Japan from the inside out

Ain’t nobody gonna steal my miso natto roll!

Posted by ampontan on Monday, June 22, 2009

SOME PEOPLE THINK Japanese schools stifle the imagination of their students, but you can’t prove that by me. I’ve associated with Japanese school-age children for the better part of a quarter of a century, and I’ve found them every bit as imaginative as the children I knew growing up in the United States, if not more so.



Now a group of students at the Yonezawa Commercial High School in Yonezawa, Yamagata, are displaying a creative imagination above and beyond that of some adults who get paid to do it for a living.

The members of the Research Club at the 107-year-old school delight in creating new food products. One of their past triumphs was cookies made with powdered locusts. They named them inagoma cookies, combining the word for locust, or inago, and sesame, or goma.

But they’ve outdone themselves this time. In March, their faculty advisor assigned this year’s research theme, which was to create something new by using the wisdom of the past. So the students, mostly 11th-graders, came up with the idea of making two different kinds of rolled cakes: one with miso and the other with natto.

Miso is a traditional seasoning made most often by fermenting rice and soybeans with salt to create a paste used in a variety of dishes. Most people outside of Japan are familiar with it as the base for the stock in miso soup, or miso shiru. Soldiers in Japan ate it as part of their rations several centuries ago, so that aspect fulfilled the requirement for the wisdom of the past.

While fewer foreigners know about natto, it’s the type of food one never forgets after a close encounter. It too is a fermented soybean, using a smaller type of bean with a special bacteria that results in a distinctive odor and a sticky consistency. Pick it up with chopsticks and you’ll see translucent gummy strings holding it together. There are several ways to eat it, but it’s usually spread over rice. Most people have trouble with the odor in the same way that some cheeses in Europe and the Middle East cause problems, though its smell is not as intense as that of limburger cheese, to cite one example.

Students at the school used to sell natto in the 1920s and 1930s to raise money for their tuition, so that also dovetailed with their research theme.

The rolled cakes are five centimeters (about two inches) in diameter and 13 centimeters long, with the miso and natto mixed into the cream. The students said they found it difficult to maintain a balance of tartness and sweetness with the miso roll. The natto is not in bean form, but a paste. The trick with that ingredient was to keep the odor in check but to retain the stickiness.

A local confectionary produces it for them, and you can imagine what the bakers must have said to each other when they found out what they would be making. The students got the last laugh, however; they took 60 rolls to a local event, offered them for JPY 500 ($US 5.19) apiece, and sold out completely. If they’re that good, it won’t be long before local beaneaters with a sweet tooth beat a path to their door. But the idea is not as unusual as it might seem; several traditional Japanese pastries are made with sweet bean paste (and are quite good).

Said 16-year-old Takahashi Shiho:

“We wanted to make products that weren’t sold anywhere else.

And they succeeded, too!

“Those are unusual combinations, but they have a rich taste.”

If the idea of miso or natto in a confection doesn’t sound appealing, think of it as a health food. Both of those ingredients are seriously nutritious, packed to the gills with protein, vitamins, and minerals. Natto is also said to be good for preventing blood clotting, and therefore heart attacks and strokes.

That’s my justification for eating natto every day, even though I didn’t care for the smell at first, either. My wife, for whom natto is a daily culinary event, found a clever way to get around my reluctance. She heard that the odor and the stickiness are minimized somewhat if the natto is mixed with grated daikon radish. After about a year of eating that combination I got accustomed to it. Then she decided it was too much trouble to keep grating the daikon every day, but by that time I was already housebroken and didn’t notice any more!

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17 Responses to “Ain’t nobody gonna steal my miso natto roll!”

  1. M-Bone said

    “SOME PEOPLE THINK Japanese schools stifle the imagination of their students”

    Great point. This discussion is based around an assumed cause and impact relationship. People see the memorization and assume that it destroys creativity instead of looking at what the children actually do and what they go on to do – which has been to support a world class literature and film and break real creative ground in areas like video games and graphic novels.

    This way of looking at Japanese education also ignores the fact that the lion’s share of education in other countries is also a combination of memorization-based learning and babysitting…. I know Japanese who seem to have been fooled into thinking that, say, American high school education consists only of creative writing, argumentative essays, passionate debate…. not drooling on the desk while being drilled on plate tectonics.

    Japanese education has a lot of problems, but I don’t think that a universal smashing of creativity is one of them.

  2. NB said

    Off topic, but an item I’d like to see in another post.

    What do you think about the Japanese government harnessing stereotypes about the Japanese and using to “pop culture diplomacy” to sell themselves around the world as “cute” manga-reading girls in short skirts?

  3. ampontan said

    Thanks for that, NB. While I was waiting for the link to pop up, I idly wondered, what dimwit bureaucrat thought that one up? Well, whaddaya know!

    To tell the truth, I don’t really get involved with the people that age I know on the level of fashion, or cosplay, or any of that.

    On the one hand, I think it’s stupid, but on the other hand, they might have identified a niche target audience and are trying to appeal to them. If that’s what young Thai and French people actually like…it’s sort of like complaining about television. It might be a waste of denpa, as somebody claimed in a piece I read just this morning, but marketers ignore television at their own risk.

    If anyone knows of any Japanese links about this, please pass them along.

    My e-mail address for this site is on the right sidebar, BTW.

  4. I smell it everyday also. Tried eating once. Never again.

  5. ponta said


  6. St John said

    My Japanese wife says she’ll leave me if she ever so much as smells natto on my breath!

  7. mac said

    NB … what “better” or more commonly used PR is there in the world than using beautiful young women?

    The strange thing about Japan is that a high number of Japanese actually are very short skirted (or at least hot panted), thanks to a disproportionate number of young women (by Western standards) with good legs and healthy physical proportions. I would argue that such a “feminine” emphasis is far more representative of the Japan, especially that which the target audience would encounter (and that is “hot panted”, as in ‘hot pants’, rather than the response from elderly, male foreign consulate workers).

    Animation (its bigger than manga) and fashion are two important export industries for Japan that spin off into 10,000 product designs, especially in Asia where Japan is aiming to lead at the later rather than aiming at the West. Its more natural, and more likely, that Asia will make a connection with Tokyo rather than London, Paris or New York. Young women are consumer market drivers.

    If there is a universal risk to such official efforts, it is that by the time they are passed through the bureaucracy they are already out of fashion on the streets, e.g. Lolita. Most young women are either far more elegantly dressed, or what would be considered outrightly sluttish in the West (somehow, though, does not come across that way here).

    What more can you say … its a blinding success? “You look very pretty … I would like to go to Japan.” May be they will send ‘Department H’ overseas next year …

    In discussing this elsewhere, the Japan TImes goes on to prove how out of touch with reality, and inline with stereotypes it is, punting Taro Aso as “an admitted comic book freak”. That one was scotched ages ago.

    As to the nattophobics, have you ever tried it with stir fried noodles or thrown in at the end of preparing a light soup to thicken it up? Its a grown up food even kids are happy to eat and great stuff from a health point of view.

  8. RMilner said

    The expansion of awareness of anime and manga began in the late 80s, so the Japanese government is very late in sponsoring this trend.

    With respect to short skirts, I note the recent trend is for schoolgirls to wear longer skirts.

    Japanese women, far from having healthy body proportions are remarkably thin. That’s not to say the west doesn’t have problems with obesity, but many Japanese women in their late teens and 20s have a low-grade anorexia issue. One side effect is reduced bust size which naturally leads them to throw emphasis onto their thin legs, which do admittedly look sleek under mini-skirts. Another side effect is reduced fertility.

  9. mac said

    I will be honest with you, my interests are for older females than schoolgirls (… longskirts with basketball shorts underneath if the windy days around here are anything to go by). On your broad stereotype of “Japanese women” … reliable medical references please. I’d guess that different cultures, and genotypes, have different standards.

    The Japanese government and industries have kept pretty obsessive health records Post-WWII, height, weight, susceptibility to cancer, female menstruation, onset of puberty etc. For example, by the 1990s, Japanese girls in the 6th/7th grade level were 16 cm taller than their postwar counterparts and more than 12 kg heavier. What is that, a 30 to 50% increase? Whenever were Japan – or most Asian societies – noted for big breasted aesthetics … and what real benefits are udders on human beings anyway? In japan, with the kimono in past, the opposite was true … today it is all about legs not tops.

    One urban legend I will repeat here, however, are women telling me that mothers they knew were telling their teenage daughters to eat more chicken because it was said it would make their breasts grow bigger … unaware that was more probably due to all the growth hormones in the meat (as in milk) than the additional protein.

    For sure, the high-protein, high-fat Western diet is changing the Japanese physique. I am not sure that the results of it are optimum. My bottomline, excuse the pun, is a comparison to America, with a second to the United Kingdom and Europe. Without any doubt there are still far more women remaining within healthy norms, thanks to genes and diet.

    If anything, there are now too many Japanese women leaning towards putting on weight and it does not suit them.

  10. bender said

    One side effect is reduced bust size which naturally leads them to throw emphasis onto their thin legs, which do admittedly look sleek under mini-skirts. Another side effect is reduced fertility.

    Don’t be ridiculous.

    Small breast size is one of the general racial characteristics of East Asian people. Same thing with relative short stature, high cheek bones, straight black hair, epicanthic fold, lack of body hair, round head, etc.

  11. mac said

    … and far fewer apocrine sweat glands! Well, I cant speak for all of East Asia but it certainly rings true for Japan. A good diet of healthily fermented foods, rather than putrified meats, has to play a part in that too though.

    I was thinking over the last couple of days about stature and remembered all the old military costumes of “great leaders” we see in museums of Europe. Those guys were all tiny, and slight. About the size of lightweight teenagers. Admiral Nelson, 5′ 5″, Napoleon Bonaparte 5′ 6″ … the average height of Europeans from Rome to the Dark Ages was about 5’5.

    An increase in size, especially sideways, sure does not have any correlation to efficiency. It interests me how everything from tool design to society has been designed differently to suit the slighter stature in Japan.

    I wonder what the human optimum really is? I’d say probably what fits a Honda Cub best. Historically, the increase in human scale all seems to be down to the supply of cows’ milk, and that equates to no earlier than the late 19th Century for Japan. A higher proportion of Asians lack enzymes to cope with it.

  12. bender said

    You’re forgetting the Asiatic steppe peoples: Turks, Mongolians, and Tibetans. They drink milk all the time. In fact, it’s what all they consume most of the time, isn’t it? They’re not tall like Northern Europeans or West Africans.

  13. mac said

    I cant find the original academic paper, a metastudy, that I used to make that statement. I might later, it was genuinely interesting.

    I think it underlined the regularization of supply of dairy food and brought it right up to date suggest that young Chinese in Beijing (I suspect therefore more “modern” and wealth) were within a centimeter in height of their American counter part. Perhaps it needs dairy on top of raw carbs, which the nomads might actually lack.

    Obviously there are other elements in play, e.g. climate being the big one, e.g. I can imagine that having a tall slim body is a detriment at high altitudes or extreme cold. Interesting, the Dutch were very recorded as being very short until this century.

    Yes, RM, governments are always very late in jumping onto bandwagons and, generally, have the effect of killing them and their own credibility, e.g. look the UK’s Koizumi, Tony Blair, and his attempt at “Cool Britannia” using popstars and fashionista.

    Personally, I think Japan will still ride this wave for a while … and that it has not even hit the top of it yet. I think that Japan will lead NE Asia for a while, Tokyo and its satellites becoming what, say, Paris was to the 19th Century, London and New York to the 20th.

    Its all down to the fact that other Asians look and live more like the Japanese but that the Japanese have had the money and power to go out to the rest of the world first, bring it back and synthesis it suitable to Asian sensibilities.

    Due to the constraints of money now, and the likely constraints on travel and energy in the future, not all Asian cultures will be able to afford to do so. And why would they need to? Japan has done it so well. Better than anyone else could have.

    All the other nations need to do is eat the cream and butter that Japan has made.

  14. bender said

    I think the “wave” also has to do with the fact that Japan is freer than rest of the gang. Freedom means lots of junk being produced, but among the junk there’s a occasional jewel. Other countries just can’t take the junk and try to grab for the jewel too quickly.

    And BTW, I’m still amazed how Japan likes to copy the West- especially America- both fashion and thinking- and it’s often always with some time lag (so it’s kind of already outdated when introduced), with not much consideration put into whether they really fit Japan. I remember how big companies liquidated good employee welfare facilities to meet the “ROE” standard, which I still believe was a ridiculous thing to do. But then there’s an aspect of Japan that very much resists change, too, so this phenomenon is in no ways universal.

  15. mac said

    Many Japanese women in their late teens and 20s have a low-grade anorexia issue. One side effect is reduced bust size which naturally leads them to throw emphasis onto their thin legs, which do admittedly look sleek under mini-skirts. Another side effect is reduced fertility.

    I went off at the weekend to do some … cough … “scientific research” into young women’s legs and came back with the opinion that very few were actually “thin”, few were actually “slim” and most were actually “just normal”.

    And then there were more than a few farmer’s daughters who, thankfully, were not in the strapless, high heels the rest were wearing but in sensible shoes and precisely the type of woman one would have married 100 years ago if one wanted the sweet potatoes dug out in time.

    This extensive empirical research was hampered only by the summer time fun of all the local hotties going out gift wrapped in full length yukatas, or what looked exactly like pajamas, instead of their usual weekday hotpants and mini-skirts.

    “Not even ‘slim’? Of course Japanese women tend to be slim!” But, no, I did not think so. Just “normal” … what I mean is that their appeal was lay, or mostly teetered about, in their good proportions. Their legs were perfectly normal for the rest of their bodies and, often as their best aspects, on full display … give or take the stockings.

    How often when I first came to Japan was I surprise when some girl came up to me only to discover she was only 5 foot 1″ or 2″. When I saw her form a distance, I thought she must be 5′ 8″ or 10″. Her proportions were almost, if not perfect and the only women I remember seeing like that back home were the higher end of fashion models or the fashionista.

    Farmer’s daughters aside (God bless them their genes probably came from Korea or China on a later wave), there are thousand and thousands of women built like this. Slight but just normal. That is my opinion.

    As I said above, if I have a concern, it is that too many of them are actually putting on weight through Western diet. But moreso of the men than woman. Sadly, being an ‘Ofuro-ista’ and for the lack of co-ed onsen, I get to see a lot more middle age male ass and old men’s clackers than I do these more attractive others. Here is the science …

    From American Journal of Public Health, 2004. Thinness Among Young Japanese Women – Hidemi Takimoto, MD, Nobuo Yoshiike, MD, Fumi Kaneda, MS, RD and Katsushi Yoshita, RD, PhD

    Estimates of the incidence of eating disorders in young Japanese women are 17.1 to 30.7 per 100,000 for anorexia and 5.8 per 100,000 for bulimia,19,20 which is strikingly low compared with other industrialized countries, such as the United States (269.9 per 100,000), the United Kingdom (115.4 per 100,000), and Switzerland (70 per 100,000).

  16. ampontan said

    …the rest were wearing sensible shoes and precisely the type of woman one would have married 100 years ago if one wanted the sweet potatoes dug out in time.

    Cut it out, man, you’re making me laugh too hard.

    I went off at the weekend to do some … cough … “scientific research” into young women’s legs and came back with the opinion that very few were actually “thin”, few were actually “slim” and most were actually “just normal”.

    Could it be that they appear thin because Westerners have gotten accustomed to obesity?

    I’ve said it here before, but my first trip back to the US from Japan was three years after I got here. Everywhere I went, I kept thinking, where did all these fat people come from? Then I realized that they had always been there, and I hadn’t noticed until I spent some time in a place where there was a lot less obesity.

  17. I write a comment whenever I appreciate a article on a website or if I have something to add to the conversation. It is caused by the sincerness displayed in the post I looked at. And on this post Ain&. I was excited enough to drop a thought 🙂 I do have some questions for you if you don’t mind. Could it be just me or do some of the responses look like they are left by brain dead individuals? 😛 And, if you are writing on additional online social sites, I’d like to follow anything new you have to post. Would you list all of all your communal pages like your Facebook page, twitter feed, or linkedin profile?

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