The world is a huge and baffling place of many different cultures, and this is a thing we ignore at our peril. What seems self-evident to us may seem strange or even crazy to another culture. For instance, most people in Britain would find the idea of eating dog disgusting, but in many parts of Asia it’s perfectly normal. And meanwhile, there are many places where the fact that the people of Britain eat meat at all is repugnant. To give another example, a lawyer chum of mine had to deal with a divorce case recently in which the husband, a rural Nigerian fellow, was using as a central part of his argument the fact that his wife was secretly a mermaid. Superstition and nonsense? Well, many would say the same about the concept of God.
So when I read yet another comedy article online about how the Japanese are crazy, I tend to roll my eyes a little. I’m not some weeaboo, let me get that straight, I’m not even an anime fan (though there are anime films I enjoy – Grave of the Fireflies is one of the most moving anti-war films ever made). But honestly, most of these “crazy Japanese” articles are either about robots, gadgets or tentacle porn, and often all three. It’s an easy laugh based on cultural differences.
One of the things that I find interesting is the way certain things take off in a foreign country in a way that baffles people in its homeland. For instance, Disney comics. Those are huge in Europe. I mean, even fairly obscure Disney characters have their own comics in places like Denmark and Italy. There are comics in which Goofy is a superhero. There is a comic in which Donald Duck is a gentleman thief. Now, while Disney comics are not unknown in the USA, they have a very small cult following. The closest they’ve come to the mainstream was the Saturday morning cartoon Ducktales, based on Carl Barks’ comics.
A similar phenomenon in Japan is the Kit Kat bar. Now, Kit Kats in Britain are just one of those things. A pleasant chocolate treat to have with your mid-morning cup of tea. In fact, it was originally devised in the 1930s as a portable snack for work. It’s in line with the traditional British attitude towards luxury, i.e. that a bit of luxury is fine, but let’s not go nuts.
Not so in Japan. In Japan, Kit Kats are big business. It’s all down to a linguistic coincidence. “Kit Kat” is a meaningless term in Britain whose sole virtue was that it was catchier than “Rowntree’s Chocolate Crisp,” the name used up until 1937. However, in Japan, Kit Kat sounds like a shortened version of “kitto katsu,” which roughly translated means “you will definitely succeed.” Well, who could resist such a positive and friendly chocolate bar? Take note, Mars, you’re on a hiding to nothing with your warlike nomenclature.
Anyway, this means that Kit Kats have become associated with good fortune, and so became hugely popular as good luck charms, particularly around exam time (and even if you do badly in the exam, there’s chocolate afterwards to make you feel better). Now, whereas in Britain we’re satisfied with chocolate and wafer, maybe hazarding dark chocolate, maybe a little caramel if we’re feeling especially naughty, in Japan they’re rather more adventurous with their confectionary. Which is how I came across this while I was in the Cybercandy shop in Covent Garden:
That is not photoshopped, it is exactly what it appears to be. Cheese flavoured Kit Kat. There have been many, many different flavours of Kit Kat in Japan, ranging from fairly obvious ones like hazelnut and strawberry, through “not obvious but actually quite nice-sounding” like custard pudding and jasmine tea, to “serious cultural differences here,” which is where our friend cheese comes in. As do wasabi, lemon vinegar, wine, baked potato and the top seller in Japan, soy sauce.
Anyway, out of curiosity, I did actually buy this. I have to say, even given that it’s imported, it seemed a bit pricey – £3.80 for what turned out to be ten mini-fingers of Kit Kat, i.e. slightly less in total than an actual full-size Kit Kat. The box they come in is pretty big, which seems like a bit of a swizz to me.
Now, the actual sweet itself. It’s white chocolate-coated. It looks quite benign, actually. Then you take a bite, and… well, it’s unexpected, put it that way. My mouth actually sort of rebelled, unable to quite interpret what it was eating. There was a cheesy flavour, and there was a chocolate flavour, but somehow not both at the same time. The actually cheesy flavour was, I have to say, more Cheez-Whiz than fine Stilton, which didn’t help matters.
Apparently a lot of these flavours are limited editions, created for collectibility first and foremost. That would certainly explain a lot. I mean, I wouldn’t say this was an appalling flavour, but I wouldn’t buy it again. And bear in mind I’m someone who actually really likes salty liquorice. All in all, I’d say it’s something to buy more for the “get a load of this” value than because it’s a taste sensation.
Or maybe I’m just being culturally insensitive.
http://www.cybercandy.co.uk/aaasmt/ – Get your own here. Or don’t.