Photo/IllutrationThe signature Kewpie doll and a huge replica of a broken egg welcome visitors to Mayo Terrace, a museum dedicated to mayonnaise. A reservation-only 90-minute tour covers the history of mayonnaise. (Photo by Lisa Vogt)

  • Photo/Illustraion

“In Japan, yes, sushi with mayonnaise,” I repeated to an elderly scholar of Japanese studies while visiting South Carolina in the United States.

He refused to believe me even though I showed him photos on my iPhone of “kani” (crab)-mayo, “tarako” (cod roe)-mayo and salmon-mayo sushi. He insisted that the photos were an anomaly and were taken for some sort of shock effect.

Come to think of it; it does seem strange that mayonnaise is ever so popular in Japan, especially with the younger generation.

I am not a "mayora," as this crowd is called. In fact, until last week, I avoided it like the plague.

What happened?

I checked out Mayo Terrace in Sengawa, Chofu city, to shed light on why mayo is so hot in Japan.

Toichiro Nakashima, while studying in the United States, came across a mayonnaise sauce. He had never before tasted anything so delicious.

Then, at a picnic, he was introduced to potato salad. After returning to Japan, he started Kewpie Mayonnaise in 1925.

Why Kewpie? The doll was popular around that time, and he wanted his new product to be just as loved and famous.

The going was rough in the beginning because the Japanese diet mainly consisted of grilled fish, rice and miso soup. No salads!

As is the case with the company today, what made Kewpie successful is the way the company introduced and taught people how to enjoy new products. It was marketed as the “in” thing to eat through subtle embedded marketing, and it smartly nudged people to try it.

Soon people were eating raw vegetables with mayonnaise.

Kewpie sells many kinds of mayonnaise in Japan, many targeting the aware-and-informed health-conscious: mayo with few calories, no eggs, special eggs, flaxseed for people with high blood pressure, zero cholesterol and, get this, mayo that lowers cholesterol!

Kewpie’s mayonnaise sold in China is made sweet so that it goes with fruit and deep-fried foods. In Thailand, it’s wasabi-mayo. Malaysian mayonnaise is halal, and the Kewpie logo on the container is wingless because idols are forbidden in Islam.

On the Kewpie Mayo Terrace tour, participants learn about the history (it probably originated in Mahon in present-day Spain, hence mahonnaise) and the science behind mayonnaise. Then, after visiting a make-believe factory, we sit down to mix and match condiments to make original mayo-based dressings.

Kewpie, the trendsetter, is responsible for Japan’s love for everything mayo. It’s like a line from the movie “Malcolm X”: “You been had! You been took! You been hoodwinked!” Only in a yummy way.

Corn-mayo sushi? Sure, why not.

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This article by Lisa Vogt, a Washington-born and Tokyo-based photographer, originally appeared in the April 15 issue of Asahi Weekly. It is part of the series "Lisa’s In and Around Tokyo," which depicts the capital and its surroundings through the perspective of the author, a professor at Meiji University.