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Why, Japan, Why? MARCH 2020

How can Oreos be more Japanese than sumo wrestlers?

In last month’s Japanagram, we talked about turning foreign things Japanese, but I bet you never thought that the most extreme example of that might be…sumo.

Foreigners have dominated this most sacred of Japanese sports since 1990. This photo, for example, is Asashoryu, the Mongolian who introduced revolutionary – and, for a while, unstoppable – techniques based on Mongolian wrestling. 

Sumo wrestler Asashoryu yokozuna doing kata in the ring

Asashoryu wasn’t the first foreigner to become a champion – he followed Akebono and Musashimaru (Americans of Samoan extraction) who also attained the top rank of yokozuna – but it was his success that unleashed a flood of trainees from no less than 27 countries outside Japan.

No matter what their heritage, though, from the moment these foreigners from all over the world enter into training, they adopt Japanese names, wear only traditional Japanese clothing, eat only Japanese food and are allowed to speak only in Japanese, even out of the ring. When you hear one of these yokozuna interviewed it’s kind of amazing – their honorific Japanese is more perfect than most native speakers you’d meet on the streets of Tokyo. They become moreJapanese than most Japanese.

Unless they don’t.

Despite his impressive years of being the #1 sumo wrestler in Japan, Asashoryu retired while still in his prime. He’d been incensing the sumo establishment for years by faking the extent of his injuries so he could duck official meet & greet events to go play soccer instead, and when he finally punched a guy in a nightclub, that was the last straw. The sumo powers-that-be were about to drum him out, not because he didn’t play by the rules of sumo in the ring, but because he didn’t play by Japanese rules of behavior outside of it.

Which brings us to Japanese Oreos. 

Sumo explains why the heckin’ heck they look like this.

Japanese Oreos

These Oreos taste exactly Oreos from back home, but they a) don’t get your hands dirty and b) don’t drop crumbs, the two unbending requirements of any successful Japanese snack food. They’re carefully engineered by Japanese food scientists to deliver exactly the “right” cookie-to-cream-filling ratio in every bite, which – yes, you beat me to it – would be a deal-breaker for those who prefer the kind with twice as much filling, nevermind those who believe the ONLY way to eat Oreos is to eat the cookie parts separately from the filling by whichever method is sacrosanct..wait, stop, DEFINITELY NOT GOING DOWN THAT RABBIT HOLE HERE.

But if you fall into one of those categories of Oreo-eaters, you might have a hard time living in Japan.

Because whether you’re a professional athlete or a beloved snack food, in Japan, you have to play by Japanese rules.

And they have a test for this. It’s called, “applying for a longterm visa.” Which requires you recruit a bona fide Japanese person or institution to sponsor you (and be officially responsible for your behavior), fill out multiple forms (which must be signed and sealed by multiple sources), make multiple trips to the inconveniently-far-from-the-train-station immigration bureau to submit said forms, buy arcane stamps from arcane sources, and pay the application fee. And there are Rules for how all of this must be accomplished, which means more trips to the immigration bureau when you do it wrong and have to do it over. Which can become…infuriating.

My moment of truth came when I brought back my final form, took a number, waited an hour to be called, only to have it rejected by the All-Powerful Bureaucrat behind Window #2.

APB: “This isn’t the right form.”

Me: “But…it’s the one you gave me last week.”

APB: “Well, it’s the wrong one. You’ll have to do it over. Here’s the right one.”

She handed me a blank form. It was the exact same one I’d brought, but the title had been reworded.

The thing you want to do: Point out what a waste of time and effort this was (for her as well as me!) and that the important thing is that they get all the information they asked for, in the exact same order they asked it, and what difference did a slightly different title make?

The thing you have to do: Suck it up. So thanked her and meekly went away, copied everything from one form to the other, then got back in line.

Because if you don’t, they don’t really want you living in Japan. Every excruciatingly inconvenient step is a test to weed out the foreigners who can cope with living in Japan from those who can’t. Which means accepting early and often that doing things their way is the only way, even if there’s a better way.

If you love a good read, you might enjoy The Last Tea Bowl Thief too

“The brilliance of this novel sneaks up on you as the pieces of its puzzle come together.” —Mac Salman, Tokyo Authority

For three hundred years, a missing masterpiece is passed from one fortune seeker to the next, changing the lives of all who possess it…read more

Jonelle Patrick writes mystery novels set in Tokyo, and blogs at Only In Japan and The Tokyo Guide I Wish I’d Had

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