Food for Thought

The Japanese concept “kodawari” is perhaps best represented in castella because it’s just a sponge cake made from eggs, sugar, honey, and flour. It has no filling, just the sponge. A typical loaf is about a foot long and 4 inches wide, and it can cost as much as $50. If “kodawari” as a concept did not exist in Japan, nobody would pay $50 for a sponge cake. A typical American mind would have a hard time justifying the high price because it assumes that the price should be a function of cost, and if so, it shouldn’t be more than $5.

Kodawaru, the verb form, means to give a damn about something, to obsess over details. It has a hint of self-deprecation because it acknowledges that those details ultimately have no practical value. I believe it came from the fact that Japan is a small island nation; the attention was directed inward because outwardly, there was only the ocean.

The concept would be familiar to wine connoisseurs, but they tend to assume that there is something intrinsic in wine that fosters attention to detail. That is, they believe other things do not have enough depth to fuss over. Castella proves that wrong. The Japanese people can obsess over virtually anything.

In the end, kodawari is not about the result but the process, or the spirit. The meticulous attention to detail may not yield any recognizable result. For instance, Japanese kids are taught in school how to clean, and part of the lesson is to do the best job they can even if nobody recognizes it.

This aspect of kodawari too is foreign to American minds. American consumers would pay only for what they could perceive. A rare exception was Steve Jobs; he adopted the spirit of kodawari (as well as Zen Buddhism) and made the inside of his computers beautiful, and eventually out-Japanesed the Japanese tech industry.

Because the Japanese are willing to pay for kodawari, they do not have rigid price expectations. They would pay $5 or $50 for a sponge cake. Given a blind test, I would imagine that most of them won’t be able to tell the difference, but ultimately it’s not about that. It’s about paying respect for the spirit of kodawari. It’s like saying, “Thank you for caring.”