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Part XXXIV Condiment Craziness

September 7, 1999

In Japan, another word for July is "rainy season."  Unfortunately, another word for September/October is "late rainy season."  This is also called, not very comfortingly, "typhoon season."  The main difference between the rainy season (summer) and the typhoon season (fall) is that in the former it rains every single day, but usually only a little bit, while in the latter most days are fine, but when it rains it rains a WHOLE HELLUVA LOT.  That's how I discovered that my apartment leaks.  What I still haven't figured out is why it is the FLOOR that leaks during a storm, not the ceiling.  This is especially confounding because I live on the second floor, and the first floor is bone dry.  When I informed the board of education (my landlords) about the leak, they discussed it amongst themselves for a few minutes and then advised me to close my windows when it rains.  I wish all of life's problems had such simple answers.  I'll probably have an update on this situation the next time we get a lot of rain, which should be anytime now, because while it was very sensible advice that they gave me, the location of the leak is near no windows.

And now for the condiment part.  A couple of weeks ago I had one of my most unpleasant experiences in Japan.  I have been going to restaurants here for quite some time (like, since I got here), and I have never had any problems.  Well, let me rephrase that -- I have had problems reading the menu and communicating what I want (like the woman who wouldn't give me chopsticks, but insisted on sending her daughter next door to BUY a fork for me), but I have never before witnessed any unpleasantness.

Two weeks ago the other three Kiryu ALTs and I went to a local "katsudon" restaurant.  Katsudon is basically deep fried pork cutlets.  Kiryu has it's own special dish called "sauce katsudon," or katsudon with "sauce."  That's actually what it is called -- simple "sauce"  (or "so-su" to be exact).  Not particularly healthy, nor kosher, but it tastes damn good.  I have frequented many such establishments, and in each one they have a small container of "sauce" on the table.  While this sauce is also added during the cooking process, people have different tastes, so it is put on the table so that you can add more if you like.

None of us had been there before, but it looked nice, so we went in, sat down and ordered four sauce katsudon lunches.  When the food came, the woman serving us pointed to the sauce and said something in VERY fast Japanese.  We all just sort of smiled and shook our heads.  So, she said it again, this time slower.  We assumed she was saying "this is the sauce for the sauce katsudon."  What else could she possibly be saying?  One of our number, Jimmy, is ethnically Korean, and many Japanese people think he is Japanese.  Since she assumed he was Japanese, she also assumed that he (and thus we) understood what it was that she said.

So, we started to eat.  Three of us immediately put some of the sauce onto the katsudon, and suddenly the chef/owner came out from the back, looking angry, and said something that we could not understand.  We all looked at each other confusedly, so he said it louder.  And louder. In less than a minute he was yelling at us, especially at Jimmy.  When Jimmy finally said "I am American, not Japanese," that just set him off even more.  None of us could understand everything he was saying, but I did catch the phrase "GET OUT!!"  That's when we all stood up and left, leaving our food uneaten and unpaid for.  He even started coming out of the restaurant after us, still screaming, but his wife (the woman who had served us) held him back.

We were all stunned.  None of us had ever seen anything like that before, and we had no idea what had just happened.  We ended up going somewhere else to eat, but we were pretty rattled.  I told some of my friends about it, and the only thing we could come up with was that maybe it was an insult to the chef to use the sauce, since each of these restaurants has its own "secret" recipe that is supposed to be the best.  It seemed unlikely that that was the only reason, however, given the violence of the guy's reaction.

As it turned out, though, we were right.  About a week later, the woman from the restaurant saw Karen and Robyn, the other two who were there with Jimmy and me, in the city hall.  She immediately asked the city hall information desk if they knew who the foreigners were.  Karen, meanwhile, went over to the International Section to get Barbara, a long-time Kiryu resident who speaks Japanese fluently.  They quickly managed to start a conversation during which the woman from the restaurant apologized approximately 143 times.  Apparently, her husband (the chef) had recently had a stroke, and he had become very short tempered and paranoid.  He was afraid that people think he is stupid now.  It seems that the only thing he still has pride in is his cooking, and so when we added the sauce we were insulting the one thing that he still cared about.  Plus, remember, he had become short-tempered.  Compounding this was the fact that both of them thought that Jimmy was Japanese, and that he had understood the woman's instructions.  Those instructions, of course, were NOT to use the sauce because there was already the perfect amount on the katsudon.

That is still no excuse, of course, and the woman recognized that.  However, I'm glad that we at least got the whole story.  I still think people need to control themselves better, but at least now I know a little bit about why he reacted that way. The woman seemed very concerned that we would think badly of Kiryu because of the experience, and she seemed to sincerely want to make amends.  Also, in Japan the health of family is nearly a forbidden topic, so by describing her husband's medical condition she was emphasizing very forcefully how sorry she was about the way he acted.

One thing still puzzles me, though.  If we weren't supposed to use the sauce, if it is an insult to add condiments to the chef's secret recipe, WHY IN THE HELL WAS THE STUFF ON THE DAMN TABLE IN THE FIRST PLACE?  That's like putting salt on the table and then saying "if you use that, you will be insulting me."  It just doesn't make sense.  People have different tastes -- I, for one, can never get enough salt, while other people put sugar on breakfast cereal (YUCK!).

I quickly learned that this was not an isolated incident.  A friend was eating at the cafeteria in the city hall when he was confronted by an extremely angry woman who came out from the kitchen to yell at him.  Eventually, he realized that she was upset because he had added pepper to his curry and rice.  Since she had made the curry, he was insulting her by adding pepper.  Once again, this begs the question -- why was the pepper on the table if people aren't allowed to use it?

I think this all goes back to an email I wrote a long time ago about school lunch -- for each dish, there is a prescribed way to eat it, and no one deviates from that norm.  If there is butter, then the bread is always buttered.  If there is no butter, then no one thinks about going to get butter.  In other words, the sauce was on the table because a different dish required it.  Ours did not, so we weren't supposed to use it.  Either everyone actually likes the same food in the same way, or they are pretending.  I think these unpleasant (to say the least) experiences are simply what happens when that attitude is taken to its logical extreme.