Liisa Berezkin

Liisa Berezkin currently studies in Japan, her major being in sociology of religion and new religions at Tokyo Kokugakuin University. Being half-Russian, half-Estonian, she graduated from a high-school in St. Petersburg, Russia and obtained her bachelor´s degree from Tartu Art College, Estonia. See Liisa's artwork here: http://liisadesign.weebly.com/

Japanese food from an Estonian perspective

The Japanese cuisine couldn’t be any more different from the Estonian one.

Tomatoes and potatoes, which are a part of everyday meals in Estonia, are expensive like many other vegetables in Japan. In Estonia, and of course in most of the Western world, potatoes are a side dish, but in Japan they are viewed more like a main dish. When I first served mashed potatoes and potato salad to my Japanese boyfriend, he promptly asked for rice, which of course, I had no idea would be needed. So from that time on, we are having mashed potatoes with rice, as weird as it is.

Vegetables are expensive, but the positive side of it is that they are always fresh and look quite perfect. Of course, there has been some discussion about whether or not we should buy any foods from the north of Japan and some people expect broccoli from Fukushima (where the nuclear disaster took place in 2011, following Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami – Editor) to glow in the dark, but quite frankly, I don’t believe that the Japanese government is trying to poison its inhabitants and the Japanese health check system is quite meticulous.

Wakame

Food is something we all care greatly about and perhaps spend some extra money to experience some gourmet or go to a famous restaurant. To the Japanese, food is much much more than that. Food is a way of life and just as important, if not more, as news and music shows on the TV. It may seem strange at first, but when you get used to the Japanese way of thinking, food adds another dimension to experience. When there is a show about travel, about 30% of the on-air time can easily be filled with visits to restaurants and huge zoom-ins of various dishes. When there is a show about a celebrity, his or hers eating habits will surely be asked about. Also, whenever I talk about Estonia, one of the first questions Japanese people ask me is about food. Which places me in a bit awkward situation because there is not really so much to tell about the Estonian food culture, not least because we have never placed it on such a pedestal as the Japanese have.

The idea of a perfect food, or a gourmet food is also very important in Japan. You would find it strange, but people visiting public aquariums actually look at all the tunas swimming around and say: “Well, this looks really tasty…” and the same is with octopuses and all the other edible (or better said, legally edible) animals. That is also probably why the battle for the whales’ rights could never be won in Japan. Japanese people could look at a whale and see two contradicting things at the same time – the whale that is tasty and the whale that is cute. I have to point out that this does not strike me as cruel or thoughtless – the fact is that the Japanese people feel the contact with the nature and the natural way of consuming and biological circle and they don’t think about killing the animals for food the way that it is propagated in the western world.

Kuroshio Sea tank in the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium, the second largest in the world

While everybody in the world probably values both the taste and the visual about their meals, the Japanese have added another dimension to the appreciation. It is texture. First, I was surprised to encounter so many foods, which to me had no sense in them whatsoever – some examples would be raw octopus and squid, both of them are simply crunchy and a bit springy, it is very much like eating rubber or silicone. Also, there is a curious substance called konjac, which is a jelly-like food made from a flower. It is highly popular in the Japanese cuisine, because it has no calories but can fill your stomach and also because of it’s strangely satisfying feel of rubbery texture. The Japanese traditional sweets, like mochi or daifuku, are also as much valued for their springy texture as for their mild sweetness. When combining a plate of different foods, making a soup (called nabe) or frying up different vegetables and meat, the balance in texture and visual is taken into account just as much as the taste. For me, the food in Japan has become a newly discovered every-day adventure.

      

Selection of Japanese food, click on photo to enlarge

Healthy food is also a very well marketed and selling idea in Japan. Even though vegetables and fruits are inexplicably expensive, compared with European and American prices, there is cheap tofu, fish and other marine products, which I could never even try before in Estonia, because they were considered too expensive and gourmet food. The word ‘salmon’ always made me think of candle-light dinners and special occasions, while now it’s the food I choose a couple of times a week. Also, the Japanese selection of mushrooms, which is available all year long, makes an affordable addition to everyday meals. Miso and wakame soup, to which other ingredients are added at will, is often consumed on every day basis, and a more cheaper, healthier and stomach satisfying food would be very difficult to find. I think that the case with expensive vegetables and fruits makes people appreciate them more and often a single tomato or cucumber is served as a separate dish.

When going out to drink, the Japanese say ‘nomikai’, one could imagine a great deal of alcohol consuming, but in fact, when drinking, food is just as important to the occasion as drinking is. In this sense I feel the Japanese are closer to the Russian habit of lavish drinking accompanied by lavish food. This is not only the case with adults, when young people go out to nomikai, everybody is looking forward to the combination of drink and food.

An important part of the Japanese eating culture is probably also dieting. The diet-friendly foods are often talked about on TV and the drug stores are filled with diet pills and drinks of all shapes and sizes. This is not only for the female audience, a lot of commercials are made especially for men. The diet drinks are most common. There are at least about eight different diet refreshment drinks that come to my mind right away, some of them are catechin-filled teas (catechins are a type of antioxidant found in the greatest abundance in the leaves of the tea plant Camellia sinensis. In smaller amounts, they are found in other foods such as red wine, chocolate, berries, and apples. The health benefits of tea catechins have been under close examination since the 1990’s, due to the strong association of tea with long life and health in many ancient cultures – Editor), some are sport drinks and there is even a coke drink that is supposed to burn your body fat. Of course, none of the diet drinks will actually make you lose some weight unless you do some serious exercise, but they are certainly better than Fanta or Coca-cola, which I can see in the hands of every other schoolchild in Estonia. The habit of drinking cold green tea is something that I miss most about Japan when I’m away. Ice coffee is also available in cans at every corner in a vending machine or a store.

      

Selection of Japanese food, click on photo to enlarge

Eating out is relatively cheap and everybody can afford it, but making dinner at home is still better for the budget. The cheap everyday rice is one of the reasons. As I mentioned at the start of the article, eating rice with everything else, seemed quite strange to me at first, but I am now so used to it, that I probably have only a couple days a month that don’t include it. Certainly I miss the baked potatoes, so common in Estonia, but having rice instead definitely makes for a healthier diet and it also makes me appreciate the common food of baked potatoes better than before. The Japanese have the longest life expectancy in the world and the food certainly plays a big part in it. Japan has made me think about food and healthy eating more and introduced to me the dimension of texture. The everyday life is definitely much more fun this way.

 

Photos: Wikimedia Commons

Japan, the country of countless religions

My major in graduate program is a sociology of religion, and to narrow it down, the New Religions in Japan. Growing up in Estonia, I often had the same image of Japan as my own country – people really couldn’t care less about religion. Estonia, after all, is one of the least religious countries in the world! Generally, Japan never leaves the impression of a religious country either. At best, Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples come to mind. Whereas the reality in fact is, that there are tens of different new religion groups in Japan today.

The biggest one is Sōka Gakkai with millions of members (over 12 million around the world). Unlike the traditional Buddhist schools, mainly devoted to funeral practices, the new religion groups demand a full and undivided commitment from their followers and mostly have clear outline of rules, beliefs and social system. These groups contain a vast world and it is difficult to sum it up, but the simple introduction is this. Most have derived from Buddhism and Shinto, often adding shamanistic details. Some have grown out from the influence of Christianity, but these are rare. Not unlike new religions in the West, a huge part of the original characteristics of a certain group reflects the vision of the founder(s). The charismatic leaders convince the people that theirs is the utmost truth.

The general world-view in the Far-East includes a tight relation between ancestors and descendants. The ancestors often obtain a mystical power that affects our modern world. In Japan, where the idea of one omnipotent God and the whole concept of a monotheistic religion are difficult to understand, the view is that this world and “the other side” are mainly separated by living people and their predecessors. Thus, in many New Religion movements one of the main points lies in the reconciliation of the two worlds, bringing them closer and in general, improving social relations and understanding between people.

Why are there so many different groups in Japan?

New religion groups started to appear in Japan already in the 19th century. The first groups appeared in the wake of the movement to rethink and reinstate the religion of Shinto. Many had their own ideas about it, so there were denominations. Unlike in Christianity, where there is a very clear notion of heresy, neither Buddhism nor Shintoism has one major ruling line to set the rules. Naturally, all of the groups think themselves to be right, but there was no law against difference in opinion until the nationalistic boom in the 1930’s, when the focus had to be Imperial Shinto. Once the war was over, the denominations popped up around like mushrooms after the rain. Most big new religions have many denominations of their own, so the whole picture is like an intricate network. Sometimes, due to the death of the charismatic founder, groups have grown weak, but often a line of succession has been thought through and prepared for, mainly based on family relations.

Since there are so many different new religion groups with various backgrounds in Japan, it is hard to draw a simple picture about their traditions, rituals and visual side. Also, many of the religions still are not fully open to research. Mainly though, lot of traditional attire and ritual elements have been borrowed from Buddhist and Shinto-based religions. The bigger the groups, the more money they have and the more vast centers they can afford to build. Thus, the bigger religions have huge very modern-looking building complexes – which, when necessary, are adorned with more traditional visuals from the inside. The biggest new religion Soka Gakkai, even houses a whole university and a political party. One of Soka Gakkai’s main principles is active-agressive preaching, which has made many Japanese people angry and afraid of this huge corporation. The new religion groups like to present themselves to have astounding number of believers. In fact, in many cases, it only means that the whole family has been signed up by one person. In Japan, family is like one unit. The real active believers are mostly housewives or middle-aged women in general. It’s not hard to imagine why – they have more free time than anyone else. Often two or even three generations of believers can be found. Daughters tend to succeed their mothers’ beliefs.

When you ask a Japanese person about religion, they get very confused and frankly don’t know what to say. The word ‘religion’ for a lot of people does exactly mean belonging to one of those socially murky groups, often bad-mouthed about by the local media. In fact, the word ‘religion’ as such was only incorporated into Japan’s society in the middle of the 19th century and thus there is no same general common sense concept of ‘religion’ to Japanese, as there is to Westerners. A Japanese person does not willingly even venture to talk on the subject of religion, unless it’s either the subject of their research, they themselves belong to one, or something very strange has happened that can be linked to one of the New Religion’s groups. I find the disinterest and reluctance towards the world of religions very similar to a lot of people’s attitude in Estonia. Talking about religions may seem embarrassing or maybe even discriminating to a lot of people. Of course, there are excellent exceptions to both countries and I am very lucky to have those people as friends. In my personal experience, people from the New Religion movements that I have met with, look generally happier and smile and laugh a lot more than your average Japanese. No doubt, this can be said for any true believer anywhere in the world. But somehow in Japan the difference strikes most sharply when you compare the slightly miserable looking men in suits on everyday commuter trains with the laughing and joking middle-aged men at the religious centers. It seems that they have more freedom to talk sincerely about themselves and the things that they care about, which of course, happen to be their beliefs.

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Pictures by Liisa Berezkin

Life in Tokyo Vol II: Finding the inner Estonian in the tangles of Japanese social life

It may come as a shock to many unsuspecting foreigners – being an Estonian, or indeed a European – what it really means to form and maintain relationships with the native people of Japan. It is not about just meeting and going out for a drink and talking about yourself and the …

Life in Tokyo Vol II: Finding the inner Estonian in the tangles of Japanese social life Read More »

Life in Tokyo: Estonian sumo wrestler Baruto brings a smile to everyone’s face

Liisa Berezkin, having been used to Estonian and Finnish metal culture and festivals, discovers a massive industry of performance-based androgynous rock in Tokyo and learns that for Japanese ears, “Terviseks” sounds like “Terebi (TV) sex”. She cannot escape the fans of Baruto either.

Under the shadow of Japan’s massive industry of performance-based androgynous rock (this genre is generally called Visual Kei), a whole subculture of 1980’s heavy metal and rock followers remain hidden from the public eye. Due to Japanese audience’s general lack of interest towards heavy metal nowadays, the bands following the 1980’s style are mostly limited to underground live-houses, which nevertheless attract a very faithful public.

Like coming home

For me, coming from a personal background of heavy metal nostalgia and having been used to Estonian and Finnish metal culture and festivals, discovering these rock bands was like coming home. Following a line of most unique coincidences, in three days from when I first lost my way into a live-house, I had made friends with a promising young band called The Lex, from which started my adventures in the rock music live houses of Tokyo.

The main influences for the old rock lovers and bands are Mötley Crüe, Bon Jovi, Skid Row, Ratt, Guns N’Roses, Crashdiet etc. – the list goes on. As often happens in Japan, the direct influences are mixed with a unique touch of Japanese visual show culture. Heavy make-up and hairstyle containing one bottle of hairspray are a must. Stage clothes are important. A lot of the clothes are accessories which will never be worn off the stage. Building one’s stage character is a topic of constant devotion to all musicians.

As it often is with Japanese subcultures, deviation from a general  look is not frowned upon, but simply not even thought of. Almost all the musicians have long hair, almost all of them wear bandanas at their belts and studded accessories and the good old cowboy boots are a must-have item.

The live-houses themselves are all small, smoky (there is no ban on inside smoking in Japan), dark – and many of them have a terrible sound, so you really do have to love this music to come there. Once you do though, the general atmosphere is very homely and friendly.

Extraordinary enthusiasm

A live night has a general pattern (this goes for all minor bands’ live performances) – performance time is approximately from 5pm to 10pm and includes about 4-6 bands, all of whom have about 30 minutes to perform. The price is high – about 30 euros for a ticket. Nevertheless, most people who have paid this money, have only come to see one band – being a fan of one band is considered obvious and one’s allegiance is asked at the ticket counter.

The band with most names on its list gets more money, but this does not mean that any of these bands make any money by performing. The live-house is rented out, each band pays their share and depending on the number of people who have come to see them, that number decreases. Considering that an average live-house only accommodates about 50-80 people, to get the whole rent money back is almost impossible. Bands that have gathered more fans can do a one band show and that’s where the money starts coming back.

In the light of all this, playing in a band – indeed a heavy metal band in Japan, requires extraordinary enthusiasm and a strength of spirit. Due to long hair and unstable schedule, all the musicians have generally low-paid jobs comparing to average suit-wearing Japanese. In Japan, your personal life belongs either to you or your company, in the latter case the lack of it is paid off well.

Foreigners are very scarce in this world and gawked at of course, but the general attitude is different from the rest of the society. These people – being themselves bleached, tattooed, pierced and otherwise modified – are in a way themselves outsiders of the Japanese society, which shuns this kind of outrageous individuality. Thus it is easier for them to accept and understand foreigners. This is however true only in the case when the foreigner can speak Japanese, because 99% of these musicians and rock-lovers can’t even speak enough English to save their lives if needed!

The lack of English language skills is true for the Japanese society in general, but you would think that loving foreign bands would make it easier to learn the language. No-one has the faintest idea what the western songs are about and quite frankly – very few care. It’s about the music, the rhythm and the ‘coolness’ of the English lyrics in all of those western rock bands that inspire the Japanese.

Based on this influence, the local bands make their own original music with Japanese lyrics, so it’s like 1980’s heavy metal through Japanese wording which in itself is very exotic. Sometimes cover songs by world famous bands are played, in which case the words are flawlessly remembered, but not understood. Perhaps by this way a non-Japanese person could also understand and appreciate the songs and music played by these Japanese bands?

Baruto is a magic word

Thankfully, I can speak Japanese fluently (I’m a graduate student of a Japanese university). Half of my  own introduction has often been explaining about Estonia. Very few Japanese people actually know that it exists, or where it is located – but there is a magic word that brings an expression of instant understanding onto every Japanese face. It’s indeed Baruto – Estonian sumo wrestler, who is one of the top sumo champions in the world.

From then on I explain the geography, the nature, the culture in a space of few minutes and quite frankly I have often wished that I had just made a pamphlet about all of this, because it’s very tiring to make a speech about my identity all over again and again.

To my great amusement, one Estonian word has spread like a wildfire amongst my musician friends, with very little effort on my part. That word is “Terviseks” which means “Cheers” when you toast someone. To a Japanese ear, this word sounds nothing but “Terebi (TV) sex”.

Actually, it is not the only word that my friends have learned and most people take a great interest in Estonia, asking about music, customs and people. I have also brought about 15 Estonian people to the lives of my Japanese friends in over two years, so it can be safely said that these Japanese rockers have met more Estonian, than English-speaking people, which is a funny fact in itself!

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Cover: Baruto in Japan.

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