Atsuko Suga (1929-1998), who married an Italian and penned many essays about her life in Italy, once quoted her mother-in-law's advice: "You must lick one ton of salt together before you can really understand any one person."

To lick a lot of salt together means to share numerous meals with someone, be it with one's spouse or friends. It implies sharing just as many experiences, both happy and painful.

Suga noted that her mother-in-law had also been given this advice by her mother-in-law when she was younger. I presume this is an old Italian maxim that has been around for a very long time.

There are many sayings about salt's indispensability to human survival and its sheer value.

In Christianity, anyone who cannot condone injustice or corruption is referred to as "the salt of the earth" because salt is a preservative that keeps food from spoiling. And the biblical "covenant of salt" denotes an enduring commitment.

Jan. 11 is "Shio no Hi" (salt day) in Japan. This derives from a legendary episode in history about Uesugi Kenshin (1530-1578), a pre-eminent and honorable feudal warlord, who secretly sent salt to his arch-rival, Takeda Shingen (1521-1573), whose domain was suffering from a dire salt shortage.

Nowadays, though, the word "shio" (salt) itself is associated with negative images in Japan. For instance, the recently coined idiom "shio taio" (literally, salty handling) means treating someone in a cool, unfriendly manner.

No longer a precious commodity today, salt has actually become something of an unwelcome presence. As if to reflect this mentality in society, supermarket shelves are loaded with "low salt" items, and local administrative bodies are spearheading campaigns to encourage people to cut back on their salt intake.

On the other hand, salt is still considered indispensable to heatstroke prevention in summer.

Salt is not the only item that needs to be used in moderation--neither too much nor too little is good. The Japanese expression "ii anbai," with the "anbai" written in two kanji characters that stand for "salt" and "plum," means "just right."

--The Asahi Shimbun, Jan. 11

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.