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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!