While making Japanese umeshu (which I detail here), I drank some of the shochu that I was using straight. Not liking strong alcohol this isn’t something I normally do, but I was pleasantly surprised by the complexity of its taste. It had a hint of sweet on the tip of my tongue, a hint of fruity (but no real fruit), a tingling sensation in my nose, and a warmth in my throat.
I gave some shochu to an American friend of mine and his immediate reaction was “it tastes like rubbing alcohol.” Numerous times over the past few years I’ve shared Japanese food items with coworkers, friends, and family to often receive a reply of “it tastes like ____”, or a confused look in the cases where they can’t figure out what it “tastes like.”
Herein lies a source of frustration for me living in the U.S. after having spent time in Japan. I’m with the Japanese who are more likely to examine and think about the aspects of something unfamiliar, but Americans often try to mentally simplify and relate to known things thus making it harder to understand and appreciate something new for its own qualities.
As the Wikipedia article on Japanese aesthetics points out, aesthetics (or what I like to call the art of appreciating), is treated as an abstract philosophy in the West but is an integral part of daily life in Japan. Japanese culture through education, lifestyle, and shared experience teaches Japanese to look at things in a way that is different from the west. If you watch Japanese food shows (of which there are many), people will taste a dish then they’ll describe the different aspects of it and appreciate how those aspects interact. By contrast, when confronted with something new (such as an unknown food), Americans tend to simplify it to the lowest common denominator and rely on the comparing it to something known by saying “it tastes like ____”, “it reminds me of _____”, etc. This limits understanding and appreciation to how closely the new thing can be compared to something else which is already known.
My American friend frequently laments about how he never went to college so he doesn’t have the “refinement and education to appreciate the finer points of things.” This is a symptom of western culture’s view that aesthetics is a philosophy and something academically studied as opposed to integrated into daily life. My friend is a smart and intuitive guy, there is no reason he should feel that he can’t understand and appreciate the good points of something unfamiliar.
Beyond food there are differences in the way Japanese take other things in as well. A study once showed that when westerners look at a photo or painting their eyes go from object to object and spend the most time on those key focal points whereas Japanese people’s eyes tend to go around the entire scene as if taking it all in more evenly rather than focusing on the most obvious components.
Having experienced the beauty of Japan and the inspirations and feelings they find in the world, it’s a perspective that I really came to appreciate and miss now that many around me don’t have that perspective.
-William A. Milberry