SOAS University of London

SOAS Language Centre

Hagio Prize 10th Year Winner: Loren Lam

As 2010 marks the tenth anniversary of this unique and generous award, we have asked past winners to reminisce about their time spent in Japan, as well as how the experience has affected their lives. Here is Loren's report.

I have travelled to a lot of places worldwide but never have I been able to connect so deeply with a country and its culture as when I travelled across Japan under the Thomson Reuters / SOAS Hagio Prize.

My original aim was to go from the north in Hokkaido to the south in Okinawa, to take a look at Japan’s hidden “food culture”. Japanese cuisine is uniquely rooted in the country’s rich culture and tradition – but we hardly ever see any of this in the conveyer-belt-sushi, teriyaki-beef-lunch-set version of “Japanese food” that we experience in the West. I wanted to show the English-speaking world that Japanese food was so much more than this – that its food varies widely with region and season; that almost exceptional respect and reverence is paid to food here, unlike anywhere else in the world; that there is a story behind nearly every dish.

So I travelled across the country, and I hope that to some extent I was able to work towards that aim. For two months I worked (masqueraded?) as a photojournalist, documenting dishes like dozeu-nabe – a curious delicacy involving loaches surviving unchanged from the Edo period – and places like Shimonoseki, the port city so firmly centred around its fugu industry they erected a pufferfish statue at the local temple. My language skills matured quickly; they do kind of have to of course when you wind up in a hospital at 3am with no English-speaking staff, or when you’re stranded in backwater Okinawa trying to hitchhike… for example.

But something else changed, too. Because my food-seeking assignments also led me to some of the oddest and most remote areas in the country, I started seeing and experiencing parts of Japan I didn’t know even existed, places I had never seen or heard mentioned but which were all uniquely beautiful, mysterious, fascinating. I wanted so so badly for other people to be able to share in this – to see places which weren’t just the standard Kyoto-Tokyo-Osaka tourist trap. In the end I almost raced through Japan – because there was so much I wanted to see, to introduce – covering over 70 cities in just two months. My photo count was over sixty thousand.

I had studied Japan for almost technical reasons. I drew Japanese comics; I needed to know Japanese for the job; I enrolled in a language course. I knew a decent amount about Japan, of course, and I happened to be passionate about its food. But now, although the food aspect is still there – more than the food itself, I want to introduce Japan to the world. Not as the Asian economic heavyweight churning out consumer electronics and Hello Kitty handbags –  though there is that too – but as the country which has temples and shrines sandwiched between its skyscrapers; as the people who put a statue of a pufferfish in the local temple and in their collective mythology dream up a spirit which brings people tofu.

To me, Japan had always been just a place, a foreign culture I didn’t especially want or need to understand. But I can honestly say that it was only because of this opportunity – to experience in depth Japan’s “real” places and people – that without the slightest intention of doing so I finally came to truly understand just a little bit about the country and its culture, and fall deeply in love with both.

Loren's website on Japanese food can be viewed here