The world can easily be divided into three populations; those who like natto, those who don’t like natto and the vast majority of humanity who have never heard of natto and don’t care. There are variation of natto that can be found in cultures outside of Japan. China and Korea have similar foods. Something like natto can be found in Indonesia and Africa. Fermenting foods is a common practice around the world. The products of fermentation range from wines and beers to cheese and coffee. Shoyu is a product of fermentation as is kimchee and yogurt.
Sometimes fermenting food is planned, sometimes the process is stumbled upon. One origin story of natto in Japan is of Minamoto no Yoshiie whose troops were preparing cooked soy beans for their horses when they were suddenly attacked. The warm beans were hastily wrapped in straw bundles and loaded onto horses. Days later when the beans were unwrapped the cooked soy beans had been transformed into natto. This was around 1085. The combination of straw, warm cooked beans, the warmth of the horse and time is one story of the origins of natto. The straw was essential to provide the bacteria for fermentation. There are certainly other less colorful possibilities of how natto began its long journey to the refrigerated shelves of Nijiya but this sounds right to me. Along this path natto was first sold at the Mito railway station in 1889. Thus began the illustrious emergence of Mito natto. Mito is known today as the Natto Capitol of the World. This was around the same time that two Jodo Shinshu priests were sent by the Nishi Hongwanji to San Francisco. But their travels are of another totally different story not at all related to natto.
When we eat natto we probably don’t think about origins. We might look at the packaging and think there must be a better way than styrofoam to put natto on shelves. If we don’t think of origins we may not see the full story of the life of something familiar. To look at the styrofoam packaging we might see straw packed soy beans on the backs of horses racing along the paths of Japan a thousand years ago. And we might also see in the packaging the destruction of our planet.
These two things exist in the packaging of natto. As with many challenges there are multiple ideas that crash into each other as we seek solutions. To chose one over the other is to deny the other. The second of the Four Noble Truths describes this very process as the cause of difficulties. We separate the world out into our preferences and the opportunities for difficulties begin to arise. We choose one over the other. Knowing this, however, should not cause inaction. Knowing provides an informed course of action. Acknowledging the harm of styrofoam can cause us to look for alternatives. We don’t have to go back to straw bundles, although some natto is still sold this way, we can make choices that may influence the use of styrofoam packaging.
Natto is not responsible for the destruction of the planet. When we look at the range of how natto is made and sold we will find objectionable practices. To condemn all natto would paint both responsible and not so responsible natto makers with the same brush ignoring valuable differences that individuals makers may have to offer. And with the suppression of natto only the stories of heroes long ago who brought natto into the world will remain. Then those stories too will be lost and the knowledge of natto will cease to be a part of our world. Our lives will become less pungent, less interesting.
You and I are like natto and tofu. The world is full of beans. Some becoming natto. Some becoming tofu. Some becoming something unexpected. If we can nurture the unexpected, like the fermented beans a thousand years ago, we may find that we have added to the richness of humanity.