Episode 12: Ato Aji – Foreign Aftertaste
When the first westerners showed up in Japan in the 1540s, the Japanese found it very difficult to be in close proximity to them, especially in enclosed areas, because the Westerners did not bathe or change their clothes regularly, and they gave off a strong stench.
Most Westerners who took up residence in Japan at that time eventually discovered that bathing regularly would not harm their health, and they learned one direct benefit that they had no trouble at all in appreciating. It dramatically improvement in their social lives with Japanese women, who prefer men who have bathed and are clean shaven.
Most of the western living in Japan then, however, continue to eat a diet of meat and butter, and no amount of bathing would eliminate the body odour such a diet causes. Unfortunately, the smell of butter turned out to be a specially nauseous to the Japanese, given rise to the saying batā kusai or “stinking of butter”, which was gradually used as an uncomplimentary way of referring to western attitudes and behaviors.
In the 1630s, because of real and imagined problems with Westerners, the Japanese government expel all foreigners from the country, with the exception of a handful of Dutch traders who were isolated on the tiny man-made islands in Nagasaki Bay.
Japan was not open to foreigners again until the 1850s.
The downfall of the shogun in 1868 resulted in a flood of Western ways and habits into Japan, but it was not until after World War II that the Japanese began gradually to add meat and butter to their traditional diet of vegetables and seafood.
You can hear stories about the Japanese businessmen who traveled to the United States in the late 50s and 60s where they became seriously ill after 4 or 5 days of a meat-based diet.
Some had to cut their trip short and return to Japan.
I can attest to the felling of unwellnes after eating an American diet for several days in a row, so I understanding their feeling, but I can’t help but to chide the Japanese who pack their suitcases full of instant noodles and other Japanese treats jut in case the food doesn’t agree with them.
It was well into the 70s and appearance of the McDonald’s hamburger restaurants, and numerous hamburger wanna be imitators before meat and butter became a regular staple in the diet of most young urban Japanese.
This abrupt change not only eliminated most of their sensory sensitivity to the smell of these previous taboo foods, that also resulted in a dramatic increase in their size.
We can see that the older Japanese were much slower in adapting to a partial western diet.
The Japanese, though overcoming the revulsion to the stink of butter, did not eliminate the sensitivity to western attitudes and behavior.
Japanese culture is so strong and so pervasive that the Japanese, including those who have been heavily exposed to western influence, still automatically distinguish between Japanese and Western ways, and automatically make comparisons between the two.
Most Japanese seem to be more susceptible to cultural shock than their western counterparts when they are stationed abroad for extended periods and are forced to associate with foreigners on a daily basis.
The reaction of the Japanese to western attitudes and behaviours is intellectual, emotional and spiritual.
Some complained that interacting with Westerners for just a few hours is tiring and leaves an ato aji, or “aftertaste“, that by its very nature is unpleasant.
Westerners visiting Japan should be aware of this cultural sensitivity and do what they can to leave as little of the ato aji as possible.
This, of course, requires a great deal of sensitivity, plus expertise that come only with familiarity of the Japanese culture.
And while you are pondering the meaning of ato aji keep working on your hinkaku as well.