North Korean “Inari-Sushi” and the Party to View Cherry Blossoms

By K.K. (a former North Korean refugee)

NEWS100PhotoBack in April, LFNKR had a cherry blossom viewing party.  At this party were members of LFNKR and also some of the former North Korean defectors who have resettled here in Japan.  The following is a brief article we received from one of the North Korean participants.  It was she who prepared and brought the unique spicy North Korean “inari-sushi” (fried bean-curd stuffed with boiled rice).

She writes:

I was born in North Korea, and I was able to come to Japan, thanks to Japanese humanitarian aid. At that time I knew absolutely nothing about the cultures or traditions of any other country. 

Before I arrived in Japan, that country was just an object of envy for me. But at the same time, thanks to the anti-Japan education in our schools, I was convinced that there were many evil people there.

However, my parents, who had originally lived in Japan, told me about the good aspects of the Japanese.  Then during my college years, I witnessed the polite behavior and the consideration for others shown by the children of “returnees (immigrants) from Japan.”  This got me curious about that faraway land to the East.

Years later, when I reached Japan, I was impressed by the clean cities, the excellent public welfare system, and the many kind, polite people.  This puzzled me.  The Japanese do not undergo the kind of propaganda or agitation, nor the extreme control that is everywhere in North Korea.  How can they voluntarily observe the public order and have consideration for others?  I tried hard to identify, in my own way, the reasons for this behavior, but understanding was not easy.

In my efforts to better understand Japan, I read hundreds of books and associated with more and more Japanese people.  Now at last I believe that I have gained a bit of understanding of the Japanese national character and culture.

I was born and raised in a country where we have no such custom as “cherry blossom viewing parties.”  Soon after I arrived in Japan I was invited to one of these parties.  But I couldn’t grasp the point – a party to view cherry blossoms? The whole idea was a complete mystery to me.  However, I discovered that when the season for cherry blossoms arrives, the television networks will broadcast scenes showing the crowds of people having parties under the blossom-laden trees, with all sorts of  people enjoying the parties, including co-workers, friends, and families.  This was so new to me.

It was early April and, as I mentioned, I was invited to LFNKR’s cherry blossom viewing party.  They had said that everyone brings food, and I wondered what kind of dish would be good for a party like this.  So I decided to make North Korean inari-sushi (fried bean-curd stuffed with boiled rice), a dish that most North Korean people love.  At the time, I thought this dish was peculiar to North Korea, but at the party I discovered the dish is a typical traditional dish here in Japan … except that the Japanese version is not spicy.

I heard that the fried bean-curd stuffed with boiled rice was born in Chongjin in the northern part of North Korea.  But the real story is, the dish was first prepared and sold by the returnees (immigrants) from Japan in the 1990’s (during the so-called “Arduous March” years) just to make a living.  They would visit relatively wealthy homes to sell this food of theirs.  Before that, there had been no such thing as door-to-door sales, but after that, not only food but also other Japanese products began to be sold door-to-door.

Since then, the fried bean-curd dish has spread nationwide in North Korea.  And even though the quality began to decline from the original food made by the “returnees,” the dish quickly became a standard North Korean food that everybody loves.

At the party, when I saw the neatly arranged foods that other people brought, I was embarrassed. I thought my dish looked like a dog’s breakfast.  It look a while before I finally brought it out – hesitantly – near the end of the party.

Everyone who tried my dish told me that the food was very delicious, that they had never eaten it before and that the taste was completely new to them.  Their comments quickly cheered me up.

At the party, I had a chance to talk with a Japan-born ethnic Korean business person, who had come all the way from Hokkaido (the northern part of Japan). There were also Korean students studying in Japan, and even someone from Europe.  We enjoyed exchanging our stories about the different cultures.

There was a lot of talk about North Korea, of course, but I was deeply touched with gratitude when Mr. Kato, the executive director of LFNKR, expressed his concern for the children in North Korea, saying that he wished to provide food aid to the students there who have difficulty getting enough food.  I should mention that he has no relatives there nor anybody he knows, but still, he cares about those struggling people.

And I began to glimpse a little of why the cherry blossoms – with such short lives – are so special to the Japanese.  The cherry blossom petals, as they fall to the ground, are often likened to drifting snow in Japanese poems, and the whole process, from the buds first opening to their touching the ground, is described in exquisite detail.  This, I think, illustrates an important characteristic of Japanese culture, a unique culture that just isn’t seen in other countries.

The cherry blossom viewing parties may be nothing new to the Japanese, but to me they were about more than just looking at some pretty flowers. They gave me a valuable opportunity to learn more about the Japanese culture and to enrich my spirit.