Zushi

How The Allied Occupation Helped Promote The Popularity Of Tokyo Style Nigiri Sushi

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When the Allied forces arrived in Japan in 1945 for what was to be the seven year military occupation, there was little doubt that the country would be changed forever. However, some traditions were retained in an effort to maintain Japanese culture.  One of these traditions was sushi.

The earliest form of sushi in Japan was called narezushi (salted fish).  Fish was stored in fermented rice for long periods of time without spoiling and provided an important source of protein in the Japanese diet. The sushi we are familiar with today is called nigiri sushi.  It had its origins in Edo (Tokyo). A restaurant owner named Hanaya Yohei is credited with having invented this type of sushi during the 19th century.  The Edo people were known for their busy lifestyle and lack of patience, therefore many fast food businesses began cropping up. Nigiri sushi, which was known as Edomaezushi at the time, was a type of fast food, conveniently shaped to be eaten by hand and no longer reliant on the fermentation process utilized by narezushi.

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While nigiri quickly became the most popular style of sushi in Edo, it did not immediately dominate the sushi landscape as it does today. There were two events which aided the popularity of nigiri sushi outside of Tokyo: one was the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 and the other was the military occupation of Japan in 1945.  The earthquake caused many people to leave Tokyo and return to their hometowns.  Among these were the various sushi chefs who opened restaurants upon returning home and served Edomaezushi to their clientele. In post-war Japan, many sushi shops were forced to close due to the rice rationing at the time and not allowed to reopen.

Eventually it was impressed upon the American Forces General Headquarters that the sushi restaurants should be allowed to reopen as sushi was an important part of Japanese culture.  When the restaurants reopened however, they had to adhere to one strict rule.  That rule was that the patrons were to bring in their own rice rations for the sushi.  One cup of rice was to be used to make ten pieces of sushi hence the nigiri sushi shrunk in size.  In pre-war Japan, nigiri sushi was three times larger.

Eventually the same system was implemented throughout Japan and Tokyo style nigiri became Japan’s predominant form of sushi.

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Japan: Traditions (Yabusame Archers)

Even in Japan, a land awash in tradition, there aren’t too many events that take place today exactly as they did centuries ago. Fortunately, for those seeking to see and learn more about Japanese traditions and customs, there is Yabusame (流鏑馬),a form of horseback archery which is still practiced as it was during the Kamakura Period (1185-1333). During this period, mounted archery was used as a military training exercise to keep the samurai prepared for war.

Yabusame archers dressed in traditional hunting clothes

Yabusame archers dressed in traditional hunting clothes

This spectacular ritual also holds religious significance and is performed today at famous shrines such as Tsurugaoka Hachimangu in Kamakura, Shimogamo Shrine in Kyoto (during Aoi Matsuri in early May) and Meiji Jingu in Tokyo. It is also performed in Samukawa (Kanagawa Prefecture) and on the beach at Zushi (Kanagawa Prefecture), as well as other locations. These events attract thousands of spectators, who come to marvel at the sight of mounted archers in lavish costumes firing arrows at stationary targets while charging at full gallop.

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Yabusame simply involves an archer on horseback galloping at high speed down a roped-off track approximately 837 feet long. Without stopping or slowing down, he or she fires three arrows in succession, each at one of the three wooden targets placed about 230 feet apart on one side of the track. The archer then has to slow down quickly before coming to the end of the track. The whole run lasts about 20 seconds, and the score is based simply on how many targets have been hit.

Yabusame archer on horseback

Yabusame archer on horseback

Females compete in Yabusame as well

Females compete in Yabusame as well

The archers need to use both hands for shooting, so they have to rely on their knees alone to control the horses. As they fire the arrows they shout “in-yo-in-yo,” meaning darkness and light (the two opposite cosmic forces, sometimes called yin and yang). Hitting even one target is hard, and hitting all three is a major achievement; the mark of a supreme expert.

Archer at full gallop

Archer at full gallop, turnip headed arrow being used

To be selected as a yabusame archer is a great honor, even today. In the past, they were chosen from only the best warriors. The archer who performs the best is awarded a white cloth, signifying divine favor.

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Japanese bows date back to prehistoric times, to the J0mon Period. The arrows the archer uses are “turnip-headed.” I believe this stems from one style of mounted archery called “inuoumono” where dogs were used as the targets. Buddhist priests were able to prevail upon the samurai to have the arrows padded so that the dogs were only annoyed and bruised rather than killed. Experienced archers are allowed to use arrows with a V-shaped prong. If the board is struck, it will splinter with a confetti-like material and fall to the ground. The targets and their placement are designed to ritually replicate the optimum target for a lethal blow on an opponent wearing full traditional samurai armor, “O-Yoroi” which left the space just beneath the helmet visor bare.

There are two famous schools of mounted archery that perform yabusame. One is the Ogasawara school. The founder, Ogasawara Nagakiyo, was instructed by the shogun Minamoto Yoritomo to start a school for archery. He wanted his warriors to be highly skilled and disciplined. Archery was seen as a good way for instilling the necessary principles for a samurai warrior.

Shooting at the wooden target

Shooting at the wooden target

The other archery school was begun earlier by Minamoto Yoshiari in the 9th century under the command of Emperor Uda. This school became known as the Takeda school of archery. The Takeda style has been featured in classic samurai films such as Akira Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai” (1954) and “Kagemusha” (1980). The famed actor of many samurai films, Toshiro Mifune, was a distimguished student of the Takeda school.

Actor, Toshiro Mifune

Actor, Toshiro Mifune

Yabusame is an awe inspiring sport that truly has to be experienced in person at least once in a lifetime. If not for experiencing the traditions of feudal Japan, to experience the sheer talent and mastery of the archers themselves as they compete in this impressive sport.