By Mary Strope
Dressed in crisp black and white suits, a group of second-year students from the Izumo College of Medical Nursing in Japan presented an overview of Japanese food culture to fourth-semester nursing students at City College.
As part of a three-day cultural exchange and study program that took place the third week of September, the 38 students attended workshops and simulations, visited hospices and renal care units, and even squeezed in a little sightseeing.
Both groups created a presentation about their respective nation’s diets through the aid of San Francisco-based translator Miho Saito. And while the talk focused on food, it also provided a window into different educational systems and cultures.
American cooking, with its focus on speed and convenience, is growing in popularity in Japan, and the variety of meat-based meals, fast food and ready-made products are more available than ever.
Traditionally, Japanese mothers wake up early to carefully craft balanced bento boxes for their schoolchildren.
While packaged food in bentos appears more frequently today, many mothers still labor over the lunches, often leaving notes urging their children to do well in school and finish every last bite.
“You can’t leave one grain of rice behind,” said Yusuke Nyuto, 20, as Saito translated.
The students emphasized the importance of passing on Japan’s healthy food customs, drawing from fresh seafood available to the small island nation and an emphasis on taste – not on condiments or calories.
Slides of seasonal dishes – spring’s cherry blossom leaves wrapped around mochi, or cold noodles in summer – showed the significance of fresh ingredients and simple, elegant presentation.
The audience groaned upon hearing that Starbucks recently opened across the street from Izumo’s famous Taisho Shrine – a custom-made version of the chain store complete with a traditional design to fit in with the location.
“McDonald’s!” was a resounding response to a question about prominent American fast food in Japan, with teriyaki burgers and “Fillet-O-Ebi” shrimp sandwiches as popular menu items.
The City College students’ presentation covered topics like food banks and government assistance, Michelle Obama’s healthy food campaign, diet trends and American staples.
Steak and potatoes, fried chicken, pizza and hamburgers were among the popular calorie-laden American food mentioned. The traditional Thanksgiving meal was also a focus.
“A turkey is a bigger version of a chicken,” explained Pamela Lyau, director of contract education at City College and one of the program’s coordinators. “At Thanksgiving, like it or not, we serve turkey.”
Green tea, sake and mushrooms are popular Japanese imports, said James Hayashi, a fourth-semester student at City College, in his presentation.
And among the major American imports to Japan? Packaged foods.
Other topics ranged from popular Japanese-American dishes (ramen, shabu shabu and sushi,) to the difficulty of getting placement in an affordable nursing program in the Bay Area.
After the presentations, the groups exchanged gifts and the Izumo students, amid a lot of giggling, got up and performed a choreographed dance and song. The groups headed out to chat, take photos and eat snacks.
Though he enjoyed the lectures, the best part of the program was mingling and interacting with students, Nyuta said.
Standing in the afternoon sun, Yurika Takahata, 19, and Sachiko Kano, 18, agreed on the importance of preserving Japan’s traditions, but said they were fans of American cooking as well, not only for the taste but for the gateway it can provide to a different way of life.
“To eat American food is to understand American culture,” Takahata said.