Uchi & Soto

The concept of in-groups and out-groups that shapes Japanese culture at all levels.

Uchi & soto is the Japanese cultural concept that people can be (and are) sorted into one of two groups: your in-group (uchi) or your out-group (soto). Is the person you are interacting with part of your inner-circle? Based on which group someone is in dictates how you should behave.

Uchi (内) means “inside” – it’s the familiar, the home, the groups you belong to. Soto (外) means “outside” – it’s the unknown, strangers, foreigners, the groups you aren’t a part of. People in your family, your coworkers, can be thought of as part of your inner circle, your uchi. Non-family members however, or your boss, can be considered soto. To add more complexity, these categorizations are fluid. While your boss is ordinarily considered soto, if the two of you are meeting with a customer then you’re unified in representing the company and so your manager is now considered uchi while the customer is soto. When you get back to the office however your manager goes back to being soto.

Shifting categories

People are constantly moving between social circles based on the situation, creating a shifting web of relationships. The status of who you are interacting with, whether they are uchi or soto, influences how you behave. Soto people are shown respect and honor. This is done using keigo (“respectful language”), sometimes gifts are given, and as you honor soto people you humble yourself and members of your uchi. Foreign tourists are very much soto and as such will probably receive very polite honorable treatment.

To some degree however this honoring come with tatemae (建前, “a façade”). A person’s true feelings, their honne (本音) is reserved only for members of their uchi. So a tourist may receive great service but really getting to know people can be difficult.

We can see uchi & soto played out in architecture as well. Traditional home design has a wall surrounding the property. These walls serve more as mental barriers than physical ones. The walls form a line of demarcation between the uchi and the soto. Where the uchi and soto meet in the house is the genkan which is the entryway where you remove your outside shoes before putting on your inside slippers – physical separations to match the mental separations.

Nobita from Japan explains the concept of uchi & soto.

Norwegian Salmon Sushi

Japanese sushi didn’t contain salmon until a deal with Norway in 1992.

Like many of the oldest things in Japan, sushi originally came from China. Its earliest form was as fish stored in fermented rice. The rice was used as a preservative and wasn’t eaten. Through a series of culinary improvements over the centuries the dish eventually became raw fish served with rice (to be eaten, not thrown out), which is how we know it today.

Of the fish used to make sushi, salmon was not usually one of them. Pacific salmon tend to have parasites, making it unsafe to eat raw and needing to be cooked. Enter the Norwegians. Bjorn Eirik Olsen was part of a delegation to Japan in 1985 trying to sell Norwegian salmon to the Japanese. Norway had begun farming salmon in the 1970s and by the 1980s had an excessive amount of fish they needed to find buyers for. At the same time Japan had overfished their waters and were looking to diversify their supply of fish.

Selling salmon to the Japanese public for use in sushi was a difficult proposition because Japanese salmon wasn’t safe to eat raw. A marketing campaign couldn’t say that Norwegian salmon was parasite-free since that would only make you think of parasites, which wouldn’t help sales. It took a few years but by 1992 Olsen got Japanese frozen food producer Nichirei to purchase 5,000 tons of salmon at a heavily discounted price but on the condition that they sell it in grocery stores as raw salmon specifically for sushi. They also labeled their parasite-free Atlantic Norwegian salmon as ‘sāmon’ instead of the Japanese word for salmon ‘sake’, to help differentiate the two types. This was followed by a marketing campaign where they had chefs on Japanese TV demonstrate using salmon. It was a success.

In the years that followed salmon’s popularity took off. Salmon sushi started in the cheap sushi restaurants but eventually spread to restaurants of all levels in Japan and around the world.