Nothing brings people together like food. Food is so often intertwined with our fondest memories, bringing family and friends together around a table to share a meal. It also has a magical way of connecting us to the people who produced it, even if they’re oceans apart. Just one bite can take you to the land of the country that created it.
Being half-Japanese, I have always felt a bit like a Japanese ambassador, bridging the gap between my eastern heritage and western upbringing. Yet my fascination with Japan is shared by many others, even those without a Japanese background. People who have stumbled across an aspect of the culture that drew them in, and for many, that hook was the food.
My personal connection with Japan led me to spend two years teaching English through the JET Program in Kashiwazaki, Niigata - a small town located on the western side of Honshu. Although miles away from the bustling city of my mother’s hometown of Osaka, this local community opened their hearts to me and shared so many aspects and nuances of Japan that have stayed with me to this day.
Many of these traditions revolve around food. Every meal begins with it the words itadakimasu (“I humbly receive”), a way of showing appreciation to the land and the people that created the food, from the farmers and producers who grew it to the cook who prepared it. Each individual ingredient comes together to create a balanced meal that is a reflection of the harmonious way in which the food was harvested. In fact, many of the agricultural methods used in Japan today are based on traditional, small-scale, family-farming techniques from centuries ago that were built upon conserving the land that provided it.
After returning from Japan and moving to the United States, I noticed more and more people connecting to Japan. People like me who wanted to remain close to their heritage, those who had traveled there and fallen in love with the country, or those finding inspiration through an aspect of the culture. However, the common theme that kept popping up was how much people appreciated and missed the taste and traditions of authentic Japanese food, Even in LA, a city with many Japanese grocery stores, people struggled to find true Japanese flavors and the memories and enjoyment that come with them.
So I began to wonder: Was there a way to bring these communities together? A way to provide people abroad with the tastes and experiences that come from locally-made Japanese food while also connecting them to the stories and traditions of Japan?
The answer: through food.
In 2018, fifteen years after returning from Japan, I launched Kokoro Care Packages with my co-founder, Aki Sugiyama. With me based in LA and her in Tokyo, we bridge the gap between our two nations by providing locally-made, artisanal Japanese products. Each of our Care Packages, delivered straight to our customers’ homes, is a symbol of that special bond created through food. They offer the foods we miss the most, the excitement that comes from trying new flavors, helps to support local Japanese farmers and producers and above all, connects us to the people and soil of Japan - a land that so many of us hold close to our kokoro (heart, spirit, soul, emotion).
Lillian Hanako Rowlatt is a half-Japanese Canadian currently living in LA. She connects people to the food, cultures and traditions of Japan through her company, Kokoro Care Packages. She was an ALT on the JET Program from 2003-2005 in Kashiwazaki-shi, Niigata-ken
This article is part of a guest-contributor partnership between the East-West Center in Washington and the United States Japan Exchange & Teaching Programme Alumni Association (USJETAA) in which former JET participants contribute articles relating to their experiences in Japan.
The USJETAA is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational and cultural organization that promotes grassroots friendship and understanding between the United States and Japan through the personal and professional experiences of over 30,000 Americans who have participated on the JET Programme since its inception in 1987. USJETAA serves as a resource for individual JET alumni, JETAA chapters nationwide, and potential JET participants; supports the leadership of JETAA chapters with programming, membership recruitment, chapter management, leadership, professional development, and fundraising; and, supports the JET Program(me) and engages with the U.S.-Japan community.