The Mutts and the Mochi Cakes

[It wouldn’t be Bushido or playing the game to keep a good thing to myself, and so I have decided to tell to readers of the “Budokwail” the joyous story of the mutts and the mochi cakes, whereof I was one of the sparkling protagonists. It isn’t a story of judo prowess, but it is a story of an experience in Dai Nippon, and should on that account, I think, pass the rigid censorship of our editorial board. (O.K. – Ed.)]

This was in the long ago, when we were very young and just a trifle verdant, although, in our own opinion, we knew it all with a bit over. Anyway, my bosom pal Johnson and I had not been more than a year in Japan, and our enthusiasm for the land of our temporary adoption was in inverse ratio to the length of our sojourn. As our first New Year festival drew near, we began to hear references to the mochi cakes of which every self-respecting Japanese partakes at that season, and it seemed absolutely essential to our further initiation into the ways of the country that we too should sample the succulence of the reputed dainty. No matter what the toll upon our gastric juices.

“Mochi,” murmured Johnson, dreamily, as he looked at his dictionary. “Rice cake, to wit. What say you, young fellow, if we sally forth into the native quarter and buy some of it for a test this very night? The hour is but six p.m., and we can easily get back in time for dinner.”

I agreed, and off we went. As the sinologue, or better, the japanologue of our mess, I accosted a wayfarer and in my best high-stepping Nihongo asked him where we could buy mochi. The Japanese politely pointed to a shop almost immediately opposite, and disappeared into the night. On drawing closer to the shop we saw that it was a drug-store.

“Passing strange!” remarked Johnson.

“Oh,” said I, “I don’t know so much about that. Japan is a weird place, one can never tell what the people will do in a given case, and so I suppose mochi here are sold in drug-stores instead of confectioners as they would be with us.”

In we went, and again I tried my skill in the vernacular. To my delight the shop assistant understood me instantly, and picking up a short slender stick he dipped into a receptacle under one of the mats and drew it forth again with a dark decidedly unappetising substance adhering to the end. Both the stick and the substance he handed to Johnson with a courtly bow. I expect he chose Johnson for distinction because Johnson was a far bigger and more imposing individual than myself.

Johnson gazed dubiously at the exhibit and addressing me said: “Ask the Johnny how we cook the stuff.”

To the best of my ability I put the question in Japanese. The assistant looked a trifle puzzled, but made reply: “It isn’t necessary to cook it; you need only heat it a little before using.”

Perforce content with this explanation, we paid our score and returned to our quarters with our prize. There was a good fire in our common sitting-room, and Johnson, a man of action, lost no time in squatting down in front of it, and then began to toast the mochi, as instructed. The substance speedily spread over the stick, but its appearance wasn’t at all improved by the process.

Nothing daunted, Johnson tried to eat some of it. To our common horror the stuff stuck to his teeth so effectively that it was only with the utmost difficulty that he could liberate his jaws and in tones suited to the occasion express his candid view alike of this particular sample of mochi and the moral of a nation that could tolerate such dark practices. Even his ruby lips were somewhat burnt by contact with the infernal compound.

Finally, convinced by this unexpected development that there must be a flaw in our reasoning somewhere, we decided to descend into the kitchen and consult our cook and her husband for an elucidation of the mystery.

Well, it was some little time before the true inwardness of the situation dawned upon the Japanese couple, but when it did the effect was astounding. They broke out into screams of mirth, they laughed till the tears flowed and they were both reduced to a condition of helpless collapse. Meanwhile, Johnson and I stood looking on somewhat sheepishly, waiting to be let into the merry jest. There was a catch somewhere, we fully realized, but knew not exactly where.

Then the cook’s husband, who was first to recover sufficiently to be coherent, essayed the obviously congenial task of “putting us wise” to the truth, and our own momentary status as the world’s prize mutts. The sticky, glutinous substance which we had all-unwittingly bought under the impression that it was rice-cake was actually bird-lime! [A substance made from holly bark, and used to ensnare small birds.]

The explanation, afterwards vouchsafed to us by a noted Japanese scholar, proved to be simple. You see, in colloquial Japanese the word for bird-lime–tori-mochi in full–is usually contracted to “mochi”; there is a slight somewhat elusive difference in the accentuation of the last syllable, as compared with the word “mochi” meaning rice-cake, and, of course, the ideographs used for the two words are entirely different. Evidently, when I asked the Japanese wayfarer where we could buy “mochi,” my clumsy Western lips had failed to give proper stress to the two syllables, and so the Japanese had understood me as wanting to buy bird-lime!

The saying that truth is often stranger than fiction received one more application a few days later, when I told the story in the paper on which I was working. Another English friend, who was also a zealous student of the language, despatched me a “chit” on the very day the story appeared in print, reading laconically: “Harrison, you’re a d– liar! The incident never took place! You simply invented it!”

And such is the reward of virtue and veracity! I ask you.

Copyright ©1929 E.J. Harrison. All rights reserved. Reproduced by kind permission of Mrs. Aldona Collins.

This article first appeared in the Budokwai’s publication, The Budokwail, in 1929. More recently it has been reproduced in R.W. Smith’s Martial Musings, 1999.