The Unexpected Scent of Salad

Yasujiro Ozu

Artwork by Jiin Choi

Ozu’s posthumous recognition as a master craftsman of middle-class dramas has often led to the mistaken notion that his films embody the traditional aesthetics and conservative ideals of a bygone Japan. His comic sensibilities and deep interest in the socioeconomic upheavals of modern Tokyo are rarely discussed. These three essays, written for newspapers and magazines, offer a portrait of a lighthearted and comic writer with a brisk, modern style and deep interest in the social dynamics of his time. Aside from his screenplays, Ozu did not publish many written works, but his diaries, letters, and a few newspaper and magazine publications suggest that he was deeply interested in the written word. While these essays are not as polished as some of his films, they offer similarly comic yet sensitive glimpses into a Japan in transition and the human relationships that occurred therein.

Marunouchi Staffage

A tour of Tokyo’s commercial strip

A spring night.

The curtain has just fallen on another motion picture; a stream of people flows out from the Imperial Theater, through Marunouchi, and on towards Ginza.

“Come with us! We’re off to buy a copy of Aloha ‘Oe.”

So begins a dialogue between three young sailors.


Ryunosuke Akutagawa once wrote of a spring night like this. Walking down a Marunouchi side street devoid of dumpsters and lined with concrete buildings, he was apparently caught off guard by the unexpected scent of salad.

The street I am walking down is dotted with Western restaurants, and most of them have basement kitchens with ventilation windows along the sidewalk’s edge, from which Akutagawa could have smelled salade à la mayonnaise, perhaps paired with fried oysters. Unless there was something wrong with his nose, he most certainly would have picked up on this novel scent, even if he did have phantom dumpsters on the brain.

But let’s give Ryunosuke the benefit of the doubt and assume that there were no Western restaurants here at the time . . .

Walking ahead of me, a Keio student is also returning from the theater. I can see that he too is a connoisseur of Western cuisine.

“Did you know that the Japanese word ‘ebi’ does not translate as ‘lobster’?”

The unexpected scent of Western cuisine on a Marunouchi side street—this seems to me to be the recipe for a spring night.


Analogical Double Exposure

The cloud-dappled Maru resembles a large aquarium.

Incalculable minnows swim within.


The Maru wears a massive dim-witted expression.

For the few hours between daybreak and the morning rush, it truly resembles a drooling schizophrenic. And its drool wets the sidewalk.


As a doughnut has its hole—or to be more accurate, as a washroom deodorizer has its hole—within the Maru there is a hole for both ventilation and light.

The Maru: in eight floors.

Windows upon windows upon windows upon windows facing east . . .

First floor: coffee is brewing.

Second floor: salesgirls and their compacts.

Third floor: dapper gentleman.

Fourth floor: a person plays with a yo-yo.

Fifth floor: a person plays with a yo-yo. A puzzled expression resembling that of Newton.

Sixth floor: people measure with T-squares.

Seventh floor: empty offices.

Eighth floor: a deckhand washes a window.


Windows upon windows upon windows upon windows facing south . . .

First floor: a rice bucket has been left out to dry.

Second floor: a fox is being served by a cock. A salon.

Third floor: the clattering of typewriters.

Fourth floor: a handkerchief has been left out to dry.

Fifth floor: a person weeps over a letter. Okay, that didn’t happen—a waiter polishes his shoes.

Sixth floor: a man bows repeatedly. Which means he’s borrowing money.

Seventh floor: all of a sudden, the noonday siren.

They didn’t switch from a noonday gun to a noonday siren for nothing. But it still doesn’t assuage an empty stomach.


The deckhands of this neighborhood keep goldfish on the roofs of their buildings.

As soon as it’s warm out and the boiler-room gang can catch a break, they’re busy reeling in lunch.


In the wee hours of the morning I once saw a small group of Kanda clerks on their way to baseball practice. They were all in uniform as they rode on their bicycles through the neighborhood towards Hibiya Park.

Of all the city scenes I have witnessed, this one has a special place in my heart.

(Tokyo Asahi Shimbun, 21 April 1933, Morning Edition)

The Unexpected Pleasures of Riding Trains

You might say that trains, trams, buses, and other such modes of public transportation are the genre paintings of the modern world. Which is to say that even one’s daily commute may serve as a profoundly interesting and educational experience. Fancy and observation have apparently always shared a place in me, and while I may spend my commute reading the newspaper or a magazine, or in contemplation, or making associations, or twiddling my thumbs, or sleeping, or observing my fellow commuters—in which respect I am an entirely ordinary passenger—I have also unconsciously stockpiled anecdotes in my mind. I’m sure I would get a real kick out of modernology.


From spring through to early summer, I often ride with the crowd heading out towards Izu. And it’s not the same crowd every time: there’s a veritable anthology. One time it was merchants promoting mosquito coils. As it was still only early spring—such is the advertising world—I couldn’t help but be impressed with their adroit preparation. Nor could I check my amusement, what with their running to and fro, blue and red banderoles held high, and their little feasts of peanuts and dried cuttlefish. While all of this was going on, the leader—or so he seemed—came over to me, asked if he had passed any sake down my way, and dropped a twelve-ounce bottle in my lap. Amid all the hustle and bustle he had apparently mistaken me for one of his own. I, of course, obliged. Having used these mosquito coils only to still end up beleaguered with bites, I can fully attest to the quality of his product, as can the mosquitoes. I cannot, however, say the same for his discerning eye, which figured me for a mosquito coil salesman. After all, my skin is quite fair. In any case, I wet my whistle in the bounty of early-spring mosquito coils, and think back fondly to those Ohmi salesmen every winter.


I cannot recall where the train was headed; but it wasn’t an express train, so he couldn’t have been going further than Nagoya. An old country gentleman had stopped a young boy who I gathered was a student. Although they were three seats away, the old man was talking so loudly that he might have been in my ear. His face was lean but rosy; his hair, silvering. A sprightly, funny old man. He seemed to have developed his own ideas about running the country, and put forth an astonishingly praiseworthy argument. He said, “The reason our society has no shortage of criminals is that life is hard. Blind to this, the government spends a monumental sum on the police, judiciary, and jails. But if this monumental sum were instead distributed to aid the lives of average citizens, life would be easier, there would be fewer criminals, and less need for the police, judiciary, and jails.” I was quite surprised by this theory, and thoroughly taken by the way in which he argued like an ancient Greek sophist, with his own sort of, how shall I put it, southern laxity. I was glad to see an old man with such positive, clear-cut idealism. He wore a metal chain, from which dangled a silver imperial coin and a five-yen piece.


This next anecdote takes place in a third-class car. I was traveling through the Tohoku region. A lone young boy was sitting before me. He was pouring over the crisp pages of a newly purchased book, and his face was pale and nervous. A country boy, judging by the way he wore his kimono. I wanted to believe that he was a precocious literatus of the village, an avid reader of Takuboku who had spent what little time and money he has on a trip to Tokyo: he’d probably taken in some German cinema, drunk some fine coffee; and now on his way home, was dipping into the literary fashions of the day. Pleased by this thought, I wanted to know what he was reading. But I couldn’t just stare. Fortunately, he got up to use the lavatory, and when I glanced over at the title of the book he had left behind, to my surprise it read, “On Treating Social Neurosis.” Ah, is there any place for such a hapless yet promising young boy in this world overrun with hardheaded men? I too should give that book a read but haven’t yet had the chance. (This is not an advertisement!)


Now an anecdote from the government railway line. A woman boarded at Oimachi. She appeared to be a barmaid. This is nothing out of the ordinary, except for the fact that it was around ten in the morning. She wore a terribly worn-out and gaudy kimono that was stained with sake, presumably her work attire; and while the train was not overly crowded, she seemed to attract the attention of everyone. My guess is that she had spent the night somewhere after getting off work and was only now on her way home. Anyway, I wasn’t very curious. But she was gripping a handkerchief with both hands, and the handkerchief was luxuriously white and brand new. I was reminded of Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s story. Perhaps she was letting this pure white handkerchief tell her tale and fend off the cold stares assailing her from all sides. But I suppose this was just another cliché of the theater. Did I imagine sadness in that face, a clenched jaw behind that veil of fatigue?

Namiko wasn’t the only woman to effectively use a handkerchief.


Well now, well now, here I am at Ofuna, where I must disembark: yet another unexpected pleasure of riding trains.

(Hanashi, April 1937)

Here We Are, on Narayama

A few words about my mother

My mother was born in 1875. She had two daughters and three sons, of which I am the second. Once my brothers and sisters had all either married or been married off, only mother and I remained. We have lived together, the two of us, for over twenty years.

I do not know if she’s comfortable with my bachelorhood or if she still cannot bear to let me out of her sight. In any case, we get along just fine.

My mother is early to rise and early to bed, whereas I’m the opposite. So even when I happen to be home, we seldom eat together.

She was quite active until last year and would do everything by herself, from preparing meals to closing the storm doors to making my bed. This year, however, having slowed down a bit, she has called for a housekeeper. And no wonder: she’s eighty-four! I’m of the belief that we should take help where we can get it. That being said, I also think that people who retire at fifty-five or sixty are being a little premature.

The house we live in now is high up in the hills of Kita-Kamakura. Because there is a slope at our front door, my mother seldom leaves the house. Seeing her like this, I worry that she thinks I’ve carried her off to Narayama.

My mother was a big woman when she was young; and she’s a relatively big baba, even now. I’m not planning on carrying her on my back or anything, but she sure looks heavy.

Trudging on the path to Narayama, I cry

under the unbearable weight of Mother on my back

If this is Narayama, then I will have her stay here as long as she likes. Not needing to carry her on my back will save me a lot of grief.

(Asahi Weekly, 10 August 1958)

translated from the Japanese by Adam Kuplowsky