The curious case of nu-hara - "noodle harassment"

Little girl eating soba

The prevalence of so-called fake news - purported news stories that often spread like wildfire online that turn out to be false in some way, whether it's misunderstood, misinterpreted, or just plain made up - has become a big issue recently, especially in the U.S. Fake news and rumors, called dema*, exist in Japan too of course. Most people in Japan tend to think that the society does a good job of self-policing the spread of fake news and rumors, especially since it became a big issue in the wake of the March 11, 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake. While people do tend to check things before spreading rumors about something obviously serious such as a factory explosion though, less serious fake news still spreads quite easily.

One recent example is something called nu-hara (ヌーハラ), which has been all over the Japanese media recently. It's a typical Japanglish abbreviation of two English words mashed together, "noodle" and "harassment", and literally means noodle harassment. (For example, sexual harassmentis called se kuhara, power harassment is called pawahara, etc.)

So...what the heck is noodle harassment? In Japan, it's customary for noodles to be splurped into the mouth, especially if they are in a soup like ramen or dipped into a sauce like cold soba. The slurping has been around for hundreds of years, and it's supposed to enhance the flavor of the noodles by introducing air into the mouth (that's the reason why wine is slurped during tastings). It also helps to cool hot noodles. Many noodle dishes are regarded as fast food, and slurping them in makes it possible eat them fast. Noodles from other cuisines, such as pasta, are usually not slurped however since the Japanese generally adopted the way of eating a foreign cuisine along with the cuisine itself. Which reminds me of this scene from Tampopo...

However, it was reported that many gaikokujin, foreigners, find the slurping sound made by Japanese to be distasteful, even disturbing an offensive. So this discomfort felt by the poor gaikokujin got a new term, nu-hara.

Reaction to reports about this nu-hara term was swift and loud, with celebrities, social media and the like huffing that "if they don't understand our traditions, just stay away", or "maybe we should be watching ourselves around those gaikokujin visitors to not discomfort them", and so on. There's a lot of hand-wringing these days about how Japanese people should interact with gaikokujin, mainly tourists, with so many expected to visit the country in 2020 for the Summer Olympics, as well as the fact that the number of visitors from overseas has been increasing exponentially in the last few years.

However, there's absolutely no evidence that a significant number of people have actually complained about being nu-hara-ed, as this article points out. The term nu-hara was not even coined by a news outlet, not even one of the many gossip filled weekly rags that exist in Japan. It didn't even come from a big website. It was coined by a single Twitter user, whose account has since been deleted, who called himself a former member of the Japan Defense Force and used his account to spout vague far-right wing / nationalist type statements. And yet, the term spread quickly and was picked up by various news outlets.

Personally, I have known people who express surprise that Japanese people slurp their noodles, but once they know the reasons they accept it as a custom that's different from what they know. I don't know anyone who's been outright offended. In Japanese restaurants in the West at least, you don't see - or hear - a lot of slurping, even from Japanese people, since they know that it's not usual to slurp. (Nowadays of course there are some non-Japanese people who slurp with intention since they see it as "the right way".) I guess there could be some people who are taken aback - but feeling harassed is a bit of a stretch.

So I thought I'd throw it out to JustHungry readers. What do you think about slurping noodles? Have you encountered it, in Japan or elsewhere? Is nu-hara really a thing? Should it be a thing?

(The photo is of my niece happily slurping her noodles when she as 6 years old. She's now a young lady of 15. Her grandmother is looking at her proudly in the background.)

(The origin of the word dema is the French word démagogie.)

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That is fascinating! To think such a concept originated with a single twitter user and spread like wildfire. Being in the US, it doesn't surprise me, as I have seen firsthand how so much of the fake-news is used to cause outrage, and the fake news that spreads best is in fact the stuff that causes outrage.

As for noodle slurping, I've never even heard of that before (I've never visited Japan), but it makes so much sense. And it's way easier than trying to eat noodles *without* slurping! I can relate to how slurping seems to be a mildly "improper" way to eat here in the US. Honestly though, it wouldn't offend me. I kindof wish the idea would catch on over here :P

Oh I have never heard of any such thing. Personally, while I tried to slurp at first, I have come to the conclusion that, like sitting seiza, this is a skill best learned when young. I have choked on broth or noodles (a common enough occurrence to be an anime trope) too many times to make it worth it, and I don't detect any enhancement of flavor personally. But if others want to do it, far be it from me to kill their joy. Slurp on Japan...slurp on.

Thanks for this post, it was very interesting. I live in San Diego, and to me, nu hara is definitely NOT a thing. I visited Japan a few years ago, and was never anything close to offended by the slurping. In fact, I would say that Westerners LIKE the fact that Japanese people slurp their noodles - we wish that was a socially acceptable thing to do here! When I go to ramen places here, I slurp my noodles because I now know that is how they are supposed to be eaten. No one ever seems offended. Slurp on!

We have a rule in my house that we're allowed to slurp Japanese noodles, but not Italian ones. =) I'm Canadian, but lived in Gifu for a few years. I think when in Rome, you know? I mean, I don't love the sound of food entering the mouth in any form, but I'm not going to be precious about it.

The idea of noodle harassment is hilarious.

I spent a year or so in Japan, and it never bothered me. I embraced slurping because it seemed to be the best way to eat ramen without scalding my mouth every time.

If you have misophonia it can bother you, but then all eating noises probably bother you and it's not culture specific.

I think the scene from Tampopo sums it up pretty well. While it's technically bad etiquette, it's not really a big deal.

There was a ramen shop near the hotel that my wife and I stayed at in Tokyo, and I do recall a fair bit of slurping. I was familiar with the custom, and while my slurps might not have had as much gusto as the locals, I certainly tried :)

Seriously though, if there are any folks in Japan reading this, don't stop slurping on our accounts! I don't know anyone who would actually be offended by this in the slightest. Maybe a bit surprised, if they're unfamiliar with the custom, but that's it.

My mom is from Japan but has lived in the U.S. for more than 50 years. So I grew up knowing that slurping is the normal way to eat noodles; in fact, my mom would say that it was considered somewhat impolite not to slurp because that implies that the food tastes bad. She will sometimes reminisce about going to one of the chuka soba stands that would dot the sidewalks in Tokyo (I gather this is 1950s Japan's version of the food truck) and stand alongside all the other customers noisily eating their soup. My siblings and I all slurped our noodles at home, but in public we ate more quietly, as does mom now. I've only been to Japan once, and when in a noodle restaurant it did seem sort of comically loud to me, but I certainly didn't feel harassed. I tend to think that sensible people won't think nu-hara is an actual thing, and if they do, then I agree with the celebrities and those on social media who say if visitors feel offended, they should stay home. A visitor doesn't have to adopt the customs of the country they're visiting, but they do have to accept them.

No idea where this comes from. Everyone I met that has visited Japan, has learned that slurping is the norm for the reasons that are cited in the article. I don't know of anyone that would be "offended" by that. I think what most travellers appreciate is authentic behaviour, so slurping is just that. Functional and authentic. So, totally false non-event ...

I visited back in April and wasn't surprised to see the slurping, I was excited to see it and participate! I loved all the curry udon and shoyu ramen and tempura udon and ate as much as I could while I was over there.

I think slurping noodles should continue. I lived in Northern Japan for 4 years and my Japanese friends encouraged me to "slurp". I now slurp in America when I go out to eat noodles. Slurping is fun and it does make the noodles more tasty, plus cools them off.

I love to slurp noddles when I visit Japan. I would only do ok if there were regulars slurping. It makes my kids smile and my wife frown. Please, people of Japan, don't change.

The first time I witnessed the slurping of noodles thing was on a train between Cork and Dublin in Ireland. A young Chinese woman was enjoying her lunch a seat back from me. I quickly discovered that this is the normal way to eat noodles in China (and I now understand Japan). Since that initial introduction some 10 years ago, I have come across it several times since, including (quite naturally) in Chinese restaurants in London. It is no big deal.

I can see though that some people would take offence (there are always people ready and willing to be offended by something) but it is for them to educate themselves or simply get over themselves.

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