All the People Can be Called ‘Barbarian’

I sometimes notice, while I’m having a quarrel with someone very near me, I mean a battle of words, “Why am I looking only at the differences between us ignoring anything in common?”

Apparently, a quarrel will never take place among the people who have exactly the same status. In other words, a quarrel happens where there is a difference. Would that be fun, living with someone who is exactly the same as me… I could spend very peaceful time but I’m sure that I’d get bored sooner or later. I would like to learn something new from the other. Or, maybe, I will try frantically to find any differences between us, even a tiny, little thing, like nit-picking.

Oh, do you happen to know how to say “nit-picking” in Japanese?

It goes, “重箱の隅をつつく(じゅうばこのすみをつつく)Jubako no sumi wo tsutsuku.
重箱(じゅうばこ)Jubako are traditional square piled boxes
隅(すみ)Sumi means corners.
つつく Tsusuku is a verb which means poking or pecking.

If you don’t know what 重箱(じゅうばこ) Jubako is, please refer to 2 Hours Drive From Tokyo. There is an article written about Osechi, Japanese traditional dishes for New Year.



Just imagine trying to pick with chopsticks a grain of rice or tiny flaky bits of fish which got shoved in the corner of lacquered box! Lacquered means that it is slippery on the surface… Hah! To eat all the food prepared thoroughly is a good thing and well-mannered because leaving food behind is Mottainai. But…


Back to the topic, looking back the history, we, human beings have hated people who are different from ourselves for such a long time. Ancient Greeks used the word βάρβαρος (barbaros) for the people of different cultures. I learned from Wikipedia that there was an idiom in Greek “πᾶς μὴ Ἕλλην βάρβαρος” (pas mē Hellēn barbaros), which means “whoever is not Greek is a barbarian”. In the Roman Empire, too, Romans used the word “barbarian” for many people outside the Empire. Also the Renaissance Italians often used it for anyone who lived outside of their country. In China, where there was the philosophy of Sinocentrism, was not the exception.

I found another interesting point in Wikipedia;

The sound of barbaros onomatopoetically evokes the image of babbling (a person speaking a non-Greek language).

A word barbara is also found in the Sanskrit of ancient India. The Greek word barbaros is related to Sanskrit barbaras (stammering).


That means… that we have to pay very much attention to our pronunciation in order not to be called barbarians!!

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the sense of the adjective “barbarous” was developed in ancient time with Greeks as ‘foreign, non-Hellenic,’ and later ‘outlandish, rude, brutal’. With the Romans, ‘not Latin nor Greek,’ then ‘pertaining to those outside the Roman empire'; so, ‘uncivilized, uncultured,’. Later on ‘non-Christian,’ and generally ‘savage, rude, savagely cruel, inhuman.'”

Oh… I think I cannot be helped as I’m not Christian.


Anyway, same here. Even though Japan is not a Christian country, the word barbarian was used.

We used to use the word ‘barbarians’ to Christians, especially Portuguese, who came to Japan in Sengoku period as well as the products that they brought to Japan. They sailed from the South so they were called Barbarians from the South, 南蛮 (なんばん) Namban. Surprisingly, although the Kanji 蛮 which means ‘Barbarious’ was used, there was no insulting meaning. On the contrary, this word had a very positive meaning as “exotic and curious”.


The word 南蛮 (なんばん) Namban is still used commonly especially for food. Interestingly, the meaning of Namban differs from area to area and from people to people. I know at least three ingredients which are called 南蛮 (なんばん) Namban:


唐辛子 (とうがらし) togarashi Chili pepper

Plate of Red Chili Peppers

A Portuguese missionary gave togarashi as an offering to a Christian Daimyo, of Bungo area, now called as Oita in Kyushu. It used to be called 南蛮胡椒 (なんばんこしょう) namban kosho, which literally means Southern Barbarians’ pepper. Chili pepper was not used for seasoning at that time but was used as ornament, poison and toe-warmer!


とうもろこし tomorokoshi


Tomorokoshi was brought to Japan in 1579 by Portuguese. The cultivation started in Japan in the early Meiji period in Hokkaido, when sweet corn was introduced from USA.


長ネギ (ながねぎ) naganegi


Many elderly people, including my grandmother, tell that namban means 長ネギ (ながねぎ) naga-negi (long negi). However, I couldn’t find any plausible proofs that support the relationship between namban and naganegi.
There are several stories such as;
1. Namban people (Portuguese and Dutch) liked to eat Naganegi for staying healthy during their visit in Japan.
2. People used to put lots of negi when they ate Soba noodles in Namba area in Osaka, where the production of Naganegi was abundant. So Soba with naganegi was called Namba Soba and later on Namba and Namban were mixed up.

According to the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, naganegi has been cultivated in China for more than 2000 years and it was introduced to other countries including Europe and Japan. In Japan the cultivation of naganegi became common in 10th century, while in Europe, it did not gain much popularity but instead, onions became popular. So, I imagine that what the namban people wanted should be an onion. However, there were no onions at that time yet in Japan. Therefore, naganegi should have been an alternative. (It was in early Meiji period when the cultivation of onions was started in Japan.) Or, another possibility would be an alternative for Leek, which was a favorite vegetable of the Emperor Nero, who consumed it in soup or in oil, believing it beneficial to the quality of his voice!


Dishes named as Namban

Namban zuke (南蛮漬け) なんばんづけ


The origin of this dish should be Spanish Escabeche, which deep fried fish are marinated in the acidic liquid. This dish should have been introduced from Spanish missionaries like Portuguese missionaries taught us Tempura in Sengoku period. For Escabeche, onions were necessary as one of the ingredients, so people at that time probably used naganegi as an alternative.


Kamonamban (鴨南蛮) かもなんばん


One of the popular hot Soba dishes served in hot soy sauce based soup with cooked meat of duck and naganegi. (Wild duck was one of very few meats which Japanese used to eat before Meiji period.)


Chicken Namban (チキン南蛮) ちきんなんばん


This is quite a new dish invented in Miyazaki prefecture in Showa period. It is a dish that deep fried chicken is served with Tartar sauce. I think the inventor of this dish in Miyazaki used Namban as it is a subspecies of Escabeche…


It is a fact that we, human beings, have discriminated the people of other cultures using the word “barbarians”, whether in positive or negative terms. Ancient Greek said that the key was the language. However, to see what still remains in present Japan, I think another key should be the food. Ethologically, eating is a habit for living, such as sleeping and breeding. So, if we see any differences in these areas, our alerting system will be switched on easily.

I would like to accept the differences among people and to learn something new from them. I would not like to reject something just because it is not familiar to me. Thus, I would have to know fully about the background of the culture which is new to me, although it should be a challenge for me to accept the culture of eating dogs or cats. Looking back to our history, the culture of eating beef imported from the Western countries seemed barbarious to us, the fish-eaters, in the first place. However, we learned the advantages of eating meat of domestic animals, from which the original cultures’ stock raising developed as Kobe Beef. Even though we have caught up with the majority, we are still barbarians for vegetarian people.

Quarrels take place where there is a difference, as, unfortunately, we all have a defect that we deny the others in order to prove our own legitimacy when we see any difference. However, two men are never the same. The world should be a happier place if we can share every difference that we have. Because, there will be no fun if we have nothing new to learn. And because, strictly speaking, we are all barbarians in any way…
にほんブログ村 歴史ブログ 日本の伝統・文化へ
にほんブログ村 英語ブログ 英語の日記(和英併記)へ



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