Squints through 100 keyholes:
the greatest peep show on earth

It's amazing what you can pick up with chopsticks

By William Wetherall

A version of this article appeared in
Mainichi Daily News, 8 August 1993, page 17 (Waiwai Waido)

An ad for a just-out book in Japanese boasts that Japan's cultural "treasure house" can be opened with a mere "seven Yamato words": aware, nioi, wabi/sabi, michi, arigatou, asobi, ma.

If Japanese need only seven lexical warriors to defend Japan from an invasion of self-ignorance, then art-critic Idekawa Naoki's "Kotodama Rando" (Language-spirit Land), a one-page feature in Shukan Post since March 5, is already thrice redundant. For nearly two dozen weeks, Idekawa has been easing the minds of readers who dread that moment alluded to in one of his column's sub-titles: "If asked by a foreigner . . . "

Unlike the usual culturalist obsession with rarefied aesthetics, Idekawa fortifies his reader with the most mundane information about the most earthy things Japanese-like, in the March 26 installment, those two sticks that people cat with (but which sometimes, he neglected to observe, find their way into nostrils, ears, and other recesses).

"Using chopsticks freely requires such practice that although foreigners may use them daily for 23 years they are still awkward," Idekawa lectures. "Nonetheless, that they (chopsticks) have taken root in a comer of the Orient is probably because, with practice, all manner of subtle actions other than scooping liquid is possible. Ordinary Japanese can pick up a single sesame seed with chopsticks, and they can entirely remove the flesh between the fine bones of a fish and leave its complete skeleton clean."

Having thus learned that I and most of my Japanese friends are not ordinary, I looked for relief from my disillusionment in the August issue of Taiyo, which features on its cover "Nihon o shiru 100 shou" in Japanese and "100 Key Words for Understanding Japan" in English. Its 100 articles, by 37 writers and at least three photographers, have been dubbed into English by six translators. Yet the spirit of the bilingual text is betrayed by the preface, which appears only in Japanese, and addresses as "we" and "our" the "120 million" Japanese whose "skin is not white" and who "share" something called "culture" on 377,737 square kilometers of islands in the seas to the east of China.

Taiyo admits that its keyword list covers "just one part" of this culture. But by way of comparing it to the Post series, I turned to the article on "Hashi: Chopstics" (sic) by the poet Takahashi Mutsuo.

Both the original and the translation are flawed. The translation says: "The Japanese in the age of Himiko knew nothing of chopsticks. The section of the ancient Chinese history, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, which described the ancient Japan said the Japanese ate and drank on raised tables but ate with their hands, so it is clear that chopsticks arrived from the continent at a later date."

The original, too, errs in antedating the political existence of "Japan" and "the Japanese" to the 3rd century. But the translation deepens this deception by omitting the original's mention of the "Bent People" [wajin] article in the Accounts Of The Eastern Barbarians in the Book of Wei in the Records of the Three Kingdoms (and not The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, which is an entirely different work).

The translated article concludes: "The Japanese learned the custom of using chopsticks and with them also learned impurity. Indeed, they were defiled by it."

A more accurate translation would have been: "Japanese learned from the continent, together with the custom of using chopsticks, also [ritual] pollution (kegare). Not only did [they] learn [about such pollution], but [it seems that they themselves] were polluted."

The sour after-taste of this pretentiously sophisticated view of chopsticks in Japan is the familiar romantic nativist notion that a pristine ancient local culture has been soiled by outside influence. It might have been sweeter had Takahashi not overlooked an important chapter in the history of chopsticks in what is now called Japan.

The Nihon Shoki (Chronicles Of Japan) contains a legend about a tomb called Hashihaka, now the identity of a keyhole-shaped tumulus that is located in present-day Sakurai City in Nara Prefecture, and which is protected by the Imperial Household Agency as an imperial mausoleum.

The burial mound, one of the oldest of its kind, is called "Chopstick Grave" because a certain imperial princess, Yamatototo, is said to have thrust a chopstick or two into her pudendum and died. This princess lived in the 3rd century, and some scholars have identified her with the priestess Himiko of contemporary Chinese ethnographic fame.

Aston, in his translation of the Chronicles, uses the plural "pudenda" for the Chinese character for yin, the female principle and organ. The Yamato locution, hoto (or foto), though probably of Korean origin, ought to be first on any list of keywords for understanding Japan.

A similar motif appears in the Kojiki, which relates the story of a heavenly weaving maiden who strikes her genitals with a shuttle and dies. Elsewhere in the Nihon Shoki, Amaterasu, the great sungoddess who began it all, also injures her body with a weaving shuttle.

Whether involving chopsticks or shuttles, such incidents and behaviors suggest everything from an exorcistic ritual or masturbation gone wrong, to suicide. They also point to a Yamato (read "nativized immigrant") origin for the hypochondriacal belief that used chopsticks are so contaminated with germs that the throwaway kind are healthier.

Taken as a whole, however, I give the Tayo special 60 points on a scale of 100, or a solid D for Diligence. This is considerably higher than most books that fail to help people understand themselves and others better--and no more than 10 percentage points less reliable than Kodansha's C-for-Caution Encyclopedia of Japan.