Is there a bright side to social distancing? For garlic lovers there is. Herein I collect a few such oddities from Japan – without meaning to imply that the pandemic was worth the price we all paid.
To begin with the pungent bulb, it seems that garlic sales during Covid surged in Japan. This may be related to unproven rumours that it can decimate unwanted oral microbes, but I would guess it is mainly due to how many people enjoy the taste but at the same time are sensitive to what others may think of the odours its consumers exude. If no one is close enough to complain about your bad breath, though, pour it on.
This category of diners does not include many washoku purists. The tradition in this country is to delight the palate with a variety of subtle flavours, none of which are strong enough to drown out any of the others. Even wasabi is but a quick jolt which doesn’t linger long enough to prevent the savouring of vinegared fish aromas. Washoku is more of a ballad than a hard rock fest.
Nevertheless, there are those who sneak some Allium sativum into their soy sauce or rice. Several dishes borrowed from Korea or China, such as kimchi or gyoza, are immensely popular, though you will not find them served at the same establishments as sushi or tempura.
Dress codes changed during the pandemic, at least temporarily. I might have thought any modification would be welcome in offices seemingly staffed by employees cloned in dark hues, but I was not expecting the fashion chain Aoki to come out with a “pyjama suit”. It was presentable enough for an online conference, and had a comfortable feel to it, apparently, but cannot say I was ever tempted to buy one.
I do fondly remember giving online classes barefoot, and I have no idea what my students were wearing since in most cases only their names appeared on the screens, but shelling out for a Covid-specific wardrobe still not approved by the CDC did not capture my fancy. Least of all pyjamas.
While garlic sales soared, cosmetics took a dive, as morning routines were greatly simplified by not having to make up one’s lips and cheeks. A carefully chosen mask, colour-matched with the rest of the day’s outfit, plus a little attention to the eyes (don’t ask me about the fine points of that), was all that was needed.
I suspect that this may be one motivation behind my students’ still wearing masks (as of this week, close to 100 percent of them). I am not placing bets that Japan will see an end to this practice; it does not seem to be just a matter of following recommended health protocols.
Students in recent years that saw their senior year trips cancelled were nevertheless grateful that some of the job hunting rat-race could be performed while seated at their PC (granted, this is a small consolation to those who found their first-choice companies were not hiring that year).
This year-and-a-half ritual begins with attending seminars at their colleges, collecting information and advice; resumes are sent to 50 or even a 100 companies; going to setsumeikai, where employers give their spiel; legging one’s way to interviews in a two- or three-tier process; workshops, “internships” and visits to offices, sometimes in different cities.
Shukatsu, as it is called (short for shushoku katsudo, or seeking employment activity), becomes the standard excuse for turning down any other engagement. At least for the Covid generation it cost less footwork and travel expense.
One cultural icon saw its mould finally broken: the hanko(personal seal). I am not referring to the officially registered jitsu-in, which has legal value equivalent to a signature, and is still used to sign contracts and other documents, but the mitome-in. The hanko (also called inkan or insho) is a stick about the size of a tube of lipstick.
The flat end of it (about 1.5 cm. in circumference) has the owner’s name engraved in it. For most Japanese, this means about four Chinese characters. If you have a phonetically written name like Dorothy Johannsen you might prefer to use your initials or insist on using your handwritten signature. Pressed onto a small pad of red ink, the hanko is then stamped onto papers to show agreement.
In a typical office in this consensus-based culture, employees would stamp their hanko on several papers per day. Once a paper was drawn up, it would be passed around to a series of people for their stamped approval. Auditors would sound alarm bells if they found papers without multiple hankos on them.
Thus a strong preference for paper persisted even as the world was becoming increasingly digital. People would ask you to send faxes dozens of pages long, partly because several responsible parties could then put their hanko on it and store it in the proper binder. It was not rare to avoid working digitally because if any revision was made the document would have to be printed and passed around again to get everyone’s hanko on the newest version.
Enter the lockdown. Even while authorities were pleading with people not to use public transit, many white collar workers would take the commuter trains to their offices simply because projects could not progress without their hanko. That is, until the Prime Minister himself publicly remarked that it might seem appropriate to reconsider this practice.
I would not want to count how many hankos were stamped on that.