Friday, October 31, 2008

On Chopsticks

One of my greatest regrets is that I’ve never quite learned to eat with chopsticks. I guess it’s because no one has ever guided me properly on the matter of chopstick handling, but I’m sure it’s because I really can’t be bothered.

In my motorcycling circle, they speak of a Japanese mechanic who once had to replace a worn camshaft on a motorcycle. Now these shafts have a pattern of grooves on them, in which oil is carried around from the galleries to lubricate and cool the valves. In the old shaft, these grooves were worn out. So this mechanic mounted the old shaft on a fast turning lathe and poured molten steel on it straight from a furnace. He then quenched it by plunging it into oil at room temperature, to relieve it of internal stresses and give it more tensile strength. He then copied the groove pattern from a new shaft by making an imprint on a sheet of translucent paper using kohl, and then cut the pattern on the old shaft, turning it back within a micrometer of its old dimension.

It is an awesome story, and the whole painstaking exercise was hard, laborious and incredibly stupid, because it cost him Rs.850. And a brand new shaft is worth Rs.800.

In a list of Japanese inventions posted on the internet, there was a device that you’d have to strap on to your hat right below your ear and when its electrodes sensed a sneeze coming, it would automatically dispense a paper napkin right in front of your nose. Although why anyone familiar with the concept of handkerchiefs and pockets would go so far as to wear a hat and strap on a heavy and embarrassing apparatus still puzzles me.

Most Japanese people want trees in their homes. Most Indians do, too. That is why most Indian homes have Neem trees growing right in the center. But the average Japanese house is only 110 sq.ft in area, and there are about a gazillion houses in Tokyo alone. There isn’t enough room for two medium sized people, leave alone a tree. Faced with such circumstances, an average Indian would have done the sensible thing – chop down all the trees in the neighbourhood and forget the matter. But the Japanese? No. They had to wire, prune and file trees down to miniature sizes, and carry them around in little pots! Looking at a giant sequoia tree, would the average Neanderthal man have ever thought “Hmmm, I’d like a pocket sized version of that on my study desk”? No. Because the average Neanderthal man did not have study desks. The average Japanese Neanderthal man on the other hand not only had a study desk, he also had a palmtop on it which was connected through Wi-Fi to Honda solar powered DNA robots which were presently mowing his lawn. And he was already trying to decide whether to name the miniature invention Bonsai or Hentai.

See, that’s the thing with the Japanese. They want a smaller version of everything. When everything has become small, they’d then want smaller versions of the smaller things. They will take the smallest and simplest task and computerize the living daylights out of it and make it unwieldy. They can go to any lengths to do that. Believe me. The entire western civilization (west of Japan that is) is founded on the basic principle of making things easier. But the Japanese want to make things more complex. They just don’t understand the concept of too much trouble. Nothing is ever too much trouble for them.

Maybe that explains why they use chopsticks to eat rice. If there is a simpler way of doing things, the Japanese will NOT accept it. I mean, how else would you explain it? It’s not like they have not seen the spoon. They have. So they can’t even pretend as though they don’t know about the spoon and plead ignorance. No. The only other logical reasons that explain the continuing use of chopsticks are a) lack of greens in Japanese food and b) a huge mafia funded chopstick production industry. One look at the technological innovations coming out of Japan is enough to throw the lack-of-greens theory out of the window (Though it is still a mystery why a nation of such keen scientists cannot spot the one blaring intellectual anomaly in an otherwise flawless topography). Sadly, we have to live with the pitiless burden of proof, and hence a mafia-funded-chopstick-industry theory doesn’t hold water, either.

So, I think my theory stands unchallenged. I have finally solved the age-old riddle. I’ve cracked the code. In evolution terms, this is the equivalent of deducing the reasons for the extinction of the Galapagos apple snail. I deserve some award for this, surely. (I don’t know if there is such a thing as a Galapagos apple snail. I made that up.)

See, you can place a chopstick next to a spoon and crack all the witty jokes you want till the cows come home, but remember, in Japan, they are making just as many jokes about you and your spoon. You will never understand it, because you don’t understand their culture, and because their jokes are in Japanese.

That brings me to the question that has been gnawing at my mind ever since I began thinking about Japanese culture. If the Japanese go to such elaborate lengths to make things as complex as possible, why do they eat fish raw? So is Sushi really an Australian invention?