Thursday, February 3, 2011

El kappatan

It's that time of year again: setsubun, my favourite minor Japanese festival. What I like about it is that, to someone outside of the culture, it sounds like the insane ramblings of a febrile toddler. If you don't know what I'm on about, see last year's post. But to summarise very briefly: throwing beans at demons, and silently eating oversize sushi whilst facing a particular direction (this year, south-south-east, compass fans).

I don't think this surrealism is peculiar to Japan. It is difficult to step outside of one's own culture, especially if one is a Westerner, as our customs have permeated just about everywhere on the planet to a greater or lesser extent. The average Japanese person has a pretty solid understanding of Christmas, for example, though they will invariably overstate the importance of Christmas cake. But imagine trying to explain Christmas to a true outsider, like the hypothetical Martian anthropologist. "So, you cut down an actual tree and erect it inside your house, decorating it with various colourful ornaments and electric lights. And you must eat a bird which is considered by many to be a less tasty version of one that you eat all the time, with a side serving of a vegetable that is almost universally disliked. Remind me, what does this have to do with the birth of Jesus Christ again?"

A similar sort of effect can be found for folklore. For all I've talked about Kappa Sushi (or indeed Kappa Zushi, as I think it should in fact be pronounced), I've never explained what a kappa is. They are mythical river imps, and they have an interestingly multi-faceted character. In some stories, they are mischievous pranksters. Other accounts portray them as a genuinely malevolent force, a little like ogres in our folklore, who like to drown and/or eat children. The only thing they like to eat more than children is - weirdly enough - cucumbers, so people occasionally sacrificially toss cucumbers into rivers as an offering to ensure their children's safety. For this reason, cucumber sushi rolls are often referred to as kappa maki.

On the positive side, kappa are very honourable creatures. Their word is their bond, so if you can somehow trick one into making you a promise, you can hold him to it forever. Another point in their favour is that they supposedly have an advanced understanding of human medicine, with particular expertise in bone-setting. So, worth having on your side.

All good monsters need a weakness, and kappa don't disappoint in this regard. They have a saucer-like depression on the top of their head, and they can survive on land only as long as they keep this filled with water. Should you come across one, you can simply give it a nice deep bow, and it will be honour-bound to return the gesture, even though this will likely result in its demise. So, they may have just been made up to teach children the importance of a) manners and b) staying out of rivers.

Again, I think a lot of our legends would sound similarly demented to a newcomer. I'll leave it as an exercise for the reader to think about how you would explain vampires to our notional curious extraterrestrial. What I like abut kappa is their moral ambiguity, which I feel most of our fairy tales lack.

Anyway, back to setsubun. Once again, I got a packet of dried beans with my lunch today. On the way home, the supermarket was doing a roaring trade in ehou maki, one of which I managed to bag without being awkwardly interviewed this time around. I pushed the boat out with a huge 880yen sushi log that containing, as tradition dictates, seven fillings. (These were, I think: tuna, eel, prawn, crab, fake crab, salmon roe, and cucumber.) Had I wanted to pull out all the stops in addition to pushing out the boat, I could have got the 1250yen deluxe version which boasted no less than a dozen fillings. But I reasoned that as the number of fillings increased, so did the probability that one of them would be natto.

A teacher of some advanced years was telling me this that this whole ehou maki business only came about a few decades ago, and opined that it was evidence of the shrewdness of sushi merchants. Banishing demons from one's home with a barrage of dried beans is all very well, but there's not much bottom line in that for anybody. I'm inclined to believe this assessment, as the degree of spurious commercialisation surrounding Valentine's Day in Japan puts the West to shame. I mean, they've managed to turn it into two days, for a start.

Finally, I can announce that I just submitted my intention to stay for a third year. Re-upping last time was a no-brainer, but this time I had to repeatedly engage large parts of my central nervous system before coming to a decision. I figured that I've got a pretty sweet gig here, and three years in Japan hopefully isn't going to be that much more detrimental to my career prospects than two would have been. I think I'll probably call it a day after that though.


  1. Is that a scoop that you're staying on for a third year? You just sneaked it in at the end.

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  3. I feel like you've undersold the moral ambiguity of our fairy tales/myths somewhat. There's a huge array of mythical prankster beings kicking around, almost all of which take their pick between horrific and kindly acts depending on various totally arbitrary factors (off the top of my head, fairies, mermaids, will-o-the-wisps and there's plenty more).
    As for our actual fairy tales, well they have only been re-written to the modern clean versions relatively recently and it was specifically because they were so gruesomely violent that they had to be.