What okonomiyaki, NDP and a Japanese-Singaporean family have in common

I was with the Takasuka family over the long National Day weekend and on this very special day that is the 9th of August, their menu of the day is okonomiyaki. Okonomiyaki is probably not the dish of choice when Singaporeans think of an easy Japanese recipe to make at home, seeing how most of us are unlikely to have a ready supply of nagaimo (Japanese yam) or katsuobushi (dried bonito flakes).

Thinking of okonomiyaki conjures images of a sizzling hot plate coated with a greasy layer of oil, and of using the iconic spatula (known as hera or kote in Japanese) to slice and serve up this savoury pancake dish. Considering the shopping list of specialist ingredients that I would have to buy to recreate it authentically, and the absence of the requisite equipment at home, it is a dish better enjoyed at a restaurant rather than valiantly attempting to make it myself.

But, for Tsutomu Takasuka, it is a simple dish that he effortlessly whips up for his family over this long weekend. In 2020, the family was able to have their Japanese friends over to enjoy yakiniku together while watching the unprecedented indoor edition of the National Day Parade held in The Star Performing Arts Centre. However, this year, it is a comparatively muted affair with the full celebrations being postponed two weeks in view of the Phase 2 (Heightened Alert) (henceforth abbreviated as P2HA) measures.

Nevertheless, it is clearly a special weekend for this Japanese-Singaporean family of five who has called Singapore their home for the past 7 years. They manage to catch a glimpse of the state flag flypast through the living room windows of their HDB flat, with Tsutomu marking the occasion by making his trademark okonomiyaki, a dish he makes for friends who come over.

Tsutomu makes his trademark okonomiyaki as his youngest daughter looks on

Tsutomu recalls his first National Day in Singapore

As part of his work in the tourism industry, he often found himself in the Marina Bay area during the weekly rehearsals and remembers being impressed as he watched the fireworks while standing in the lobby of the Ritz-Carlton on his first National Day in Singapore.

6 years later in 2019, as a proud father of 3, he and his Singaporean wife, Hui Tin, got up close to the action of the bicentennial National Day celebrations by lining the street with their children and finding themselves enamoured as the tanks rolled by majestically past the Padang. Later at home that night, they would witness their older daughter Sara using markers to paint camouflage streaks on the face of her older brother, Yew, as she attempted to transform him into a tank commander.

Sara gleefully draws on Yew’s face

The privilege of celebrating National Day in Singapore

The equivalent of National Day in Japan is known as kenkoku kinen no hi (loosely translated as National Foundation Day), which is commemorated annually on February 11. Before I can even finish my question asking what the celebrations in Japan are like, Tsutomu is already shaking his head, telling me that to the young in Japan, it is just another public holiday.

He laments that the present day attitudes are a stark contrast to how he remembered it growing up in Chiba Prefecture, where households would proudly display the hinomaru in front of their homes on such days of national importance, including the Emperor’s Birthday.

Tsutomu wrapped in the hinomaru on the streets of Dortmund, Germany in 2006 during the World Cup

Urayamashii,” Tsutomu remarks, conveying how envious he is that Singaporeans are able to come together to celebrate National Day, because such a phenomenon would not exist in Japan.

“I often ask them what nationality they are,” he adds, “and all three of them say that they are Singaporean”.

As a Japanese parent in Singapore, he is constantly wondering what kind of identity his children will grow up with.

When he witnessed his two older children reciting the national pledge as they watched the broadcast of the celebrations last year, he remembers being taken aback hearing words like “democratic” emerge from their lips. Hui Tin explained to him that the Singapore pledge is taught to all children in school from a young age.

As Tsutomu listened to them, he says he felt a strange but sudden sense of reassurance. His children having a country that they are proud of and feel patriotic towards, is something he finds invigorating.

Okonomiyaki vs. bun

I watch as Tsutomu feeds his two-year-old daughter, Rui, a slice of the okonomiyaki that he has just made. She chews for a while, before spitting it out into Hui Tin’s hand. Out of the corner of her eye, she catches sight of a bun ensconced in a plastic bag nearby, the kind you can buy easily from neighbourhood bakeries, and starts to nibble on it.

Okonomiyaki – yay or nay?

Today, little Rui finds solace in the local bun over the okonomiyaki. Perhaps on another day, she may prefer the okonomiyaki to the bun – a reflection of how she, together with her dad and the rest of her family, are in a continual process of negotiating and navigating their identities as a Japanese-Singaporean family in this little island they call home.

No place they would rather be

The Takusuka family watching NDP together with friends

With the further lifting of the P2HA measures on August 19, it means that the Takasuka family is once again able to hold their National Day gathering at home on this day of the postponed parade, as they did last year with their Japanese friends.

I am with them again, and it is a touching sight to behold, as the Takasuka children, together with their friend of mixed Japanese-Malay parentage, belt out the National Day songs in sync with the television broadcast, singing the lyrics flawlessly. Even though the fireworks are not visible from their living room this year as it was last year, the mood is not dampened in any way. When the national pledge and anthem play on television, everyone’s emotions, including Tsutomu’s, are at a high as they jointly hold onto Singapore’s national flag and wave it, their voices resounding with pride and gusto.

Everyone reciting the national pledge together

For Tsutomu, what he appreciates most about Singapore is its inclusiveness, which “allows foreigners to have the chance to make something out of their lives, no matter their background”.

Just as okonomiyaki literally means to grill it as you like, similarly, Singapore is the home that provides the Takasuka family a clean, untarnished blank piece, where they are free to write their own story with the ones they love, just the way they like it, because there is no place they would rather be.

About the author

Graduate student at the The University of Tokyo.
Mum of one.
In pursuit of Works of Art in spite of this Age of Mechanical Reproduction.