Tabezugirai and Thriving in Japan

Samuel Sorenson, a JCMU English Language instructor in Hikone, will be writing a series of articles on various topics related to Japanese food, culture, and more in hopes of encouraging students to step out of their comfort zone while studying abroad.


For my first ever blog post as an English language instructor at JCMU I would like to discuss the Japanese phrase tabezugirai (食べず嫌い) and its relation to living in a foreign country.

Literally translated, tabezugirai means something to the extent of “disliking without eating,” and is used to describe one’s dislike and refusal to eat a certain food without ever having tried it before. The important thing to remember about tabezugirai is that it is based on preconceived notions of what something will be like, not one’s actual experiences. This phrase has been lingering in my mind this past week as I have been thinking about and planning a lecture for the current group of students studying abroad here at JCMU. The topic of the lecture is “Thriving in Japan” and, to me, the key to thriving in this country can only be discovered by overcoming one’s own tabezugirai tendencies.

Since, literally, tabezugirai refers to food, it would be remiss of me not to take the opportunity to discuss at least one Japanese delicacy that is particularly prone to arousing the tabezugirai tendencies in a Western audience – the fish known as shishamo.

tabezugirai-1

During the four years I spent teaching English in elementary schools in the city of Nagahama up in northern Shiga, this fish was a common part of school lunches. My circle of friends who also taught in elementary schools commonly referred to them as “pregnant fish” since female shishamo with bellies full of roe (fish eggs) are typically served.

Tabezugirai (2).jpg

This, combined with the fully-preserved anatomical features and gaping mouth seemingly frozen in a dire expression of “Why me?” make shishamo a perfect tabezugirai candidate among Westerners visiting or living in Japan.

Getting past the grotesque appearance, when I did finally take the plunge and bite into a hot, fresh shishamo for the first time, it was actually a transcendant experience for me. Not only was it not bad, but it was in fact delicious in a way that can only truly be expressed through the simple satisfied non-lexical exclamation “MMMMM. . .” Since that day I have been a loyal shishamo eater and typically bring a pack or two of the fish to share with other adventurous compatriots whenever there’s a cookout to be had.

Anyone who has not only lived, but thrived while living in a foreign country such as Japan has likely had countless experiences similar to this one. So far, we have limited our discussion to food, but the tabezugirai principle applies to so many other situations one encounters while living in a foreign country as well. Be it an invite to a get together with a group of people you barely know, or the chance to experience Buddhist meditation at a local temple early Saturday morning when you could be tucked up warm in bed, you will face many opportunities that you might be hesitant to try during your time living in a foreign country. And I totally understand that feeling. I totally understand that it would be a lot easier to just go home at the end of the day instead of signing up for a community calligraphy class. I understand that it is so much less work to simply decline the invitation to volunteer at your friend’s local temple on your day off. I also understand that it can feel like it is not worth the price of the train ticket just to check out a festival that you have never heard of before. What I will tell you, though, is that the situations that force you to exit your comfort zone make truly special memories and lead to potential life-changing experiences during your time abroad. Case in point: I met my fiancé at a mochi-making party four years ago that I was initially not particularly excited to attend.

I hope that anyone interested in living or studying abroad will be open to these kinds of experiences. In my future blog posts I would like to take the opportunity to introduce events, food, culture, and anything else that I have tried and wound up enjoying here in Shiga with the hope that it might in turn inspire you to get out there and do the same as well.

One thought

  1. Loved this blog post!

    It’s really about embracing and respecting another culture while abroad.

    And yes, I have eaten those little fish. They are delicious!

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