Of Ramen, Japanese Major Leaguers and the “Face of Japan” to the Outside World—Topics That May Loom Large in the Year 2011
Akemashite omedetoo gozaimasu. As we begin the year 2011, I pondered which topics might emerge this year that might be of general interest to us in the Nikkei/ijusha community, particularly people with backgrounds similar to mine—a bicultural (Japanese, “Western”) male in his 60s who has lived outside Japan for decades. I picked out three topics in my usual random and haphazard way. First of all ramen, that deceptively-simple bowl of noodles in broth that seems to be gaining in popularity worldwide; secondly, the performance of Japanese players in Major League Baseball (MLB); and thirdly, the collective “face of Japan” as seen from the outside.
A general word for a wide variety of Chinese-style noodles-with-toppings-in-soup fare, ramen (which used to be called shina soba before World War II) has been one of the most popular lunch/snack items in Japan since the early 1900s. Dating back so far that there are even three or four theories on its etymology, ramen is typically a bowl of Chinese-style wheat noodles in a meat- or fish-based broth, often soy sauce or miso flavoured, with toppings of sliced pork, nori (dried seaweed), spring onions, kamaboko, shinachiku (bamboo shoot) etc. Over the past decade or so, I believe it has spearheaded and symbolized the spread of popular (i.e. relatively cheap) Japanese food culture not only throughout major cities in Asia, the North American west coast and Brazil, Peru and other Nikkei-populated South American countries but to Europe, Russia and beyond.
A few months ago, I had the experience of walking into a ramen shop off Robson Street for a quick lunch before a job appointment—only to find several people queuing up to be seated. I hadn’t realized how popular a lunch item ramen had become in my own city. So I asked around and did a bit of research to find that queuing up for ramen is a fairly common lunchtime occurrence these days and that there are probably at least a dozen ramen-ya and Japanese restaurants serving ramen in and around Vancouver. As in Japan, albeit on a much smaller scale, ramen aficionados, many of them Canadian Japanophiles, are constantly engaged in heated discussions online about which shops serve the firmest noodles, tastiest broth and the thickest pork slices. I have seen recent photos of young people lining up outside a “lamen” shop on Paris’ left bank?and ramen websites abound on Yahoo UK.
But why such a big deal about a bowl of noodles? As I have observed with casual interest over the decades, the phenomena of various national cultures influencing each other through the multi-nationalization of corporate entities and the globalization of economies over the decades, it seems that food (and beverages), helped by the internet, now play a prominent role in the spread of particular cultures, be it American, Italian or Japanese. And ramen’s growing popularity is beginning to look like another major landmark in the history of Japanese dishes that have become popular outside Japan.
Remember sukiyaki? It used to be the clear winner as the dish to entertain “foreigners” (i.e. Westerners) with back in Japan in the post WWII era up to around the ’64 Tokyo Olympics and into the high economic growth period. What could be safer than beef cooked with vegetables for Westerners, most of whom used to shun raw fish, the main ingredient of what was considered the classiest Japanese dining-out fare.
From the 70s into the 80s, as more Japanese restaurants opened in North American and European capitals to cater to the growing number of Japanese “economic warriors” and their families stationed there, and as more tourists began to visit Japan, Westerners aversion toward raw fish (Remember? “Yuck!”) gradually dissipated. In hindsight, this might well have been the big landmark in the early history of the spread of Japanese cuisine abroad. Today, Vancouver with its large number of sushi eateries ranging from proper restaurants to your neighborhood take-out places could well be the sushi capital of North America.
Sushi enjoyed in its proper traditional setting is still considered one of the classiest and most expensive dinner fare. Ramen, in clear contrast, has always been one of the handiest and cheapest lunch items. It is my hunch that within a few years if not this year, ramen, like pizza, is poised to become a standard lunch item in major cities across the world, the national culture of its origin all but forgotten.
What might many Japanese men my age and younger watch on TV as they slurp up their bowl of ramen in small “Chinese noodle” shops around urban train stations all over Japan between April and October? Professional baseball. We fans of Japanese baseball on both sides of the Pacific have been enjoying MLB like never before since the arrival of Ichiro, the first Japanese position player to make a big impact in MLB, back in 2000. In 2011, the Mariners’ outfielder will be trying to extend his own MLB record of 10 consecutive seasons with over 200 hits, among other things. More tantalizing is the prospect of a big contribution from Tsuyoshi Nishioka, who has joined the Minnesota Twins this season, hopefully to start as a short stop or second baseman.
The switch hitter with a “rock star appeal” was the Pacific League’s leading hitter last season, also taking his Lotte Marines to the Japanese championship. Previous Japanese MLB infielders, Akinori Iwamura (Rays, Athletics) and Kazuo Matsui (Astros, Rockies) both of whom went back to Japan after the last season, did not make much of a lasting impact. Although some sports writers say Nishioka is an untested player who’s been injury-prone in the past, the team management, along with the Japanese media, hope that Nishioka, still only 26, has what it takes to establish himself as the first, starter-quality position player from Japan since Ichiro, who is now 35.
Once again, a lot of wishful thinking here, but with Ichiro in Seattle and Hideki Matsui, now with the Oakland Athletics, and hopefully Nishioka with Minnesota and all performing to their full potential, this could be a very exciting year in the American League for Japanese baseball fans everywhere.
The “face of Japan” as seen from North America, Europe or other Asian countries is something that’s always been at the back of my mind. Maybe it’s a holdover from back in the days of the high economic growth era of the 60s and 70s. Our generation was then led to believe that once Japan reached the same living standard as that of industrialized Western nations, we would somehow “win their respect.” We Japanese were definitely more sensitive to our “image abroad” in those days. After the negative WWII image of cruel and ruthless Japanese soldiers gradually “morphed” into that of hard-working “corporate warriors,” the decades since the 80s have seen key faces of Japan’s international corporate presence, like Akio Morita and Soichiro Honda, respectively founders of Sony and Honda, or fashion designer Hanae Mori fade from the scene with nobody to take their place.
Now we have become practically invisible as far as our collective “face” is concerned. How many Canadians or Americans know the name or face of the current Japanese PM? Political leaders seem too preoccupied with factional struggles to seriously worry about Japan’s role in the world. As for corporate Japan, CEOs of top Japanese companies are said to be fully aware that they must compete in the huge emerging consumer markets of China and India in order to survive, but given the current inward-looking phase of the Japanese national ethos, they can’t find enough personnel to run their overseas branches. They can always hire locals if necessary, but apparently it is becoming harder to find executives willing to go and manage those local operations.
Maybe I’ve been looking only at the dire side, but I recently came across a couple of statistics that would seem indicative of this inward-looking ethos pervading Japan. The results of a survey of household trends carried out by the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research and released in December showed that 30.6% of males in the 35-39 age bracket were still single, and that 41.6% of them still lived with their parent(s).
Another is the latest result of a survey of dads that a certain watch manufacturer has been carrying out once every decade since 1980, asking the question: “What time in your opinion would be considered ‘coming home late’?” Back in 1980, 45% of dads replied “after midnight.” In the 2010 survey, only 10% did so. Now 23% say 10 o’clock. Back in the days of the corporate warriors, there was a common expression gozensama (literally, “a proud-to-be-home-after-midnight dad”). Dad was working his butt off at the office and entertaining important people afterwards, so it was OK. But that was before the lifetime employment system disappeared and everything changed in Japan.
Ramblings of a typical disgruntled old Japanese man to start off the new year? I can hear the voice of my 19 year-old-son, now studying in Japan as an exchange student, say: “Lighten up, dad. You’re making too big a deal of this ‘being Japanese’ business.” I’m pretty sure his generation must be much less (not at all?) hung up about this collective image thing.
This year will be no better—but surely no worse—than the one before. In the meantime, I will be enjoying the performance of Ichiro, Matsui and maybe Nishioka on the small screen as I slurp up my instant ramen.