I‘m not entirely sure what scurvy is, but I’ve been eating fruit most of my life to avoid finding out. And scurvy prevention isn’t the only reason people eat fruit. It’s actually quite tasty, it comes in all shapes and sizes, and some fruits even have funny names. Take the kumquat, cempedak and calabash for example. In these cases it’s more of a mouthful to ask for the fruit than it is to actually eat it.
So if there’s one thing that unites mankind – except an appetite for war and destruction – it’s fruit. While it’s not uncommon for people to dislike spicy food, cheese or coffee, there’s a fruit out there for everyone.
This is why fruit appeals to that core Japanese practice of taking something universal and making it both distinctly Japanese and, well, better. We all use the toilet, so the Japanese produce one that heats the seat, showers out the leftovers and tells you that you have a nice bum. We all ride trains, so the Japanese devise a system that is threatening to take the word “delay” out of common usage. We all eat fruit, so the Japanese have poked it, prodded it and GM injected it until it’s not really fruit anymore; it’s super-fruit and it’s hyper-expensive.
The Japanese aren’t simply content to eat fruit – they want premium fruit: the sweetest orange, the crunchiest apple, the whatever-it-is-the-most that kumquats actually do. The result is fruits that are so perfect that they are no longer natural. And that’s not really what fruit is about.
Biting into a juicy strawberry is one of the best sensations a man can have. Not because every strawberry is this juicy, but because you marvel at the natural phenomenon that has made that one strawberry special, and the strange fate that it has somehow ended up in your mouth. Similarly, you can ogle at the shape of a pineapple because it’s pretty amazing that it turned out that way all by itself.
Nowadays in Japan fruit doesn’t grow on trees; it grows in the minds of scientists. The search for the perfect fruit of every variety has taken fruit away from the fields and into the laboratories. By doing so, fruit has become a standardized product stripped of its uniqueness: its ‘fruity’ quality.
Of course Japanese fruit is delicious, but that’s not really the point. As with all natural phenomena fruit gets its value from a scale. If every Japanese mountain were a Mount Fuji, then what would be the point of Mount Fuji? Similarly, the delicious apple you eat today is all the tastier because of the revolting apple you ate yesterday. If it were any other way we’d soon forget that there is such a thing as a good apple at all and they’d all taste average. The randomness of nature is its appeal, not its problem.
Unfortunately, if consumers continue to make unnatural demands of fruit then farmers who can’t (or won’t) produce picture perfect plums or the latest model mango will be left to rot. And in a world of flawless fruits, how do we decide which is number one? Local train networks may be great, but they are nothing compared to the Shinkansen. As for toilets, well you can ‘luxurify’ them until they’re almost doing the whole messy business for you. But what about fruit? How can you better a genetically modified super-fruit?
The answer is that you make it a watermelon, and you make it square.
If anything symbolizes the bizarre world of Japanese fruit it’s the square watermelon. For around 12,600 yen you can bag yourself one of these cubic curiosities which are only available for two months per year and which aren’t so much built for eating as for looking at.
Some premium fruits are, nevertheless, designed for consumption. But their extraordinary price tags say less about their careful rearing and more about the value placed upon ‘Number Oneism’ in Japanese culture. An internet search reveals that fruit gift baskets are common throughout the world, but only in Japan is it possible to pay huge amounts for the ichiban fruit of a particular variety. This is why a top-rate durian (a bit like a mango crossed with a hedgehog) will cost you 21,000 yen in Japan but almost nothing in Thailand. It’s why a punnet of 24 amaou – Fukuoka’s famous brand of wonder strawberries – can cost up to 11,150 yen, or 481 yen per strawberry. Because ultimately, if the Japanese quest for fruitopia continues, there’s no limit to the amount of prestige a humble fruit could bestow upon its owner.
But fruits are for life, not just for Christmas. In this industrialized age, fruit is more important than ever before. It’s a little taste of nature which should provide a momentary escape from the man-madeness of daily life. Japan’s varied and rich history has already had one Satsuma rebellion. It’s time for another.
What is the strangest or most expensive fruit you’ve ever eaten? How do square watermelons taste? Share your fruitiest anecdotes in the comment section!
by Ciaran Rhys Jenkins
Welsh, Student & Fruit Purist to the Core