End-of-millennium in Japan: Women, food, and other observations from a first-time visiting scientist

Ed: This post shares an entertaining and insightful essay about customs, food, and women in Japan over 20 years ago. It was written by my friend and colleague, Mark Boslough, after he returned from an engineering business trip in Japan in 1994. I am curious how much has changed over the subsequent 20 years, so please comment if you know which of his observations or impressions no longer apply (or if they never applied in the first place too)!  With Mark’s permission, this version has a few bits [in brackets] that have been altered to remove information that could identify particular individuals or organizations. It also has corrections of some minor typo/style issues. It is written in a style that mimics what Mark’s employer (a major US scientific research laboratory) required after any foreign travel.


  1. Status of Women in Japan
  2. Diary of Food Activities
  3. Unusual Japanese customs (by US standards)

Trip Report, Unofficial Appendix


1. Status of Women in Japan

1.1 Girls Day, March 3, 1994

I found out that March 3rd in Japan is called “girl’s day”, to honor girls. There is also a “boy’s day”, in May. The one in May is a national holiday. The one in March is not.

1.2 Science Hall of Fame, March 6, 1994

When I went to the Japan Science Foundation Science Museum in Tokyo, they had a dining hall which was wallpapered by the great contributors to science throughout history. They had about a hundred pictures with short biographies. I noticed that there were only two women. Almost all of the men had their own box on the wall, but both women were sharing theirs. The first was Marie Curie, who was with her husband Pierre. He was listed first; I assumed that was because he was oldest, even though he only had half the number of Nobel Prizes. However, I saw that Chien-Shiun Wu (co-discoverer of non-conservation of parity during beta decay) was listed last behind her two male collaborators, even though she was oldest.

I was happy to see that Jean-Baptiste de Monet de Lamarck, the French naturalist famous for the long-discredited Lamarckian theory of evolution, had his own place on the wall!

1.3 News Item, March 8, 1994

In the paper today, there was an article about Japan’s VERY FIRST female train conductor. She has a master’s degree in physics, but many are concerned that a women might have trouble doing the job, because conductors need to know how to handle drunken passengers and what to do in emergency situations.

1.4 Institute Literature

Quoting from an information booklet I received from one of the institutes I visited: “The Institute invites *men* of learning and experience to serve as the advisory committee to the Director-General,” (emphasis added).

1.5 Office Ladies

In Japanese companies, most of the young women in the offices are called “OLs” (Office Ladies). Their job is to serve tea, mop up spills, hold doors, answer the phone, and provide a soft, feminine presence. Some people call them “shokuba no hona”–office flowers, implying that they are there more for decoration than for work. They generally stay around until they reach “tekikeiki”–suitable age to marry, generally 25 to 27 nowadays.

By the way, many women at the upper limit of tekikeiki, born in 1966, are destined to go unmarried. 1966 was the Japanese year of the fiery horse; these women are called “hinoe uma”–fiery horses, and are considered to be bad luck. (If you don’t believe that the Japanese take such superstitions seriously, all you have to do is look at birth statistics– in 1966, the birthrate was 25% lower than in 1965.)

1.6 Dinner Conversation, March 15, 1994

However, things seem to be changing. At dinner I sat next to a woman scientist from [a prestigious Japanese university]–one of the only women at the conference. She is the discoverer of [a new and unusual high-pressure phase produced in the laboratory]. She got married last year, and has retained her original name (she said that her name raised some eyebrows when she and her husband checked into the hotel for the meeting). Japan is one of two countries in the world in which it is ILLEGAL for a woman not to take her husband’s name (the other is India). So her name is officially the same as her husband’s, but she uses her old name as a “pen name” and on her badge at the conference. She is also a [sport] pilot, [adventurer/explorer], and former field [scientist]. She is also an active ballet dancer–a fact she withholds from her colleagues because she feels they would not approve. Not all Japanese women are shokuba no hona. Unfortunately, she did not give a presentation at the conference.

1.7 Progress

The existence of women such as the researcher I met is evidence that the status of women in Japan is improving. I would compare the situation to that in the U.S about 25 years ago. While I was in Japan I refereed a paper [on the results of supercomputer simulations at an American university]. The principal author was a female Japanese graduate student, who had recently asked me about job opportunities at [my employer, a major US laboratory]. All the time I was in Japan, the Japanese scientists were telling me that there was a shortage of scientists. They are hiring a lot of foreigners, but they are very strict about immigration. As more and more Japanese women go into science, I think the solution is obvious.



2 Diary of Food Activities

2.1 Breakfast, March 2, 1994

When I checked into the hotel last night, the woman at the desk asked me if I wanted a “Japanese” or “English” breakfast. Being that I was in Japan, I ordered Japanese. I sat down for breakfast at a table with a funny tray on the opposite side. The waitress moved the tray in front of me. I took off the cover and there was food inside. It was time to embark upon my first meal in Japan.

The tray was like one of those TV dinner trays, with several depressions for different food items. A sad, dried-out looking fish was flattened out in one compartment, with eyes still in its head looking back at me. Some unrecognizable stuff was in another depression, and some white stuff (potato salad?) with two meat balls in another. There was a little plastic package with some strange green crackers (I later figured out this was seaweed). Finally, there was something I recognized–an egg.

I decided to start with the most familiar. I cracked it, expecting hard-boiled, and discovered it was raw. I had no idea what to do with it, and was sitting there staring at it when the waitress brought me a bowl of rice and a bowl of soup. The solution was obvious–I dumped it in the soup. I figured I’d let it sit and cook awhile when a businessman sat down at a table in front of me and opened his TV dinner tray. I decided to wait and do whatever he did. He cracked his egg, dumped some soy sauce on it, scrambled it with his chopsticks, and — put it on his rice. Oh well.

2.2 Breakfast, March 3, 1994

Instead of a raw egg I got some nondescript, slimy mush (probably raw egg mixed with something). I put it on my rice this time. In the other tray holes were: some kind of vegetables, a little weenie, chunks of sweet potato, some little edible packages of something fishy, and another dried-out, flattened staring fish.

2.3 Dinner, March 5, 1994

I was invited to dinner at the home of a Canadian couple who both have temporary jobs in Tsukuba (they are from Edmonton and are good friends of a couple I knew from grad school, and who hosted me when I gave a seminar there a few years ago). We had raw octopus as an appetizer. One of their young sons loves octopus, and scarfed most of it up, suction cups and all. I tried not to let the suction cups get stuck to my tongue.

2.4 Dinner, March 8, 1994

After visiting the Tokyo Institute of Technology, the professor who hosted me escorted me and another Japanese colleague to the Ginza district in Tokyo. It was raining hard, and we folded up our umbrellas and entered a high-rise building. The TIT professor pulled out a magnetized card and put it in a slot next to an elevator–the doors opened, we got in, and it took us to the top of the building. There was an umbrella rack full of dripping umbrellas. I was shown how to put my umbrella in the rack, close a clamp-like device around it, and remove a key like the ones on coin-op lockers. Apparently umbrellas are one of the few items in Japan that are subject to theft.

We then entered a door, and were greeted by several waitresses–in playboy bunny suits! We proceeded to sit down at a table, and the bunnies brought us course after course of unusual food items. Among these were shark-fin soup and jellyfish, along with the usual suction-cup-laden tentacle-bearing invertebrates.

2.5 Dinner, March 10, 1994

Tonight we were working late in the lab, and the NMR spectroscopist took me to dinner. Like a lot of Japanese fish places, the restaurant had tanks with fish swimming around, and you get to choose your meal while it is still alive. The menu has pictures of the food. In many of these pictures, a fish head is propped up and prominently displayed, eyes staring off into space.

First I ordered a beer, and with it they brought a bowl of something that looked like SQUID FETUSES! [My host] said they were glow-worm cuttlefish.

We ordered something called chunogunabe (or something), which is a big pile of stuff you put in boiling water (mushrooms, vegetables, tofu, chunks of chicken, fish, meat, oysters, clams, etc.). We had all the stuff piled into the boiling water, and we went to put the prawns (giant shrimp) in, and THEY TRIED TO JUMP BACK OUT!!!! THEY WERE STILL ALIVE!! I had to watch the poor little invertebrates die a horrible death, so I could eat them.

It’s a good thing we didn’t order this other thing on the menu that my host likes. They bring you a live fish and FILLET it on your plate while it’s STILL SQUIRMING, GASPING, WRITHING and TWITCHING!!! At least you know it’s fresh that way.

I observed to [my host] that fish heads and eyeballs would not be considered appetizing to most Americans. He said that fish eyeballs are quite a delicacy, and that tuna eyeballs are considered brain food. There is always a strong demand for them during examination times, when Japanese students are qualifying for various universities. They can fetch as much as 6000 yen (~$50) apiece (I don’t know if they need to be purchased in pairs).

2.6 Dinner, March 15, 1994

I had a cuttlefish with very large eyeballs. I noticed that when I chewed the head, the eyeballs exploded like that gum with the fluid centers, but it wasn’t the same flavor (not everyone would appreciate the humor in that!) The gum is supposed to make your breath smell better, but I’m sure the cuttlefish eyeballs don’t. They didn’t make me feel any smarter afterwards, either.



3 Unusual Japanese Customs (by U.S. standards)

  • Lots of Japanese wear cotton surgical masks around. Is it because they consider it rude to blow their noses in public? A mask would be the only thing to do in event of a cold.
  • Japanese commuters ride bicycles in the rain carrying umbrellas. I never got the hang of that, but I got soaked to the skin riding home late one night after work.
  • Bicycles and umbrellas are the only items subject to theft in Japan. If they are not locked up they seem to be considered community property. There are racks of umbrellas outside of every building.
  • The ticket-taker at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo had to put on his white glove before he took my ticket. I wasn’t sure if he always did that or if it was just me.
  • Menus always show pictures of fish heads, usually tastefully arranged with garnish.

One thought on “End-of-millennium in Japan: Women, food, and other observations from a first-time visiting scientist

  1. Haha, thanks for sharing this! I’ve been back to Japan twice since then (most recently in May of this year for our Planetary Defense Conference). I think I’m finally getting the hang of their food!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s