Japanese visitors in terms of meals. He said, “We are good, we have three different restaurants right next to the motel.” They were Denny’s, Sheri’s and another family restaurant. In my mind, and I bet 99 percent of Japanese people would think they are the same. What I meant when I said varieties was, Seafood, Japanese, Chinese, Thai, American, Mexican etc.
When I stayed in Corvallis, OR, with another group in one year, we had field trips three days in a row. Lunch was exactly the same every day—sandwich, apple, and cookie. Most Japanese people don’t mind sandwiches, but three days in a row… they were all feeling “unzari” (sick of it), even though they didn’t say anything. I would have suggested going to a Teriyaki place, stop at a grocery store, order pizza… just to mix up, give more varieties and have them taste different American food experiences.
I have so many food related memories over the years with guests from Japan, but what stands out most is a trip when a group of us stayed in Toronto, Canada. I suggested how about Thai food for dinner one night. Back then in the 90’s, ethnic food was not very common in Japan, even though today Thai restaurants are everywhere. Most of the members were rather skeptical and even scared of trying something new. I told them “Don’t worry, you will like them.” We ordered a bunch of dishes, shared with 7-8 people. It was the best Thai food I ever had, and I never forget the most blissful smile I ever witnessed when one member had his first bite and exclaimed, “Oishiiiii!”