Introducing Vegemite at a Japanese School

Vegemite: Delicious or no: The debate rages on

An article by guest-writer, Kavita P, CIR, Kochi Prefecture

A contentious topic for Australians everywhere (surely) is whether Vegemite, our alleged favourite spread, is as delicious as people claim it to be. As a child, I myself was on the anti-Vegemite side, but I was won over in my teenage years, and, as I live in Japan, it provides me with a great deal of nostalgia for back home every morning for breakfast.

Introducing Vegemite to people in Japan is a particularly tricky thing to do, especially if you have trouble articulating the subtleties of the spread in Japanese. Nevertheless, it’s probably something that most Australians working with children in any capacity may feel inclined to do at some stage, even if only for lack of anything else to do in class.

I’ve introduced Vegemite to 4 groups of primary school children here in Kochi prefecture, and more recently to a group of retired folk. Before taking on these people, I tried to research how to approach the task. But most of what I read about from other people’s experiences with giving it to classes seemed overwhelmingly negative. The Japanese tasters couldn’t stand it in most cases. That made me sad.

So, I formulated a cunning plan to brainwash my students into liking Vegemite. And lo and behold, for the most part it seems to have worked. To that end, I’ve made a small list of things to do and not to do, which may help your own endeavours should you be that way inclined:

Don’t:

  • Give people Vegemite without priming them first

If you introduce Vegemite by saying “ha har, get a whiff of this!” you’re not going to do your students any favours. The victim’s reaction will undoubtedly be hilarious and make for a fun class. So if that’s what you’re going for, then go right ahead. But if you are trying to introduce a bit of Australian culture on a deeper level and attempt to cultivate some intercultural understanding in young minds, it is maybe wise to veer away from that line of thinking. Priming is really important!

  • Talk excessively about how ‘different’ Vegemite is from Japanese cuisine

This puts people in a mindset where the flavour is completely alien to them and the strong peer pressure in Japanese schools will almost guarantee that everyone in the class will spend more time saying ‘eewwww!’ together than they will actually trying the food they’ve been given.

  • Make a big deal about how most people hate Vegemite, especially foreigners

Again, this isn’t conducive to giving the food a fair go. I think it’s a good idea to mention the fact that many people from outside of Australia find it strange, but in the same way that Japanese natto(fermented soy beans) is considered to be a ‘Japanese pallet only’ food. I’ll talk about this in more detail next. 

Do:

  • Explain that Vegemite is like ‘Australia’s natto’

Natto is a fermented soy bean dish which is native to Japan and quite, quite foul to many people (including many Japanese locals). One of its main detractors is its strong smell. Sound familiar? Yep, that’s our Vegemite there. If you introduce Vegemite by pointing out this similarity, people will know to be prepared but at the same time be reassured by connecting it to a food in Japanese culture. Here’s a simple way you might be able to say this: 

Vegemiteはどちらかというと「オーストラリアのなっとう」です。なぜなら、地元の多くの人がよく好きですが、外国の方がよくきらいなのです。そして、ちょっとくさいです!

Vegemite wa dochiraka to iuto, “oosutoraria no nattou” desu. Nazenara, jimoto no ooku no hito ga yoku suki desu ga, gaikoku no kata ga yoku kirai nano desu. Soshite, chotto kusai desu!

If anything, Vegemite is “Australia’s natto”. This is because many locals enjoy it but many people from overseas hate it. It also smells a bit!

  • Explain that the flavour is very salty, and similar to salty miso soup

This will help people to know what to expect taste-wise. When I prime people like this, I find it gives them confirmation bias to a degree. I get a lot of feedback of “yeah, it really does taste like salty miso soup!” Here’s an example of how you might be able to express this in Japanese:

ちょっと塩辛い味がするし、赤味噌汁の味と似ていると思います。

Chotto shio-karai aji ga suru shi, aka miso shiru no aji to niteiru to omoimasu.

It’s a bit salty, and the flavour is similar to red (salty) miso soup.

  • Give everyone a chance to smell the Vegemite from the jar before serving it

Be sure to keep the jar held far enough away from each person that they won’t get a big whiff of it, just a light smell. From a distance it really does smell a little like strong miso soup, so hopefully this will help them to relax a little. Also, keep an ear out for which students recoil and which students seem interested; when you are serving, try to serve the calmer, less repulsed(!) students first because most kids will base their own reaction off the reaction of the first person. A little lesson in peer pressure there.

And there you have it. Thanks to some good priming/brainwashing beforehand, more than half of each group of kids found that even if they wouldn’t want to eat it every day, Vegemite didn’t really taste so bad after all. I had an even better reaction with the retired folk, who ended my session with them conspiring to travel to Australia for a holiday. I suspect they appreciate salty foods more than the children do.

Probably the most prejudice to come out of a Vegemite introduction session actually was from my perspective, unfortunately. After exposing a group of Grade 3/4 students to the joy of Vegemite, one of the kids approached me eagerly after class.

“Will you bring something else to class next time?” he grinned, clinging on to my arm (which I HATE but am too polite to react to).

“Yes, I’m sure I’ll bring something else at some point,” I replied.

“Ooh, I hope you bring sweets next time!” he gushed, looking up at me hopefully with pleading eyes.

This is something that I would expect all children to say. However, the little child in question was the most rotund of the class, and I couldn’t stop myself scoffing in the depths of my subconscious: “Well, of COURSE you would, wouldn’t you?”

If you have any more suggestions for how to serve Vegemite to students in any country, please write it in the comments section! 

Kavita P is currently a participant on the JET programme as a Co-Ordinator of International Relations (CIR or 国際交流員) in Shikoku, Japan. You can read more of her writing on the Kochi Ken AJET website.

“High Five!” not “High Touch”

Write it on your hand so everyone always know what your going for. Photo credit: via tumblr

I have tought English in Japan for two years now. I encountered the phrase “High Touch!” early on and even adopted it for a while when I was met with more than one blank stare at the request of a “High Five!” However, I’ve reverted back to the old form recently because I’ve discovered that using the phrase “High Five!” is an interesting topic as well as a easy way to initiate conversations with students.  Once I got them with the old “High Five !” routine, I can continue talking about handshakes or try out some other conversation threads.

So, the next time you get a chance, go up to one of your students and say, “High Five!” and when they do you can ask them, “Hey, do you know why we call them that???”

Then you can go on to tell them about “low fives”, “skin” (if you’ve ever seen the movie ‘Stand by Me’ you’ll know it), “taps” and any other funny handshakes you know. You might even be able to give them a crash tutorial on giving a proper handshake.

It may be an old trick or new, but it is a great way to connect with students, share culture, and start a conversation. All your students will say “You had me at ‘High Five!”.