from “Aguranabe” (1871, Sitting around the Beefpot)

In the Meiji era, while killing cows was linked to outcast labor and identity, eating beef was associated with strength and pleasures formerly reserved for the emperor. This comic monologue makes fun of beef as a new tool of social mobility, one seen to give access to power and bring Japan into the “civilized” world. This link of beef to nationalism and strength is one subtext of Ozeki’s novel, My Year of Meats.

A man about thirty-five, rather swarthy it is true, but of clear complexion, thanks apparently to the daily use of soap, which purges all impurities. His hair, not having been cut for some hundred days, is long and flowing, and looks as if it is in the process of being let out altogether, in the foreign style. Naturally enough, he uses that scent called Eau de Cologne to give a sheen to his hair. He wears a padded silken kimono beneath which a calico undergarment is visible. By his side is his Western-style umbrella, covered in gingham. From time to time he removes from his sleeve with a painfully contrived gesture a cheap watch, and consults the time. As a matter of fact this is merely so much display to impress others, and the chain is only gold-plate. He turns to his neighbor, who is also eating beef, and speaks:

Excuse me, but beef is certainly a most delicious thing, isn’t it? Once you get accustomed to its taste, you can never go back to deer or wild boar again. I wonder why we in Japan haven’t eaten such a clean thing before? For over 1620-or is it 1630–years people in the West have been eating huge quantities of beef. Before then, I understand, beef and mutton were considered the king’s exclusive property, and none ever entered the mouth of a commoner, unless he happened to be something on the order of a daimyo’s chief retainer.

We really should be grateful that even people like ourselves can now eat beef, thanks to the fact that Japan is steadily becoming a truly civilized country. Of course, there are some unenlightened boors who cling to their barbaric superstitions and say that eating meat defiles you so much that you can’t pray any more before Buddha and the gods. Such nonsense shows they simply don’t understand natural philosophy. Savages like that should be made to read Fukuzawa’s article on eating beef. In the West they’re free of superstitions. There it’s the custom to do everything scientifically, and that’s why they’ve invented amazing things like the steamship and the steam engine. Did you know that they engrave the plates for printing newspapers with telegraphic needles? And that they bring down wind from the sky with balloons? Aren’t they wonderful inventions!

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