Jul 20, 2018

Happy Unagi Day, Part I, everybody (here's a little backstory for those who are interested)

Happy Unagi Day (Part I), everyone!

Happy Unagi Day, Part I, everybody (here's a little backstory for those who are interested) photo

Okay, so it's not really called "Unagi Day," and there's a bit of a story behind "Part I." 

In actuality, today is the first 土用の丑の日, Doyō no Ushi no Hi.  Literally, the kanji translation comes out to "The Day of the Ox who uses the earth," but the accepted translation is "Midsummer Day of the Ox." 

Every year, there are two Midsummer Days of the Ox, and this year, they fall on 20 July and 8 August (hence the necessity to say Part I).

When I first heard of this odd quasi-holiday, I had so many questions:

Why does doyō translate to "midsummer?" 

Why is it called the day of the ox but everyone eats Unagi? 

I decided to investigate some years back, and here's what I found out:

Why "用 Doyō" means "Midsummer"

In the past, the Japanese recognized five elements--wood 木, fire 火, earth 土, metal 金, and water 水--and attached each of those elements to a season:

Wood = Spring

Fire = Summer (hence all the summer fire festivals)

Metal = Autumn

Water = Winter

And earth? Well, folks decided that earth was actually the foundation for everything, so technically every season has its own "earth" days (typically the 18th or 19th in the middle month of the season). Therefore, when you see "土用," the literal translation refers to the earth element, but it really means mid-season.

Why unagi?

The Japanese believe that unagi, which is high in calories and rich in oil and fat content, provide energy and stamina to help people make it through the hot and humid days.  (Given how much I struggle in Japanese summers, I don't blame them--I need all the help I can get!)  I don't know how much credence should be given to the notion that unagi does a lot to help, but it was certainly a heckuva marketing campaign that happened to stick.  I mean, the "KFC on Christmas" campaign was good, but come talk to me in a couple hundred years to see if people are still eating fried chicken to celebrate the birth of Christ.

Why day of the ox?

This one is simple: a few hundred years ago, the first time they celebrated this day with unagi dishes in restaurants was in the year of the ox!  Don't ask me why they didn't decide to cycle along the zodiac calendar to the other animals, but if I had to venture a guess, I don't think anyone wanted to tie an eating holiday to the "Midsummer Day of the Rat."

So now you know why the Midsummer Day of the Ox is called what it is and why unagi is the meal of choice for this foodie holiday!

So who's getting unagi today???



Hitting the books once again as a Ph.D. student in Niigata Prefecture. Although I've lived in Japan many years, life as a student in this country is a first.

Blessed Dad. Lucky Husband. Happy Gaijin (most of the time).

1 Comment

  • edthethe

    on Jul 20

    I had never even heard of this but it is interesting!