by Robert J. Collins

Nowhere are cultural differences between Japanese and non-Japanese more evident than in the literal act of putting things in the mouth, chewing and swallowing. My Japanese colleagues are often operating way outside my concept of pleasure, not to mention basic concerns for safety or even survival.

Consider the pace of things. Where is it written (or hummed on the wind) that food must be slurped from a receptacle and stuffed into the mouth quicker than the blink of an eye? Check out the young guys particularly. The bowl is raised to the mouth and the chopsticks dig away at the contents (rotating the bowl slightly) until everything is virtually shoveled in and sucked down.

Can that be good for you? Teeth don’t even enter the equation. Food in bowl — food in stomach. It takes about as long to do it as type it.

The same applies to drinking beer. Now I’ve been drinking a fair amount of beer for a fair number of decades. All my family and friends will certainly attest to that.

But I have never, never in my whole life, drunk a beer as fast and as furiously as the youngest and tiniest of office ladies presented after work with goblets of suds half their size. Woooooosh, it’s all gulped, Gulped, GULPED, down in one motion with the empty glass banged on the table amid orgasmic (I’m guessing) sighs, screeches, moans and violent head wagging. Whew. I would never do that with a gun held to my head but people here, copying the commercials, do it all the time.

Pace alone, of course, is merely an oddity. By itself the only danger inherent in simple pace is severe indigestion or spectacular drunkenness. But add to pace a real dangerous factor — heat — and we have utter insanity.

Last year there was a popular TV commercial involving a young man advertising instant miso soup. As cameras recorded it in one uninterrupted take, the young man picked up a pot of boiling water and poured the fluid, steam obscuring his features, into the cup of dried soup bits. He grabbed chopsticks from his shirt pocket, swirled them once in the steaming brew, and proceeded to gobble it all down in three swallows.

The time lapse, from water boiling in the pot to ‘food’ in his stomach, was ten seconds — just long enough for the telephone to ring at his elbow four times. (Instant food is instant food. You can prepare and eat your meal before you answer the phone.) I hate to think how many kids at home tried this little stunt. It would be like copying beer-drinking techniques in the other commercials. But people come pretty close to it all the time. The young man in the commercial, by the way, suffered second-degree burns in his mouth and throat and had to be hospitalized.

Finally, it is well-known that folks in this country are willing, given the right circumstances, to put anything that was or is alive into their mouths. Most people elsewhere are not as trusting and have developed individual or independent self-defense measures. (“You can’t be too sure about this stuff, it might cause you to die in the next sixty seconds, so get somebody else to eat it first.”)

But here, as long as someone’s grandma used to roast squirrel brains and weasel bowels to serve with wild mountain weeds, it’s good enough for the taster. And (this is what gets me) when the food is first placed in the mouth there is the obligatory ritual of judgment. The food, a whole mouthful preferably, is chewed slowly while the eyes rise to the heavens. Then a pause, and finally the ejaculation…

“OISHII DESU,” is exclaimed in utter astonishment. (Hand is held in front of mouth to keep food from shooting out during the rapture phase.) This judgment and conclusion applies not just to odd stuff like snake sections but also to simple bowls of rice or cups of tea prepared by your next door neighbor. “Oishii. Unbelievably delicious. It’s a miracle!”

So with all that ingrained behavior, I guess it’s too much to expect someone to make gagging motions after the judgment phase and begin screaming about the taste of dog retchings. We can keep hoping however.