Respecting traditions

Yesterday, February 3rd, was yet another quite important day on the Japanese calendar, setsubun no hi This year, we didn't do the ehoumaki, and I didn't have any beans around, so the day was just another day. I feel just a tiny bit sad about that. (Read more about setsubun no hi and ehoumaki).

I do like to talk about the rituals and traditions connected to food that exist in Japanese culture on these pages on occasion. Like any culture, Japan has quite a few of these traditions; many are still practised, some have fallen into obscurity, others (like ehoumaki) used to be rather obscure but have been revived or popularized again for various reasons. There are a lot of interesting little beliefs and superstitions attached to food too. Why, for instance, would eating soba noodles help to bring in the new year? Well, why not?

Recently, an anonymous person left this rather angry comment to my light-hearted article about chopstick etiquette. I guess that person missed the light-heartedness of it. S/he was objecting mostly, I think, to the Buddhist custom (at least in Japan) of picking up the deceased's bone fragments with chopsticks after the body has been cremated.

In case you can't see the comment at the above link (you may need to change your comments-displayed-per-page settings), here it is:

I don't think sticking your chopsticks upright in your rice is such a bad thing. There are no such things as spirits or luck. I find such superstitions offensive. Here's an idea, how about NOT USING COOKING UTENSILS FOR CORPSES! I mean, invent a special pair of tongs or something else, you know? How hard is that? Someone has to take a stand and stop the endless cycle of stupidity and respect for irrational belief.

My first instinct was to just laugh this off. I mean, why take the opinion of some angry anonymous person who may be having a bad day, right? Then I started writing a response. Funnily enough, that anonymous angry person helped me clarify my own thoughts about the often arcane rituals and traditions associated with religion and other aspects of society.

So, instead of burying them in a comment (since this is my site and all ^_^), here they are.

I'm not condoning age-old religious practices. And I never want to condemn them or dismiss them as you [Mr. or Ms. anon.] seem to be doing. I'm just stating them as they are.

I'm actually a rather secular, non-religious person. If I had to classify myself on some survey, I guess I'd go with agnostic. However, I respect religious rituals, as well as the right of people anywhere to practice what they believe in.

For instance:

I find it a bit hard to get my head around the Catholic ritual of eating a dry little wafer and considering it part of the body of Christ (also practiced by other Christian sects in some way or another). I find the ritual of dunking a person, even babies, in water to commit them to God, or putting an ash thumbprint on their foreheads, kind of puzzling too. But I respect that many people do believe that it's a sacred part of their faith.

I once read somewhere that kosher restrictions about not mixing dairy with meat, or designating some seafood and pork as 'unclean',are probably based on now-arcane climatic and other restrictions that existed back in the Middle East region way back when. I tend to believe that. As a pork-lover, I think it's a shame that observant Jews are losing out on...bacon! But, again, I respect the traditions and beliefs that exist behind the tradition of keeping kosher.

There is an Indian religion called Jainism, that believes in non-violence towards all living beings. Not only are practitioners vegetarian, they are also banned from eating root vegetables like potatoes, carrots and radishes, because the plant needs to be killed to be eaten. I mean - no potatoes! And I love radishes! Surely root vegetables are non-sentient? But - I respect their beliefs...and sort of wonder how a cuisine like that tastes too. (no onions?!)

So, back to the chopsticks. As I said, I am not really religious myself. But, Buddhist funeral rites are part of the culture I come from. Sure, it seems a bit arcane that chopsticks stood upright in a bowl of rice means it's served to the dead, and some people may be grossed out by the idea of chopsticks being used to pick up the bones of the deceased. But, they are part of the ritual, and bring continuity and unity to a society. They are not harmful rituals.

All I ask is that people respect these rituals and traditions, even if they don't understand them. Don't sneer at them or laugh at them. We live in a society that's moving so fast, that sheds old habits constantly. So, as quaint as some of these old rituals may seem, I think they are a way of connecting us to our collective past.

So, anyway! While we're talking about traditons and rituals that are food-related, do you have any more obscure ones from your culture or region to share? I'd love to hear them!

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