don’t worry. this isn’t a post about the japanese language. i do my best to avoid writing those because they are, on the whole, excruciatingly boring for anybody who isn’t a devoted student of the japanese language.
this is a post about japan and its attitude towards food. while it would be so easy to slam you over the head with one anecdote after another in an attempt to illustrate all kinds of taboos and mores, i am of the opinion that a single word might actually accomplish a deeper understanding of the lesson i want to convey.
when translated literally, itadakimasu means something along the lines of “i will partake.” the phrase is beautifully vague and pretty darn confusing due to the omission of any discernible object which would undertake the verb “partake.”
japanese children say it before they dig into school lunch every day. eighty year old japanese men say it before chomping down on a beautiful piece of sushi between bottles upon bottles of japanese sake. itadakimasu is a word which transcends age in a highly ageist society. it is used without thought in nearly every situation involving food or drink in modern japanese society, regardless of time of day, formality, or company.
when i ask the children i teach why they say itadakimasu and what exactly they are “partaking” in, they almost always give me the same reply: “we are giving our thanks to the nice old ladies that made our lunches from scratch.” they aren’t wrong. most people in japan use itadakimasu to mean something along the lines of “thank you for making this beautiful meal, i’m going to dig in now.” based on such an explanation, the japanese stigma behind wasting food starts to make sense. it is almost common sense that you should never waste any part of a meal that someone worked hard to prepare just for you. in other words, it is bad to waste because it is bad to be rude.
they aren’t wrong, but they aren’t quite right, either. i fell in love with this word when it was explained to me by a weekend farmer and fellow teacher. when i asked him what exactly he “partakes” in, his answer was simple:
he explained to me that every living thing in this world has a life, and in order to consume it, we have to end that life. cooking is, in a way, a manner of manipulating the life force of this world.
he told me that this is the reason why japanese cuisine has valued the integrity of its ingredients for so long. traditional japanese cuisine augments its ingredients, it doesn’t cover them. some japanese people joke that the only spices they use are soy sauce, mirin, japanese sake, dried fish, and hot water. and most of them, especially the elderly folks, know that there is more than an element of truth to such a joke.
when he explained all this to me, the real reason for the japanese stigma behind wasting food made sense to me all of the sudden. it isn’t a waste to end the life of a living thing, make it into food, and then not consume that food. it is a tragedy. by cooking, we shape the life force we harvest from nature, and by eating, we give the action meaning.
if you have read this whole long-winded post so far, i have a quick favor to ask of you. i’m not some weirdo who is going to demand that you start saying itadakimasu before every meal. i’m not going to force you go out and become a vegan. i won’t even tell you you should try to eat more japanese food.
all i ask is that every time you buy groceries, cook a meal, or eat at a restaurant, take a split-second to appreciate each and every one of the myriad ingredients. because they are giving their beautiful lives to you in an effort to help you appreciate the beauty of yours.