Anatomy of a Japanese barbecue

Recently I had the chance to work at a Japanese barbecue.  I’ve been to plenty such cookouts before, but this time it struck me afresh just how unique they are–spiritual, even.  And I knew I had to sort out these impressions and write them down, because as strange as it sounds, the Japanese barbecue was surely part of my journey from atheism to the Catholic Church.

So here’s what I feel is unique about them:

  1.  Emphasis on the team.  First of all, when you have a Japanese barbecue, you do it en masse.  In this case, it was my employer putting on the BBQ, so dozens of my coworkers and I left the office and donned matching happi (traditional jackets).  Papers were distributed in advance dividing us into teams and each person was given a specific job to do.  Every procedure, from washing our hands at the outset to carrying the empty pans back to the kitchen at the end, was carefully choreographed.  I find that there is a lot of satisfaction in working this way–it seems to make honoring the dignity of the human person and of work as much of a goal as eating delicious grilled squid.
  2. A Japanese barbecue is lo-tech.  The men fetched bags of charcoal and poured them into a metal trough, then covered it with a metal grate.  Voila–the grill.  They then carried large styrofoam crates of fresh whole fish and squid from the kitchen, presumably just the way they were received from the fish market that morning.  Everything is reduced to its bare essentials–one could feel that it was the effort of our team that converted a grassy spot into civilization–which I find gives a satisfying feeling of connection to the earth, your team, and existence itself.  You haven’t felt the soul of a grill until you’ve seen one assembled from the minimal required elements.
  3. A Japanese barbecue is gendered.  We were given no particular directions regarding the happi, but most of the women chose red and most of the men chose blue–the traditional colors for the genders.  The men were directed to carry the heavy items out into the yard, and my very gracious partner offered to do any tasks that involved running up and down a hill.  My manager saw to it that I wouldn’t be assigned to the grill, lest I burn my hands.  And it was a delight to watch the women slicing the grilled squid respectfully flatter the men on their grilling skills (it seemed to me the men’s hearts were singing at the opportunity to grill!).  Some people’s worst nightmare, perhaps, but I find that approaching gender with such reverence is like water to my parched soul.

There are other aspects of the Japanese barbecue that I struggle to describe–one would be the childlike “scripted comments” that give many Japanese gatherings their uniquely innocent character–but perhaps that’s a topic for another post.

For now, I think I can conclude that, once again, it is the Japanese art of listening–to what a human being is, to what a team is, to what work, a man, a woman, a grill, and a fish are–it is their sensitivity to and reverence for the essences of these things that makes a Japanese barbecue such a satisfying and spiritual experience.

And I think that learning to listen to these things was one of the experiences that gently led me out of atheism.

Thank you, Japan!

Everybody wants a Church wedding

Once I was at dinner with a coworker when she asked me, “Aren’t Catholics supposed to get married in a church?”

“Well, yes,” I said, wondering where this was going.

“Well, my husband is Catholic and we didn’t get married in a church,” she complained.

“Your husband is Catholic?!” I said.  I remembered that she’d married a foreigner, but this was news.

As it turned out, he wasn’t a practicing Catholic, and my coworker was disappointed that they’d just picked up a marriage license and that was it.

I couldn’t blame her for being disappointed.  Even before I returned to the Church, one of my pet peeves was the modern man who just can’t be bothered to get married.

I dated one once, back when I was young and stupid. He didn’t see any reason why people had to promise to stay together forever. Like, what if they got sick of each other? Why not just share their lives for as long as they felt like it?

At the time, I found his way of thinking really creepy and repulsive, but I couldn’t articulate why. There is just absolutely no thrill in being told, “I love you . . . for now.” Instinctively, I knew it was a lie. Love had to be forever or it wasn’t love.

However, as obvious as that seemed to me, I learned that I couldn’t take it for granted that men would think the same way.

Until I returned to the Church, and all of a sudden everyone was on the same page again. Marriage was a sacrament in which the spouses promised before God to love each other until death. Love even had a definition; it was “willing the good of the other.” That’s right, love meant acting for the good of the other person, for the rest of your lives.  Now compare that to, “Let’s not make a commitment to each other in case we get sick of each other,” and you tell me which is more romantic!

Japanese women may not understand the theology behind it, but they sense the romance in a Church wedding.  In fact, many of them choose to get married in fake churches wearing Western-style wedding dresses with the vows read by a foreign man.

Literally, any foreign man will do.

I can’t say I blame them for trying to copy Church weddings–they sound pretty awesome.  Only, I’m not quite sure they’ve identified the secret ingredient.

Why Cinderella retired to Asia

I had a very rare opportunity today.  I saw a production of Cinderella played straight.  I mean Cinderella wasn’t some butch feminist hero who saved the prince and then decided that she’d rather be a football player.  It was just Cinderella.

It occurred to me that the last time this happened in America was probably several decades ago.  Modern America reserves a special kind of rancor for the classic Cinderella.  If they simply didn’t find the story compelling, they could have let it fade into obscurity long ago.  As it is, they are still furiously stabbing its corpse.

Japan doesn’t seem to have a problem with Cinderella.  I’ve never actually asked a Japanese woman what she likes about Cinderella, but if I did, I suspect she’d say how romantic it seemed to wear a fancy ball gown and against all odds, to marry the prince.  If I were to argue that that doesn’t happen in real life, I suspect she’d give that politely alarmed laugh that says, “Wow, you’re taking this really seriously.”

To the Japanese, I suspect, Cinderella is a harmless fantasy.  To the Americans, it’s a broken promise.

I don’t think Cinderella was ever meant to be a how-to manual for marrying a prince, though (isn’t that kind of thinking like the stepsisters?)  I think it’s a story about being good.

As I watched the play, what struck me was Cinderella’s sincerity and hope in the face of suffering.  She didn’t have the power to change her situation, but she wasn’t cynical about it either.  She honestly did the best she could and trusted God with the rest.  That, to me, is true strength.

The fact is, every woman in town wanted to marry the prince, but only one would be able to.  And the one he chose was the humblest of all.

Actually, I’m pretty sure that does happen in real life.  Just ask Our Blessed Mother.

The two keys to history, or, how I joined a cult

After taking that trip to Paris and tromping through Marie Antoinette’s estate (isn’t one of the wonderful perks of our age that commoners can tromp through the palaces of the world?) I was inspired to read Marie Antoinette:  The Journey by Antonia Fraser.  (If you haven’t yet read this excellent biography, I highly recommend it.)  When I did, there were two things that struck me:

1.  The world had a special something in Marie Antoinette’s age that it seemed to have lost since.

2.  No matter how far back in history one looks, women seemed to get the short end of the stick.

This seemed to provide a focus for a lot of the things that had been floating around in my mind up until that point.  It seemed to me that if I could come up with a theory that explained these two observations, I would have finally figured out what makes the world tick.

So I was mulling over these observations, trying to make sense of them, when I stumbled upon a book that seemed to address everything I was thinking about.  In fact, it was a book published by a New Age cult that claimed humanity’s golden age was in the prehistoric period, when society was ruled by women, who are naturally the more spiritual sex.  As time went on, the book argued, the world shifted from an emphasis on the spiritual to an emphasis on the material, and at the same time from matriarchy to patriarchy, and nothing has been right since.

It should be noted that at the time I read this book, I had just moved from Japan to America for a man who did not actually want to get married after all, and was perhaps feeling less than charitable towards men in general.

The book’s theory was outlandish, but it did seem to neatly fit my two observations, and besides, I was already thinking that I wanted to return to religion.  So, in a dazzling display of superior intelligence and judgment, I shrugged, said, “seems legit,” and joined the cult.

Needless to say, the more I studied the cult’s beliefs, the less they seemed to align with reality.  Eventually I would become very uncomfortable with it, and when I finally read in a New Age book about the importance of revealed religion (after all, if we want to know God, shouldn’t we listen to what He has to say about Himself?) I knew I couldn’t stay.  I just didn’t believe it was true anymore.

But I still wasn’t aware of any other feasible explanation for my two observations.  Until I started reading Catholic books, and realized:

1.  The Catholic Church was a huge influence in European culture in Marie Antoinette’s time, and not so much now.

2.  Women may arguably suffer more than men, but suffering can have redemptive value when united with Christ’s suffering on the cross.

There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy, indeed.