Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Anpan and Other Weird Japanese Breads

This is the story of a super-hero here in Japan and sandwiches. If you've ever been to Japan, then you'll know that it is one heck of a difficult chore to find a decent sandwich. Oh sure, they have all the usual suspects: Ham and Cheese, Sliced Beef, Tuna Salad, Veggies. But for an American palate, there is something decidedly wrong with Japanese sandwiches.

Sometimes when you talk to a Japanese who can speak English, you'll find that they often make plural sentences out of words where there shouldn't be any. For example, my daughter told me the other day, "I got all my homeworks done." I laughed and gently corrected her English by saying, "You mean to say, 'I completed my homeworks.'" Oh me. The joys of raising children and raising them right.

I figure that this adding an "S" where there shouldn't be any has something to do with Japanese language not really having plurals. They certainly don't have plurals when it comes to Ham or Sliced Beef sandwiches. When the Japanese say, "Sliced Beef", they mean sliced beef. One little slice of beef. Now, just how do they slice the beef so thin that you can almost see through it? Who knows? Maybe they use lasers to cut them that way, I'm not sure.

The sandwiches in Japan that I really can't stand are the sandwiches that are filled with weird things. No, I'm not talking about things like octopus or squid, or anything like that. I'm talking about things that Americans would never even think about putting in between two slices of bread: like Potato sandwiches or even Bread sandwiches; or even worse Fried Potato Pancake sandwiches. Now don't think too much about what I'm talking about here. Just take my words as they are. Potato sandwiches are two pieces of bread with, well, potato inside. Bread sandwiches are two pieces of bread with, you guessed it, a sliced of bread inside – the really gourmet places may throw in some mayonnaise and one wilted lettuce leaf – those cost extra. And to top it all off, the worst thing about all this is that white bread is used in 99.99% of all sandwiches. I hate white bread. Had Elvis Presley been a Japanese, he'd probably still be alive today and weigh in at 150 pounds – No fried banana sandwiches for you, Mister King!

I reckon that this sandwich situation came about from Japan being a poor country for so many years and not having any food. When they did learn how to make bread from the Portuguese, they had to put something into it, so they grabbed whatever was available. Now, I'm just guessing here about this. But I do know that there is an old Japanese saying that could relate to this story. It's about green onions. The saying goes: "Eating green onions will make you smart."

I had never heard such a thing before I came to Japan, so it took me a long time to figure this one out. But I think I did. Okay, here's the scenario: It's war-time and your family is desperately poor and starving. You have nothing to eat. Green onions are like weeds and they'll grow just about anywhere. So the people planted green onions. One night, mama-san serves green onions to the kids. Kids hate vegetables, right? So one of the kids doesn't eat the onions. Later that night, when the other kids are fast asleep, the kid who didn't eat the onions wakes up starving and says to his mom, "Mom! I'm starving. I need something to eat." The mom gets mad and says, "Baka! (stupid!) I told you to eat your green onions."

See? The kid who didn't eat the green onions got called "stupid" and the ones who did eat them got a good nights sleep. I'm pretty sure that's how this came about. I think about these kinds of things a lot.
So what does this have to do with a Japanese Super-Hero? Well, there's this hero named Anpan-man. He's a really good guy. He's really sweet and friendly and all the kids like him. And he is probably, by far, the most popular animation character among the 2 – 5 year-old crowd in Japan. In fact, Anpan-man even has a CD out in America! I suppose someone created Anpan-man as a way to make Japanese kids want to eat bread way back when, because this hero has been around for at least 40 or 50 years.

What is Anpan? Okay, now we're back to the weird bread. Anpan is a baked "sandwich" that has Azuki (sweet beans) inside. And when I say, sweet beans, I mean, sweet beans. The first time I ate one I thought, "What the heck is this?" A bean sandwich!? I told you that they have bizarro sandwiches in this country.

There are lots of characters in Anpan-man. Of course, there is the kindly old baker – who kind of reminds me of Clark Kent's dad), And there's Melon-chan, who is the nice girl that has baked melon inside of her – Yuck! And many others. The one character in Anpan-man that I really like is Baikin-man (Bacteria-man). Try as he will to be a bad guy, he just can't – as all the other bread Super-heroes just love him. And, as everyone knows, not all bacteria are bad. And bread needs bacteria to grow (I think. Some mom help me out here – yeast is a bacteria right?)

That's Baikin-man (center-left) and Anpan-man (center-right) making the typical Japanese "Peace Sign" when having their pictures taken.

Japanese cartoons are very cute. No! Make that super-cute. They are so cute, that I just can't stand it. Even the bad guys are cute. In America, you have cartoons like The Simpsons, that are not "cute." Japanese kids don't seem to like cartoon characters like Shot-Glass Barney. They also don't like American cartoon characters that only have four fingers. Why? Because having four fingers is a sign of shame. It is known that Yakuza guys would cut off their pinky fingers when they screwed up something big-time. So four fingered cartoon characters on regular Japanese TV are definitely out.

They had an Anpan-man promotion at a department store the other day and my wife made me wake up early and go stand in line to get a place so that my son could get his picture taken with Anpan-man. I'm not exaggerating when I say that there were at least a thousand people there with their kids to see our bean-filled super-hero. I waited in line for 6 hours. That just goes to show you how big of a star Anpan-man is in Japan.

Just about all the TV episodes and comics about Anpan-man are about making friends and sharing. Baikin-man tries to steal other kids' sandwiches, but winds up sharing with everyone. And all the kids who eat bread and the bread super-heroes are happy.

Which seems to be very cool with the kids at my house and at every other house in Japan. So now, there you have it: A concise and complete understanding of the history of bread in Japan and how it relates to Japanese comic book characters. I hope this helps you in your understanding of Japan. Because if you can figure this all out, then you are a better expert on Japan than I am.

This article originally ran on Lew Rockwell

Personally, I'll stick with the rice – the Japanese know how to make that right.

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