Eating Anemones and Saving Face in Japan

by Dr. Jessie Voigts /
Dr. Jessie Voigts's picture
May 15, 2010 / 1 comments

During college, I worked for a year at an international exchange company in Japan. I was lucky enough to live with host families, and learned about Japanese culture – and myself.

Living with my first host family was a life-changing experience. I learned from my graceful host mother how to learn from and fit into Japanese culture, where form is everything. From my host father, I learned the importance of saving face.

My host mother was amazing – accomplished, beautiful, athletic. She taught me about shopping (Hermes, Gucci, Armani). Being with her was a learning experience in fitting in – although I completely stuck out, being tall, white, and red-headed. But her glamour rubbed off – I dressed better, carried myself straighter, and felt more confident. She taught me tea ceremony, ikebana, and the concept of public and private selves.

My host father was the opposite. We clashed. Late each night, he would come home and he’d grill me on my day. I chafed at this parental intrusion when I was learning to spread my wings.

One day he took me out to a small neighborhood sushi bar to meet some of his cronies. We perched at the counter. Once things quieted (Gaijin! Female!), I sat silently, ignored. I studied the chef – truly a genius with his deft knife-work, efficient movements, quiet confidence.

My host father said something, and there was a hush. Even the unobtrusive chef turned his head and looked at me. Caught off-guard, I quickly tried to ascertain what was happening. The cronies had put forth a challenge, and my host father had accepted for me.

The chef slid his hand into a tank. He swiftly “prepared” it – rinsing a softball-sized anemone, brushing off the waving tentacles. I double-checked with my host father – his almost-imperceptible nod gave me the go-ahead. I knew that there was more on the line than just this anemone – his pride. In Japan, this is everything.

The chef respectfully served the squiggling live anemone. I glanced around, looking for a clue as to how to ingest it. Nothing. My host father poured me a small wooden box of cold sake. Fortified, chopsticks in hand, I picked up the live anemone. It slipped. Grasping it more firmly, I panicked – HOW was I supposed to eat this?



I shoved the anemone in my mouth and swallowed it. It wiggled down my throat. I had to keep swallowing to get it down. Only the hopeful look on my host father’s face kept me going.

Gasping, I looked around. The cronies? Incredulous, smiling. They slapped my host father on the back. I got a true smile from him. There was much congeniality. Later, we strolled home, arm-in-arm, singing. Our relationship changed, for the better.

The essence of intercultural understanding is knowing when to bend with the wind and when to integrate something new into yourself. We’d opened a window between us, my host father and I, with one wiggling anemone.


“This post has been entered into the Grantourismo and HomeAway
Holiday-Rentals travel blogging competition”


To check out other great food and travel articles in the May Grantourismo Competition, sponsored by,
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Comments (1)

  • laradunston

    13 years 9 months ago

    Jessie, what an amazing story! And briliantly written!! Absolutely love it! I'm not sure even I could do what you do, although maybe under those circumstances, anything is possible. Thank you so much for entering our Grantourismo competition. Good luck!


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