A specter is haunting Japanese snackfoods—the specter of dried pickled plums.
When you want a snack in Japan, traditionally what you eat is a thing called an onigiri, a lightly salted ball of rice. Though not as international famous as sushi or pocky, the onigiri is—as much as a foodstuff can be—ubiquitous in Japanese culture. You see them in anime. You see them in Japanese movies. You read about them in Japanese books. They’re like the Japanese equivalent of the potato chip, the go-to starchy snack.
Onigiri, however, aren’t just rice—that would be too bland even for Japan—but rice is either stuffed or wrapped with a secondary ingredient or two to add flavor . One of the things some people like to stuff an onigiri with is umeboshi. An umeboshi is a Japanese salt plum (which is really more like an apricot than a plum) that’s been dried in the sun and then pickled. They’re extremely sour. They’re extremely salty. A lot of Japanese people really love them both as a delicacy on their own and as an onigiri stuffer.
Popular as umeboshi are, salt plums aren’t a widely cultivated fruit in Japan. In much of the country the climate, population density, and geography just isn’t amenable to orchard-based agriculture. Most the plums that are grown come from one place, the area around the small town of Minabe in Wakayama prefecture.
In Minabe, life revolves around these plums. The economy is based on plums. There are plum festivals. There is Plum Bureau in the city government whose sole job it is to promote plums and plum-related products throughout Japan. The town mascot is even a damn anthropomorphic plum.
Plum consumption, however, is declining in Japan. In the last decade, the number of salt plums eaten by the average Japanese person has dropped by 25%. Like dropping oil prices send Russia into panic, this fact has caused a great deal of trepidation in the halls of Minabe’s government. So much fear, in fact, that last month, according to the Japan-watchers at Tofugu, Minabe’s city councilors unanimously passed an ordinance that made anyone making an onigiri within the city limits legally obligated to include umeboshi. If you stuff your onigiri with merely salmon or seaweed or squid or some other pickled fruit that isn’t a plum, you are breaking the law. You are a criminal. You are an enemy of the people of Minabe.
The idea, apparently, is that this law—sort of like Yukio Mishima’s post-putsch hara-kiri—will demonstrate how serious the people of Minabe are about umeboshi and therefore make umeboshi more popular throughout Japan because, of course, the Japanese are suckers for fascism so long as it’s butt-clenchingly sincere.
How much ground this plum fascism is going to gain them at present, however, remains to be seen. When confronted by Japanese journalists about whether the law was maybe crossing some boundaries, the bureaucrats behind it swore up and down that even though it was a crime to make an onigiri without umeboshi, the law didn’t include any punishments for violators. You could, they claimed, make your onigiri with anything you wanted. Your criminality would merely be spiritual.
One wonders though if that sort of appeasement can last. If sincerity is the key to saving the plum orchards, surely merely scowling at people eating non-umeboshi onigiri won’t be enough to sway the hearts of onigiri makers. Surely they will demand more. Surely they will demand sacrifice. Surely the people of Minabe will have to go to further lengths to prove the #WholeheartedSincerity of their loyalty to the plum.
As ever, we end with a humanist prayer:
“Some people have a foolish way of not minding, or pretending not to mind, what they eat. For my part, I mind my belly very studiously, and very carefully; for I look upon it, that he who does not mind his belly will hardly mind anything else.”
~Samuel Johnson, may he give us the strength to mind what we eat and the wisdom not to mind what others eat.
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