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The Soul Food of Japan - IGNITION

Debates on social inequality rage endlessly in Japanese media, but by more than a few statistical measures to say nothing of the peaceful inclusiveness of its everyday life and consumer culture the country enjoys a relatively high degree of social equality. Walk into any convenience store in any Japanese city and youre confronted with what seems like a deep commitment to diversity: from sushi, gydon, and onigiri to hamburgers and pasta, no type of food seems beyond the reach of the average Japanese consumer.

But for all the countrys culinary openness, there was one domestic food culture existence was completely unknown, even to the most urbane Japanese urbanites, until a few years ago. This ignorance, moreover, had nothing to do with the food being expensive or inaccessibly high-class; it was the result of a long history of discrimination that had kept this regional cuisine concealed, for centuries, from mainstream eyes. The discrimination was so pervasive, so universal, and so unspoken that most Japanese people didnt even realize they were missing it.

Today, however, buraku cuisine seems on the verge of a major renaissance, with Japans culinary community praising it as The Soul Food of Japan. And in some places, this newfound acceptance has opened new space for dialogue on one the uglier aspects of Japanese history.

Saiboshi sold by a meat seller in Osaka

Yasui Shten is a small meat shop in southern Osaka Prefecture, but the signboard outside its unassuming storefront invites customers to sample an item whose name strikes many as exotic and new.

At first glance, Yasuis saiboshi may look like bacon or beef jerky, but its actually something much rarer: horse meat.

As shopkeeper Akihiko Yasui slices through a thick, browning slab of meat, the thin cross-sections reveal an interior as red as a ruby. After even a small sample, the meats moist, soft texture, accented by a hint of salt, is undeniable.

Around this area, people have even started using it in their New Years dinners.

The thirty-eight-year-old Yasui radiates a quiet pride. With his round face and commanding mustache, he conveys a stoicism more commonly seen in Buddhist monks. But when he talks about this area, he is clearly not talking about the surrounding cities and towns nor about any government-recognized municipality at all.

AkihikoYasui holding saiboshi (Photo by Taketo Sekiguchi)

Yasui lives in an assimilation district (dwa chiku), an unincorporated area set aside for outcast group.

Before, assimilation districts are home to many of Japans untouchables population, a group who historically have worked in the meatpacking and slaughtering industry. For most of their history, their work involved slaughtering livestock, whose freshest parts were shipped to other regions while workers kept the internal organs for themselves, along with other parts that were too difficult to transport. Saiboshi may be the most famous and luxurious of dish to grow out of food culture among them, but it is far from the only one. Other staples sold in Yasuis shop include aburakasu, a sort of chitterling made by frying animal intestines in oil; the Achilles tendon of an ox, stewed for five hours; and a type of bone gelatin known as nikogori.

Saiboshi (incourtsey of Yasui Shten) Aburakasu (in courtsey of Yasui Shten)

Id been eating these things ever since I was little, Yasui recalls. But when I started middle school, I noticed that people around me had a very strong prejudice against them. All of a sudden, I was too afraid to talk to people about saiboshi, or about any of the other foods I was eating.

In his early years, Yasui had little interest in following his father into the meat business, and he began his career in construction business. But Japans ongoing recession made it difficult for him to advance in that field, so he decided to come home and help out with his fathers business. That was around seven years ago.

His father, Yasui explains, sold his saiboshi as a luxury item in the local community, but he hadnt made much of an effort to market it to the masses. Yasui quickly realized that the invisible pressure of discrimination had convinced his dad that he couldnt expand his market.

Signoutside YasuiShten (Photo by Takeo Sekiguchi)

When he entered the family business, Yasui felt strongly that this mindset wasnt sustainable. By only selling his product through local wholesalers, Yasuis father was inadvertently underselling its real value.

In response, the younger Yasui devised a new marketing strategy, centered around a food blog and website that introduced the shop and its products to a broader audience. At the time, he says, no one else had thought of selling things like saiboshi and aburakasu online.

The new approach worried Yasuis father, who had grown accustomed to seeing the general public as hostile to buraku district, but the lack of negative reaction was striking from the moment the site went online. Yasui quickly realized that mainstream Japanese had never even heard the word saiboshi before, and his realization allowed him to build a following for the product as a delicacy and a new side dish at izakaya [Japanese tapas bars]. Five years later, Yasui Shten was selling its meat on Rakuten Marketplace, Japans number-one web retailer. In the two years since then, Yasui says the shop has received orders from all over the country.

Each year, Japanese industries produce approximately 5,000 tons of horsemeat, with an additional 5 million tons imported from foreign markets including Canada and Mexico. Almost all of Yasuis meat comes from Canada but with mounting pressure from animal rights groups leading to a worldwide reduction in horsemeat processing, Yasui says the meat is becoming increasingly scarce and expensive. Every day, he carefully slices his high-cost meat to optimal tenderness, flavors it with a hint of salt, and smokes it slowly in a kiln left over from his fathers days. This careful, labor-intensive production process allows Yasui to market his meat at premium prices.

The foundation for this food culture is the long history of discrimination against the buraku, Yasui says. As I became an adult, I developed an identity complex about these issues but today, like everyone else, I dont need to hide that anymore. Im looking for more lighthearted ways to spread the word about this food. I dont want to see our food culture disappear from the world.

Driven by these ideas, Yasui has continued expanding his lineup. For the last few years, one of his most popular items has been an extra-lean horsemeat sold as dog food. Yasui Shten also sells original accessories for pets.

A Nagoya izakaya introduces kasu-udon

In the city of Nagoya, located in Aichi Prefecture about 90 miles East of Yasui Shtens Osaka location, the Derahoru izakaya recently introduced a new menu item: kasu-udon, or udon topped with aburakasu. With its light flavor, accented by the thin gelatin slice that offsets the thick udon noodles, the subtle offering has already developed a following among Derahorus customers.

At thirty-eight, manager Yoshiharu Yamamoto is the same age as Akihiko Yasui, and his mustache exudes a similar vitality. Also like his Osaka counterpart, Yamamoto was born and raised in an assimilation district.

In Yoshiharu Yamamotos izakaya, kasu-udon is a signature item (Photo by Masahiro Kawayanagi)

During the Tokugawa Period (1600-1868), Japans street cleaners and executioners lived in isolated communities that were called buraku (those who lived in them were called burakumin) but as Tokugawa societys rigid class structure gave way to industrialization in the Meiji Period, people from the buraku in Shiga Prefecture began moving to Nagoya in search of jobs on the citys public works projects. Yamamotos grandmother was one of those migrants. With origins in Shiga and Osaka Prefectures, aburakasu is believed to have spread to Nagoya during this period.

During his childhood, Yamamoto says he ate aburakasu all the time as a snack. A friend of his father who worked in the local slaughterhouse would bring top-quality intestines to his house, and his family would grill them into heaping plates of yakiniku (grilled meat). Yamamoto remembers his familys dinner table as a lively, exciting place, and as a child he loved sampling the different meats and comparing them. As he did this, the adults around the table nonchalantly called the pig kidneys buta-mame and the lungs fuwa. It wasnt until years later that Yamamoto learned these werent the standard names for those items.

One day, while he was still in grade school, the mother of one of Yamamotos friends pointed at him and said, Dont eat anything from that kids neighborhood. Itll make you sick. Bit by bit, the world he knew began to fall apart and a history of deep, unspoken prejudice came into view behind it.

As he struggled to make sense of this history, Yamamotos grandmother told him something hes never forgotten.

I cant write a single letter, she said, but all of you people today have learned how to write. So just earn a lot of money it doesnt even matter how. If you do that, people will respect you.

After high school, Yamamoto worked at the citys cleaning department and the local labor association. In his spare time, he began investigating his regional history and made visits to his grandmothers hometown. One of the first things he discovered was that the local food culture, whose staples included childhood favorites like aburakasu, was completely unknown even in towns that bordered its homeland. For centuries, his community had been forced to eat its soul food in secret. The discovery shocked Yamamoto, and for the first time he began to feel the stirrings of a newfound pride in his heritage.

People are all born as individuals, and they grow up in lots of different ways in lots of different environments, he explains. Its only natural that people are going to be different from each other, and thats why we cant tolerate discrimination. Everybody, no matter who they are, has a homeland and a culture thats important to them, and theres no reason anybody should have to hide that from the world. Whatever is precious to one person should be precious to everybody. If we can just make that one simple change, I think well all be a lot better off.

Kasu-udon(foreground) and grilled items including fuwa(Photo by Masahiro Kawayanagi)

Three years ago, Yamamoto took over as manager of an izakaya his younger brother had opened a while earlier. As soon as he took the reins, Yamamoto added kasu-udon, buta-mame, and fuwa to the menu eschewing detailed, defensive explanations of his food and encouraging customers to give a regional delicacy a try. As his food has gained popularity with the locals, Yamamoto has begun to speak more openly about the issue of anti-buraku discrimination. His frank approach has attracted a growing number of regulars in Nagoya, many of whom come to Derahoru constantly to learn more about the food and its history.

Skewered tapas, including fuwa (Photo by Masahito Kawayanagi)

His newfound popularity, however, has led to renewed prejudice in some circles, and Yamamoto says that caricatured versions of his beliefs have been distributed on the web and in the mainstream media.

Derahoru from outside (Photo by Masahiro Kawayanagi)

In 2002, the Assimilation Policy Project, a national initiative aimed at ending discrimination against buraku and creating a more hospitable environment, came to an end amid government claims that the projects goals had been accomplished. But between enduring confusion over the policys incompleteness and continued political advocacy from the Buraku Liberation League of which Yamamoto himself is a member it seems clear that a strong aftertaste of prejudice still lingers in Japanese society.

Only when these problems are fully overcome will the soul of Yasuis and Yamamotos food become a source of true pride for Japan.

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