Join us as we attempt to unravel the cultural enigma of the chicken-eel that goes “Mooooooo!!”
Late last July a couple of photos were posted on Twitter featuring the meat section of an Osaka supermarket. Nestled between packages of chicken filets and roast beef was a peculiar hand-drawn sign depicting a creature with the body of an eel and the head of a chicken as well as labels indicating each part.
There was also a speech bubble emerging from the chicken’s beak which read, “Mooooooo!!” It was enough to make the user who took the photo comment, “I think the staff here are overworked.”
百八@C92金-東ス46b (@drachen_baum) July 23, 2017
Many online confused this for a popular Japanese internet meme called “mujun katamari” or “chunk of contradiction” in which a picture is shown (originally ASCII art) and then several contradicting labels are placed on top for a humorous juxtaposition.
It is said that these memes were originally meant to derail particularly acrimonious threads and calm down any heated participants with some absurd humor. As such they often come with the caption “This thread is destroyed by….”
Luckily, this tweet prompted a flood of mujun katamari so we can see some classic examples.
▼ “This timeline is destroyed by Valentine’s Chocolate!!
Happy New Year! Trick or Treat! Happy Birthday, Merry Christmas”
(picture is a ehomaki sushi eaten during the holiday of Setsubun)
HY@〈物語〉キャラコンプまで帰れま10 (@HY_25_25) July 25, 2017
▼ “Sea Urchin, Octopus”
宮@みやーれっと (@omiyaN7o) July 25, 2017
▼ “This thread is destroyed by an Indian elephant!! Zebra, Meow! HAMSTER”
さびつき (@sabituki1071) July 25, 2017
だばちゃん (@dabachangP) July 25, 2017
While on the surface this does appear to be an analog mujun katamari, there is actually a little more going on if we look more carefully.
In the bottom right of the chicken-eel picture “Doyo No Ushi No Hi” is written. This literally means the day of the cattle which resides in an 18-day period during summer associated with the “earth” elemental of the Wu Xing (Five Elements from Chinese traditional wisdom).
The “cattle” is also a reference to the Chinese zodiac in a rotating set of twelve days associated to each animal.
Thus, the day of the cattle that occurs in the eighteen days of “earth” during summer is Doyo No Ushi No Hi. In other words, it’s a fancy way to say “the middle of summer.” It’s very similar to the English expression “dog days of summer” which is based on Greek and Roman astrology.
There is a long-standing custom of eating eel in Japan during the summer months which is thought to stem back to Doyo No Ushi No Hi. One theory is that people ate foods that began with “u” in coordination with “ushi” such as usagi (rabbit), umeboshi (dried Japanese apricot), udon (noodles), and of corse ushi (beef).
However, at one point, one or several eel restaurants used this superstition to promote their wares and even suggested that eating eel during the hottest days of summer will help to stave off heat stroke. Although there is little scientific evidence of this, the trend caught on with people and continues to this very day.
▼ Unagi-don is an image most Japanese people associate with summer
This tweet was also posted on 23 July, which was two days before Doyo No Ushi No Hi for 2017. Actually this year there were two Doyo No Ushi No Hi‘s with the second occurring on 6 August.
While that sheds some light on this image, it doesn’t completely explain it. So I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that the chicken in the image is trying to pretend to be a cow (ushi) and eel (unagi) in hopes that people will buy it during this special season, because both begin with “u” whereas “chicken” (niwatori) does not.
On the other hand, it could just be a reference to mujun katamaris too. Either way, the shop staff at this supermarket are far from exhausted and quite on the ball with classical Japanese culture.
And if you knew all this right off the bat, congratulations! You know a heck of a lot about Japan and should try out the even more difficult riddle of the castella package!