Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Ulysses Grant and Emperor Meiji

August 28, 2022

In the summer of 1879, Ulysses Grant visited Japan. The former U.S. president and Civil War general spent two months in Tokyo, where he had several meetings with Emperor Meiji, as well as other Japanese notables such as Eiichi Shibusawa.

In the summer of 2022, I traced Grant’s footsteps around Tokyo in the course of writing a feature story about his visit for The Japan News. I found the project enjoyable and fascinating – and in this, my feelings seemed to echo Grant’s, as reflected in the farewell speech he made to the emperor on Aug. 30, 1879.

I’ve copied the text of his speech below, from the 1879 book “Around the World with General Grant,” by one of his traveling companions, John Russell Young. The illustration also comes from the book.

“Your  Majesty: I come to take my leave, and to thank you, the officers of your  government, and the people of Japan, for the great hospitality and kindness I have  received at the hands of all during my most pleasant visit to this country. I have now been two months in Tokio and the surrounding neighborhood, and two previous weeks in the more southerly part of the country. It affords me great satisfaction to say that during all this stay and all my visiting I have not witnessed one discourtesy toward myself, nor a single unpleasant sight. Everywhere there seems to be the greatest contentment among the people; and while no signs of great individual wealth exist, no absolute poverty is visible. This is in striking and pleasing contrast with almost every other country I have visited. I leave Japan greatly impressed with the possibilities and probabilities of her future. She has a fertile soil, one half of it not yet cultivated to man’s use, great undeveloped mineral resources, numerous and fine harbors, an extensive sea-coast abounding in fish of an almost endless variety, and, above all, an industrious, ingenious, contented, and frugal population. With all these nothing is wanted to insure great progress except wise direction by the government, peace at home and abroad, and non-interference in the internal and domestic affairs of the country by the outside nations. It is the sincere desire of your guests to see Japan realize all possible strength and greatness, to see her as independent of foreign rule or dictation as any Western nation now is, and to see affairs so directed by her as to command the respect of the civilized world. In saying this I believe I reflect the sentiments of the great majority of my countrymen. I now take my leave without expectation of ever again having the opportunity of visiting Japan, but with the assurance that pleasant recollections of my present visit will not vanish while my life lasts. That your Majesty may long reign over a prosperous and contented people and enjoy every blessing is my sincere prayer.”

Around Japan in 47 curries: Kagawa olive curry

May 24, 2013

This is Part 2 of a 47-part series of weekly blog posts looking at curries from each of Japan’s 47 prefectures.

Kagawa Prefecture (map by Lincun for Wikimedia Commons)

Kagawa Prefecture (map by Lincun for Wikimedia Commons)

Kagawa is the smallest of Japan’s 47 prefectures. It has a total land area of about 1,870 square kilometers, making it about half the size of Long Island, New York. Most of Kagawa occupies the northeastern corner of Shikoku, but much of it is scattered across more than a dozen islands in the Seto Inland Sea. The 13-kilometer Seto Ohashi bridge hopscotches across a couple of the smaller islands to connect Kagawa with Okayama Prefecture, on the main island of Honshu.

The largest of Kagawa’s islands is Shodoshima, which boasts two major products: soy sauce and olives. Lots of places in Japan are proud of their local soy sauce, but olives are unusual. In 1908, this island became the first place in Japan to successfully cultivate them. The prefecture even has a local professional baseball team called the Kagawa Olive Guyners.

Kagawa olive 001Ingredients in the olive curry I’ve picked to represent Kagawa include olives, olive oil, and olive leaf tea. There’s some Shodoshima soy sauce in there, too. The olives are green (and pitted) and taste like they were cooked fresh rather than first being pickled. You have to be looking for the olive flavor in order to appreciate it, though, because the dominant flavor is the peppery taste of the thin sauce. The ingredients list a mysterious “seasoning powder” several places ahead of “curry powder,” which may explain why this curry tastes more like pepper stew. In addition to olives, the solid ingredients are the usual onions, potatoes and carrots.

I purchased a single-serving package of this curry for 530 yen at Japan Food Market, a temporary-looking shop in the Koshigaya Laketown Mall in Saitama Prefecture.

Olive watermark

Around Japan in 47 curries: Kanagawa navy curry

May 17, 2013

This is Part 1 of a 47-part series of weekly blog posts looking at curries from each of Japan’s 47 prefectures.

Kanagawa Prefecture (map by Lincun for Wikimedia Commons)

Kanagawa Prefecture (map by Lincun for Wikimedia Commons)

Yokosuka, in Kanagawa Prefecture, is the perfect spot for a naval base. It occupies most of the Miura Peninsula, which forms a natural breakwater protecting the mouth of Tokyo Bay. The establishment of an Imperial Japanese Navy base there in the late 19th century gave Yokosuka an unexpected connection to the nation’s culinary history.

In its early days, the navy was plagued by the painful and often fatal disease beriberi. Food historian Katarzyna J. Cwiertka writes in her excellent book “Modern Japanese Cuisine” that 12 percent of all Japanese sailors were found to be suffering from the condition in 1883. A high-ranking navy doctor named Kanehiro Takagi was aware that beriberi was rare in Western navies, whose sailors more often ate meat. He theorized that a high-protein diet might improve sailors’ health. Efforts were begun to Westernize navy meals by including more meat, and curry was one of the dishes used for that purpose. It became a staple of Japanese navy cooking.

Yokosuka shipyard underconstruction ca. 1870 (public domain photo via Wikimedia commons)

Yokosuka shipyard underconstruction ca. 1870 (public domain photo via Wikimedia commons)

Today, we know that beriberi is caused by a lack of vitamin B, which is associated with the heavy use of nutrient-poor white rice. But Takagi’s theory was a good one for its time, Cwiertka writes, because the concept of vitamins was not scientifically understood until the 1920s.

Meanwhile, curry’s prominence in military cooking in an era of large-scale conscription, and the influence of military cuisine on other forms of institutional food – most notably school lunches – helped make curry a de facto national dish.

The varieties of curry now available in Japan are beyond counting. For a series of weekly blog posts beginning today, I plan to eat one type of curry from each of Japan’s 47 prefectures. From within each prefecture, I will have many to choose from. (I’m open to recommendations.)

Yokosuka curry 001Not surprisingly, a number of curries are marketed with naval themes. One of these is Yokosuka Navy Curry, which I have chosen to represent Kanagawa Prefecture in my “Around Japan in 47 Curries” project. According to the label, this particular curry is based on the dish served at the city’s popular Wood Island restaurant. I purchased a single-serving package of it for 580 yen at Japan Food Market, a temporary-looking shop in the Koshigaya Laketown Mall in Saitama Prefecture.

Unfortunately, I found it rather bland. The chunks of beef it included seemed to be mostly fat. As a snooty 21st-century gourmet, I was not too impressed. But if I were a malnourished 19th-century draftee, I’m sure I would have gobbled it with gusto.

And with 46 curries to go, I’m sure there are some good ones out there.