Hiroshima Memo: Reconstruction of Hiroshima and “okonomiyaki”

by Akira Tashiro, Executive Director of the Hiroshima Peace Media Center

"Okonomiyaki peace studies"--a delightful way to put it! If the word "studies," though, doesn’t feel right, how about "okonomiyaki peace education"?

I don't claim to be an expert on Hiroshima okonomiyaki [a kind of crepe made with meat and cabbage], but when I take visitors from overseas to an okonomiyaki restaurant, I make it a rule to offer them an explanation of okonomiyaki in connection with how the citizens of Hiroshima revived the city from the devastation of the atomic bombing. These visitors show as much interest in this history of Hiroshima as they do in the okonomiyaki cooking on a griddle before them.

Visitors from Europe, the U.S., and Asian countries all respond in a similar fashion to my explanation. We first talk about nuclear issues at the Chugoku Shimbun and then move to an okonomiyaki restaurant nearby. Five or six people sitting around the cast-iron griddle instantly fill the small restaurant. I then start to explain: "There are hundreds of okonomiyaki restaurants in the city of Hiroshima, operating in commercial buildings or spaces carved out of private homes. People started these restaurants because…"

I tell them that, in many cases, these restaurants were started by women who had lost their husbands or male relatives because of the war or the bombing. The restaurants were a way for them to survive the shortage of food in the days after the war. I add that the restaurants were a suitable business for these women as little investment was needed, they could be operated in a small space, and because the restaurants were combined with their residences, the women could keep their children close by.

I go on to describe how the dish evolved from a pre-war "1 sen [1/100 of 1 yen] Western food" to post-war okonomiyaki: from a thin, fried crepe made of flour and water with sauce, leeks, and crunchy bits of fried flour dough to a crepe containing cabbage, bean sprouts, noodles, eggs, and strips of pork. And as I wind up my explanation by pointing out some of the subtle differences in how okonomiyaki is cooked, and how the taste varies from restaurant to restaurant, our meal is then ready to be eaten off the griddle in front of us. When people understand the background behind okonomiyaki, as an essential part of the food culture in the A-bombed city of Hiroshima, I suspect it tastes even better.

Many of my acquaintances from other countries, including a number of Americans, have been eager to eat okonomiyaki again, or have their children try it, when they come back for another visit. This shows that okonomiyaki, a hearty meal at a reasonable price, suits the taste of people from all walks of life.

In a sense, the history of Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki is a symbol of the vitality of ordinary citizens during the city’s reconstruction efforts. This style of okonomiyaki is now known throughout Japan and has even attracted young entrepreneurs to open their own okonomiyaki restaurants.

The other day, two teachers from a private school in Kyoto visited the Chugoku Shimbun. They came to Hiroshima to make arrangements for about 20 junior high and high school students from their sister school in Guam who will visit Hiroshima at the end of April to learn about the consequences of the bombing. Both teachers told me they wanted the students to try okonomiyaki for lunch so I took them to a large okonomiyaki restaurant. We had lunch together there and the teachers enjoyed "the taste of the common folk" of Hiroshima and praised it as delicious.

(Originally published on March 2, 2009)

Related articles
Okonomiyaki: the food that helped rebuild Hiroshima (March 8, 2009)

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