(Indulge me today. It's my birthday...)
AN OFFBEAT ESSAY FOR A CHANGE
THE SCIENTIFIC METHOD IN JAPAN: MAYONNAISE AND URANAI
Every now and again, something so silly comes across my plate that my
mind begins to connect the dots, and an essay out of nowhere starts
This morning, and every morning, minutes before my favorite TV Wide
Show "Toku Da Ne" (8AM-10AM weekdays) begins, there is a little segment
for all the housewives--the "uranai corner" (your fortune for the
day--which, just in case you don't catch it at 7:58, there's yet
another one at the end of Toku Da Ne for good measure).
The prognostication is very thorough. Each sign of the zodiac is
appraised with a ranking for the day, with best, the five luckies in
descending order (I came in second today), the five unluckies, and the
unluckiest (cue visual with sobbing-with-a-smile ingenue bearing
umbrella and stamping her feet in the rain) with an apology from the
announcer for causing any inconvenience...
But take heart... at the very very very end, for those star-crossed
people, there is a "lucky menu". And this morning, it was ebi mayo sausu (shrimp in mayonnaise sauce).
And that's what caused this essay to start knitting through my morning shower...
WHERE THE HELL DID THAT COME FROM?!
Call me a man with too much time on my hands, but how the blazes did
they come up with that? Do those people who make a living
checking the astrology charts (yes, some people do) actually find a
reading in the stars involving crustaceans and egg curd? I doubt
any of The Oracles of old would have come near mayonnaise even if under
threat of lightning bolt from Zeus or Apollo! Not to mention
domestic gods like Amatarasu Ohmikami or Sugawara Michizane, who I
doubt are the culinary culture vultures of today's Japan.
Put that down, said my addled brain under shampooed pate, to the odd use of the scientific method over here.
This is a society that finds you marriage partners based upon your
blood type or favorite color (many people actually believe that
something as simple as 4 types x Rh plus or minus has some bearing on
your personality!). Where all sorts of snake oil can be sold or
broadcast as long as there is some element of fun or a knowing
wink. I'm sure everyone has a favorite collection of stupefyingly
unscientific oddities. Here are some of mine:
Pet bottles full of water placed around your garden will curtail
crapping cats. People with different eye colors (of course,
applied only to Westerners) see colors differently than us brown-eyed
Asians. Certain soaps remove body fat and will make you
slimmer. Pregnant women shouldn't eat invertebrates (such as
squid or octopus) because it will bear you a boneless baby.
Eating at McDonalds (according to Fujita Den, former CEO) will make
your legs longer and your body more Western (I'll agree with the second
bit). Sleeping without panties on increases fertility (it
certainly might increase the likelihood!). And way back when, a
golf course invoked the probable anger of the gods when barring women
from becoming members (I guess the local kamisama around the thirteenth
hole like a few rounds without any miniskirted distractions...).
Of course, pseudoscience is part of every society. Seances,
palmistry, tarot, even phrenology became pretty elaborate and avidly
followed, and after enough parlor tricks they inspired whole literary
genres. However, these days they are generally passed off as
humbugs, quackery, or mere Victorian-Era quirks. Here, however,
how can the media get this stuff past their editors in this modern
Then again, we just got through a peak season of superstition--New
Years--where people line up for hours and throw coins at groaning
shrine boxes for luck; even buy 100 yen or more omikuji
fortune-telling papers just to see what their chances for love, riches,
health, et cetera are for the coming year (it's, again, very
elaborately categorized and detailed in description). For
your hard-earned coin, you get your "luckiness" headline--Daikichi, Chuukichi, Shoukichi, Suekichi, Kichi, Kyou
(I've probably forgotten one or two rankings; except for top and
bottom, nobody seems to know what the order is!). If you
don't like what fortune you get (or even if you do), you tie it up on
ropes around the shrine and quickly forget everything but the
headline. Perfect lack of accountability. Moreover, if you
get the unluckiest ranking (Kyou),
it's unusual enough to mean you're actually lucky! In other
words, the whole process is completely meaningless! So why do
people buy these here omikuji? Amused curiosity, probably. I admit I have bought them too, every year without fail, since I came to Japan...
So anyway, returning to the shrimp a la mayonnaise, what happened here?
Did the seafood lobby do some major payola (like the record companies
arranging for the latest Amuro Namie track to be on in the background
of junk-food news), to increase shrimp sales for the day? (I can
think of lots of puns on the word "uranai" here...) Or is that
knowing smile on the Cupie mayonnaise figurines due to something we
don't know? (Having to strut around naked like that all the time
demonstrates that ambitious people in the entertainment business make a
lot of sacrifices...)
Believe it or not, this is a serious question. My Friends' List
is very eclectic, and I know at least one person (you know who you are,
XX) who has a wife in the uranai business. Any theories on how we
came up with a "lucky menu" which included thoroughly modern
Arudou Debito in Sapporo
January 13, 2006 (Friday the 13th)
(NB: It's just so happened I've
turned 41--a yakudoshi for me and everyone else my age--a whole stripe
of the population bell-curve doomed to failure; gotta go to the temple
mount and get the bad-luck humors waived away.)
RESPONSE FROM XX:
My wife in the business says that the
people who provide that information to the TV programs are contract
"soothsayers" (for lack of any better word), and the so-called "lucky
menu" part is one type of invention by them. Once it was introduced,
all of the others jumped on the bandwagon because not one of these
"phonies" (the wife's word, not mine) will give any bad news without
allowing for a "way out" of the problem. Angry/worried viewers mean
less customers and poor ratings.
According to my personal
knows-all-and-sees-all, it is more appropriate to identify a proper
talisman such as a particular rock, or in some cases flower or plant,
which will assist in eliminating the bad-- whatever you call it--luck,
Also, for good luck, just travel in a
particular direction to a location which is more conducive to good luck
or fortune. You don't have to do anything, just travel to some location
that you would like to see along the coordinates provided and you'll be
fine. This is a lot like the oriental custom of seeking to layout the
house in specific directions with the furniture placed in set
directions of the compass and so forth.
If you're asking me to explain it,
forget it. However, I'm sure my wife will give you a meeting for
the appropriate price. I'm afraid to have one myself, just in case she
can see things like my girl friend, bar tabs, etc. ;-)
But back to the original question!
She doesn't think the menu thing has any meaning. But then again, what
Japanese do you know who is unaware that you must eat toshikoshi soba
at New Years for luck?
Portions Copyright 2006, Arudou Debito, Sapporo, Japan